Frequently Asked Questions about the Knights of Columbus.
The Knights of Columbus is an international Catholic lay society, best described as a Catholic family fraternal service organization. Begun over a century ago as a men’s fraternal benefit society, it has evolved into a service organization with a strong family orientation. The Knights of Columbus is present in the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, and several other countries. Its many programs and activities benefit members and their families, while aiding the Catholic Church and the community at large.
When and why did the Knights of Columbus begin?
On October 2, 1881, Father Michael J. McGivney, 29-year-old assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Conn., brought together a group of laymen with whom he discussed his dream for a Catholic fraternal benefit society. It not only would assist widows and orphans of deceased members through its life insurance program, but also would boost members’ sense of pride in their Catholic religion, then frequently challenged in the anti-Catholic climate of 19th-century America. Father McGivney and his associates met several more times over the next several months to continue planning, and the new organization — the Knights of Columbus — was formally launched in early February, 1882. After 113 years the Knights of Columbus numbers over 1.5 million members whose concern for others has produced an outpouring of personal service and financial assistance to religious and community programs where the Order’s 10,000 units are present. In 1994 Knights contributed more than $100 million and gave well over 48 million hours in volunteer service to good causes of all kinds. (Both figures were new record highs for the K of C, and the total charitable giving marked the first time that contributions had gone over the $100 million mark.) The 10-year cumulative totals are $867,912,749 in contributions and 339,579,891 hours of volunteer service.
Why the name?
The founders chose Christopher Columbus as patron of the new organization to emphasize Catholic contributions to the exploration and evangelization of the Americas. Calling the members ‘Knights’ signified a commitment to high ideals of religious devotion and service to others.
About 1.2 million of the more than 1.5 million Knights of Columbus are the United States, with the rest in Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, and several Central American and Caribbean countries. In terms of level of membership, all members have reached at least the ‘First Degree’ and most are ‘Third Degree’ members. For those who wish to participate, there also is a Fourth Degree, whose members make a special commitment to the virtue of patriotism. (Members of Fourth Degree Honor Guards in their colorful regalia of plumed hats and capes are a distinctive feature of many major Catholic ceremonies.) While only men are members of the K of C, in countless cases the families of members are active in its programs as well. The Knights of Columbus is organized into local units called councils. (The local unit of the Fourth Degree is called an assembly.) Councils vary greatly in size, from a few dozen members to hundreds. Many operate within individual parishes, while others draw members from several neighboring parishes. These local units are grouped at the state level under a state council. The international governing body, the Supreme Council, has its headquarters in New Haven. The chief executive officer of the Knights of Columbus is called the Supreme Knight. The present Supreme Knight is Virgil C. Dechant. The Knights of Columbus also has a youth organization, the Columbian Squires, whose local units are called circles. (K of C councils in many places also sponsor Scout troops.)
While the fundamental religious, civic, and humanitarian purposes of the organization, described above, are the same everywhere, their concrete, programmatic expressions vary substantially from community to community. A typical Knights of Columbus council has a year-round program of religious, service, and social activities tailored to local circumstances and the interests of members and their families. Some councils have their own clubhouses, others don’t. In all cases councils seek to respond to local Church and civic needs. The activities of a typical council might include such things as distributing food to the needy, conducting sports programs for youth, running a low-cost housing program, hosting a fundraiser for a family with heavy medical bills, painting classrooms in the parish school, and so on. In recent years, support of programs for the mentally retarded has been a priority for many councils. (The Knights contributed one million dollars and provided 6,000 volunteers for the 1995 international Special Olympics, held in New Haven in July.) Knights of Columbus are also active in promoting and supporting vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and provide assistance for the higher education of young people through scholarship and student loan programs. In sum, the K of C is a leader in the volunteer movement in the United States and other countries where it exists.
Correct. With financial assistance from the Knights, the facade of St. Peter’s was repaired in a 20-month project completed in 1987. The organization also has funded other restoration work in the Basilica, most recently including repairs to the roof of its Blessed Sacrament Chapel. That is only part of the story of the Order’s support of the Pope and the Holy See. In 1981 the Knights established a $10 million trust fund — the Vicarius Christi (Vicar of Christ) Fund — whose proceeds go annually to the Holy Father for his personal charities. The Fund was increased to $20 million in 1988. To date, the Knights up to now have given well over $20 million to Pope John Paul II from this source. For 20 years the K of C has paid uplink costs of satellite telecasts that carry papal ceremonies like the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass to viewers in the United States and many other countries. (These are the most widely watched religious TV programs in the world.) It also has paid for the purchase of equipment used by the Vatican Television Center, and has given financial assistance to other offices and agencies of the Holy See. The organization’s special relationship with the Holy Father and the Holy See can be seen in the fact that the Knights of Columbus was invited by the Vatican to join the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., in co-hosting the Mass that Pope John Paul II will celebrate on the morning of October 6, 1995, at Aqueduct Raceway in Queens, N.Y., during his October 4-8 visit to the United States. It is a singular honor for a Catholic lay organization to be invited to play this role.
The Knights of Columbus regards abortion as a grave moral evil that does incalculable social harm. It holds that the unborn deserve the full protection of the law. It therefore considers the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion a tragic mistake, and has consistently supported peaceful, nonviolent measures to correct Roe v. Wade. The Knights of Columbus was among the organizations filing pro-life amicus curiae briefs in abortion related cases decided by the Supreme Court in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992. The K of C also filed an amicus brief in the 1990 Cruzan case involving the so called “right to die.” Since 1973 the Knights of Columbus has printed and distributed free of charge millions of items of pro-life educational literature. It provides financial assistance to the pro-life programs of the U.S., Canadian and Mexican bishops. Thousands of Knights take part in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., each January. The organization also has assisted groups that seek to help women experiencing pregnancy-related problems. With regard to some current issues in the pro-life struggle, the Knights of Columbus is strongly opposed to the so called Freedom of Choice Act and to the inclusion of abortion coverage in any national health care program. It strongly supports the Hyde Amendment restricting federal funding of abortion as well as similar legislative proposals to restrict the performance or the funding of abortions. Other areas of concern to the Knights of Columbus Catholic education, family life, pornography and violence in the media — these are among the issues that engage the K of C’s attention and have done so for years. The organization supports a constitutional amendment making it possible to legislate against the desecration of the American flag. It also supports proposals for parental choice in education, provided the option of ‘choice’ extends to Catholic schools. Over the past four decades, the Knights’ Catholic Information Service has distributed millions of pieces of literature about the Catholic Church to people replying to ads in mass-circulation publications. Besides seeking to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the K of C has several different programs that offer financial assistance to seminarians and religious in formation. The Knights’ prize-winning monthly magazine, Columbia, is the largest Catholic periodical in the United States. The K of C also supports the John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family Life, a graduate-level theology school in Washington, D.C., for priests, religious, and lay persons.
A man applying for membership must be a practicing Catholic, at least 18 years of age, in union with the Holy See. Those interested in applying should contact a local Knights of Columbus council. Qualified members can purchase Knights of Columbus insurance if they wish to do so, and about a third of the members do, but this is not required. The amount of Knights of Columbus insurance in force is over $28 billion.
The international headquarters of the Knights of Columbus are located at 1 Columbus Plaza, New Haven, CT 06510 (203/772 2130). The Public Information Office of the Knights of Columbus is located at 401 Michigan Avenue, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017 (phone: 202/269-6080).