AP 08/13 16:23 EDT V0477

Associated Press

August 13, 1994

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- For centuries, popes have quietly handed out knighthoods as rewards to little-known Catholics. But some of the recipients are prominent and the knighthoods cause a stir.

Italy's World War II dictator Benito Mussolini was inducted into the Order of the Golden Spur even after clamping down on Catholic groups. Argentine President Juan Peron received a knighthood only to be excommunicated later.

Israel and Jewish groups protested recently when former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim was inducted into the 147-year-old Ordine Piano of Pius IX.

Waldheim has been accused of complicity in war crimes because of his military service with the Nazi German army in the Balkans and consequently was barred from entering the United States. He has denied any involvement.

But none of that was touched on when the knighthood granted by Pope John Paul II was conferred on him in a low-key ceremony in Vienna on July 6. Papal Nuncio Donato Squicciarini praised him, among other things, for fighting for human rights on "the fateful dividing line between West and East."

Each year, the Vatican grants hundreds of knighthoods and other awards for service to the church or humanity or to Roman Catholic leaders. Most awards are given to people known in their communities and recommended by a local bishop.

In 1947, Pope Pius XII conferred the Pius IX knighthood on Peron, presumably as leader of a Catholic country. But an anti-clerical campaign Peron launched led to his excommunication eight years later.

Mussolini was granted a higher award, the Order of the Golden Spur, as a reward for signing treaties in 1929 that ended the long standoff between the Vatican and Italy. The pope had been a virtual prisoner inside the Vatican walls after Garibaldi's troops entered Rome in 1870 to unify Italy.

But Fascism also turned on the church, restricting Catholic groups as political movements.

"The church in substance had to accept the conditions posed by Fascism," wrote Mario Cervi in his book "Mussolini, Album of a Life."

"After which, solemnly received in the Vatican, the old anti-clerical Mussolini was conferred the Order of the Golden Spur," wrote Cervi.

The Vatican refuses to comment on the knighthood granted Waldheim, but it rejected criticism from Jewish groups when John Paul broke the Austrian's international isolation and received him in a state visit in 1987. The pope said he could not turn down a visit from a democratically elected president.

Asked about any historical controversy surrounding the knighthoods, Monsignor Franco Piva of the Vatican's Honors Office cited Britain's King Henry VIII, who broke with Rome to get a divorce and founded the Anglican Church.

"Things change with time. Henry was cited as defender of the Catholic faith," Piva said.