LegalWorks Apostolate - Counsel for a Culture of Life

May local councils of the Knights of Columbus expel pro-abortion members?

By Stu Nolan

Reportedly, the Knights of Columbus' lead attorney, known as the Supreme Advocate, believes local councils may not expel public figures who are members and who promote abortion with their public acts. I understand that Catholic News Agency broke this story, which you may read here. You may view some not unexpectedly sharp commentary on the topic here.

As a fourth degree Knight and a Past Grand Knight, I recognize the Knights as a tremendous force for good. I am therefore searching for a more charitable interpretation. First, it would seem possible the Supreme Advocate is directing local councils to refrain from taking action that the national leadership may yet take itself. Second, being a Knight does not make one immune from sin, so the Knights ought to be rightly hesitant to cast stones.

That said, I find it difficult to equate the reluctance of individual American Bishops to take so drastic an action as excommunication with determining whether an individual is no longer eligible to be a member of the world's largest Catholic fraternal organization. There are some Bishops who have refused to deny Holy Communion to a public figure whose continued and public promotion of abortion scandalizes the faith and the faithful. On the other hand, there are many Bishops who have refrained from taking a step so drastic as deny Holy Communion to a public figure whose advocacy for unrestricted abortion is scandalizing the faith. Eligibility for membership in the Knights should not be so difficult to discern.

Put another way, a denial of access to the sacraments is much more serious than a recognition that a public figure's public stance contradicts the teachings of the Church and therefore disqualifies the public figure from membership in a fraternal organization premised on communion with Rome.

The Knights have historically required that members be "practical" Catholics, which has been somewhat hazily defined and which most often appears to be applied with great deference to the council's Chaplain, a member of the clergy. Even so, it is generally believed that someone "living in sin" -- most often because they are divorced and remarried without an annulment -- is not eligible to be a Knight, regardless whether the individual is a public figure. Moreover, membership in the Masons is normally considered grounds for excluding a prospective member Knight. It is difficult to understand how such individuals would not be practical Catholics while someone elected to high public office and who is an outspoken advocate for unrestricted abortion might remain a practical Catholic.

Not to get too far afield, but this is not the only way in which councils have hungered for more concrete guidance from their national leadership as to the threshold responsibilities and outer limits of Knights' duties to act in accordance with the Church teaching on abortion. Supreme has been remarkably slow to clarify for local councils the extent to which they and their members can participate in politics without crossing the line into partisanship. Among and across councils, there exists tremendous misunderstanding and inconsistency of perception such that Knights often believe -- erroneously -- that they may not identify and distinguish a candidate favoring unrestricted abortion from a candidate favoring protection of the unborn. In fact, Knights are obligated to make these distinctions and to educate their members and fellow voters in their communities about these distinctions. But I digress . . .

At any rate, the notion of scandalizing the faith and the faithful is important here. The Knights rightly should not want to throw out everyone out who has ever participated in the Culture of Death. The Bishops would not want to exclude from the sacraments everyone who has ever voted for a pro-abortion elected official. But a public figure's public and continuing promotion of unrestricted abortion invites scandal. Likewise, a public figure's scandalous actions risk making a mockery of the membership requirement of the Knights.

I await with great eagerness clarification of this issue by the national leadership of the Knights of Columbus. What we are hearing raises many more questions than it answers.

*** Update ***
The Knights of Columbus national leadership released the following statement. Hopefully, it is not their last word on the subject. More can be said about the valid, good faith concerns of Brother Knights who believe that the membership qualifications must be meaningful. And the suggestion in the last paragraph of Supreme's statement, i.e., that Brother Knights with such concerns are essentially interested in pursuing witch hunts, is out of line. The current leadership has a lot to be proud about in its pro-life record, but that record does not make a a council's decision as to whether a member is a Practical Catholic one and the same with a Bishop's decision whether to public declare excommunication. Greater clarification of this point is absolutely essential if Supreme is to avoid a black mark on its otherwise laudable pro-life record.

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