Why do we write about the Knights of Columbus?

by Dennis Coday

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In our May 19-June 1, 2017, print issue, National Catholic Reporter takes a deep look into the finances and charitable giving of the Knights of Columbus, the fraternal and beneficial organization for Catholic men that claims a worldwide membership of 2 million.

The Knights of Columbus I know are the backbones of the parishes to which they belong. They are vital to active parish life: always ready to lend a hand, whether it's staffing the Friday night fish fry, stocking the food pantry or sponsoring Special Olympics teams. You can always count on the Knights for generosity in volunteer hours and paying the tab for some of our most worthy charities. The Knights may be responsible for bringing more fledgling vocations to fruition than any other single entity in the church. The Knights do great work, and we salute them for all they contribute.

That being said, however, the Knights, because of its extensive network of parish-based councils and extraordinary wealth, exerts great influence in the Catholic church and beyond. We write about the Knights to try to open the curtains a bit on that influence.

The Knights charitable giving totals $1.55 billion over the last decade. NCR editor at large Tom Roberts took a deep dive into the Knights' filings with the Internal Revenue Service to learn where that money goes. He found that the majority of the money supports traditional Catholic charitable efforts but that the Knights also spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to support organizations with decidedly conservative agendas, like the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, but also overtly conservative political organizations like the Susan B. Anthony Foundation and the Federalist Society.

Roberts writes that "the Knights of Columbus has increasingly used its enormous wealth to influence the direction of the church, underwriting think tanks and news outlets while gaining entrée to some of the highest levels of decision-making in the church."

So, why is NCR looking into the Knights charitable giving? We look at how the Knights are spending the money they've earned from their lucrative insurance business and savvy investing because the Knights claim membership and influence at all levels of the church, from the humblest parish to the highest consultative panels at the Vatican. Some of this influence is formal and public. Much of it is informal and less transparent; much of its influence comes precisely because the Knights organization can write huge checks and finance huge projects. The best way, we believe, to trace that influence is by tracing the money they spend.

We also wanted to make sure that the rank-and-file Knights, the guys setting up folding chairs in the social hall for donuts after Mass and selling Tootsie Rolls on church steps on frigid Sunday mornings, know where the money they contribute is spent. Maybe they agree with all the funding choices. Maybe brother Knights have questions of their own.

The story, "The Knights' Reach: Financial forms show wealth, influence of the Knights of Columbus," appears in the May 19-June 1, 2017, issue of National Catholic Reporter. 

A companion piece is 'Find common cause,' Knights spokesman advises NCR

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