Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

of Knights and bishops... and getting rooked

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 20, 2010

When I think of knights, I think of lances and armor, jousting and swordplay. I think of heroic quests, and yes, even of crusades.

Or else I think of the Knights of Columbus. That's a different matter altogether, unfortunately. 

Knights are--or should be--men oriented toward a mission, and there is no mission more noble than the defense of innocent people who cannot defend themselves. In contemporary American society the defense of human life--the protection of the unborn--is a quest tailor-made for men with strong sense of Christian mission and chivalry.

The Knights of Columbus are, and always have been, strongly supportive of the right to life in their public statements. So it has long been a mystery to me why the K of C allows some politicians to continue their membership even while those politicians promote legalized abortion: in flagrant defiance of the teachings of their Church and the public statements of their fraternity.

Is it possible to be a Catholic "knight" who favors not the protection, but the extermination of the helpless unborn? Evidently, yes.

The national directive from K of C leadership, warning local councils that they cannot suspend the membership of abortion supporters, is couched in neutral language, suggesting that any such move to oust a member must be approved at the very top levels of the fraternal order. But are the top leaders of the K of C ready to take action? To the best of my knowledge they have never yet ousted a member because of his support for abortion. If the local councils are forbidden to act, and the national leadership is unwilling to act, then the disgrace will continue: prominent men who support the killing of the unborn will be allowed to parade around in the guise of Catholic knighthood.

In his attempt to justify this policy of inaction, Supreme Advocate John Marrella writes: "If the public figure's bishop has not excommunicated him for his public positions on issues relating to matters of faith and morals, it would be highly inappropriate for the Knights of Columbus to do so." [The full text of the Marrella letter to the Massachusetts K of C leadership can be found below.]

Well, yes. It would be "highly inappropriate" for the Knights of Columbus to excommunicate a member. It would also be impossible.

The Knights do not have the authority to deprive their members of the sacraments, nor is anyone suggesting that they should do so. What some K of C members do suggest is that pro-abortion politicians should be deprived of the privileges of membership in a private fraternal organization. 

The Knights should look to their bishops for leadership on questions of faith and morals. But on questions of practical politics--the realm of the laity--the Knights should set their own course. Let the bishops decide whether an individual Catholic has separated himself from the Church. But the Knights can decide for themselves whether a man has separated himself from their fraternity.

The Knights set their own standards for membership. Some members have been removed from the rolls for failure to pay their dues; some have been ejected because they engaged in public attacks on the order. Are these more serious offenses than support for abortion? 

If the Knights of Columbus are engaged in mounting a serious crusade--not merely in putting together a congenial social network or a successful insurance business--they must adopt some serious internal discipline. It's impossible to fight a crusade effectively as long as enemies are welcome within your own ranks.

From time to time a friend asks me why I've never expressed interest in joining the K of C. Now you know why. Let me know when they get serious.

NOTE #1: In response to these comments, the Knights of Columbus have issued a statement that can be found here.

NOTE #2: The following is the full text of a letter from the Supreme Advocate of the Knights of Columbus, John A. Marrella, responding to a question from the group's state leadership in Massachusetts about the suitability of a resolution that had been proposed for discussion at the state convention, calling for suspension of those members who are engaged in public support for legal abortion.

You have asked our opinion with respect to a proposed resolution calling on the State Deputy to summarily suspend certain public figures who are members of the Knights of Columbus and who have publicly taken positions contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the proposed resolution would be imprudent and contrary to the policy of the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council.

We recognize that some of our members who are public figures may use their public position to advocate or support policy positions that are contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals.  We further recognize that such conduct may cause confusion in that, among other things, it contradicts the Catholic identity and mission of the Order.  We also recognize that such conduct can be the source of internal dissension within councils and among members.  

We understand that some subordinate councils have the impulse to address real or perceived scandal caused by members who are public figures.  Because of the public stature of such members, however, decisions to summarily suspend the member necessarily affect the entire Order.  For this reason, a subordinate council may not impose fraternal discipline with respect to a public figure's official actions on matters pertaining to faith and morals.  Rather, any such discipline must be made by or at the direction of the Supreme Board of Directors, which will consider the prudence of addressing the conduct of the public figure in light of the overall good of the Order.

The reason for this is straightforward.  Any action by a state council likely will be understood by the public as an action of the Supreme Council on behalf of the entire Order.  Of course, subordinate councils, including state councils, do no have the authority to speak on behalf of the entire Order with respect to such matters.  To the extent that any subordinate council addresses the public acts of particular public figures, they may do so only at the express direction of and in concert with the Supreme Board of Directors, only in the rarest of circumstances, and only after careful consideration of all possible ramifications relating to the good of the Order.

Finally, the Order must be sensitive to the role of the bishops, with whom we stand in solidarity.  If the public figure's bishop has not excommunicated him for his public positions on issues relating to matters of faith and morals, it would be highly inappropriate for the Knights of Columbus to do so.

We thank you for bringing this important matter to our attention.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if you wish to discuss this matter further.

Sincerely and fraternally,

John A. Marrella

Supreme Advocate and General Counsel

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - May. 26, 2010 5:07 PM ET USA

    It just doesn't make sense to eject a Knight for failure to pay dues and fear to eject for not upholding constant and binding moral truths of the Catholic faith - unless the bishops have spoken! I don't "get" it! As was previously said, the KofC is a fraternal Catholic organization and does not have to have the approval of the bishops with regard to their particular organizational policies. It stands to reason that these must be fully Catholic, so what's the big worry about the bishops? Ah.$

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - May. 25, 2010 7:56 PM ET USA

    The Knights I know vigorously defend life. God bless the Knights in Massachusetts who are trying to do the right thing. Pray that the Knights will act faithfully and honorably in defending life. They are not being asked to excommunicate anyone, but to suspend a member who doesn't support the most basic teaching of our Lord and our church - the sanctity of human life. And pray for mercy for those who fail to defend every unborn child.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - May. 22, 2010 5:29 PM ET USA

    Well Bubby,it really is all about keeping the money lines flowing. I was just beginning to respect these fellows,in spite of their incredible outfits.

  • Posted by: tarbal793938 - May. 22, 2010 2:55 PM ET USA

    Do you stop being Catholic because the Church leadership fails to toss out members of the Church who publicly go against Church teaching? The majority of us Knights do following the Church teaching and do believe in the reason and the work we do. If you don't like the ruling and are not a Knight join and work for change, if you are a Knight speak up to the leadership. If you refuse to join or refuse to speak up if you are a Knight than you have to room to complain.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 22, 2010 12:56 PM ET USA

    Very well said, but none of this should be surprising. The shift to political correctness and inclusiveness has been well established in the majority of Catholic organizations for many decades. My father resigned from the K of C years before his death, realizing that the "seriousness" of the organization was lacking. Modernism is entrenched, and like the proverbial frog unaware that he is gradually being cooked to death, many in the Church continue to wonder "what all the fuss is about."

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 22, 2010 10:55 AM ET USA

    Once again issues concerning manna are more important than issues concerning Man. I am saddened by the lack of leadership shown by the K of C.

  • Posted by: - May. 22, 2010 10:05 AM ET USA

    I'm with you, mjarman. I'll continue to fight for change from within the Democratic party ... and from within the K of C. I hope everyone takes a minute to read the order's response. The Knights I know and serve alongside are true Catholic gentlemen committed to the fullness of Truth as taught by the Church.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 10:47 PM ET USA

    Hear, hear, and this is from a Knight himself.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 7:28 PM ET USA

    If this decision extends all the way to the top of the K of C hierarchy, etc. Anderson then I am surprised and angry that the K of C holds to that position. My illusion of any knight is of protecting humankind especially the unborn. Is being a politician more important than being a Catholic. It seems so. Jesus said that the gate into heaven was narrow, but the Knights want to widen it for Satan. I an disillusioned by the K of C's decision to kow tow to politicians who flout Jesus' Church.

  • Posted by: spschultz - May. 21, 2010 6:53 PM ET USA

    As for the "voting for pro-abortion" candidates excuse; in general, we have no idea how brother Knights voted (obviously many did vote for a man in favor of not only abortion, but also infanticide - and they WILL have to ultimately answer for that). However, when someone PUBLICLY opposes fundamental Church teaching, he removes himself from the Church and is no longer a Catholic no matter how loudly he proclaims to be Catholic.

  • Posted by: spschultz - May. 21, 2010 6:49 PM ET USA

    I'm resigning my membership. Any Knight who believes he can be both a faithful Catholic and a member of an organization which effectively condones heresy is deluding himself. He might want to break open that booklet he was given when he became a member and read up on what it really means to be a practical Catholic in union with the Church. This is the final straw in a long pattern showing the KofC leadership only cares about selling insurance, turning a profit & protecting the bottom line.

  • Posted by: NUBigRed069745 - May. 21, 2010 4:38 PM ET USA

    If a Knight were to say he supported abortion, then he shouldn't be a Knight. But if the litmus test is that you're "pro-abortion," because you support a pro-choice candidate, I'd have real objections to a KC "purge." The "pro-life" candidates never get anything on the abortion front done, but do support positions on other issues -- war and peace, poverty, social justice -- that don't match my values. Changing hearts to pro-life values is done in the spiritual arena, not the political.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 1:28 PM ET USA

    I am a proud 4th Degree KC. Our chapter, like many others around the country, is very active in the spiritual and financial aspects of our parish and community. The men with whom I associate are dedicated fathers, priests, and deacons. However, refusing to remove from membership those who obstinately and publicly oppose the Catholic Church on such immutable positions such as abortion, is an embarrassment. Please pray for all Knights, and especially our leadership.

  • Posted by: adamah - May. 21, 2010 12:49 PM ET USA

    I apologize for not being clear in my post. To clarify, I meant too many Knights are die-hard democrats who only vote for democrats, regardless of that person's position. I myself was a "pro-life democrat" until about 2 yrs ago when I switched party affiliation.

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - May. 21, 2010 12:41 PM ET USA

    I'm a relatively new Knight, and I can say they do much good work. But, the public scandal caused by Knights who flaunt Church teachings in their public role as politicians needs to be addressed. While I have a lot of respect for Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, the weak link in the chain is their deference to the decisions of the bishops. The bishops largely have failed us, so we Knights must take the initiative to defend the defenseless from them and police our own ranks.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 12:26 PM ET USA

    mjarman - I suspect that adamah means that the Knights who are "die-hard democrats" vote for Democrats even when they're pro-abortion, pro-same-sex "marriage", etc. There are pro-life Democrats after all, albeit in fairly small numbers.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 11:37 AM ET USA

    To adamah: Gee, if the only way you can be pro-life is if you're NOT a democrat, then hasn't the movement written off over 1/2 of the electorate? If so, how do we ever reverse the "culture of death"? In a democracy, you need a majority coalition to get things done, no? Me, I'll stay a democrat and fight against the party's prevailing platform on moral issues (gay marriage, abortion, etc.). It would be nice if some pro-lifers joined me in that fight, but I'll fight alone if I must.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - May. 21, 2010 11:22 AM ET USA

    As a young professional with a family, I'm often asked to join. While a part of me really wants to, I probably never will. This latest story is a reminder that the Knights are, sadly, just another of the nineteenth century religious orders and lay initiatives that have completely lost their initial charism and devolved into . . . something else.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2010 9:45 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately, many councils of the Knights really are just "congenial social networks." Some are far worse - one Knight I met told me that it was at KofC council meetings that he was first introduced to beer and pornography.

  • Posted by: adamah - May. 20, 2010 7:45 PM ET USA

    As a knight, this breaks my heart. Most of the knights I know locally are die-hard democrats.