Knights of Columbus members watch a ceremony in 2008. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Robert F. Farmer

Knights of Columbus, cash cow of the Catholic right

(RNS) The must-read religion story of the week is Tom Roberts' report in the National Catholic Reporter on the Knights of Columbus. Focusing on its IRS filings from the last three years, Roberts shows how the church's pre-eminent fraternal organization has become a cash cow of the Catholic right.

Founded by a New Haven, Conn., priest 135 years ago to help the widows and orphans of Catholic immigrants with direct aid and insurance, the Knights is now a multibillion-dollar philanthropy-cum-insurance company. In 2015, the last available reporting year, it had revenues of $2.2 billion, of which it gave away $175 million.

Emblem of the Knights of Columbus

The organization has not turned its back on good works. In 2015, it donated nearly $1 million to the Special Olympics, $300,000 to Wheelchairs for the Needy, $75,000 to Habitat for Humanity. It spread modest "general support" grants to a dozen or so Knights charities around the country. Its 2 million members volunteer, on average, a workweek of hours a year.

But the Knights' policy agenda cannot be missed. Opposition to abortion is the overriding concern, followed by religious liberty — which, pursued largely as resistance to the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, is intimately related to the former. The Knights gave millions to conservative outfits like the Susan B. Anthony List and the Becket Fund. Its preferred media outlet, to the tune of $500,000 in 2015, is EWTN.

It hardly comes as a surprise to learn that the Knights organization is no pillar of progressive Catholicism. And during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, a case could be made that it was just going with the church's conservative flow. But that's no longer the case.

To say that the organization has not adjusted to the new agenda of Pope Francis would be an understatement. Under the 17-year leadership of Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms and a leading social conservative inside the Reagan administration, the Knights could care less about climate change or immigration, undocumented or otherwise.

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson, leader of the Knights of Columbus fraternal order, is one of the most influential lay Catholics in the church. Photo courtesy of Knights of Columbus


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But the Knights do take care of their friends in high places. In 2015, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia got $1.5 million in "general support," and the Archdiocese of Baltimore got $435,000 for "various programs." The archbishops in question, Charles Chaput and William Lori, are leading recusants from Pope Francis' program in the American hierarchy.

That program, by the way, takes a dim view of overpaid Catholic leaders. In 2014, Carl Anderson pulled down $2.29 million — a figure that dropped by nearly $1 million in 2015, but still a pretty cool sum for the Supreme Knight. Meanwhile, five other group officials have been earning well north of $500,000 a year.

Responding to the NCR by email, Knights spokesman Joseph Cullen said that outside consultants had determined that "75 percent of CEOs within a market comparative group are compensated overall at a higher rate than (Anderson) is. Our CEO is responsible not only for overseeing the operations of a charitable organization but the operations of a Fortune 1000 life insurance company as well."

Well, sure, the old political operative isn't making what the CEO of Aetna is. But what about a, uh, nonmarket comparative group?

Catholic Charities USA is also a multibillion-dollar operation, and the salaries of its top two executives, as of 2013, were between $300,000 and $400,000. That strikes me as the appropriate comparable.

Catholic Charities, by the way, is all about helping needy immigrants. And across the country, its local organizations are involved in environmental programs. Catholic Charities has always smelled of the sheep.

The fact of the matter is that supporting the Knights these days means supporting the (more or less) loyal opposition to Pope Francis. You wonder how many of the 2 million members understand that. You wonder how many bishops do.

(Mark Silk is professor of religion in public life at Trinity College and contributing editor at RNS, where writes the Spiritual Politics column)