Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Quo Vadis, Knights?

Knights of Columbus poster from the first World War.
The leadership of Carl Anderson over the Knights of Columbus has had its fair share of controversy. The current Supreme Knight was elected before this writer had even been received within the Church, and it is difficult for me to form a clear picture of how the Knights might have operated before then. I am told by good men who have been part of the order for many decades that the Knights were once well known for their dedication to the corporal works of mercy and for their deep integration into local communities. The Connecticut priest Michael McGivney founded the Knights to assist Catholic widows and orphans, but they went on to provide wartime services, and, in many other ways throughout the years, made themselves indispensable to the everyday operations of American parochial life.

I have also observed the perception that the Knights fell long ago into irrelevance and disrepute as an old men’s club. The Knights of Columbus still retain some visibility in pro-life events, but council halls are usually perceived as watering holes for an aging membership who wish to hide from their wives and complain uselessly about problems. How many pastors actually rely on the parish council as their go-to team to get things done?

Whether or not this perception is correct, it does seem to be the impetus driving Supreme Knight Anderson into making sweeping changes. Even in the midst of accusations of financial corruption, the Knights have been busy redesigning the 4th Degree regalia and are about to entirely rewrite the initiation ceremonies for incoming members. The expressed hope is that, by removing the requirement for secrecy and by collapsing multiple hours-long ceremonies into something that can be over and done with inside half an hour, they will be able to attract more young Catholic men.

While I do not agree with making changes that I think will result in nothing more than a brief uptick in membership, I must admit that I have no real counterproposal for fixing the order. If even the example of Catholic fathers could not convince their sons to join the Knights when they became old enough, how can the marketing team at Supreme do any better? How does an organization recover from the perception of being a crowd of aging do-nothings?

One does not truly respect something that is attained with too much ease. The difficulty and length of the traditional ceremonials made entry into the order something that had to be earned. Previously, a Catholic man had to be proven as a “practical Catholic” by those nominating him for membership, but now anyone with an internet connection can apply online without the need for witnesses. What can such a man expect to join? A social group? An insurance program? Surely not a brotherhood joined by bonds of difficult service and exemplifications. Members are not even required to perform a minimal amount of volunteer work to remain in good standing.

The stated meaning of “practical Catholic” is “a Catholic who 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.” All well and good, and all necessary, but the more colloquial meaning of “practical” may be what has been missing in the life of the Knights. Requiring nothing more than the correct age, sex, and religion does not do much to give a group a unique identity. The historically practical side of the Knights includes the corporal works of mercy, fundraising for parishes and for the poor, a show of arms (quite literally in the recent past), and camaraderie based on a common initiation. When a group becomes more generic it often becomes less attractive. If the order is going to pull itself out of this downward spiral, it must find practical causes through which its men can make practical contributions.

Presumed KofC fraternal banner from the late 1800s.


  1. Maybe the KoC could start its climb back up the hill of Catholicism by shaming its members into dressing reverently for Sunday morning Holy Mass, suits, jackets, dress slacks, ties?

    1. I like this idea. How about put the Knights in a guard duty over the Eucharist in every parish: have someone always on the watch against someone walking away with the Host?