The Irish Catholics who poured into the United States by the hundreds of thousands in the mid-19th century, hoping to escape famine and professing a faith that was despised by many, strained to gain a toehold in a hostile culture.
The Knights of Columbus was born out of that struggle, one of a spate of fraternal and beneficial organizations to emerge in Catholic circles in an effort to provide protection and a path to assimilation into a new country. Founded in 1882, the Knights' original mission was to save women and children from poverty through an insurance program.
But today, one wonders what Fr. Michael McGivney, the charismatic young priest who founded the Knights of Columbus in a church basement in New Haven, Connecticut, would make of his organization. Almost 2 million men call themselves Knights of Columbus, and the organization reported revenues of more than $2.2 billion in 2015, the latest year such information is available. Moreover, in the past decade, the organization has donated $1.55 billion to charity, according to the Knights.
Much of the Knights' influence occurs behind the scenes, but it's not hidden. Most of it is contained on tax forms that are public and that nonprofits are required to file annually. The data in this report is largely contained in Knights of Columbus' 990 tax forms filed for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015, as well as from news releases and other statements contained on the organization's website. While no simple means exists to measure the effect of the Knights' spending, there is hardly a corner of the Catholic world where the resources of this international force have not left an impression.
The organization's money has restored Roman antiquities; rescued, to the tune of tens of millions, an abandoned facility in Washington D.C., built to honor the organization's favorite pope, St. John Paul II; and provided communications hardware over decades to the Vatican's public relations and news apparatus. In keeping with its original mission, it also has helped countless local and church charities through funds and through millions of volunteer hours a year.
There is, however, another side to that wealth, and if McGivney were to look in on the Knights tax filings today, he would understand that his organization and its leaders have become powerful and influential in ways unimaginable in 1882. For more than a decade and a half, under the leadership of a former political operative, 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.
Its capacity for funding has given the Knights of Columbus an inordinately loud voice, potentially drowning out that of others, and no other lay group can match the Knights' ability to leave its mark on the church. Some worry that such influence can actually distort the church's ecclesiology, its structure and its governance.
"This is a new phenomenon in the Catholic Church," Massimo Faggioli, historian and theologian at Villanova University, said in an interview. A well-funded group such as the Knights "create pressure and they create influence through money, especially in important places like Rome or Washington, D.C."
'Champions of ethical investing'
According to Christopher J. Kauffman's Faith and Fraternalism: A History of the Knights of Columbus 1882-1982, McGivney, while viewing a fraternal order "as a pastoral necessity in protecting the faith," also wrote to another priest: "Our primary object is to prevent our people from entering Secret Societies by offering the same if not better advantages to our members [italics in original]." The big fear was that the young men, seeking a place in the culture, might join forbidden societies such as the Masons, engaging in secret rituals while making connections to better their lot in society.
Catholics are no longer outsiders in the United States. They constitute the largest single denomination represented in Congress. They have led agencies of government and run some of the country's largest corporations. Catholics are a majority on the Supreme Court. The country has elected a Catholic president and a Catholic vice president. The current president's inner circle includes several high-profile Catholics. The current leader of the Knights was, himself, involved in politics at the congressional and later White House level for years. The Knights no longer need take a defensive stance.
Kauffman documents that the Knights helped Catholics prove their loyalty to the United States by mobilizing church members behind World War I. As a result, he writes, "the Order was infused with the self-confidence that it could respond with organizational skill and with social and political power to any need of Church and society. In this sense, the K. of C. reflected the passage of American Catholicism from an immigrant Church to a well-established and respected religious denomination which had proven its patriotic loyalty in the acid test of the Great War."
Knights sing during the Aug. 5, 2014, opening Mass of the 132nd Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in Orlando, Fla. (CNS/Tom Tracy)
The raw numbers of the organization's activities today are breathtaking and reflect that confidence. In a biography on the Knights' website that recounts some of the accomplishments of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, who has led the organization since 2000, the Knights report that membership has grown to nearly 2 million, "who together in 2015 alone donated over $175 million to charity and provided more than 73.5 million volunteer hours of charitable service worldwide."
In 2015, the Knights spent millions in "Christian refugee relief" in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Russia and neighboring states. Hundreds of thousands of dollars also went to typhoon and hurricane disaster relief around the globe.
Those who run the organization are no longer low-paid part-timers. According to recent public financial documents, Anderson, chairman of the board and CEO, received total compensation of $2,289,806 in 2014. That amount was up from $2,063,818 in 2013. In 2015, the total amount of his compensation dropped to $1,277,232. The total compensation for Anderson is broken into a number of categories (all figures are for 2015): base compensation ($882,200); bonus and incentive compensation ($342,150); retirement and other deferred compensation ($7,797); and non-taxable benefits ($33,246).
The large drop in his income between 2014 and 2015 appears to have occurred in a fifth category labeled "other reportable compensation." In 2013, that amount was $935,087, and in 2014, it was $1,047,924. It fell to $11,839 in 2015.
(Click on the graphic to enlarge.)
In an email response to an NCR query, Joseph Cullen, Knights spokesman, wrote that analysis of Anderson's compensation "by a well-respected [and unnamed] external consulting firm — shows that 75 percent of CEOs within a market comparative group are compensated overall at a higher rate than he is. Our CEO is responsible not only for overseeing the operations of a charitable organization but the operations of a Fortune 1000 life insurance company as well."
The Knights, he wrote, "have been champions of ethical investing" and awarded for their ethics.
Related: 'Find common cause,' Knights spokesman advises NCR (May 15, 2017)
Anderson declined to be interviewed for this article.
The 2014 and 2015 990 forms for Knights of Columbus list officers with titles and compensation. Some of the representative officers and their compensation (figures are for 2014 and 2015, in that order): Thomas Smith Jr., director, executive VP, INS (listed elsewhere as chief insurance officer), ($765,795, $972,213); Anthony Minopoli, senior VP, investments ($580,183, $661,809); Dennis Savoie, a former director and deputy supreme knight, collected a total of $600,311 in 2014, but was not on the list in 2015; Logan Ludwig, director, deputy supreme knight ($421,905, $517,115); Patrick Kelly, director, VP, public policy ($250,626, $275,640); John Marrella, director, supreme advocate ($511,391, $555,401); Charles Maurer Jr., director, supreme secretary ($381,251, $442,144); Michael O'Connor, director, supreme treasurer ($311,152, $342,545); Michael Conforti, medical director ($363,424, $381,449); Richard Plush, senior VP, product development ($469,313, $481,879).
That list is only a portion of the paid staff and it is confined to the names listed on the 2014 and 2015 Form 990 for Knights of Columbus on a page titled "Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, and Highest Compensated Employees." The compensation for all of those listed on the page for 2015 totaled $8,954,874.
Members of the Knights of Columbus hold swords as U.S. military personnel leave in wheelchairs after a Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southwestern France in May 2014. (CNS/Paul Haring)
The concept of charity has certainly expanded over the years. The 990 forms filed for 2013-2015, documents required of all nonprofits, contain pages of small donations — most less than $30,000 and many under $20,000. Those donations go mainly to state Knights chapters, individual dioceses, and smaller Catholic institutions and are listed as "general support." The majority of other four- and five-figure donations go to facilities that would generally be categorized as women's health or pregnancy centers and are tagged as "donation to promote the culture of life program."
The largest disbursement in 2014 was $12.9 million, and it went to the Knights' John Paul II Shrine and Institute in Washington, a museum dedicated to the pope and an educational institute advancing John Paul's teaching about love and marriage, especially his writings on the theology of the body. The Knights' purchase of the building in 2011 bailed out a failed project spearheaded by former Detroit archbishop Cardinal Adam Maida, who had committed more than $50 million in archdiocesan funds to the construction and ongoing maintenance of the center. The Knights bought the property for $22.7 million, allowing the archdiocese to recover about $20 million.
The shrine is on property at the edge of the Catholic University of America; the institute itself is in buildings on the campus. The Knights were instrumental in the founding of the institute, which is under the auspices of the archbishop of Washington. Anderson, who previously taught at the institute, is currently a vice president, according to the institute website.
The Knights spent a total of about $14.25 million on the shrine in 2015 for "support" with about an additional $2.59 million listed as "support for accredited educational institution." An additional $188,854 in "non-cash assistance" in "exhibit purchases and other support" went to "support program services."
Visitors watch a film at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington in this 2014 file photo. (CNS/Bob Roller)
While Knights of Columbus generosity is spread around dioceses and individual bishops for a variety of causes, the organization is also a major contributor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2014, it gave the conference $1,173,637 in two amounts, $228,244 to "support programs for education campaign," and $945,393 to "support various programs," not least of which is the persistent claim by the bishops' conference that religious liberty is under attack in the United States, and its annual Fortnight for Freedom, an attempt to rally Catholics and others around that theme. In 2015, that amount for the bishops' conference, in a single donation, was increased to $1,338,455.
According to financial reports on the bishops' conference website, the conference receives the bulk of its funding from diocesan assessments ($10.96 million in 2015) and government contracts and grants ($80.73 million in 2015). Grants, bequests and other income amounted to about $6.76 million in 2015.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese received $1.5 million from the Knights in 2015 for "general support." The same year, the Baltimore Archdiocese received $435,000. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore is supreme chaplain to the Knights and a major force behind the bishops' religious freedom campaign. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia is a leading voice for the conservative wing of the U.S. bishops' conference and has held positions on boards of a number of conservative Catholic organizations.
If funding is any indication, however, the Knights are deeply engaged in the culture wars with some of the largest grants going to the loudest and most influential participants in the church and the public square.
In 2014, a total of $1 million, in three separate amounts, went to the Susan B. Anthony Foundation, an aggressive anti-abortion organization most recently campaigning to defund Planned Parenthood. The foundation can be as highly partisan as it is anti-abortion, even opposing pro-life Democrats. It targeted Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pennsylvania, for instance, for her vote for the Affordable Care Act, which the foundation labeled a "pro-abortion health-care bill." Dahlkemper had previously publicly defended federal restrictions on the use of taxpayer funds for abortion.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal group that has carried the fight for the U.S. bishops and the Little Sisters of the Poor against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, received $300,000 in one 2014 donation and an additional $25,000 from the Knights of Columbus as "a sponsor of the Canterbury Medal." Supreme Knight Anderson received the award in 2007, and Chaput in 2009.
The Little Sisters of the Poor had received $100,000 in 2013 and another $20,000 in 2015 to "support facility improvements." The Becket Fund received another $25,000 in 2015.
A total of $525,000 was spent in two amounts in 2014 to support the March for Life and the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. The March for Life is held each January in Washington to protest the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that liberalized the nation's abortion law. The Knights of Columbus also made a $255,000 gift to the March for Life Education and Defense Fund in 2015, according to the Form 990 for Knights of Columbus for that year.
The Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank that is home for neoconservative scholar George Weigel, received $330,000 in 2014. Weigel, one of the more prominent voices of the Catholic right, also is a member of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes First Things, a journal to which he regularly contributes, that has influentially shaped the narrative of the Catholic right during the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies. The center received $98,000 in 2015.
In 2015, the Knights donated $75,000 to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast to "gather people to renew our dedication to faith and this great republic," according to one of the 990 forms.
The Knights gave $50,000 each year, in 2014 and 2015, to the Federalist Society, described in a recent New Yorker article as "a nationwide organization of conservative lawyers" whose executive vice president, Leonard Leo, "served, in effect, as Trump's subcontractor on the selection of [Neil] Gorsuch" as nominee, eventually confirmed, for justice to the Supreme Court. Aside from Leo's reputation as a devout Catholic, the society is thoroughly secular and largely an operation benefiting the Republican Party.
Pro-life advocates with the Indiana State Knights of Columbus carry a banner past the U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 27 during the annual March for Life in Washington. (CNS/Leslie E. Kossoff)
Funding mass communication
Communications projects also receive substantial support from the Knights.
One of the Knights' largest expenditures in 2014, $1,250,000, went to the Eternal Word Television Network, also known as EWTN, a conservative outlet, to sponsor a news show five nights a week. The donation to the news program in 2015 was $250,000. Another $250,000 to EWTN was listed on a different 990 in 2015 and was described as "general support."
The Association for Catholic Information of Englewood, Colorado, received $245,000 in 2014 to "support operations of Catholic News Agency," an online outlet distributed free of charge. According to its website, it was founded in 2004 in response to John Paul II's call for a new evangelization. In the United States, it pays particular attention to "news related to the creation of a culture of life." In June 2014, Catholic News Agency and its sister organization, ACI Prensa, a Spanish-language Catholic news organization, joined the EWTN Global Catholic Network. ACI Prensa's headquarters are in Lima, Peru, and it also operates the Brazil-based ACI Digital, a Portuguese-language service.
The Knights also fund Crux, an online Catholic news outlet run by former NCR Vatican correspondent John Allen Jr. The site was initiated by The Boston Globe in 2014 but lasted less than two years for lack of advertising revenue. The site has not been in business long enough in its current form to show up on a Knights 990 filing, but in an email answer to an NCR query, Allen said that the Knights of Columbus contributes $350,000 a year "against a total budget of around" $850,000. Advertising earns Crux about $125,000 a year, he said, and other support comes from the DeSales Media Group in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, and from the Archdioceses of Washington, New York and Los Angeles.
Allen has previously made the case in interviews for his publication's independence, saying the Knights have no control over content. He did so again, writing, "Our agreement with all our sponsors is that editorial control remains with us, and they've all respected that."
In other areas, including more communication projects, in 2013 through 2015, the Knights spent:
- $20,201 to "support publication of a journal," that was unnamed.
- $147,000 to "support HD broadcast of canonizations"; $50,000 in "support of various programs and communications" in East Asia and the Pacific; and, also in East Asia and the Pacific, $50,000 in 2014 to support a papal visit (Pope Francis visited Korea in 2014) and $33,000 to support satellite uplinks during the papal visit.
- $53,496 in North America to "support programs and communications," without specifics.
- $48,425 in North America to "support development of website," without specifying.
- $60,000 to the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., an outlet run by two priests who are members of Opus Dei, a conservative order for which John Paul II created a "personal prelature," which amounts, essentially, to a global diocese.
- $207,456 in Europe to "support broadcast expenses for papal ceremonies."
- $100,000 to support the "Holy See's strategic communications office."
- The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments received $100,000 as support for the Vox Clara Committee and its translations of liturgical texts. Vox Clara is a committee of bishops established by the congregation in 2001 to take over the work of the previous International Commission on English in the Liturgy and provide a more traditional, literal translation from a Latin text.
- The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, a conservative alternative to the much larger Leadership Conference of Women Religious, received $365,000 in 2014 for its National Assembly and eucharistic council.
- $158,400 went to the Catholic University of America to establish a "Pope Benedict XVI Chair in theology." Catholic University received $328,600 in 2015 for support of educational conferences and the Benedict XVI "chair in theology fund."
Two amounts, $344,277 and $226,351, were listed on the 2014 document as made in North America with no other identification than "support various programs."
The Knights refused to answer any questions regarding the figures listed on the tax forms. NCR had sought explanations for some of the unspecified amounts and for the different forms filed. In each of the years examined, 2013, 2014 and 2015, three forms were filed. One of the forms is for Knights of Columbus Charities Inc. [PDF links: 2013, 2014 and 2015] and contains donations primarily but not exclusively to women's health and pregnancy centers across the country, as well as international donations. A second form, for Knights of Columbus Charities USA Inc. [PDF links: 2013, 2014 and 2015], contains amounts given to Catholic institutions such as parishes, dioceses and a few colleges and universities. The third, for simply Knights of Columbus [PDF links: 2013, 2014 and 2015], contains most of the donations to think tanks, news outlets and agencies involved in hot-button cultural issues.
The response from Cullen, Knights spokesman, was curt. In an email, responding to the questions, he wrote: "The Knights of Columbus fulfills all legal requirements concerning reporting related to Form 990. We do not generally comment on tax filings."
NCR also sought a response from Anderson to characterizations of the organizations advanced in this article. Cullen responded in a lengthy email.
Between 2010 and 2014, according to earlier NCR reporting, the Knights spent more than $1.4 million to sponsor Catholic bishops attending medical ethics workshops that included speakers opposing homosexuality, same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting. Presentations included psychologically discredited claims that people who identify as gay or transgender can be "cured" through counseling and can become heterosexual.
The anti-gay training for bishops is coordinated by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, according to a 2014 report in NCR by Nicole Sotelo. The center is another organization that receives Knights of Columbus support. In 2014, it received $250,000; in 2015, $300,617.
Related: Knights of Columbus redefine charity by giving to bishops (Jan. 23, 2014)
Much of the political activity in recent years appears to align with Anderson's earlier political life. His official biography on the Knights website notes his "distinguished career as a public servant," but provides none of the particulars. He began his public career working for Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, known throughout his five-term career as one of the most conservative members of Congress. Helms was an ardent supporter of the death penalty and military spending and opposed civil rights legislation and arms control.
Anderson later worked in the Reagan White House as a special assistant to the president in the office of public liaison, dealing with domestic policy, Catholics and family issues.
Notably, when the issue of AIDS first surfaced, Anderson differed with then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on how to speak of the disease. Anderson wanted the government to use language that contained moral judgments about those afflicted. According to Koop's autobiography, Anderson also wanted the surgeon general to say that "all Americans [not most Americans, as Koop maintained] are opposed to homosexuality, promiscuity of any kind and prostitution." Koop wrote that Anderson "did not seem to understand that I could not say it because it was not true."
Knights in context
Faggioli, a contributing editor to Commonweal and author of The Rising Laity: Ecclesial Movements Since Vatican II, sees the Knights of Columbus "as an extreme version" of a post-Vatican II phenomenon, the rise of discrete lay groups that have become centers of power themselves, apart from any identification with the local church or diocese or a ritual community.
He said the resulting influence leads to a politicization of Catholicism, a kind of lobbying that actually alters the church's ecclesiology. Underwriting conservative outlets and think tanks, he said, means "you can shape the narrative so a rather limited number of conservative Catholic voices from the West can have their voices heard much louder than the whole African Catholic community on some issues."
The Knights are rarely mentioned as comparable to such overtly evangelical groups as the Focolare Movement, Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenal Way or like organizations that rose to international prominence in the post-Vatican II era. But the Knights' influence may be as profound or greater than any of those in its funding of church entities and of groups that influence thought and ideology in the public sphere.
Greg Repta and Walter Komarnicki cook cod Feb. 12 during the St. Eugene Parish fish fry sponsored by the Knights of Columbus in Chicago. (CNS/Catholic New World/Karen Callaway)
The Knights of Columbus has, throughout its history, been quite political, often taking a very conservative and at times ultra-patriotic stance. On the other hand, during the 1920s, it boldly repudiated the views of such hate groups as the Ku Klux Klan, even publishing a book by noted black writer W.E.B. Du Bois, one in a series of books published as correctives to the Klan's revisionist history.
But Kauffman, in Faith and Fraternalism, also makes the point that in the years after Vatican II, as the "Catholic anti-defamation character" of the order began to fade, the leadership "attempted to stimulate the membership to a greater awareness of the religious and moral issues confronting the Church." That led, post-1960s, to the formation of a "variety of new programs reflecting the proliferation of the new social ministries of the church."
Simultaneously, new initiatives resulted in leaps in membership numbers and revenue. And with the increase in funds came a flurry of activity, a substantial amount of it aimed at funding Vatican projects and initiatives of the U.S. bishops.
One area in which the Knights recognized a need was in Vatican communications. As early as 1965, according to the organization's website, the Knights donated a shortwave transmitter to Vatican Radio, and has helped upgrade the communications systems ever since. In 1974, for instance, the Knights were approached "to seek support for a significant expansion of televised Masses."
The following year, the Knights began sponsorship of annual telecasts of Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, the Stations of the Cross from the Coliseum on Good Friday, Easter Sunday Mass, "and a special ceremony that would be determined each year," according to the Knights website.
In the years since and through 2010, the order has upgraded transmission systems to provide broadcasts to larger areas of the globe, as well as "the outfitting of a mobile unit with recording and transmitting equipment to enable Vatican television to broadcast in high definition." That has enabled broadcasts of major events like installations and elections of popes, World Youth Day, and ecumenical gatherings in Assisi.
The Knights, in turn, are well-represented in the upper echelons of the Vatican. In 2006, Anderson was appointed a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, a position he still held in 2015. He is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Pontifical Council for Family, and the Pontifical Academy for Life. He previously served on the board of the Vatican bank.
Is such access the result of wielding influence — a consequence of unparalleled wealth — or simply reward for doing good work? Or a bit of both?
"From an ecclesiological point of view," said Faggioli, "it is a distortion because the Catholic Church is based on an idea of leadership where the sensus fidelium, the voice of the faithful, should be equal for all the faithful." No equivalent organization exists to represent those who may hold differing theological views or to represent the interests of Catholics in the developing world. Undoubtedly, those affected by natural and human-caused disasters are grateful for aid. But how do laypeople in those circumstances gain similar access as Knights' leadership to Vatican agencies and officials?
"There should be a fundamental equality," Faggioli said, "so the sense of the faith in Africa or Latin America or Asia, with no money, should carry the same weight, currency, relevance, authority, as a wealthy Catholic in the Northern Hemisphere."
Catholic historian David O'Brien has a somewhat softer view, acknowledging the "incredible amount of good work" done by ordinary members of the Knights of Columbus at the parish and diocesan levels. He wonders, however, if there is a kind of split in worldview between those levels and the higher echelons of the organization.
He said Anderson seems to have tapped into "this broader kind of need for identity that conservative people within the church" have felt since the reforms of Vatican II. It is an element in the U.S. church, he said, that feels the denomination has "lost its edge, its identity and maybe even its integrity" over the past half century.
The Knights of Columbus is among groups that have "come up with issues that create the difference between you and other religious groups and with the culture. These guys have figured out a way to build a popular following by combining their politics with the faith."
The religious liberty campaign, he said, "was a brilliant, if misguided, effort to combine these two things."
If religion and politics can be flashpoints for conflict, combining them doesn't seem to have damaged the Knights' bottom line or their ability to remain close to the ecclesial centers of power. In his 2015 report, according to the Knights of Columbus website, "Supreme Knight Anderson said that insurance in force is at $99 billion, an amount that has more than doubled in the last 12 years." In the 2015 Form 990 for Knights of Columbus, the organization reports total revenue of $2.234 billion, down about $50 million from the total of $2.285 billion in 2014. In 2015, it showed expenses of $2.165 billion, leaving a net gain of $68,859,419, down from a net gain of $115,076,047 with expenses of $2.170 billion in 2014. Net assets are listed as about $1.847 billion, down from about $1.905 billion the year before.
Anderson, who earned a degree in philosophy from Seattle University, a Jesuit institution, and a law degree from the University of Denver, has published several books and has been amply awarded with honorary degrees from Catholic institutions and honors from various other organizations. His status has provided him rare face time with popes and, in addition to his Vatican positions, appointments as the only layperson from North America to serve as an auditor at the world Synod of Bishops in 2001, 2005 and 2008. He has served on a number of committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His papal honors include Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Sylvester, a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large.]