Friday, March 06, 2020

Some Hard Talk about the Knights of Columbus


I want to preface this post by saying that I am sure I will ruffle some feathers here. The Knights of Columbus are an institution that most Catholics hold dear, and that many of us men belong to. Ergo, a discussion of some of the changes coming down the pike is bound to provoke disagreements. I also understand that my own experience with the Knights is my own alone, and that other men have probably have very different stories. And I understand that things on the ground will vary tremendously from council to council. So, with that all said, take what I say with a grain of salt. If your experiences have been different than mine, please share, but don't try to invalidate my experience just because yours may have been different.

While many of us were focused on events going on at Rome in January, it was quietly announced that the Knights of Columbus were engaging in a massive overhaul of their ceremonial. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson made the announcement that the exemplifications of the first, second, and third degrees were being combined into one single ceremony. Furthermore, these ceremonies—which had always been private—are being opened up to the public, being aimed at including the candidates' wives and children to the ceremony as well.

This is the second major change for the Knights in less than a year. Back in summer of 2019, the Knights retired the traditional cape and plumed hat that were emblematic of the Fourth Degree and replaced them with a kind of faux U.S. military dress uniform and a headpiece more akin with military style beret. This change was announced back in 2017 and implemented last summer.

I don't personally have much of a stake in this; I am not a Knight, although I used to be one a decade ago. And I know that Knight councils can vary tremendously from parish to parish in terms of their energy, viability, and ability to attract and retain members. I personally preferred the old regalia, though a lot of Knights I talked to about it said they found the old Fourth Degree regalia a bit silly looking—like play-acting fake nobility or something. I personally don't see how "play acting fake nobility" would be any sillier than play acting fake U.S. military, which is definitely what the new regalia brings to mind. But whatever.

What I find most interesting is the rationale Supreme Knight Carl Anderson offered for the changes. When addressing the change to the new regalia in 2017, the Knights' official press release said that the choice to abandon the old regalia was based on the following factors:

  • the aging of our Fourth Degree membership
  • the slow growth of the Fourth Degree (fewer than 20 percent of Knights are Fourth Degree members, and only a fraction of that number even serve as honor guards)
  • consistent reports that the old regalia presented a barrier to Fourth Degree membership, especially among younger men

I do not understand the reference to the age of the Fourth Degree; are they saying, "The Fourth Degree members are getting old so we'd better give them something simpler to put on instead of this cape and sash and feathered hat?" Or are they saying, "Our Fourth Degree is aging rapidly; we'd better do something to attract more youths." Judging from the subsequent two points, in seems the latter is the tenor of their thinking—unless we change things up, the Fourth Degree is going to go extinct.

Let's put this consideration on the back burner for a moment to look at the explanation Carl Anderson gave for the more recent changes—the elimination of secrecy and combining of the first three exemplifications into a single ceremony.  Again, Anderson says that the changes are necessary because of concerns about declining membership. He stated that the traditional degree system was a "stumbling block to membership" and that secrecy of the ceremonial was "an impediment to joining."

Anderson cited a lack of manpower in local councils to perform degree ceremonies. Some candidates give up, and some never seek second and third degrees.“Last year," he said, "little more than half of the men who took their First Degree also took their Third Degree,” he said, adding that the number of third degree teams is expected to decline in the near future.

Anderson's statements and the press releases on why these sorts of changes are happening has made me think the Knights are essentially in the same crisis mode as the Church at large—and equally clueless about the real problems they need to be addressing.

First, it's okay for men to have men-only meetings that do not include their wives and children. Family life is great and wonderful, but it's definitely acceptable and praiseworthy for men to have male-only gatherings. If we really believe there is a crisis of masculinity in the world and Church (which the Knights most recent promotional video seems to affirm), then encourage occasional male only gatherings. It''s perfectly fine and laudable to have male-only degree ceremonies, etc. that family cannot attend.

Second, the notion that most Knights do not go on to their advanced degrees because their families can't attend with them is vacuous. Fact of the matter is, people make time for things they care about. If something is important to somebody, they find a way to make it work. And most councils bend over backwards to schedule events on days and times most amenable to their members. What Carl Anderson doesn't seem to get is that when a prospective or current Knights says "I would like to attend, but the meetings just aren't at convenient times" what he is usually saying is "This event is not important enough to me to justify taking time away from family, work, hobbies, etc." What he is really saying is "This organization's work and events do not provide enough value to incentivize me to sacrifice on its behalf."

Now, one could hold this thinking up as an example of the "selfishness" of the current generation I suppose—how people are unwilling to "make sacrifices" and put themselves out there for works of charity or fraternal bonds. But I think that would be too simplistic. It's not so much an issue of people being too self-oriented to want to participate; the elephant in the room that is not being addressed is that Knights of Columbus meetings often offer very little to engage their members. Much of this depends on how they are managed, of course, but they can often feel very much like a meeting of your local Planning Commission rather than a band of Catholic men heroically coming together to serve Christ. They can be marked by excessive a profusely dreary tedium. There is often a serious case of buyer's remorse: one signs up for the Knights out of noble motives and the sort of ideals encapsulated in the "Into the Breach" video, and then the reality of KofC meetings is sitting around a table with a bunch of spreadsheets listening to some Boomers quibble for 45 minutes on how to allocate the $27.68 the council netted from its last pancake breakfast. And as you sit there listening to the back and forth, you start to think if attaching yourself to this organization is really the highest and best use of your time.

I should mention, the latest KofC promotional ad is another example of of what I have called "man pandering"
—a sort of Tim Allen-esque form of marketing that is meant to appeal to men based on American masculine stereotypes. Working with power tools and sparks shooting everywhere? HELLS YEAH. First responders? HELLS YEAH. Military motifs?  FIST BUMP, BRUH! It's an approach that, while certainly better than the contemporary tendency to feminize everything, still evidences a basic ignorance of the best way to approach Catholic men. "You men like tools and stuff, right? Well here's some power tools. You like guns, don't you? Here's some soldiery stuff." It's like the masculine equivalent of just handing girls princess paraphernalia and pink clothes just because they are girls.

But I digress.

I was one of those First Degree knights who never went on to take the additional degrees. It was not because I couldn't make it to meetings; I could if I really had wanted to. It was not because I didn't want to wear the traditional Fourth Degree regalia—that is probably one of the coolest things about the Knights. It was not because I "couldn't get time" away from my family. It was merely this: I found my experience at the First Degree so unfulfilling that I didn't want to ascend to degrees that would only create more obligations to an organization whose involvement I found unsatisfying at even the lowest levels. I understand my experience is my experience alone, but I have talked to enough current and former Knights who reported similar sentiment that I am sure this is not an uncommon thing.

Essentially, the Knights are like that awkward, mildly annoying acquaintance who says, "Heyyyy want to come hang out Saturday?" And you really don't want to be around this person, but you also don't want to hurt their feelings, so you tell them, "I'm sorry I can't; I am cleaning my garage that day." Maybe you are cleaning your garage, maybe you aren't; but the point is its an excuse to get out of an engagement you really don't want to make. But your awkward and importuning friend can't pick up on your social cues, so when you say you have to clean your garage, he takes it at face value and says, "Oh! How about I come help you clean your garage, and then you will have time to hang out with me?" which of course puts you in a very awkward and uncomfortable spot.

Of course, you are still not going to want to go hang out with this person even if you didn't spend the day cleaning your garage, and more people are not going to join the Knights because the degree ceremonies become public or the regalia changes or the degrees are combined. The fundamental reason membership in the Knights is declining is because men don't see value in belonging to the organization. If they did, they would join. The Knights need a fundamental overhaul, not in how they dress or their ceremonial, but in what they are and what they offer to Catholic men. And Uncle Carl's mentality of "We need to abandon our traditional look because this new things is what the kids are in to" is only indicative of how out of touch the KofC leadership is. Anytime some Boomer is justifying some novelty because "this is what the youths want", run the other way. But, Boomers gonna boom I guess.

But really the problems in the KofC are just a microcosm of the situation in the Novus Ordo world; the new paradigm doesn't work, so we introduce more novelty, the new revolution leads to further disappointment, and then we stand on the ashes of our failure and proclaim victory with promises of an ethereal renewal that's always just around the corner. We've faced challenges in the past and been through hard times and had our hopes frustrated before, but THIS time our programs will work; THIS time we'll finally come into the long awaited spring; THIS time our charge over the top will be successful. The solution to the problems of novelty is always more novelty.

16 comments:

Murray said...

...they can often feel very much like a meeting of your local Planning Commission rather than a band of Catholic men heroically coming together to serve Christ. They can be marked by excessive a profusely dreary tedium. There is often a serious case of buyer's remorse: one signs up for the Knights out of noble motives and the sort of ideals encapsulated in the "Into the Breach" video, and then the reality of KofC meetings is sitting around a table with a bunch of spreadsheets listening to some Boomers quibble for 45 minutes on how to allocate the $27.68 the council netted from its last pancake breakfast.

Man, does this resonate with me. I cannot imagine any better way to put this. I entered the Church in 2010 and joined the Knights shortly after that. Of necessity, their meetings were held in a cramped and stuffy room above an elementary school gym. The exemplifications were held in the windowless gym itself, which entirely stripped the ceremonies of whatever mystique they were going for.

Not of necessity were the dreary, tedious meetings held in the stuffy room, where Boomers and Silents took great care to observe Robert's Rules of Order for over 2 hours. I'm early GenX, but there is far more psychic distance between those gentlemen and me than between me and your average 30 year-old. After the meeting, there was cardboard pizza and canned pop, but all I wanted to do was get home to my family.

I understand the need to take care of administrative items through a formal process, but it really seemed like that was the whole of it. I didn't expect wing-backed leather chairs and fine cigars, but I was hoping for camaraderie and a sense of mission, and there seemed to be none of it. Yes I know, I should have gotten involved and tried to change things, but at the time I had several other extracurricular activities (parish council, school governing council) and I just didn't have the energy for the slog it would have involved.

What really finished the whole thing off for me was the Third Degree exemplification--held, of course, in the windowless gym on plastic stacking chairs. I'm sworn to secrecy, of course, but I believe I can say that at the time, the whole hours-long Saturday afternoon ceremony hinged on a playacted deception, a deception that became transparently obvious early on, to the point where it was openly insulting to the intelligence. (I'm given to understand they've since changed it.) I was so disgusted by the whole thing that I tried to leave before receiving my Third Degree, and was only restrained by my godfather and a dear friend who's since passed on.

So in the end, I am a lapsed Third Degree knight (with KoC life insurance), but I don't think I attended more than one or two meetings after that.

Woodlawn said...

I am a Third Degree member of the Knights of Columbus, and have been a member for over 30 years.

You made some very good points in your post, the most important of which is "the problems in the KofC are just a microcosm of the situation in the Novus Ordo world." This is true and must be remembered at all times when discussing the Knights.

There was one major inaccuracy. Membership in the KofC has been steadily growing, so unlike almost every other fraternal organization, and the NO church at large, the KofC must have been doing something right these past 50 years. That's what makes these recent changes so baffling to many current members.

Since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, members of my council have used the KofC to promote the Traditional Latin Mass, and we have been sponsoring TLMs at an otherwise Novus Ordo parish, and exposing the faithful to the riches of the traditional liturgy and practices.

There is also a group, the Traditional Knights Latin Mass Network (they have a website), that brings traditional Knights and councils together. Several years ago a group of these traditional councils worked together to bring the retired bishop of Madeira to the USA for a series of Pontifical TLMs & conferences to spread devotion to Bl. Karl of Austria.

So, like every other facet of the NO church, traditionalists have a choice, walk away and abandon the field, or reclaim the organization, or parts of it, to promote and restore tradition. Rather like your post(s) awhile back regarding bringing tradition to a NO parish. In our case, we did that through the local KofC council.

Anonymous said...

I find absolutely nothing in the Knights that would make me want to join them (I’m 36). They work bingos, have a steak supper 2x per year, and by and large allow our local N.O. parish to be controlled by the Susans of the Parish Council. To this last point, it’s almost as though feminism’s influence is what is destroying the Knights.

Dan Millette

Boniface said...

@Woodlawn my statement about declining membership came from comments that Carl Anderson himself made in one of these interviews.

MuchTall said...


I think this article well defines the problem. I'm a first-degree Knight myself and haven't had much motivation to go back to meetings or do much in terms of volunteering since my first meeting and couple of pancake breakfasts. Yet, I still pay my dues year after year and have KofC insurance. I think another problem that may be unseen by outsiders is the fractured nature of the mission from within the individual councils. At that only meeting that I'd been to, a couple of boomers were having an argument over the merits of Obamacare. It signaled a fractured sense of Charity even within a group of men that should have all been moving forward in the same direction, with like mission. We need to get back to the roots of the Knights of Columbus. This organization was formed to combat the modernist views of the Masons. Modernism is alive and well today as it ever was back then. How should we combat this? With a return to defending our roots and traditions!

And this I think is at the crux of it: Fraternal bonds are secured by a common mission. Perhaps there are councils out there that seek to, for example, revive the traditional mass within their parish. Perhaps they want to take back masculinity within their own parish by reforming altar server programs for boys. Or perhaps eliminate all the old gray ladies in pants suits acting as extraordinary ministers pie filling that role themselves. Or better yet, get the ear of the parish priest and eliminate those "extraordinary" ministers, and build an altar rail together as a council.

I think in many parishes these goals end up being met by other grassroots Fraternal organizations that are created within each parish to fill the vacuum. Unfortunately nowadays, KofC just simply isn't seen as doing much else than selling Tootsie Rolls for Down's Syndrome. Men need mission greater than that that is closely tied to their faith.

Murray said...

I should follow up by saying that I've been somewhat uncharitable to the Knights. They do still do a lot of good. When one of our members' wives was hospitalized with a fatal, fast-acting form of breast cancer, the Knights organized for dinner to be brought to the family home every night until she passed away. And they do perform many charitable acts, supporting Forty Days For Life among others.

And the last time they called me to encourage me to rejoin, the representative almost swayed me by reminding me that the Knights pray corporately for their deceased members. And I will certainly need prayers after I die. But at this points, I believe I'd have to pay several years' worth of arrears to renew my membership, and that's just not on the table right now.

None of this is meant to detract from the main point, which is that in order to motivate men to sacrifice their time for good causes, you have to offer something more than silly ceremonies, grinding meetings, and indifferent fast food. You have to offer camaraderie and a sense of true brotherhood, and it's here in particular that many councils fail.

LatinMassKnights said...

This is an excellent piece and a great analogy comparing the Knights crisis to that of the Church. If the Knights are to be saved, it won't come from convincing leadership, but from the small, quiet traditional Knights movement in today's Order. There are currently at least 15-20 Traditional Latin Mass only councils who are trying to preserve tradition in small ways (some more than others). There are also hundreds more traditional Knights that populate N.O. councils who are looking for a way to promote tradition and the Mass of ages in their council's activities. I don't know if this is enough to impact things, but it small sliver of hope.

Boniface said...

Someone named FC left a comment that I accidentally rejected (mea culpa) but here's what it said:

"There is conflicting info as to whether the K of C are in decline or not, but many fraternities just don't appeal to non-retired men anymore. I think the Masons in America are about 1/3rd of what they were 100 years ago (despite the population almost tripling). Also, attempts to water things down tend to exacerbate the problem - even though they may bring in more members initially, most of those new members don't stay very long. The same could be said about churches. Some of the Protestant Churches that have the 'exciting' services, bands and lots of programs get new people all the time, but they also have a high turnover rate.
It seems the only options are death by gimmicks or death by boredom."

Titus said...

This is a pretty good piece: certainly the change-everything flailing you have seen in Anderson's administration is indicative of the problems in the Church as a whole. Nobody understands what's really happening, and so they can't do anything that actually helps.

A point about the degrees, though: one of the reasons the Second and especially Third Degrees were so hard to take is that you had to have minutely trained (and fairly skilled) members to put them on. And you generally had to get a degree team from another council; most parts of the country might only have one or two teams, made up of six or seven people, whose schedules had to be coordinated to hold a ceremony anywhere across what might be a pretty big area. So there were practical logistical concerns created by the ceremonial.

Now, I will differ with Murray on my impression of the traditional third degree as a whole: it had to be done well---and if done poorly probably descended quickly into camp---but I think the ceremony was capable of hitting the right key if done properly. There were a few points that could have used updating to account for the existence of modern technology, to be sure. And my understanding is that the ceremony, as originally conceived, involved some physical rigors that were not commonly employed toward the end of the ceremony's life. The current reform seems aimed at a sort of anodyne, almost androgynous vision of manhood that strips out everything that made the old ceremony distinctive. For what it's worth, I think that was true of the intervening "reformed" third degree as well: it was apparently a didactic exercise focused on a particular element of the Faith, rather than a common experience or ordeal for those participating.

Anderson has long struck me as all hat and no cattle where it counts. He seems to be a fine administrator, but as Boniface posits, he appears to be just a garden-variety Catholic bureaucrat where vision is concerned.

Unknown said...

Those uniforms are hardly traditional. The oldest picture I've found of them is from the late 1950's. In earlier pictures, they are wearing normal formal wear (black tie?) with top hats, sometimes with a sword on a white diagonal belt.

This ironically makes the uniforms an earlier attempt at modernization.

Boniface said...

Well, when you're talking about a group that was only founded in 1882, then yeah, a uniform dating back 70 years is pretty traditional

Boniface said...

@Unknown,

But the point really isn't "Oh this old regalia is great because its tradition and how dare they change it", it's more about the "Let's throw everything at the wall and see if something sticks" mentality that Uncle Carl is evidencing within the KofC upper echelons.

Murray said...

So we've all identified the problems. What are some possible solutions?

Is it that the Knights' current go-to activities belong to the tastes and inclinations of an older generation? What would appeal to younger men in the 25-55 age bracket? What would foster brotherhood to the point where you wouldn't actively resent the prospect of leaving your family for an evening to attend a meeting?

In my case, I can think of a few, all physically arduous and/or painful, and unfortunately not to the tastes of most older guys. Men-only hikes, car repair assistance, weightlifting buddies, or even (a guy can dream) boxing lessons. I'd be much more inclined to spend time soliciting donations in a shopping mall, or behind a hot buffet counter, if the guy next to me had rung my bell a couple of times or helped me hit a squat PR, rather than just someone I rubbed shoulders with in my haste to leave a two-hour meeting.

Any better ideas?



Charlie said...

The Knights of Columbus is an insurance company masquerading as a Catholic fraternal order. Anderson needs some young meat to keep the insurance company going because having too many geezers wrecks those actuarial tables. The goal is to turn the KofC into Woodmen of the World. The final nail in the coffin will be when they allow Protestants to become Knights.

Boniface said...

@Murray

I thought it would be cool if the Knights organized some shooting events. Like having Knights collectively get their CPLs, go to the range, take some training for what to do in case of a mass shooter in church, that sort of stuff would be badass.

Sirgawain said...

I'm a former field agent. I have been to both growing and declining councils, and tried selling insurance to those I thought needed it. The main issue I encountered is that KofC field agents do not like council meetings, and view it as a waste of time (my agency of 9 field and 1 GA). None of the field agents encouraged young men to step up and change the council, and most complained about KofC halls and how it doesn't help them sell (medicore) Life, disability, and long term care insurance. When I went to meetings, the ones growing offered companionship for boomers (I was 95% of the time the youngest man there), or had a private hall where members would fraternized. My 2 GAs complained about halls with regular members, since no one would buy insurance (single men often don't need it). The councils who were declining often had solid Men's groups that fulfilled the fraternizing part and helped members grow spiritually, offering many chances to read spiritual books, pray, socialize, and volunteer together, whereas all the knights offered were a chance to sell candy, recruit members, serve pancakes, raise money for a childrens home, or buy life insurance.

As a older 20 year old, I didn't want to be involved at meetings, since nothing really got done, and felt like a waste of time. As a field agent I wanted to push change, but was met with resistance. Same as my college council, but I got to hang out with friends who attended, and helped our college church. But honestly, we didnt need to be in the knights, since nothing we did really impacted our parish.

I expect K of C either to end with the boomers (average age of life insurance members was 57), or, as my GA hinted, opened up for Women to join an Auxiliary version of the Knights so that the field agents can sell insurance to them (the main reason Fr. McGiveny founded the knights, since too many of the Irish were dying and their families were becoming destitute or becoming protestant, as I was told by Supreme at my training there, and my coworkers + GA). I don't think KofC needs to exist anymore, if the Men's groups take their place. Easier to grow organically, and a lot more flexible in accomplishing tasks for their local parish.