The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic fraternal organization, founded during the late 19th century in New England to protect Catholic immigrants from nativist bigotry. Father Michael McGivney, a young priest whose parents were immigrants from Ireland, mobilized men in his parish to create an organization as a response to certain influential social organizations of working men and the middle classes of that era.
Some of these other organizations—mostly “secret societies” including Masonic lodges—were openly hostile to Catholics. Others were benign but lacking in the facility to combine social activity and “service club” good deeds with Catholic faith, worship, and parish community life.
In the background of the creation of the Knights of Columbus was the 19th century American history of ethnic and sectarian violence. Incidents had included the true story behind Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” the Civil War draft riots, and domestic guerrilla conflict between corporate militias and armed trade unionists known as the Molly Maguires in the anthracite coal fields around Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The Knights of Columbus came into being as a peaceful, prayerful, and effective response to such violence. Only two weeks ago, Pope Francis announced he was declaring McGivney a “blessed,” the step before canonization as a saint.
Like the religious orders of priests and nuns and religious sodalities of laypeople, the Knights of Columbus developed a distinctive and robust charism. A charism is something much more than a style. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Knights of Columbus has been and remains the backbone of blue-collar and middle-class Catholicism everywhere in the United States. Arguably better than any other institution, the Knights perform a teaching mission of continuing education in the faith.
Facing Death, Facing Down the Klan
The Knights expanded into the Philippines, then a U.S. territory, Canada, and Mexico. During the 1920s the brutal persecution of the Catholic Church by the atheist regime of Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles involved the arrest and execution of numerous Catholic priests. Some of these, including a number of chaplains of the Knights of Columbus, were canonized as saints and martyrs by St. John Paul II.
Also during the 1920s, the Knights of Columbus stood strong as the most powerful and determined organization in the United States opposing the bigotry and violence of the Ku Klux Klan.
It is hard to think of any organization surpassing the Knights of Columbus in defending civil rights and religious liberty.
It is well known that, without certain miscreant bishops, the Catholic Church in the United States would be stronger than it is today. While there are still some holy and valiant bishops, corrupt bishops by the dozens have plunged dioceses and Catholic school systems into bankruptcy and driven untold numbers of communicants to quit the Church. Some of the demoralized ex-Catholics remain as active Christians worshiping in Protestant congregations; too many simply stop believing in God.
Entire generations of Catholics in the United States have been lost because of the recent and ongoing perfidy of corrupt bishops. Bishops are necessary for the sacramental continuity of the Catholic Church; it is too bad that so many of them are but a necessary evil.
If there is one fault that could be found with the Knights of Columbus, it is that the organization has a habit of fawning over Catholic bishops without reflection. Even assuming that more of the bishops were holier than they actually are, the Knights’ membership communications always have tended to publish far too many photo-ops with men wearing vestments and miters.
The Knights of Columbus gained unexpected public attention this week because of a virulent spike in Trump Derangement Syndrome. Before going into the details of that, some other information is necessary.
Impeached and Removed from “The Church of the Presidents”
St. John’s Episcopalian Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House, is an important tourist attraction and a coveted society wedding venue. It advertises itself as “The Church of the Presidents.”
St. John’s self-promotion as the presidential church and Washington’s towering Episcopalian edifice calling itself the “National Cathedral” rub some people the wrong way. Many Christians who are not members of the ecclesiastical one percent feel uncomfortable with relics of the colonial Anglican establishment posturing as a sort of official religion for the American people and government. Unless there is a national church, how can a place be called the National Cathedral?
“All Are Welcome,” proclaims the sign at the entrance to St. John’s on Lafayette Square. That is almost true. Atheists, communists, Wiccans, drag queens, polytheists—you name it—are warmly invited to congregate within this cute little monument to neocolonialism. No matter the pronoun, St. John’s never met a man or womxn it didn’t like, until last week.
Presidents not only have been welcome; they are indispensable promotional props for the venue. “Beginning with James Madison, until the present,” according to St. John’s promotional material, “every person who has held the office of President of the United States has attended a service at St. John’s.” By Abraham Lincoln’s time, a Lincoln historical publication says, “presidential visits already were considered obligatory.” Snob appeal yields a lot of wedding venue bookings.
Donald and Melania Trump observed the Episcopalian holy day of obligation by attending a prayer service the morning of Inauguration Day, 2017. Notch up another POTUS for the St. John’s publicity campaigns.
After rioters set fire to St. John’s Church on May 31, President Trump the following day made an unannounced visit to the public sidewalk in front of the so-called “Church of the Presidents.” He held up for display that notorious manifesto of bigotry, the Holy Bible—though, had he asked the parish house staff in advance, he probably could have obtained a calfskin bound edition of Das Kapital.
The bishop of Washington’s National Cathedral, The Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, immediately denounced the president for showing solidarity with the riot-damaged “Church of the Presidents.” Appearing on CNN with the noted exegete Anderson Cooper, she said she was “outraged” by the president’s visit. Trump, she exclaimed, had held a Holy Bible “without permission.”
The bishop also spoke with National Public Radio, the Episcopalian analog to L’Osservatore Romano. Over the NPR airwaves the bishop told her inferiors everywhere that “it would require some sort of authorization” from her for the president of the United States to stand on the public sidewalk in front of St. John’s. Regarding Donald Trump carrying a Bible, the Episcopalian bishop said, “I was outraged that he felt that he had the license to do that.” Clearly the orange-skinned man is uniquely disqualified from having his feelings validated.
“Some sort of authorization.”
“I was outraged that he felt that he had the license to do that.”
This says it all about the smug sense of entitlement and superiority of lapsed Christians who don the Episcopalian purple, all the while proclaiming the Good News of Antifa-esque Anarchy versus Trump’s “Authoritarianism.”
Imagine Abraham Lincoln during his era of national crisis appearing unannounced outside or inside of St. John’s—which he often did. Would the Episcopalian bishop have cried outrage and shrieked that the president had done so “without permission”?
Bishop Budde’s outrage also was founded on her allegation that law enforcement officers had used tear gas to drive away people from the president’s path from the White House to the church. The bishop’s remark evinced no regard for the truth. The head of the National Park Police has stated unequivocally that tear gas was not used in this incident. Molly Hemingway has produced a copiously documented article exposing the “firehose of falsehood” propaganda campaign to mislead the public into believing tear gas had been used.
Will Bishop Budde retract her false statement about tear gas?
Will she explain why she believes anyone needs her permission to carry a Bible in public?
Where else in the world is it unauthorized for people to carry Bibles in public? Millions of Bible-believing American Christians would like to hear Bishop Budde answer these questions.
There’s Got to Be a Morning After
Evening came, and morning followed—June 2.
The announcement was cheerful news for beleaguered Catholics and other Christians who had been dismayed by the Episcopalian bishop’s statements the previous evening.
Joy soon collapsed into sorrow and anger. The Catholic archbishop of Washington parroted the lines from the Episcopalian bishop. Following the White House announcement but before the president and Mrs. Trump arrived at the St. John Paul II Shrine, Archbishop Wilton Gregory gave full-throated expression to Antifa-style talking points.
Condemning the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic prelate said “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles.”
Archbishop Gregory did not explain what religious principles had been violated by the Knights of Columbus or the president’s executive order, but he did reiterate the already debunked, false allegations of tear gas use near St. John’s Episcopalian Church.
Replying to Archbishop Gregory, the Knights of Columbus issued a statement: “The White House originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom. This was fitting given Saint John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate. International religious freedom receives widespread bipartisan support, including unanimous passage of legislation in defense of persecuted Christians and religious minorities around the world. The Shrine welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of Saint John Paul II.”
Slouching Towards Canossa
The radical-chic Episcopalian bishop’s behavior was so predictable that it was somehow yawn-inducing while being repugnant. But what the Catholic archbishop of Washington did indicates a widening political split within his church between laity and hierarchy, between conservative or apolitical people in the pews and a leftist clerical establishment.
Without regard for the truth, Archbishop Wilton Gregory desecrated the memory of Pope John Paul II. He insulted the office of the president of the United States, as well as the person of the current president. He was unbelievably rude to First Lady Melania Trump, a Catholic who lived under Communist dictatorship.
Archbishop Gregory is the first African-American Catholic archbishop in the nation’s capital. He has denigrated and shamed the Knights of Columbus, the most generous and wholesome and valiant “salt of the earth” group of Catholic laypeople the United States has ever known. He has assailed the Knights of Columbus, the greatest of all Catholic civil rights organizations, the biggest and bravest organization of any affiliation in all of American history to face down the Ku Klux Klan.
It wasn’t Jesus who made him do it.
Former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick lied to cover up his crimes of pederasty. Former Washington archbishop Donald Wuerl lied to cover up the crimes of pederast priests. Wilton Gregory now has taken the side of atheist, nihilist insurrectionists, telling lies that fan the flames of violence in the streets.
Any president and First Lady—the Clintons, the Obamas, any of them—deserve courtesy from Catholic hierarchy, not inflammatory and falsely predicated political rhetoric such as Gregory’s. The dignity of the presidential office and of our republic itself call for such civility. Consider the courtesy that Cardinal Timothy Dolan in New York has accorded to the Clintons and Obamas. Can anyone imagine Dolan lowering himself to committing abuse of the sort that Archbishop Gregory unloaded against the Knights of Columbus, President Trump, and the First Lady?
The Catholic Church would be a lot holier and healthier if it had fewer evil, corrupt bishops.
The Catholic Church in the United States would be practically dead without the Knights of Columbus. That is how vital this organization is.
With about 2 million members, the Knights of Columbus is the only national Catholic organization of such magnitude. The Knights’ website is worth visiting. “We are Catholic men building a bridge back to faith,” they remark in their mission statement. “There is much good and necessary work to be done in this world, and that’s what Knights do every day.”
If Archbishop Gregory had his way, President and Mrs. Trump and the 2 million Knights of Columbus would be garbed in hair shirts. They would show their submission by walking barefoot, proclaiming their sin and their sorrow, to the Archbishop’s penthouse on Embassy Row—the 21st century Canossa.
The prelate is about to find out that the Trumps and the Knights of Columbus won’t snap to orders as did Emperor Henry.
On the same day that President and Mrs. Trump visited the St. John Paul II Shrine, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden gave a partisan campaign speech from the altar of a church in Wilmington. Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Budde have yet to express their outrage at the sacrilege.
The first American Civil War split apart the Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, and other American churches. Some of these splits became permanent amputations.
Christianity, the community of all baptized believers, is the mystical Body of Christ. For two thousand years, the Body of Christ always has suffered wounds and divisions. Believers must not despair. We must have hope in Jesus. If we believe in Jesus at all, we must accept his promise that He will never abandon us.