Maybe Hilaire Belloc had a point. In 1934, when the Vatican granted him a knighthood in the Pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great, Belloc – so the story goes – refused to open the letter. After his secretary badgered him, the great author sighed: “Why should I accept an ‘honour’ from some greasy monsignor?”

Without meaning any comment on Vatican officials past or present, Belloc’s apathetic response might be a healthy corrective. However obsessed the world is with honours and titles, they are often given out for trivial reasons. (“They have to go to somebody, you know,” as Philip Larkin observed of his poetry prizes.)

But all that said, the latest Vatican award to hit the headlines is quite extraordinary: the Dutch politician and pro-abortion campaigner Lilianne Ploumen has been made a Dame Commander in the very same Order of St Gregory that Belloc scorned.

Her response was more grateful. “I received a high award from the Pope,” she told the Dutch radio station BRN (in words translated by the Lepanto Institute). “It is in itself interesting that it says it is for service/merits for society.” Asked whether she considered the award “confirmation” of her work, Ploumen said yes.

Given Ploumen’s work – she runs the abortion-funding behemoth She Decides – this is quite a claim. The outrage prompted a rare Vatican clarification. The award was a mere formality, a spokeswoman said: Ploumen, then the Dutch trade minister, had accompanied the King and Queen on a visit to the Vatican.

The award, according to the statement, was “in keeping with the diplomatic practice of exchanging honours between delegations during official visits by heads of state or government to the Vatican.” It certainly wasn’t “an endorsement of the political views in favour of abortion or birth control that Ms Ploumen promotes”.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection