In 1881, Irish-American Catholic priest, Father Michael J. McGivney gathered a group of men from Saint Mary’s parish in New Haven, Connecticut for the formation of a mutual benefit society which would eventually become the Knights of Columbus, one of the largest charitable, fraternal organizations in the world.
During the late 19th Century, a period of history characterized by the bustling growth of many fraternal organizations such as Free and Accepted Masons, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias and many similar groups, Roman Catholics were effectively barred from many of these popular fraternal organizations, or, as in the case of Freemasonry, forbidden from joining by the Catholic Church itself under the papal bull In Eminenti Apostolatus which states:
“We command most strictly and in virtue of holy obedience, all the faithful of whatever state, grade, condition, order, dignity or pre-eminence, whether clerical or lay, secular or regular, even those who are entitled to specific and individual mention, that none, under any pretext or for any reason, shall dare or presume to enter, propagate or support these aforesaid societies of Liberi Muratori or Francs Massons, or however else they are called… be enrolled among them, joined to them, be present with them, give power or permission for them to meet elsewhere… to be present or to assist them in any way; but they must stay completely clear of such Societies… under pain of excommunication.”
In this environment of American anti-Catholicism and under the threat of excommunication for those who would seek to join such organizations, the creation of the Knights of Columbus by Father McGivney provided American Catholics a viable, fraternal, alternative in which men could meet and engage in charitable activities without the threat of being separated from their faith as well as provide for the financial and social well-being of members of their community in need.
Although the zenith of fraternal organizations in the United States and North America has effectively subsided, the Knights of Columbus continues to exist as one of the Catholic Church’s primary relief organizations and has expanded throughout the world spreading with it the Knights’ principals of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. It is because of their continued existence that many Catholics and others are able to find housing, have insurance, go through seminary, and even gain employment. It is also because of the Knights of Columbus that some are prevented from optimally participating in the equal rights guaranteed to them under the provisions guaranteed to them under the civil protections of their country, and churches are denied the privilege to legally offer the Sacred Rite of Marriage to their congregants.
In 2008, California Proposition 8, called the California Marriage Protection Act by proponents, was passed, barring same-sex couples in the state of California the constitutional right to marry. In its wake, mass protests took place across the state and across the country by individuals wishing to demonstrate solidarity with those affected by the legislative act. Of the many organizations which donated money to ensure that the rights to marriage would be limited to opposite-sex couples, the Catholic Church through the efforts of the Knights of Columbus was able to donate one million ($1M) dollars to Protect Marriage, the organization which sponsored the initiative that placed Proposition 8 on the ballot and continues to support the measure.
In my own state, the threat that Washington State citizens may be denied their civil liberties is raising its head once again following the 28-21 vote on Wednesday night in favor of Senate Bill 6239, an act relating to providing equal protection for all families in Washington by creating equality in civil marriage which the National Organization for Marriage has promised to fight with the full support of the Archdiocese of Seattle and the Diocese of Spokane. Although Washington has historically been considered one of the most non-religious states, the Catholic Church represents the largest religious organization in this state with 1,058,721 members, inclusive of the Archdiocese of Seattle and the Diocese of Spokane.
Senate Bill 6239 only affects the civil definition of marriage only while protecting the rights of religious groups which can either affirm or discriminate for or against performing same-sex marriages in their respective congregations. As religious groups, such as the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Church, who oppose this legislation are preparing to raise money to prevent this change of definition of civil marriage in Washington, it is estimated that almost 23,000 people are homeless in Washington State and many thousands more, children and elderly, are uninsured or living in low-income housing with little or no assistance whatsoever. Additionally, there are thousands of children in Washington State who are without families or waiting for adoption. To this end, I call on the Catholic Church in this Washington to consider the gravity of these situations in comparison to the small-percentage of people who will be affected by the passing of SB 6239.
To the Knights of Columbus: you men, young and old, who will be demonstrating and raising money to overturn SB 6239 and who are bound to the principals of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism; consider for a moment that whatever actions you will take in this civil action will reflect on your principals as a chivalric organization. When there are those who are homeless or who are in need, what concrete charitable benefit could you be giving them by raising money that would prevent them from enjoying their basic liberties and access to assistance? What kind of unified society to you seek to create, when individuals you exclude God’s children from it? Are you fulfilling Christ’s teachings of brotherhood yet failing to keep your brothers and sisters as you would yourselves? Are you adhering to patriotism when you would destroy the duly passed measures voted on by your state?
The point at which the Knights of Columbus would sooner raise money to ensure inequality is the point at which they forfeit their chivalry and must acknowledge that their state is equally as fallen into idolatry. Next month, as the Knights of Columbus prepare to celebrate their 130th anniversary of their incorporation as a benefit society, charitable reports from 2008 and 2009 seem to indicate that more giving has gone to “family life” projects than they did to “community projects.” As an article in the National Catholic Reporter observes:
“On the surface this sounds benign, but “family life” is the Knights’ terminology for predominantly anti-gay initiatives, whereas “community projects” represents soup kitchens and food pantries… Additionally, in 2009 and 2010, Knights officials contributed $200,000 as noted in annual reports to Vox Clara, the bishops’ committee responsible for turning back the clock on the liturgy and implementing the recent controversial language changes in the Mass. They have been a significant funder of the committee since 2006. Over the same time period, the Knights donated almost $1.2 million to fund the bishops’ newly created committee that works against equal protection for gays and lesbians and dubbed it “charity” in their annual report.”
The Catholic Church, of which the Knights of Columbus are a part, is the largest charitable and humanitarian organization in the world. As a former Roman Catholic, I deeply appreciate and admire everything the church has done that has benefited society even when it was inconvenient for it so to do. While I left over many key theological and philosophical incongruities, I consider myself indelibly marked by the catholic tradition and values which have been impressed upon me. It is my sincere hope that the Church in Washington State immediately remove itself from this particular legislative course which already ensures that its internal structure and values will be unaltered and unmolested, and that the Knights who are so eager to be stewards of lofty values think twice about raising their swords in an unnecessary battle.