The Roman Catholic Church is structured like a medieval empire with the Pope serving as King, Cardinals as princes and arch-dukes, bishops as dukes, and priests as entitled nobility. Add to this mix laymen (and they are all men) acting as knights, as in the Knights of Columbus, and you have what essentially amounts to a theocratic (if questionably benevolent) monarchy in a modern world that is contradictorily coming to embrace the benefits of democracy and freedom of conscience.
The Knights of Columbus (KoC) is a volunteer organization open to “practical Catholic men in union with the Holy See, who shall not be less than 18 years of age on their last birthday,” according to the KoC-RI website, explaining that, “A practical Catholic is one who lives up to the Commandments of God and the precepts of the Church.” The KoC is the largest Catholic lay organization in the world and is traditionally thought of as an organization engaged in fundraising for people in need and other charitable works.
The Knights still do charitable works, and provide real services for those in need, but they are also true knights within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, front line combatants in the culture wars over such issues as women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, marriage equality and reproductive justice. Over the years that I have been an advocate for a properly secular Rhode Island that prioritizes the separation of church and state and freedom of conscience, I have seen many members of the Knights of Columbus opposing my positions.
A new and well researched publication from Catholics For Choice entitled “Opposition Notes: The Knights of Columbus: Crusaders for Discrimination” has put the KoC under the microscope and found some disturbing trends with real implications for Rhode Island politics. What follows is a mix of my own observations informed by insights gleaned from the Opposition Notes.
The KoC in Rhode Island has been actively involved with the protests outside clinics that provide abortion and outside Planned Parenthood for years. In Cranston, there is a nearly weekly effort to engage in “sidewalk counseling” and “prayer vigils” that essentially amounts to displaying misleading and grotesque graphics and intimidating women who might want to access reproductive services. There is almost always a KoC presence at these protests as a small part of a national effort to restrict or eliminate reproductive health care for women. A KoC chapter in Madison, Wisconsin even runs a “Pro-Life Activist Training Camp” that teaches people how to more effectively protest outside clinics.
The KoC in Rhode Island was also extremely active in campaigning against marriage equality, even going so far as to publicly team up with notorious hate groups like MassResistance. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this was a previously unheard of alliance, as the Roman Catholic Church is usually more careful in its choice of allies. The KoC is also tied very closely to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), and in Rhode Island we suffered NOM-RI, supported it seems, almost entirely by a very few undisclosed donors.
It was NOM-RI’s Christopher Plante who was Politifacted as a “Pants on Fire” liar for his completely untrue claim that “religious groups [such as the KoC] have been forced to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in their facilities.” Plante made this outrageous and false claim at the 11th hour in a desperate attempt to stop the General Assembly from voting marriage equality into law. The close working relationship between the NOM and the KoC makes it hard to believe that Plante issued his statement without the Knights knowledge.
Michael Krzywonos, the “Pro-Life Chairman of Rhode Island Knights” twice spoke at the State House in opposition to marriage equality in 2013, which is totally within his rights. He also worked very hard behind the scenes to pass the “Choose-Life” license plate that was strong-armed through the General Assembly by an almost desperate Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, who seemed to care nothing for diligent discussion of the bill or for proper legislative procedure. Though the bill originally cited the Knights of Columbus as the recipients of the money generated by these special “Choose Life” license plates, at the very last minute the text of the bill was changed so that all references to the KoC was replaced with references to CareNet Pregnancy Center of Rhode Island.
According to Opposition Notes, CareNet Pregnancy Centers across the United States are often funded by the Knights of Columbus, so the last minute language substitution in the bill is now revealed to be a completely meaningless cosmetic change, meant to trick the Rhode Island public into thinking that the bill was not a strong violation of the First Amendment’s separation clause. Be thankful that Governor Chafee vetoed this odious bill. One hopes that the next Governor will be as wise.
One thing the KoC does for CareNet and other “crisis” pregnancy centers is purchase ultrasound machines as part of their “Ultrasound Initiative.” This program matches funds from the KoC Supreme Council with money from state and local chapters to purchase these machines. So far the the program has purchased 290 machines at a cost of about $8.5 million. The Knights believe that seeing an ultrasound of a fetus can convince up to 90% of women to not terminate their pregnancy. That the 90% number is completely made up does not seem to deter the beliefs of KoC members. Think about that the next time Representative Macbeth tries to push her ultrasound bill through the General Assembly.
How far reaching is the KoC’s influence on Rhode Island politics? It is difficult to say. On the General Assembly’s website no less than three Senators and six Representatives (all men, of course) claim membership in the KoC in their biographies. The highest ranking and perhaps most powerful KoC legislator is Senator Michael McCaffrey, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and a member of the Senate Committee on Labor who “has previously served as a Grand Knight for the Warwick Knights of Columbus.”
Senator Pro Tempore William Walaska and James Sheehan, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight are also members.
On the House side, Rep. Peter Palumbo (who infamously called my niece, Jessica Ahlquist, an “evil little thing” on John DePetro’s radio show (a preview of the DePetro Show's reprehensible misogyny, in retrospect) “is a second degree member of the Knights of Columbus.” Also listing membership are Representatives Melo, McLaughlin, Hull, DeSimone and Canario. The last two listed were at one time “Grand Knights” in the organization.
Of course, membership in a fraternal organization does not mean that the legislator votes the way the organization instructs them to. Senator Sheehan voted yes on marriage equality and so did Representatives Canario, DeSimone and Melo, so the vote was split. On the “Choose Life” license plate bill, however, which was a special project of the Knights here in Rhode Island, every legislator who claims membership in the KoC either voted for the bill, or declined to vote against it by not voting. (Not exactly a Profile in Courage, but this is local politics and different rules apply.)
The “Choose Life” bill passed overwhelmingly, it seems, because the Knights of Columbus willed it so.
The Knights of Columbus are an international organization with very specific political goals and the resources to seriously impact legislation and elections. In Rhode Island the Knights claim to represent the wishes of the Roman Catholic Church, and to the extent that they get there marching orders from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), that might be the case. But the conservative politics of the USCCB and the KoC are completely out of step with the majority of Rhode Islanders and even out of step with the majority of Rhode Island Catholics, who for the most part fully support LGBTQ rights, reproductive health care including abortion, women’s rights and the proper definition of separation of church and state that includes freedom of conscience, not the freedom to impose your conscience on others.
Money given to the Knights may well be used to feed or shelter a hungry family, but it might just as easily be used to fund an effort to strip LGBTQ citizens or women in general of their human rights on thinly veiled theological grounds.
One might want to think twice before lending them your support.