When I was younger, the words “Knights of Columbus” conjured up fond images of my grandfather donning his cape and plumed hat to march in a parade, or slipping into his regalia for a special Mass at his parish church. The Knights council helped coordinate an annual festival for people with developmental disabilities and my whole family volunteered. The Knights of Columbus were good guys in my eyes. They raised money for hot meals, warm clothes and wheelchairs for families that could not afford them.
More recently, these worthy activities have been cast into shadow. Under Carl A. Anderson , a political appointee in the Reagan administration who endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2008, the Knights have become increasingly politicized, spending millions of dollars not to help people, but to hurt them.
Since 2005, the Knights of Columbus has provided more than $15.8 million to the campaign to deprive gay and lesbian people of the right to marry the person whom they love, and to undermine the security of children being raised by same-sex parents. They have made ethically dubious alliances that have brought shame on themselves and our church, and they’ve played the bully with their political and theological opponents.
The Equally Blessed coalition has shined some much-needed light on the Knights dealings in a detailed new report, The Strong Right Arm of the Bishops: The Knights of Columbus and Anti-Marriage Equality Funding. The report is based primarily on forms the Knights filed with the Internal Revenue Service and various state boards of election. Among the highlights are:
• $1.9 million in donations to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), $1.4 million of which was devoted to a successful and highly controversial campaign to overturn marriage equality legislation in Maine.
• A $1.1 million dollar donation to ProjectMarriage.com which supported the passage of Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that banned marriage equality in California.
• More than $1.1 million in donations to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage (which is now called the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage).
• More than $630,000 in donations to groups working against marriage equality through ballot initiatives that will be voted on next month in Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.
• The quiet role that the Knights and their powerful chaplain Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore played in the Vatican’s crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of nuns in the United States.
In all, the Knights has been active in opposing marriage equality in 12 states: Arizona; California; Connecticut; Florida; Kansas; Maine; Maryland, Massachusetts; Minnesota; New Jersey; Pennsylvania, and Washington.
They have made common cause with the National Organization for Marriage, an organization whose internal strategy memos came to light during legal proceedings in Maine, revealing that is leaders advocated turning children against gay parents and pitting the Black and Hispanic communities against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, in order to overturn marriage equality legislation that had passed in 2009.
The Knights say they are “one with the church” in their campaign against marriage equality, but that isn’t true. A steady stream of polling demonstrates that most Catholics support marriage equality, and that young Catholics support it overwhelmingly. I don’t know anyone who thinks that our faith justifies soliciting children to publicly vilify their parents, or to turn minority communities against one another.
There is a curious duality in the Knights’ thinking, as though the church is “us,” LGBT people are “them,” and all is fair in political combat. But Catholic pews and schools and religious orders are filled with gay and lesbian people, their friends and their families. The Knights have spent millions of dollars that could have been devoted to tending the sick, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked to depriving gay and lesbian people of equal treatment under the law. In the process they are undermining the stability of households led by same-sex parents and jeopardizing the well-being of those couples’ children. You can hang many labels on this kind of behavior, but pro-family is not one of them.
I keep thinking back, in the midst of all this, to my father and grandfather and wondering what they would have thought of an organization that was spending so much money and political muscle to marginalize people like me and my wife and to introduce unnecessary uncertainty into the lives of our children. I suspect that they would be disappointed in the way that the Knights have tarnished their reputation to pursue a punitive political agenda, and I know they would have been steadfast in their support for the people whom they love.
These aren’t my grandfather’s Knights of Columbus. And that’s a shame.