Why John Hume should refuse the pope’s papal knighthood

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We woke up this morning to the news that former SDLP leader John Hume is being decorated by Pope Benedict in recognition of his contribution to human rights and peace.

The Nobel Prize winner is being made ‘Knight Commander of St Gregory.’

Michael Kelly of the Irish Catholic newspaper is reported as saying “this is a very prestigious honour from the Vatican. This is a senior knighthood – It is not conferred lightly at all.”

For what does this honour stand and is it relevant?

The Order of St Gregory (Ordine di San Gregorio Magno) has its roots in the nineteenth century having been established in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI. It is one of five orders of Knighthood  of the ‘Holy See.’

The inaugural brief reads as follows: that “gentlemen of proven loyalty to the Holy See who, by reason of their nobility of birth and the renown of their deeds or the degree of their munificence, are deemed worthy to be honoured by a public expression of esteem on the part of the Holy See”.

The end of the brief states: ‘that recipients must progressively maintain, by continued meritorious deed, the reputation and trust they had already inspired, and prove themselves worthy of the honour that had been conferred on them, by unswerving fidelity to God and to the sovereign Pontiff.’

An eight-pointed cross, the insignia of the Order, bears a representation of St. Gregory on the obverse and on the reverse with a motto which reads “Pro Deo et Principe” (For God and Prince).

No historian, observer or resident of Northern Ireland would question the unswerving commitment of John Hume to human and civil rights for all.



Hume singularly didn’t parade catholicism, choosing to take his cue on civil rights from American and European figures. In fact he took his cue, in his early days from US black civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King.

Hume didn’t recourse to the bible or to the catholic church for his inspiration. Hume has always been something of a closed book when it came to what he thought of the catholic church having spent some time in Maynooth  training to be a priest.

There is a very strong argument for John Hume to have nothing to do with this honour being bestowed on him by Pope Benedict. Firstly, he doesn’t need it, being one of the most decorated politicians in the Western World.

Secondly, why lend credence to the tenure of the current pope against the backdrop of the  Catholic Church’s abdication and abandonment of the most vulnerable in society – children?

Pope Benedict, if I wanted to be kind to him, to say the least, has been dilatory in cleaning up the child abuse scandal tearing parishes apart.

Do you think even a cursory reading of the ‘brief’ attached to the raison d’être of the honour on offer to John Hume, is compatible with the example given by the current pope?

For the same reason I question how much affection would be on show for Pope Benedict should he visit Northern Ireland.

John Hume has proven himself a distinguished political thinker who found the language to break the political deadlock in Northern Ireland, a problem which appeared for so long to be intractable.

He carried the hopes and dreams of a community on his shoulders for over three generations and exhausted himself physically and intellectually in doing so. Why accept an honour from an institution which has visited so much hurt on the young and innocent?

When one considers the apparent motive of the catholic church for bestowing a corresponding honour on former News of the World owner Rupert Murdoch alarm bells should begin to ring.

In 1998 Murdoch (a non catholic) was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory. He had apparently been recommended for the honour by Cardinal Roger Mahony, after giving money to a Church education fund.

A year later he donated $10 million to help build Los Angeles Catholic cathedral.


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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. pauloconnor on

    I phoned the Irish Catholic newspaper and asked what a £10 donation would get me in terms of papal knighhoods or even if it might get me in the door..nod wink up above. To be fair they agreed  that the award had been demeaned in the context of the aussie devil. Well spotted Eamonn.

  2. its not about Pope Benedict Eamonn its about John Hume and his work for his community, Johns roll was carried out during the great JP2 as pope, sometimes we look to much into awards, when we look at some of the royal knighthoods it not good reading so to have Murdoch and hume in the sane context its a bit disrespectful to Hume. ( by the way iam not a John Hume voter)

  3. Barneyrowan on

    Eamonn, the greatest tribute to Hume comes from those within the peace process here who know his role – know that without him it would not have happened. You will remember how he was vilified by politicians and commentators (many of them pontificating from a safe distance well away from the bombs and the bullets) when he began his dialogue with Gerry Adams. Those are the talks out of which the peace was made. We often hear about the challenge of standing in the shoes of others. Hume did that, but also walked in his own shoes, into the most difficult places and at the most difficult times. That was real leadership and it has been acknowledged by those who understood and understand the risks he took. Those are the medals that really matter.

  4. Since the Irish government spoke out against the Catholic Church’s maltreatment of its own children, after a stunned period, they have decided on a charm offensive, hoping we might forget. 
    First we had the Eucharistic Congress, notable for the non-appearance of the Pontiff, and now we have this offer to John Hume.
    This is a totally offensive gesture, as they don’t care about the likelihood of sullying the reputation of this honourable man. The offer is tainted, John doesn’t need this suspect bauble to gain our respect.
    Normally, one would say ‘shame on the Church’ but then they don’t have any.

  5. John Hume, was not always my favourite politician, but no one can deny his contribution to the Peace process. His dogged repeating of an “Agreed Ireland” instead of a “United Ireland”  changed the direction of Irish Nationalism, which allowed it to engage with Ulster Unionism.
    He has been honoured by many and all well deserved. If he accepts this Papal Honour no one will criticise him for that. But he would gain hugh regard again from the Irish People if he refused. Northern Catholics are not always tuned into the anger that exists in the Republic against the Catholic Church – for the great wrongs it has inflicted on people and the cover up of the rape of our children. I hear nothing but angry voices every time I return to Dublin. 20 years ago my family was catholic now there is but a few.
    Chris Hudson

  6. There is as much chance of John Hume refusing this Honour as there is of it being bestowed on me .

  7. When one looks at the Pomp and Style of  ”ALL ” The Christian  ” Churches.and the Luxury and
     obvious PRIDE and Self Gratification of the Top People  in them ,.Then take your thoughts to
     the GREAT MAN who started it all. He had nothing, He never expressed any desire to have 
     anything. Here I am reminded of an old Belfast saying . He had hardly a Shoe on his Fut .
     I am convinced that if he was to return today .He would not even be allowed  through theDoor

  8. Man on the Village Green on

    Sir Jimmy Savile was also a Knight Commander in the same Order. Which makes Eamonn’s comments seem all the more pertinent.