It was wrong for the Knights of Columbus to spend over a half million dollars in 2012 during four failed campaigns against same-sex marriage laws. My claim that the expenditures were “wrong” has nothing to do with moral and doctrinal opinions on same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, etc. The paid political propagandizing was wrong because it contradicts the original organizational purpose of the Knights of Columbus. We were founded in New Haven, Conn., in 1881 to provide spiritual and material brotherhood to Catholic men. The chasm separating the original vision from the current drift, I contend, is unhealthy to the Knights of Columbus future.
I joined the K of C some 15 years ago, attracted to a hands-on practice of Catholicism. Our council sponsored pancake breakfasts to raise money for parish youth ministry, ran the parking during the parish carnival, and rented buses for father-son (and some grandfather-grandson) outings. I welcomed the departure from academic armchair Catholicism that had me talking more about Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day than in acting like them. Moreover, this K of C council was a “brotherhood,” supplying healthy male fellowship -- and a great insurance plan as well!
I am not the only one alarmed that the current national leadership is squandering material resources on causes that are purely political and dangerously partisan. While the Knights in my current local council sustain my original expectations, the well compensated Supreme Knight Carl Anderson (over $1 million per year) is busy gathering national headlines for bankrolling political “stuff. Doubtlessly, his record of service outweighs my undistinguished 15 years as a Knight, but has he chosen the right direction for the long-term good of our membership?
At issue are not my political opinions or those of Supreme Knight Anderson: the discontent rises from the use of money that could be better spent on the Knights of Columbus traditional role in alleviating poverty by direct material aid to those in need, like the victims of Hurricane Sandy, where our contribution to date is far less than what was made to 2012 same-sex marriage politics. Admittedly, the sum spent on political causes is dwarfed in the total K of C budget, but “image” counts, as Supreme Knight Anderson should know from his time in the Reagan White House’s public relations effort. Why has he allowed our national image to be politicized at the expense of our grass-roots charity?
Commitment to the K of C brotherhood is based on Gospel values. Our saintly founder, Fr. McGivney intended, for instance, that the K of C would provide funding to the widows and orphans of his 1881 Catholic working-class parish in Connecticut. Today’s financing of attempts at political influence – even when requested by our bishops – betrays our founding principles. We lay Catholic Knights do not have the inquisitorial function of the bishops to denounce divorced and remarriage or use of artificial contraception. Our task, rather, is to receive in love the children of God, preaching the Gospel by example.
Our charity bears no exceptions. For example, there is scarcely a Knight unaware of gays and lesbians who are good people: in fact, some are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters. It is not our Catholic duty to punish them because they do not receive the Catholic Sacrament of Marriage; but it is our patriotic American duty to recognize their civil rights in “pursuit of happiness.” Such American Catholic Knights of Columbus’ principles are contradicted when the lay leader of our national organization funds a political campaign to deny those same persons equality before the law.
So what can we do? We Knights at the local level do not elect the Supreme Knight, so mobilizing a pitchfork brigade of voters is useless. Splitting off from the organization to create a rival one would result in two weaker factions, and which one would control the considerable K of C financial assets?
At issue is our vision: are the Knights of Columbus to be restored as a grass-roots charitable movement or to continue in the corporate business model of today? Are we to be more like the Catholic Workers of the saintly Dorothy Day or a financial cow for causes the bishops can’t or won’t fund on their own? At stake is not some partisan political stance, but the future of the Knights of Columbus. Since the average Knight these days is middle-aged, middle-class and white, unless we attract younger and more diverse Catholics, we may go the way church membership nationally, where one third of those raised Catholic have left the church.
Remaking the K of C, I would say, is part of the remaking of American Catholicism. We need to reject the worldly ways of the corporate model for church institutions. The Knights of Columbus can be in the vanguard by returning to our legacy as a Catholic brotherhood.