In 1882, a group of Catholic men gathered together by New Haven, CT pastor Father Michael J. McGivney incorporated an organization to provide for the families of its deceased members. More than 125 years later, the Knights of Columbus boasts of more than 1.8 million members and of “donating more than $167.5 million to charitable needs and projects” in 2012. Among its members: presidential 2016 hopeful Jeb Bush (R), Speaker of the House John Boehner (R), and Justice Samuel Alito.
But while much of the Knights’ charitable efforts in recent years have supported purely altruistic causes such as the Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity, millions of their charitable dollars have funded a very socially conservative ideological agenda: opposing abortion, LGBT rights, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and pornography, while supporting public funding for religious organizations.
While legally independent from the Catholic Church, the Knights of Columbus entities call themselves the church’s “strong right arm.” The main national organization, a tax-exempt 501(c)(8) “Fraternal Benefit Society,” provides insurance-type benefits to its membership, much like a life insurance company. In 2012, the organization’s revenue and expenses exceeded $2 billion. While only Catholic men above the age of 18 are allowed to join, Catholic women are permitted to join a much smaller affiliated auxiliary organization called the Columbiettes.
The Knights also operate a legally-separate but affiliated charitable arm called the Knights of Columbus Charities Inc. That tax-exempt non-profit organization made about 57 percent of its annual grants in 2013 to efforts to “promote matters affective life family, marriage and similar priorities in building a culture of life.” More than $1 million of that went to support “Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” a network of facilities that dissuade women from choosing to terminate their pregnancies, often by sharing misinformation.
Knights spokesman Joseph Cullen told ThinkProgress that the Knights of Columbus Charities Inc. represents only about 10 percent of the larger organization’s overall charitable spending. “We are committed to a holistic approach to giving, reflective of the broad range of Catholic values that inform our decision making,” he noted, and the bulk of those donations “went to programs in support of disaster relief, food programs, coats for kids, scholarship programs, programs for those with physical or intellectual disabilities, veterans programs, church programs, etc.”
“A People of Life and For Life”
In a November interview, the organizations’ top official noted that the Knights’ “first principle is charity,” and that its success has come due to its focus on “mission integrity.” But for several decades, that charity has also included work to overturn Roe v. Wade. Each year, the organization reaffirms, by resolution, its “deep and historic commitment to oppose any governmental action or policy that promotes abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, euthanasia, assisted suicide, or other offenses against life.” In so doing, the Knights also reaffirm their “long-standing policies of not inviting to any Knights of Columbus event, persons, especially public officials or candidates for public office, who do not support the legal protection of unborn children, or who advocate the legalization of assisted suicide or euthanasia.”
Despite this divisive language, a number of pro-choice elected officials have spoken glowingly about the organization. In 2011, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) paid tribute to the group for devoting “an enormous amount of energy and time to serve communities on a global scale,” including raising and donating “over $154 million to charitable projects and needs,” over the preceding year. In 2013, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) congratulated the local New Haven Knights of Columbus chapter on its 125th anniversary, saying its members have consistently “enriched the lives of others and made our community a better place for our families to live, learn, and grow.”
Beyond just words, the Knights of Columbus have invested millions into the “culture of life” agenda. Between local chapters and the national organization, the Knights’ “Ultrasound Initiative” have provided more than $14 million worth of ultrasound machines to local “pro-life pregnancy care centers,” based on the belief that “a free ultrasound exam often helps an abortion minded woman to decide to choose life for herself and her child.” They have also worked to defeat a successful stem-cell research amendment in Michigan ($100,000), to pass an unsuccessful proposal to ban public funding of abortion in Florida ($100,000), and to oppose a defeated a Massachusetts initiative to allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients ($450,000).
The Knights of Columbus see this as a charitable rather than social issue. Citing Catholic values and the words of Pope Francis, Cullen explained, “we believe that many of our contributions across the board have a social justice component. We do not understand how providing ultrasound machines to pregnancy resource centers is somehow a ‘social’ issue, but building houses with Habitat for Humanity is not.”
Not Just Life
Beyond just the “culture of life” initiatives, the Knights of Columbus have also spent a large sum of money on other controversial political issues.
With at least $250,000 in contributions since 2010, the Knights of Columbus are among the most generous donors to Morality in Media, likely the nation’s loudest voice against adult pornography, and its efforts to curb “the ravages of the pornography pandemic in America.”
And since 2010, the Knights of Columbus have given at least $100,000 in support of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies — the nation’s leading force for a more conservative judiciary — to promote “awareness of freedom and the principals that preserve it.” A conservative debating society, the Federalist Society is often the incubator for Supreme Court cases advancing conservative policy views. Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas are all members and one of its top executives played a major role in George W. Bush’s judicial selection process.
Over the same period, the Knights of Columbus also sent more than $625,000 to another conservative legal group, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. While the group’s official mission is “to protect the free expression of all faiths,” it acknowledges that it works “at the crossroads of church and state.” In addition to its work against the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate and against LGBT rights, Becket has worked to erode the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment. This has included defending prayer at government functions, religious symbols in public spaces, and public funding for religious schools.
In 2004, soon after Massachusetts became the first state with legal same-sex marriage, the Knights of Columbus adopted a resolution at their annual meeting registering their strong opposition to the idea. Noting that Catholic Church teaches that “only a union of male and female can express the sexual complementarity willed by God for marriage,” and “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,” the group pledged its “active support” for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Though the constitutional amendment efforts failed repeatedly, the group’s annual resolutions continue to endorse efforts to make sure governments at all levels embrace a “definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.”
And they followed their words with money. In 2012, the national organization sent $450,000 to the ballot committee pushing to block Maryland’s marriage equality legislation, $300,000 to block marriage equality in Washington, $100,000 to oppose same-sex marriage in Maine, and $250,000 to support a proposed constitutional ban in Minnesota. All four efforts were unsuccessful. The national group and local chapters also contributed more than $1.3 million in 2008 toward the passage of California’s Proposition 8, $100,000 to Arizona’s 2008 constitutional amendment, and $100,000 to Kansas’ 2005 amendment effort.
The Knights of Columbus also transferred more than $1 million in 2009 to the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage. In all, a 2012 report by the Catholic LGBT equality advocacy coalition Equally Blessed, found the Knights of Columbus had spent more than $6.2 million against same-sex marriage between 2005 and 2012. “Although most Catholics in the United States support marriage equality,” it concluded, “the best known U. S. Catholic fraternal organization has used its considerable financial strength and its political connections to mount aggressive campaigns against legislation that would permit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to be treated equally under the law.”
Cullen noted that this spending needed to be considered in the context of the organization’s other donations, including $500,000 for the Center for Dialogue and Prayer at Auschwitz, “more than $1.7 million for relief in Haiti,” “more than $660,000 for African AIDS orphans,” and “more than $10 million to the reconstruction efforts” after Hurricane Katrina.
Charity and Modesty
Since 2000, the chief officer of the organization — the “Supreme Knight” — has been Carl A. Anderson, a former Reagan administration official and one-time aide to arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). Though a longstanding tennet of the organization is that its members should “live according to the virtues of loyalty, charity, courtesy and modesty,” and practice “self-denial and careful respect for the feelings of others,” Anderson’s 2013 compensation package topped $2 million in cash and benefits. This was well above what the heads of groups like the American Red Cross (about $622,000), United Way (about $1.1 million), and Goodwill Industries International (about $639,000) receive. At least six other Knights of Columbus officers also received more than $300,000 — which may not constitute “self-denial.”
Cullen defended the salaries as commensurate with similar sized insurance companies: “The Knights of Columbus is ranked as one of the largest 1,000 companies in America. As a fraternal benefit society, we are more than just a charitable organization,” he said, adding that Anderson’s total compensation last year was “57% below the median for his peers in similar corporations.” As Anderson is “responsible for overseeing not only the operations of a charitable organization but also a mid-sized insurance company,” the organization pays him accordingly.
As far as the group’s overall priorities, Cullen explained, “Any of these expenditures could also be viewed as political from a certain perspective, [b]ut none of them are motivated by politics.” He added: “We are motivated by the values of our faith, and if sometimes those values are seen by some as having political implications, it does not make the values themselves political. Any attempt to make the case that we unduly focus only on certain issues, or that those are the only issues with certain social or political implications, would be both disingenuous and dishonest.”
But not everyone agrees. Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People For the American Way who follows the organization, told ThinkProgress the group is not being transparent about its aims: “Many Catholic parishioners who support the Knights of Columbus might be surprised and dismayed to know that the money they gave at the pancake breakfast is being used to deny equality to their LGBT friends and family,” he observed. “The Knights of Columbus do a lot of good work. Unfortunately, they also contribute millions to culture war battles against LGBT equality and reproductive choice.”