THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: The Knights of Columbus, of which I am a 4th degree member, is a fraternal Catholic order with a membership of some 1.7 million men. It is designed primarily to serve the Catholic Church, and secondarily the men who are members, by providing a means and conduit through which they may help each other, their families, the Church and third-party charities. The Knights of Columbus also provides life insurance policies to it's members and uses the proceeds to benefit the Catholic Church in various ways.
The Knights of Columbus was founded by The Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney in New Haven, Connecticut on August 2, 1881. His primary motivation was to organize a mutual benefit society to assist widows and orphans of families who had lost their primary bread winner. Life in the late 1800s was extremely harsh for Catholic immigrant families in the United States. During that time discrimination made it difficult for a Catholic man to get a good job. Catholics were regularly excluded from labor unions. Local charities and benefit organizations also frequently excluded Catholics. Catholics were also disenfranchised politically, as it was nearly impossible to get a Catholic elected to government office. Most Catholic men were forced to work in coal mines, sweat shops and ship yards, where they were subjected to harsh labor, poor working conditions, and less then minimum wage. As a result, many Catholic husbands and fathers lived short lives. The one organization well established in America, which could potentially help them, was Freemasonry. Unfortunately, Freemasonry had a strong religious/occult element that challenged the Catholic Church's claim of absolute truth revealed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because of this, Freemasonry was soundly condemned by the Catholic Church. In addition to that, the Church also had significant political problems with Freemasonry in Europe.
These things prohibited Catholic men from joining the Freemasons under penalty of excommunication. In the late 1800s, this put many Catholic men in the terrible situation of having to choose between the Church and the welfare of their families. The Venerable Father McGivney sought to create a Catholic men's organization that would allow men to pool their resources, talents and energies for the common good and for the sake of their families, but he sought to do so without the religious/occult element that earned Freemasonry the scorn of the Catholic Church.
So the Knights of Columbus was formed under the ancient precepts of medieval chivalry, paralleling in some ways the degree programs used by the Freemasons, but without the unchristian oaths and occult rituals. The Vatican prohibition against Freemasonry remains today, and the reasons for this are fully explained by Catholic apologist John Salza (learn more here). According to the New Code of Canon Law (1983), this prohibition remains in effect under penalty of interdict.
The Venerable Father McGivney initially authored three degrees though which the Knights of Columbus would receive their initiation into the order.
Now if you looking to know the secrets of the degree rites, you won't find them here. 'The Catholic Knight' has taken a pledge not to reveal them on my honor. However, I should point out here that what I have taken is a pledge, not an oath, and there is a significant difference. A pledge is a promise. That is all. It is based on one's honor. Nothing is sworn, and there are no penalties if the pledge is broken. All that is lost is the honor of the man who broke the pledge, simple because he did not keep his promise. When I took my degree rites, I pledged not to tell what goes on there based entirely on my honor as a practicing Catholic man. No threats were made, and no penalties were warned. If I tell the secrets, nobody is going to slit my throat or cut my heart out. Nobody is going to kill me or harm me. Nobody is going to seek retribution against my family or business. I'll still be able to get a good job. I'll still be able to do business. I might even still be allowed to keep my membership in the Knights of Columbus. However, I will have lost my honor. I made a promise, and I would not have keep it. That prospect alone, is enough to keep me quiet. For I wish to be an honorable man. That's why you won't find the degree rite secrets here.
In addition to that, these pledges are made with the explicit exception to religious or civil duty. So for example, if my priest or bishop needed to know something about my knowledge of the degree rites, I could reveal that to them even if they were not members of the Knights of Columbus, without breaking my pledge. Furthermore, if an officer of the law, judge or courtroom attorney needed to know my knowledge of the degree rites, again, I could reveal that information without breaking my pledge. That's because these exceptions of civil and religious duty are explicitly written into the pledges. I could take it a step further, and some of my brother knights may take issue with this, but so be it. If my wife, whom I am sacramentally bound to in matrimony, for some reason needed to know my knowledge of the degree rites, again citing religious duty to honor this holy sacrament of matrimony, I could reveal that information without breaking my pledge.
When I took my pledges, I did not swear on anything. I did not call curses upon myself. I did not use the Lord's name in vain. I simply made a promise. That is a pledge. Unlike an oath, which frequently involves swearing, calling down curses upon one's self if the oath is broken, and often invokes the name of someone holy (like God for example) to bind one to the oath. Freemason's do take oaths, and that is very much a part of their degree rites. In contrast, Knights of Columbus do not take oaths. It is not part of our degree rites. And this is because the Scriptures are very clear...
"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." - Exodus 20:7Now as for the degree rites themselves, this is what I can tell you without breaking my pledge...
"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." - Matthew 5:33-37
"But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation." - James 5:12
- They are based on (1st degree) Charity, (2nd degree) Unity and (3rd degree) Fraternity. There is of course the optional 4th degree of Patriotism which was developed later. But these first three degree rites were crafted by The Venerable Father McGivney himself.
- Everything taught in these rites is 100% Biblical. There is no occult or "secret knowledge" conveyed in the Knights of Columbus. You could just as easily find the lessons of these degree rites in a Sunday homily or Scripture reading.
- Lessons are best remembered when emotion is attached to them. For example, when you get a good scare, you are far more likely to remember the lesson associated with it. A similar thing could be said for positive emotions as well, such as relief and joy.
- The degree rites are specifically designed to evoke emotion on the part of the candidate who is taking the rite.
- Because the degree rites are designed with the intent of evoking emotion, they MUST be kept secret, so as not to spoil the surprise for the candidate. The candidate must be unaware of what will happen, lest it spoil the intended emotional response, and the lesson of the degree rite be lost to mundane procedure, failing to leave an indelible mark on the candidates heart and mind.
- There is no ritual hazing in the Knights of Columbus, and nothing is ever done that would undermine the dignity of a Catholic man.
- Degree candidates are not ever asked to divulge deep dark secrets about themselves, nor say anything that would compromise their integrity, nor put themselves into a compromised position.
- Alcohol is never used, and is not permitted, during degree rites.
- Knights and candidates are exhorted to be good Catholic Christians, and to show no partiality between members and non-members. As Catholic Christians, knights do not look down upon non-members, nor are they permitted to consider themselves "better Catholics" simply because they are knights.
- Priests are permitted to audit and observe degree rites, nothing within the order is kept secret from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This is one reason why the Church has historically supported the Knights of Columbus and is currently considering the order's founder, The Venerable Father Michael McGivney, for canonization as a Saint.
- While the Knights of Columbus offers quality life insurance to it's members, at a reasonable price, no member is required to buy it. Nor is any member "pressured" to buy it. The insurance plans are simply offered as a benefit.
- Membership in the Knights of Columbus has many other benefits besides life insurance.
If your a Catholic man who would like to learn more about the Knights of Columbus contact your local chapter. Personally, I would encourage getting involved in a knights council that is directly attached to a particular parish. This helps coordinate parish and knight activities in such a way that they become mutually beneficial.
* 'The Catholic Knight' blog does not speak for the Knights of Columbus organization, nor do the 'Knights of Columbus' necessarily approve the contents of this blog. 'The Catholic Knight' makes this blog entry merely as a testimony of my own personal experience.