Robert Matthew Festing, Pope Francis
Pope Francis (R) meets Robert Matthew Festing, Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of Malta during a private audience at the Vatican REUTERS/Gabriel Bouys/Pool/File Photo

The leader of the Knights of Malta has resigned from his position following a bitter dispute with the Vatican. Prince and Grand Master Robert Matthew Festing was asked to relinquish his role in the Rome-based Catholic chivalric and charity institution, by Pope Francis.

"The Pope asked him to resign and he agreed," a spokesperson for the order said. The group's Sovereign Council will now be required to approve the highly unusual resignation. Grand masters normally keep their positions for life.

The spokesperson added that Festing met with the Pope on Tuesday (24 January) to discuss the ongoing conflict between the order and the Holy See and asked him to formally step down. The move comes after Festing fired senior knight Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager in December for allowing the use of condoms in a medical project for the poor through Malteser International, the order's humanitarian aid agency.

Von Boeselager appealed to the Pope and a five-member commission was appointed to look into the unusual circumstances of the sacking. However, Festing refused to cooperate and called the commission illegitimate and said that it was interfering in the order's sovereignty and right to govern its internal affairs.

The grand chancellor on his part said that the condom issue was an excuse by Festing and Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an arch-conservative, to increase the power of the institution. He said that he had closed two medical aid projects after discovering that they distributed condoms, but kept a third one running in Myanmar to continue providing basic medical services to poor people in the Asian country.

The Church prohibits the use of condoms and other contraceptives and considers abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage to be the best way to stop the spread of Aids. However, Pope Benedict softened the ban to "reduce the risk of infection" from the disease. Francis also allowed the use of condoms to prevent certain sexually transmitted diseases like the Zika virus.