The Dutch politician Lilianne Ploumen has been made a Dame in the pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great.
Ploumen confirmed the award in an email to the Catholic Herald, saying that she was “very honoured” by the pontifical medal, which was sent via the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs last month.
It is not known whether the Pope was aware of the decision.
Ploumen, a senior Labour party figure who served as Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation until last year, has been criticised for her record on life issues.
Last year she launched an international campaign to support abortion after the US government cut off funding for overseas NGOs which provide, facilitate or campaign for abortion. The organisation Ploumen founded, She Decides, has raised around $400m to support such NGOs.
Much of the funding has gone to UN agencies, while 5% has gone to the International Planned Parenthood Foundation and 3% to Marie Stopes International.
Around 60 countries have provided support, as well as international donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In a speech last September, Ploumen said that in “the fight for women’s rights… Sexual and reproductive rights are the main battleground.”
Ploumen told the Catholic Herald: “I assume I have been granted the pontifical medal in the context of the Dutch state visit to the Vatican in June 2017. I was part of the delegation in my capacity at that time as minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands.
In 2015, Ploumen had a private audience with the Pope to discuss climate change. Afterwards, she praised the Pope’s stance as “fantastic”, adding that “Pope Francis is in a unique position to call all parties to account. It would be good if other religious leaders were to follow his example.”
The Order of St Gregory the Great was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1831, in honour of his namesake Pope St Gregory I.
It is given to those who have distinguished themselves in public service or given support to the Church. Previous knights and dames include GK Chesterton, Bob Hope and Alice von Hildebrand.
In 1998, Rupert Murdoch was given the award, leading to widespread criticism from Catholics who associated the media mogul with pornography and said he was being honoured purely for making large donations to Church causes.
The Dutch radio station BNR, in a Youtube video, showed Ploumen with the award, which appears to be for the rank of Dame Commander – the third most prestigious, ahead of Dame.
Henk Rijkers, former editor-in-chief of Katholiek Nieuwsblad, tweeted that the award was a “scandal”, while the Dutch Catholic blogger Mark de Vries wrote that there was “indignation” about the award, De Vries suggested that “someone either seriously messed up, thus (un)wittingly making a mockery of the Catholic teachings about abortion (and also the Pope’s vocal opposition to it); or the entire process of awarding decorations is not to be taken too seriously”.
The Vatican has been contacted for comment.
UPDATE: Cardinal Wim Eijk, the most senior Dutch cleric in active ministry, has distanced himself from the decision. The Archdiocese of Utrecht said in a statement: “In response to many questions from both the Netherlands and abroad, Cardinal Eijk says that he was not involved in the Commander in the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, which former minister L. Ploumen received last year. Cardinal Eijk was also unaware of the fact that this papal award was requested for her.”