The Knights of Columbus have been a fixture in the American church for the past 135 years, the friendly uncle of the family who oversees the Friday fish fries, occasionally going off to secret ceremonies and, at a certain level of membership, breaking out odd costumes replete with cape, sword and plumed hat for special occasions that often involve members of the hierarchy.
But as our recent examination of the organization's spending on the national and international levels shows, the Knights are far more than parish helpers and a ceremonial presence (See link below). The Knights of Columbus organization has moved well beyond its original mission of rescuing widows and children from penury and giving young Irish lads a path to assimilation into American culture.
Related: Knights of Columbus' financial forms show wealth, influence (May 15, 2017)
The degree of wealth the organization has amassed from its insurance business and other ventures, and the influence it exerts within the church and in shaping the Catholic narrative in the public square raise serious questions for 21st-century Catholicism. Those questions should be pursued, from the highest levels of the Vatican to the Knights' local chapters — about the nature of spending, about exorbitant salaries of Knights' executives, about the increasingly political nature of the organization's involvement in the culture and the influence of that ideological approach within the church.
Though the organization donates abundantly to charity, and members volunteer countless hours for good causes, its funds also fuel some of the most divisive agents in society and some of the most strident and acrimonious voices within the church.
There are three areas involving church and state in which the Knights have been particularly important in shaping the Catholic narrative: the abortion debate; the campaigns against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights; and the vaunted claims that religious freedom is under serious threat in the United States.
The money the Knights have poured into partisan efforts in the abortion wars is no small reason that much of the rest of the Catholic agenda has been sidelined and distorted in the public square for decades. The Knights have helped create what Pope Francis has termed an "obsession." The distortion that results is apparent in the assertion of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, a former Republican political operative, that the election of Donald Trump as president has delivered the country to "a pro-life moment."
"Not since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973," he declared in a May 1 posting, "has the United States government had so many high-ranking officials who are pro-life."
We cringe for the future of the Catholic community having arrived at the point where the leader of one of the most influential Catholic organizations in the world can describe as "pro-life" an administration that, among other regrettable anti-life initiatives:
- Brutalizes refugees and migrants, tearing families apart by deporting people who have no greater wish than safety, opportunity and hard work;
- Is willing to rip health care from tens of millions of people;
- Denies climate change and jeopardizes creation itself with retrograde policies on the environment;
- Intends to increase defense spending more than $50 billion while cutting social welfare programs for the most vulnerable;
- And whose leader, the president, boasts openly of sexual conquests that many would describe as assault.
Trump, as promised, appointed a conservative, Judge Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court. But overturning Roe is hardly guaranteed. If it should happen, the only certain outcome is continuation of an ugly political fight in which no one is persuaded and only the extremes profit, quite literally, every election cycle. No small irony attaches to the fact that during administrations that de-emphasize abortion and highlight provision of social services and a reliable social safety net, the numbers of abortions decrease.
Related: 'Find common cause,' Knights spokesman advises NCR (May 15, 2017)
Describing the Trump administration as "pro-life" drains the expression of any meaning.
The campaigns against laws guaranteeing gay rights and equality of marriage have generated little other than acrimony and alienation of LGBT Catholics from the church. Intolerance in the public realm, aided by Knights-funded campaigns, has led to greater intolerance within the church. Resorting to such tactics — even as the human sciences and serious questions about our understanding of Scripture cast doubt on old certainties — can indeed produce a sustained war. But what is gained beyond deeper divisions within the community?
Anyone who has visited the church in areas of the world where bishops, priests and Catholic worshipers are real targets of state-sponsored intimidation and violence know the absurdity of the claims of certain U.S. Catholics who insist we are on the verge of all-out persecution of believers at home. The campaign for religious liberty, with its annual Knights-funded "Fortnight for Freedom," a ridiculously overplayed (and under-attended) event, has served only to make a mockery of complex issues. In the United States, nearly all of the cases drawing fire involve competing rights, not blunt denial of religious rights by the state. Our politics, our state houses, our courts and our federal branches of government are filled with people of faith of varying degrees of zeal and public proclamation. Given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it is a strange brief, indeed, that argues that religion is under attack in the United States.
Any doubts that the Knights are immersed in political giving are erased with the donations of $50,000 in 2014 and 2015 to the Federalist Society, a group that has nothing to do with religion or charity. It is a national organization of conservative lawyers that serves as an arm of the Republican Party.
Anderson refused several invitations by NCR to be interviewed, instead sending via a spokesman a defensive statement with instructions on how we should do our work. The Catholic community and local Knights deserve better.
It is highly unlikely that the Knights, largely in the person of Anderson, would have such wide access to the church's decision makers and power brokers, to Vatican offices, committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the confidence of so many members of the hierarchy if it weren't for the serious money the organization can offer any problem or program that fits its ecclesial and civil ideology. Who can say no to the group that ponies up more than a million dollars a year for the bishops' conference? What bishop is going to buck this all-purpose, ecclesial ATM machine?
This modern phenomenon within the church, so benign in outward appearance, deserves deeper scrutiny. Money buys access and influence. That's not the way a Christian community should work.