The Holy See Press Office Botched Its Handling of the Ploumen Story. When Can We Have A Vatican Run by Grownups?

Over the past few days, we’ve been covering a story that managed, despite outrage fatigue across the Catholic world, to still shock and upset the faithful. The story is documented here and here, so I won’t bog this post down in details. Suffice it to say that Lilianne Ploumen — a rabidly pro-abortion Dutch politician so dedicated to her cause that she raised $300 million in just six months for “family planning” and abortion services around the world — nevertheless received the Order of St. Gregory the Great award from the Vatican. This award has been described as “the preferred award to acknowledge an individual’s particular meritorious service to the Church.” Moreover, it is a papal award, which of course at least implies that the pope approves of its bestowal (even though it appears its functional distribution goes through the Vatican Secretariat of State.)

Ploumen then went around bragging to the media after receiving it that she got it from the Vatican even though she was pretty sure they knew about her efforts to promote abortion. She commended the pope on how progressive he was for doing so. She said she saw it as confirmation of her work.

The Vatican, meanwhile, maintained a stony silence about the whole affair, until, after the combined pressure from the reporting of The Lepanto Institute and OnePeterFive (and the outlets that subsequently picked up on the story) pushed the Vatican into issuing a terse statement. More on that statement in a second.

I would first like to note something I find petty, unprofessional, and frankly juvenile in all of this. (Sadly, however, not at all surprising.)

I wrote to Greg Burke, the American who now serves as the Director of the Holy See Press Office, last Saturday evening, a day after our first report came out. I wrote:

Dear Greg,

This story is, for obvious reasons, controversial:

We’d very much like to get a statement from the Vatican on whether the pope knew she was being given this award, and why.

And if she did not receive it from the Vatican but purchased it second-hand, that’d be good to know as well.

We’re eager to publish a story correcting any part of this we’ve gotten wrong. It’d be awful to think a woman with such significant pro-abortion credentials would receive a papal decoration.

Pretty straightforward, right? A chance to clear the air. To deliver the information about what really happened to the audience most concerned about it. To show that in this case at least, the Vatican was the good guy.

But I received no response. Now, I know that people in the Vatican read us here, and they’re almost certainly not fans of our criticism. But I’ve interacted with Greg before when he wanted a story corrected, so it’s not as though he’s above a gruff reply when the situation warrants. Not in this case, though. Nothing.

And yet yesterday, when I got home from an evening visiting friends, I saw a brand-new story from the National Catholic Register (which, to my knowledge, hadn’t done anything with this story at all before last night) saying that the Vatican had issued a statement:

“The honor of the Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great received by Mrs. Lilianne Ploumen, former Minister of Development, in June 2017 during the visit of the Dutch Royals to the Holy Father, responds to the diplomatic practice of the exchange of honors between delegations on the occasion of official visits by Heads of State or Government in the Vatican.

Therefore, it is not in the slightest a placet [an expression of assent] to the politics in favor of abortion and of birth control that Mrs Ploumen promotes.”

Curious, I checked my email again to see if I’d missed something. Nothing there. I went to the Holy See Press Office website. Zilch. I finally fired off a message to a contact in Rome, who told me that to their knowledge, the statement was sent directly to journalists who had expressed interest in the story, and was to be found nowhere else.

That’s funny. I’m pretty sure my email to Greg Burke and the two full reports on that matter that appeared here constituted “interest in the story.” 

But of course, “Shadowbanning” is all the rage these days, and the Vatican communications apparatus — playground bully that it is — appears to be simply ignoring me. If that is in fact the case, I interpret it as a sign that a) There was no reason to hurry to update the story with the statement and b) There is no reason to view the statement as a sign of good faith intended to set the record straight, but simple CYA.

Frankly, from a PR standpoint, it’s a terrible statement. It only acknowledges what we had already reported — that Ploumen received the award as part of a group — while making an anemic excuse about how it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means.

Meanwhile, it does nothing to answer any of the following questions:

  • Why was no vetting process applied to the distribution of these awards?
  • Why was a 186-year-old papal decoration created to bestow a supreme honor on those who have served the Church well being given out like a commemorative Vatican snow globe or a pope pencil in a VIP visitor goody bag?
  • Why was there no statement condemning or distancing the Vatican from Ploumen’s public comments in which she says she was awarded a “prize” by a Vatican that probably knew what she was about in confirmation of her work?
  • Why was there no expression of remorse that an award was given to one of the most effective single promoters of abortion in the world today?
  • Why was the award not recalled?
  • If the award could not be recalled without creating a diplomatic crisis, why was there nothing in the statement encouraging Ploumen to voluntarily return it, or at the very least stop using it to mislead people into thinking the pope was rubber stamping her agenda?

The statement, if it can be characterized simply, does only two things: it tells the world that the award itself is now meaningless, so no big deal; and it expresses that the Vatican is really annoyed that those meddling kids were asking questions about it at all, and how dare they think there should be some connection between actual Catholic values and the bestowal of a papal award?!

It is yet another in a long line of communications failures from the Vatican. I’d think with the billion euros they’ve got tucked away under the mattresses, they could hire a competent staff of professionals. But I suppose until they can find a pope who acts like a Catholic, I should keep my expectations low.

Meanwhile, many of the faithful who heard the story went from open disbelief (“How can something this bad possibly be true?”) to excuse-making (“The pope couldn’t possibly have known!”) to, after the Vatican statement, saying, “See? It really wasn’t a big deal after all!”

Well, it was true, and it is a big deal, but as to whether the pope knew? That’s something worthy of addressing briefly here.

I think, in a way, it’s almost immaterial whether he knew about this or not. He has intentionally surrounded himself with corrupt and craven men. They are, by and large, lazy and vicious and self-serving — and simply don’t care about doing what is right.

And so, when a thing like this comes to light, the Vatican, rather than expressing the appropriate horror and concern, essentially acts indignant that they were called out at all. The attitude seems to be, “Who do you think YOU are to ask questions, peon?”

Only that’s not how things work anymore, and they don’t control the message. One of these days, they’re going to figure that out. Not answering emails isn’t going to stop me or any other Catholic writer from actively pursuing these stories. It is, however, going to encourage us to think they’re being underhanded. There’s an old and obvious rule of thumb: If you don’t want people to think you’re doing something wrong, don’t act like you have something to hide. Pretty basic.

The pope, of course, is nowhere to be found in any of this. No indication of regret from the papal plane, where he’s too busy joking with reporters he doesn’t go to a doctor for his health, but to a witch. (No, I’m not making that up.) No assertion that he will ensure the Vatican will be more diligent. No moral outrage that a woman who raised $300 million for abortion in 6 months is claiming he supports her work.

Complete. Radio. Silence.

Even if the pope were not actively, undeniably engaged almost daily in the deconstruction of the entire body of Catholic moral teaching, his silence in the face of scandal after scandal would tell the faithful that he’s perfectly fine with everything that’s happening. Pope Honorius, frankly, was anathematized for less.

Pope Felix III told us exactly what to think about this kind of behavior: “An error which is not resisted is approved; a truth which is not defended is suppressed…. He who does not oppose an evident crime is open to the suspicion of secret complicity.”

This post has been updated.

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