VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis has ended a bitter dispute with the Knights of Malta by demanding and obtaining the resignation of the ancient Catholic order's top official in a row over condoms.
The resignation of Grand Master Matthew Festing, confirmed by the order on Wednesday (Jan 25), follows a month-long stand-off that had become a test of the reforming pope's authority over Church conservatives.
"The Grand Master was received on Tuesday by Pope Francis who requested his resignation, which the Grand Master agreed to," a spokesman for the Order told AFP.
In theory, Briton Festing was in the job for life. His resignation will have to be approved by the Order's sovereign council.
The unprecedented and very public dispute between the Vatican and the Knights was seen by Holy See watchers as a proxy war between Church liberals and conservatives.
It erupted last month when Francis appointed a five-strong team to examine the circumstances in which the Order's number three was forced out of his job.
The Order, a Church-linked charity body descended from the crusading knights of the Middle Ages, refused to cooperate.
They said the December dismissal of Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager was an internal affair.
Festing subsequently claimed in a leaked letter that three of the Vatican's appointees had a conflict of interest because of links to a Geneva-based fund in which the Order also had a stake.
That unprecedented defiance of papal authority appears to have been the last straw.
Von Boeselager's dismissal had been seen as being the result of him being too liberal for the tastes of Raymond Burke, the American cardinal who has acted as the Vatican's liaison with the Order since being sidelined from more important roles by Francis.
Burke is a prominent conservative figure who has been outspoken in his criticism of Francis's efforts to reform Church teaching on questions related to the family, marriage and divorce.
Reports in the specialist Catholic press suggested Boeselager was targeted because he authorised Order charities to take part in programmes distributing free condoms to prevent the spread of Aids.
Conservatives say any use of condoms violates Church teaching but Francis and his predecessor Benedict XVI have both said they can be acceptable as a means of containing Aids.