Delegates setting the resolutions for the Knights of Columbus (K of C) again voted to defend traditional marriage and the “sacredness of human life” at the group’s 129th Supreme Convention held in Denver this week. With both controversial issues seen as the most important topics to many of the delegates, some secular and Catholic groups are concerned their agenda is a step in the wrong direction for civil rights.
“As faithful Catholics and Knights of Columbus, we know that among the most important tasks ahead of us is the need to shape our culture according to Gospel values and to bring the Christian message of hope to all,” said Carl A. Anderson, supreme knight and chairman of the board of Knights of Columbus, in his annual report. “I don’t have to tell you that in many ways, society has lost track of the things that are most important: the sacredness of human life, and the right of every child, not only to be born, but to be raised by a mother and a father.”
At this year’s international summit, dubbed “So That the World May Know New Hope,” 2,000 Knights and their families were charged with helping to renew Christian morals in society. The largest Catholic organization outside of the church, the fraternity is known for its philanthropic deeds but has recently sparked controversy for giving millions of dollars to groups supporting the Defense of Marriage Act and embryonic protections. This year, the group affirmed that it plans to continue these efforts.
“One [resolution] defending human life for the unborn against such attacks as abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, taking embryos and using them for resource killing, that is probably of greatest importance,” conference attendee Bruce Desautels told the Colorado Independent. “Under that I would put protection of the defense of marriage. That it is between the union of one man and one woman first for the procreation of life and secondly for the well being of the spouses.”
Desautels, a voting delegate and Deputy Grand Knight from the Stratton/Benkelman Council of Nebraska, added that “with the protection of unborn life, we are not just saying that we agree. There is more to it than that. Our organization is very active and we will pursue successes in those.”
Both the resolutions adhere to the church’s religious tenets. In defending traditional marriage, the organization resolved: “That we join with the Bishops of Canada, United States and throughout the world in their efforts to achieve legal and constitutional protection at the national, provincial and local levels for the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.” It was a hard-line theme that further resonated in the group’s concern for embryonic protections.
“[T]he Knights of Columbus has a deep and historic commitment to oppose any governmental action or policy that promotes abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other offenses against life and that we continue to speak out to our elected representatives about the need to enact legislation to oppose these practices and to protect human life in all its stages,” the resolution reads.
Like Desautels, other members of the Knights stood behind the measures when asked what the most important resolution topic was.
“There was one on there for right to life, and it is hitting home with everybody. Obviously, it is a number-one priority in my life as far as people go,” said Ed McCann, immediate past state deputy from New Hampshire.
However, numerous Catholic groups that support gay and lesbian marriage say that while the reaffirmation of the K of C’s longtime support for traditional marriage is disappointing, it was not unexpected.
“It is not surprising that this comes out of the convention. The Knights of Columbus have really been at the forefront of the attacks on marriage equality for a number of years now. They have provided millions of dollars to the U.S. Catholic Bishops for the anti-marriage equality work across the country,” said Marianne Duddy, executive director for Dignity USA who was representing a coalition of groups seeking the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. “The kinds of efforts that they have funded rely on a fear, and they portray gay and lesbian people as less than other people or other couples in some way, and that is so hurtful.”
Colorado groups like Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and One Colorado said the efforts of the religious group were out of step with mainstream American views.
“It’s clear that the majority of Americans now support marriage for gay and lesbian couples,” said Brad Clark, executive director for One Colorado. “This resolution by the Knights of Columbus is out of touch with everyday people who know loving, committed gay and lesbian couples and realize that giving them the freedom to marry strengthens families and communities.”
Similarly, Monica McCafferty, marketing and communications director for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, whose parent organization has been protested by local K of C chapters numerous times for their abortion services, said a pro-choice stance is important in protecting the freedoms of the woman to choose what is best for her body.
“Pro-choice to us is that we support a woman’s decision to be a parent, to adopt or to seek an abortion. Being pro-choice means bringing all choices,” McCafferty said. “While the terms ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ have grayed, at the end of the day people say that even if that isn’t a choice that I can make for myself, I want to ensure that someone else has the ability to make that choice.”
Asked how the Knights would pursue the fight for the resolutions, Desautels said beyond lobbying efforts each Knight was resolved to do what they can do through the courts, through the power of numbers and persuasion. What about financial support?
“I guess that is up to every individual,” Desautels said.
The Iowa Independent reported last year that the Knights gave more than $1.4 million to the National Organization for Marriage, a group that is dedicated to fighting same-sex marriage through the ballot initiative process across the country, in 2009.
In 2010, the K of C charity report indicates that it provided more than $3 million to promote “family life” and a similar amount to promote its stance against abortion. Examples of its spending include $27,500 for a march for life in Canada, $100,000 for Life Athletes in Bend, Ind., $50,000 to the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy, Washington, D.C., and $700,000 on an Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage.
In Colorado, individual chapters of the K of C have given to numerous programs over the past 20 years, according to the Secretary of State’s office, that would either discourage or end abortion rights in the state. While the sums have rarely been large, they show a dedication to the resolve of the Knights to uphold their positions. Last year, the Knights of Columbus St. Peter Church Council #11514 in Monument, Co., gave $250 to the Personhood Initiative, a push the Catholic Church decided not to endorse.
Asked what he thought about the concerns put forward by pro-choice advocates and DOMA detractors over the Knights’ agenda, McCann said simply that it was not his intention to change others’ beliefs, but it is important to look at the group’s other philanthropic efforts.
“I honestly honor anybody’s belief whatever their belief is. I am not going to try and turn anybody’s vote one way or the other, ” McCann said. “But I think one of the other most important things was the resolution on helping deal with the disaster in Haiti and a prosthesis program we have for children. I believe charity is the most important part of the Knights of Columbus, and secondly, unity as we grow together to become much stronger.”
Few question the resolve of the order to give or conduct charitable works across the country and world. In addition to some 70,000,000 volunteer hours, the K of C says it provided nearly $4.5 million in 2010 to community causes, including $1 million to help victims of the Haitian earthquake, $270,424 to the Special Olympics and $140,000 to the United Way.
The Knights of Columbus spent just over $1 million this year on its Food for Families program, which distributes funds across its chapters to provide food for local people in need.
Still, despite the organization’s generosity, many LGBT people with hopes of eventual marriage wish that same charity extended to them.
“I have been watching the convention on TV, and I felt my heart breaking for all of those Knights who have gay and lesbian people in their families and who are seeing this organization that does so much good be so wrong on this issue,” Dignity USA’s Duddy said. She characterized the Knights as setting themselves up “to do a lot of damage to a lot of people and families across this country.”
She said her organization has not given up hope on changing the K of C’s resolve.
“We have actually spoken to a lot of Knights who don’t believe in what the leadership is doing and who are very clear with us that the money they raise goes to local charity events,” Duddy said. “But they really struggle with how to make an impact on what the leadership decides.”
Given the greetings from the Vatican to this year’s convention, it seems unlikely the leadership will be changing their views anytime soon. Here’s what Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, Secretary of State for the Vatican, wrote in greeting to the assembled group:
“Today, before the increasingly evident signs of a growing forgetfulness of God, a rejection of most basic principles of morality and a breakdown in the very foundations of social life, no committed follower of Christ can fail to heed this urgent summons to work for the rebuilding of our communities in accordance with the enduring values grounded in the natural law, confirmed by the Gospel and enshrined in the Christian vision of life’s true meaning, beauty and purpose.”