As reported by Catholic World News and other sources, the leadership of the Knights of Columbus is forbidding local and state councils from suspending politicians who support abortion or same-sex marriage. This is a complex issue, so let’s add some details and begin a conversation about their decision.
The argument from John Marrella, KofC Supreme Advocate, is essentially two-fold. It is not appropriate, he claims, for a local chapter of the Knights to take such a disciplinary action on its own authority – disciplinary proceedings should instead be reserved to the KofC leadership. Second, Marella argues that the KofC leadership ought not to go further in disciplining public dissenters from the Church’s teaching than the American bishops:
“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…”
This is a mistake: Marella’s argument confuses the Knights of Columbus with the Church. Being expelled from the Knights of Columbus, after all, is simply not the same as being excommunicated from the Church or being barred from receiving Communion by the local bishop. The Knights are a private, lay organization which operates by its own rules. In fact, membership in the Knights, in some ways, is more demanding than membership in the Church (when viewed in secular terms – Knights owe dues, for instance), so it is reasonable to claim that one can lose membership in the Knights without endangering the prerogative of the bishops.
Unfortunately, the leadership of the Knights appears to be trying to avoid the thorny issue of dissension within their ranks. It is because of this vacuum of leadership that local and state councils are trying to take matters into their own hands. The Supreme Knight’s recent video message to state conventions, for instance, while over ten minute in duration, makes no mention of same-sex marriage or abortion. There is, furthermore, an ongoing scandal caused by prominent members in the fraternal organization disagreeing and publicly acting against the Church, and of course against the unborn and against the institution of marriage. An example of a pro-abortion public official who the Knights claim as a member is Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
On the other hand, the Knights have taken action recently to sever improper ties with organizations such as NARAL whose mission conflicts with that of the Knights. So why not apply the same high standards to their own membership?
I love the Knights of Columbus, but in this situation, I believe their leadership needs to seriously rethink this decision, and begin the brave task of holding its membership to the high standards each of them swore to uphold upon entering. Perhaps the Supreme Knight Carl Anderson could consider implementing a charitable process for asking dissenting members to reconsider membership in the Knights.
The Knights are right to take due pride in their rich history of defending the Church and her clergy. Today, they ought not hide behind the Church they have sworn to protect. They must not fall on a sword that was intended to slay grave falsehoods such as public dissent.