BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
While Pope Francis is getting most of the media attention related to all things Catholic, a Catholic lay organization that has been around for more than 130 years is starting to be the object of some well-deserved scrutiny. The Knights of Columbus is the largest Catholic lay organization in the world. It is well known for its charitable work. There's a good chance that somewhere in America on just about any weekend, the Knights of Columbus is holding an event to raise money to help the poor, feed the hungry, provide disaster relief, and support families in need. Its bake sales and pancake suppers are events that many communities eagerly look forward to and support wholeheartedly. Unbeknownst to many cookie or pancake enthusiasts, however, is the reality that a portion of the money – read that, millions of dollars -- raised by the Knights is being poured into anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage campaigns.
That is a side of the Knight of Columbus that is rarely reported on. According to a new report by Catholics for Choice, "The order has pushed a conservative agenda ranging from the highly specific—a complaint against highschoolers reading Catcher in the Rye—to systemic opposition to reproductive choice and marriage equality through sizable donations to programs run by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and other conservative organizations."
The Knights of Columbus: Crusaders for Discrimination pointed out that the organization "uses its manpower and money to push for legislation that does not match the beliefs of many Catholics or the will of the electorate. The Knights continue to wage a decades-long battle against abortion legislation, but what stands out now is the scale of its political expenditures—more than $10 million since 2004—and this does not include funds from the thousands of local fraternity councils and assemblies. The Knights' funding of anti-same-sex marriage campaigns goes towards a cause that is rejected by most Catholics—polling data reflects a stronger support for same-sex marriage among Catholics than any other Christian faith group, or the American population as a whole."
Between 2004-2012, the Knights of Columbus -- a fraternal benefit society which is a 501(c)(8) tax-exempt not-for-profit entity -- funded a who's who of the American right, with donations going to such anti-choice and anti-gay organizations as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the National Organization for Marriage, the Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund, Americans United for Life, the Federalist Society, the Susan B. Anthony List, the Human Life Foundation. (According to the IRS, "political activity is not considered a fraternal activity," but fraternal orders "may engage in some political activities, including intervention in political campaigns on behalf of, or in opposition to, candidates for public office, without jeopardizing its exempt status.")
The Knights were founded as a mutual benefit society in 1882, in New Haven, Connecticut, by Fr. Michael McGivney, who along with a group of laymen, wanted "to provide financial support to widows and their families," when attitudes toward Catholics were bigoted and discriminatory. From those humble beginnings, the Knights has grown into an organization of more than 1.8 million members in 15,000 councils, with nearly 200 councils on college campuses..
Crusaders for Discrimination points out that "The first major charity project undertaken by the organization was the creation of 'Huts' to provide free food and supplies to American and Canadian soldiers during World War I. As anti-Catholicism began to fade after the 1920s, the Knights became increasingly devoted to social justice, both through charity and advocacy."
The organization "continued push for social justice could be seen in their distribution and promotion of Pope Pius XI's social encyclicals, which called for a living wage for workers and credit unions while emphasizing the responsibilities of employers and landowners."
According to the Catholics for Choice report, things began to shift dramatically after Virgil Dechant, became Supreme Knight: "Dechant felt a need to 'strengthen' the relationship between the order and the hierarchy, according to US Catholic, which reported that 'in the United States and in Canada, this renewal of loyalty and fidelity has taken the form of periodic grants ... for support of the bishops' pro-life programs." Dechant said, "I feel we need to become more politically active on moral issues.... We've got to make our clout be felt as Catholics first of all."
By the early 1990s, the Knights were campaigning against the Freedom of Choice Act, "which would have prevented states from restricting abortion rights," selling 50,000 shares of Disney stock because it was "'highly insulted' by the film Priest about a gay Catholic priest struggling with celibacy," and grappling over whether to invite such pro-choice politicians like Bill Clinton to their functions.
Catholics for Choice's report maintains that the organization's "politics can currently be mapped across ... four sectors—anti-choice activities; anti-marriage equality activities; public policy and policymakers; and dissent within the order."
The Knights have a long history of opposition to reproductive rights. In 1987, after the organization set up an office in Washington, D.C., to monitor legislative initiatives, it gave a $3 million grant "to the US bishops to fund a nationwide campaign against abortion," a campaign that was run by Hill & Knowlton, a major public relations firm, and the Wirthlin Group, a polling company. The campaign "was billed as a public information campaign."
After Dechant retired, the reigns were taken by Carl Anderson, "an aide to the controversial Sen. Jesse Helms from 1976 to 1981," who had "worked as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and as acting director of the White House Office of Public Liaison during the Reagan administration." The Knights have supported crisis pregnancy centers, encouraged so-called sidewalk counseling and prayer vigils aimed at women going to abortion clinics, and "take[s] exception to most, but not all, forms of contraception."
A 2012 report by a coalition of four Catholic organizations— Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families and New Ways Ministry— published The Strong Right Arm of the Bishops: The Knights of Columbus and Anti-Marriage Equality Funding, which "focused attention on what had been a little-known phenomenon—the huge sums the fraternal order was funneling into anti-marriage equality campaigns in several states, sometimes in its own name, sometimes under the aegis of other entities such as the National Organization for Marriage."
The report notes that "In 2006, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson summarized the Knights' view of same-sex marriage as being antithetical to all that is right and true in the world—as he saw it: 'If homosexual 'marriage' is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.... We will never accept the destruction of the institution of marriage.'" The Knights has subsequently donated more than $7 million to anti-same-sex marriage ballot initiatives across the country. It contributed $1.153 million to ProtectMarriage.com, which promoted California's anti-marriage equality Proposition 8 in 2008, and later another $500,000 to the Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund.
The Knights of Columbus was founded as a mutual aid society which combatted bigotry and discrimination against Catholics. Now, more than one-hundred thirty years after its founding, it has devolved into an organization which uses such catchphrases as "life and family" or "marriage and family," and yet has such a narrow view of family and has firmly planted itself in the forefront of discrimination and bigotry.