Stoking Fire: The Knights of Columbus’ Efforts Against Choice and Marriage Equality

Although many local chapters of the Knights of Columbus, which is well over a century old, still devote themselves to aiding the indigent and disabled, a new report published by Catholics for Choice reveals how for the past two decades, the bulk of the organization’s fundraising and activism have gone to bolster anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality initiatives.

For the past two decades, the bulk of the Knights' fundraising and activism have gone to bolster anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality initiatives. Money religion via Shutterstock

More than 130 years ago, in 1882, when Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, bigots were arguing that the influx of Catholic immigrants to the United States posed a potential danger to the body politic. After all, what if they favored the Pope over domestic policymakers?

The result of this prejudiced viewpoint was that countless Catholics—particularly widows and children—were left in extreme financial need. And Anti-Catholic ideology was not just promulgated by individual hate-mongers. According to Knights of Columbus: Crusaders for Discrimination, a report published by Catholics for Choice (CFC), “Anti-Catholic attitudes of the day led some insurance companies to refuse coverage for Catholic immigrants.” McGivney created the Knights to address this issue, with charity and unity as its guiding principles.

The group has since grown to become the largest Catholic lay organization in the world, with 1.8 million male members. “Over the years,” the report continues, “fraternity and patriotism were added, but the Order’s strong American sentiment was already reflected in the choice of Christopher Columbus as its patron.”

Charity, unity, and patriotism, of course, can mean different things to different people, and their meanings can change over time. Still, the report explains that despite the fact that many local chapters of the Knights continue to devote themselves to aiding the indigent and disabled, for the past two decades, the bulk of the organization’s fundraising and activism have gone to bolster anti-abortion and anti-marriage equality initiatives.

Sexism plays a key role in the Knights’ philosophy, and CFC notes that the exclusion of female members is predicated on a worldview “that doesn’t include women’s agency, particularly in relation to reproductive rights.” What’s more, the report adds, the fraternity publishes and distributes a ludicrously essentialist pamphlet, The Gift of Women, written by Dr. Maria Fedoryka. Fedoryka’s message? “The key feature of femininity [is] receptivity … to accept and affirm everything simply as it is. This is contrasted with the masculine soul, which reflects God’s creativity, and which has been fashioned to take initiative — to make and to do.”

On a practical level, the Knights seemingly recognize that this alleged dichotomy between men and women may need a little push. Enter technology. To wit, since 2009, the Knights have raised funds to buy ultrasound machines for deceptive crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs); to date, says Catholics for Choice, more than 290 have been purchased at a cost of more than $8.5 million.

“Many Knights of Columbus members may believe that there are too many abortions,” CFC spokesperson David Nolan told Rewire. “They see the machines as helping women make fully informed choices.”

But the Knights’ anti-choice work doesn’t end there. Knights of Columbus members are encouraged to join forces with 40 Days for Life, a group characterized by CFC as extremist. Twice a year, 40 Days activists organize sit-ins outside abortion facilities. During the nearly six-week protests, demonstrators harass patients and clinicians and have, at times, blocked health center doors.

In addition, Knights raise money for anti-choice rallies and marches, as well as for anti-contraception messaging. Their tentacles further extend to Life Athletes, an athletic league that promotes sexual abstinence until heterosexual marriage.

But back to ultrasounds. The Knights believe that if a woman “sees her baby,” she will be unable to go through with an abortion. While this conclusion is certainly specious, let’s stick to the issue of dollars and cents, for the fact of the matter is that ultrasound equipment doesn’t come cheap. Depending on whether the equipment is portable or stationary, new or used, the machines can cost anywhere from $13,000 to $120,000.

How do the Knights pay for this equipment? The lion’s share of the money comes from the sale of life, medical, and long-term care insurance, or, what the Knights website calls “income armor.” It’s a business with “more than $92 billion of insurance in force,” the site says, and is complete with 1,400 sales agents who “protect families from the financial ruin caused by the death of a breadwinner.”

Knights of Columbus insurance is an amazingly under-the-radar enterprise. Unlike ING, Prudential, or SelectQuote, Knights of Columbus insurance plans are not advertised, and many non-Catholics are completely unaware of them. “Outreach for insurance sales is done at parish events, social functions, and fundraisers,” said CFC’s David Nolan. “The assumption is that if you are approached by fellow Catholics after church, you’re more likely to buy insurance from them because you know them and trust them. There is constant pressure on Knights from both the Diocese and from local parishes to find new sales leads. The Knights have a very large network of people who are continually reaching out to find someone who might buy a policy.”

The effort literally pays off. The Knights of Columbus website boasts 2013 assets of $19.8 billion.

This money has clearly contributed to the staying power and expansion of CPCs. It has also bolstered—albeit largely unsuccessfully—many state efforts to derail same-sex marriage. CFC cites a report by the Equally Blessed coalition, which includes Call to Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, and New Way Ministries, that alerted progressives to the Knights’ work in promoting heterosexism. The report “focused on what had been a little-known phenomenon—the fraternal order was funneling huge sums into state anti-marriage equality campaigns, sometimes in its own name and sometimes under the aegis of other entities such as the National Organization for Marriage [NOM],” says CFC. More than $1 million went to ProtectMarriage.com, a California group, in 2008; another $1 million went to NOM in 2009. The group’s total contributions have amounted to more than $7 million, spread between California, Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota; all told the K of C presence was felt in 30 state anti-marriage equality drives.

“The catch phrases ‘life and family’ or ‘marriage and family’ appear in the titles or mission statements of many of the Knights’ grantees, reflecting an overlap between antichoice and anti-same-sex marriage initiatives,” the report concludes.

All of this, however, pales in light of the Knights’ status as a tax-free entity. CFC questions “whether the Knights’ charitable work is enough to offset the enormous tax benefits the fraternity receives, given that the insurance arm of the order ranks in the top one percent of the North American insurance market.”

For the rest of us, CFC issues a stern reminder: The fact that “the Knights donated $44.8 million to programs opposing reproductive rights, marriage equality, true religious liberty or some combination of these” between 2004 and 2012 makes clear just how well-heeled some of our adversaries are. That said, as LGBT marriage proponents have shown, taking the moral high ground can sometimes trump money. In the reproductive justice movement, it’s going to have to.