Diplomatic courtesy

Recently Pope Francis conferred a papal honor on Lilianne Ploumen, a prominent Dutch government leader whose views favoring abortion are well known. It is confusing, annoying, but nothing new.

In 2004, Pope St. John Paul II granted to Sir Julian Hunte, of the island nation of St. Lucia, a similar distinction, despite Hunte’s support of a woman’s legal right to have an abortion. At the time, some people especially were dismayed because of John Paul II’s perceived conservatism and strong opposition to abortion. Regarding the honor given Ploumen, some Catholics see it as a sign of the present pope’s tolerance for abortion, an assumption that utterly ignores the public comments and policies repeatedly coming from Pope Francis. In 2004, and again a few weeks ago, Vatican representatives said that these honors were conferred routinely. Hunte was for a while St. Lucia’s ambassador to the United Nations, where he was president of the General Assembly, a prestigious position in diplomatic circles.

Lilianne Ploumen was selected by King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands to be part of their entourage when they visited the pope in Rome last year. Customarily, the pope, any pope, recognizes persons who accompany heads-of-state, such as the Dutch king, on official, formal visits to the Vatican.

Did Pope St. John Paul II himself know that the honor was being presented to Sir Julian Hunte? Good question. Probably not. Did Pope Francis know that Lillianne Ploumen was to receive the medal? Probably not. Did Pope Francis know about her views regarding abortion? Most likely not. The Vatican has since confirmed that the honorific bestowed on Ploumen was a mere diplomatic courtesy.

I would suspect not in all cases for this reason: Papal honors every year are conferred by the dozens as a matter of course.Usually, local bishops present names, and the Holy See has to trust the judgment of these bishops.

So, hundreds upon hundreds of Americans, across the country, of all political thoughts and backgrounds, hold papal honors, knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory, or the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, for instance.

This is an exception: If any pope would know specifically of an individual’s reception of papal medals, it would be regarding the knighthood of the Order of Christ and the Golden Rose.

The Order of Christ is the papacy’s highest recognition of a layman, but it must go to a head of state. At present, no head of state is a knight of the Order of Christ. Once, kings of Spain or Belgian kings were knights almost inevitably. Charles de Gaulle and other French presidents were knights. So was Germany’s Konrad Adenaur and Eamon de Valera, president of Ireland. So were many Latin American presidents.

John Paul II never gave this knighthood to anyone. Some said that he would not honor a prominent head of state who tolerated abortion, and, alas, major Catholic leaders, worldwide, who oppose legal abortion are rare. The last knight of the Order of Christ was King Baudouin of Belgium, who died in 1993.

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The Golden Rose, the Church’s highest honor for laywomen, only is granted to Catholic female heads of state or to the wives of Catholic kings. The last woman to have the Golden Rose was the late Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg. She died in 1985.

King Baudouin, recognized by Pope St. John XXIII, and the grand duchess, honored by Blessed Pope Paul VI, were exemplary Catholics, but when they received their honors, legal abortion was unimagined. In 1990, the king threatened to abdicate rather than approve a Belgian law permitting abortion. The grand duchess never had to face the issue.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.