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The Knights of Columbus: Forgetting What it Means to be a Man?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 24, 2010

Reading the explanation by the Vice President for Communications of the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus tells us nothing we did not already know about the Knights’official refusal to countenance the suspension of members who publicly work against the principles of the Catholic Faith. It defends the original letter announcing the judgment of the Supreme Advocate on this issue. However, it does present that decision in a positive light and, in fairness to the Supreme Council, it is necessary first to see it in that light.

Understanding the Good the Knights Do

According to Vice President Korten’s statement, membership in the Knights of Columbus is open to all practicing Catholics, and it is left solely to the Church to determine who is or is not a practicing Catholic. In order to further the mission of the Church, the Knights officially uphold her teachings and donate heavily to promote her causes, including the pro-life cause. From Korten's statement and, indeed, from general knowledge, we know that the Supreme Council makes its orthodox Catholicism and support of the Church clear more or less continuously. It also promotes greater understanding of the Faith among the membership throughout the world. The vast majority of the rank and file contribute to the good work of the Knights as an organization. They are typically involved in their local parishes and communities, particularly through charitable works. Moreover, as a fraternal life insurance company, the organization is a significant revenue engine from which many good causes benefit, including the Church herself. There can be no reasonable question about any of this.

In any discussion of the questions recently raised about the organization’s membership policies, it is necessary to concede that the Knights of Columbus does a great deal of good. Since we broke the story of their refusal to countenance the suspension of members who publicly advocate abortion and same-sex marriage, the outstanding new ultra-sound project to which the Vice President alluded in his statement has been placed on the home page of their web site, emphasizing the organization’s commitment to life. Meanwhile, as of this morning (May 24th), the “Join” page of the Knight’s web site still contains the following statement underneath the membership application form:

Membership in the Knights of Columbus is open to men 18 years of age or older who are practical (that is, practicing) Catholics in union with the Holy See. This means that an applicant or member accepts the teaching authority of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals, aspires to live in accord with the precepts of the Catholic Church, and is in good standing in the Catholic Church.

So it seems clear that the organization understands what it means to be a good Catholic and at least strongly encourages a right understanding in its members.

Reliance on Clerics

In describing the membership requirements, Vice President Korten has emphasized the first sentence in the quoted statement, rather than the explanation of its meaning in the second sentence. It is certainly possible that the Knights have always understood their membership requirement in terms of the first sentence, with the second serving as an immediate attempt to instruct in what the first sentence ought to mean. Indeed, if Vice President Korten states that membership in the organization is traditionally open to all those who have not been formally excommunicated by their bishops (presumably excommunication latae sententiae would not suffice), then we ought to take him at his word.

Private communications to CatholicCulture.org from other Knights, while presenting a more complex picture, hint at a similar reliance on ecclesiastical judgment. Thus we have heard again the old (and presumably true) story that the previous Grand Knight, Virgil Deschant, had been told by Cardinal Casaroli, when he was Papal Secretary of State, that the Knights should not expel those who had not been excommunicated, a piece of advice which may have been received as an oracle from the Holy See. We have also heard that formal membership challenges generally proceed from the local council, to the State, to the Supreme Council, a careful procedure which has not occasioned dissent in the current controversy.

But we have also been told that the Knights not infrequently work with their chaplains both to convince members who act against the Church of the error of their ways and to drop them quietly from membership, if possible, should they prove recalcitrant. And we have received reports of the suspension of members who have been judged guilty of public scandal. These reports from the grass roots send a mixed signal, but both official and unofficial statements point to a strong tradition in the Knights of deferring to clerics when it comes to membership decisions based on what it means to be a practicing Catholic in union with the Pope.

Now this reliance on clerics is understandable in a certain context (a point to which I’ll return shortly). It is also understandable that the Knights would not like to have too severe a membership test. Their size as a fraternal life insurance organization is critical to their strength, and both their size and strength permit the organization to do a great deal of good, as we have seen. All of this taken together may be cited in favor of the official position.

Avoiding the Issue

Unfortunately, all of this taken together is also something of a distraction, for it ignores the issue at hand. The real question that has been raised is not how much good the Knights do while handling membership in this way, but what a sound private organization ought to do when those within its own ranks directly and publicly challenge the very principles of membership which define the Catholic identity of the organization. Clearly the Supreme Council does not intend that the organization should fall into the hands of those who do not support the Church and its teachings. Presumably they also wish their organization to be a good example of what it means to live the Faith. The question, again, is this: What ought they to do in the face of members who publicly and deliberately betray the Church and, in so doing, undermine the Knights’ own identity?

Vice President Korten’s statement makes it obvious that this question rankles. Sadly, it makes it equally obvious that the leadership is willing to deflect criticism by obfuscating the issue. It is not only that the key question is mostly ignored in favor of praising other excellent aspects of the organization. But we also find that, when the issue is finally addressed in the last paragraph, it is addressed through a deliberate distortion in order to seize the moral high ground: “There are those who believe that our time, resources and energy could be better spent hunting down a handful of members who constitute the rare exception. We disagree.”

This is a most unfortunate statement because it is the same “straw man” tactic we have seen used again and again by those in the Church who are trying to get away with doing something unCatholic. If this statement was deliberately crafted as a matter of policy, it is far more than unfortunate, for it seeks to portray as absurd those within the organization who take their social responsibilities as Catholic laymen most seriously. We have seen this tactic too often used by Modernists in order to deflect the just criticism of the Catholic faithful while continuing to undermine the identity of the Church—and by those who feared to discipline them. Thus the statement is unfortunate if inadvertent, and very close to unforgiveable if carefully considered.

For in point of fact no one has proposed that the Knights should imitate the Calvinists in Geneva, keeping tabs on the private movements of their confreres, expending “time, resources and energy…hunting down a handful of members”. What has been suggested is simply this: When a Knight takes a public stand against the teachings of the Catholic Church on a grave issue of faith or morals—that is, when he publicly and self-evidently violates what is expected of him as a member of an avowedly Catholic organization—then he ought to be asked to change his position on pain of suspension.

Identifying such members would not take significant time, resources or energy. The whole point is that they have already made themselves known. But if the erring members are influential, then it might take time, resources and energy to deal with the trouble they can cause. Reading just slightly between the lines, this is exactly what the Supreme Advocate's initial letter says. In foreseeing this challenge after the fact, however, the primary requirement is no longer time, resources and energy. The primary requirement is courage. It would be a strange knight indeed who would beg off doing what is right because it doesn’t pass the time and energy test.

What it Means to be a Layman

I had said that the reliance on clerical judgment which seems to be characteristic of the organization is understandable in a certain context. This is the context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century American Church before about 1965. It is the context, dare I say it, of the late pre-conciliar Church, in which laymen too often failed to appreciate the significance of their own calling and so relied excessively upon the clergy, not just for instruction in the faith but for judgments about how to apply faith and morals to concrete social situations. But this excessive clerical reliance was a weakness in the Church in that period. It was in fact a primary point of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity to correct that weakness.

In today’s atmosphere, in which the Church is under attack on every side from both without and within, and in which we are witnessing every day the increasing ravages of clerical lack of discipline over the past two generations, the Church desperately needs laity who understand that they are called by their baptism to renew the social order through the responsible and direct application of the principles they have learned from the Church. The very first step in such an undertaking is for laymen to organize for that purpose, and the second is simply this: To exercise a certain discipline over those in their own ranks who attempt to undermine the very principles upon which their organizations are based.

Is it the job of a priest, a bishop, a cardinal or a pope to police our private organizations and make sure they function for the glory of God? Is it up to a priest, a bishop, a cardinal or a pope to take action against a member of one of our organizations who has deliberately set himself to undermine its work? Does anyone seriously believe the Knights of Columbus should be as slow and reluctant to secure its membership as the Church is to discipline her children? Let ecclesiastical judgements remain ecclesiastical judgements, let them be few, and let them be made by bishops. But let us not confuse them with the social judgements that laymen are called to make continuously throughout their lives. And above all, let the Knights of Columbus not confuse themselves with the Church of Christ.

It would be the worst form of clericalism if laymen were to rely on clerics for social judgements, just as it is a deeply flawed understanding of lay responsibility to turn to the clergy for anything more than spiritual advice in practical situations of this kind. It is up to laymen to apply the principles of their Faith in the social order in such a way as to transform the culture in Christ. That can’t happen if there are no consequences for betrayal. The Knights of Columbus may have a thousand ways to do good while avoiding this issue, just as they may have a thousand reasons for avoiding it in order to keep within their comfort zone. But by Christ’s own command, we are forbidden to judge success in terms of keeping our numbers up so that we can donate more to good causes:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. (Mt 6:31-34)

It may be true that the first step toward a just social order is clear Catholic teaching by the clergy. But the second step is the day’s own trouble for the laity, the application of Catholic teaching in all the concrete dimensions of daily life. It is laymen who are expected to draw the lines that may not be crossed—not in terms of what the Church teaches, but in terms of the proper response when that teaching is ignored and our culture is subverted by those who participate in social and political life. It is laymen who are called to make it clear that if you want to be honored in our circles, you cannot campaign against what we stand for. And if you do, you will be corrected. And if you refuse correction, you will no longer be able to enjoy our company, our camaraderie, our sympathy and our support.

This is the first rule of sound social action, and it isn’t just what knights do when they are real knights. It is what laymen do when they are real men.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: New Sister - May. 26, 2010 7:41 AM ET USA

    Your title is spot-on. My first reaction, upon reading about the Knights' passive tolerance of scandal, was not so diplomatic. Why wait for bishops? Suspend members who in any way support – publicly or personally, by word, deed, or omission – evils such as abortion, invalid marriage, contraception, sodomy, pornography, etc.. The organization (and the Church) would in fact be strenghtened with fewer – but faithful – MEN in its ranks.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - May. 25, 2010 10:40 PM ET USA

    Excellent article.

  • Posted by: Patricius - May. 25, 2010 9:44 PM ET USA

    We are seeing a cultural emasculation in general. The KofC, as other fraternities, are seeing fewer young members. In order to avoid extinction, insurance company considerations aside, each group must do its best to retain any member it has. Having lost our identity as men given the recent ascendancy of gender politics, the KofC has little recourse but to bow to political expediency. Unless its leaders are willing to risk high 6 figure salaries to stand for what is right, the KofC is doomed.

  • Posted by: jflare293129 - May. 25, 2010 5:18 PM ET USA

    I really don't get it. When are we to act on our own in fraternal correction and when are we to wait for the bishops and priests? We haven't asked for anyone to be publicly excommunicated, we've asked that we, the Knights, have the chance to exercise even a scrap of discipline in our own Councils. How obvious does an error need to be before we're allowed to say or do something?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 25, 2010 9:19 AM ET USA

    Your title, "Forgetting What it Means to be a Man?", seems to be somewhat profound. This may explain the weakness in the K of C but it certainly explains the weakness in many Bishops and priests and some Cardinals. St. Peter had more than one fault but I don't think you could accuse him of not being a man. Is the Church a victim of radical feminization? Are clergy fearful of being a man thinking that being a man will drive people away? People look for strong leaders. People want MEN.

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