TORONTO (CCN) — From awarding its brightest prize to the Little Sisters of the Poor to lining up Iraqi and Syrian bishops for the media, the Knights of Columbus made it abundantly clear that religious liberty was not far from the minds of the 2,000 members in Toronto for the 134th Supreme Convention Aug. 2 to 4.
It has been the Knights’ great, unifying theme over recent years.
The Knights didn’t stumble on religious liberty as a recent issue. The world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization was founded out of a struggle for religious freedom when 19th-century America was treating Catholic immigrants as a threat to America’s way of life.
In 1882 Knights founder Rev. Michael McGivney was taking on not just a comfortable Protestant establishment in New England but also a virulent strain of populist, nativist politics which coddled and legitimized criminal, racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. The first time the Knights took a fight to the Supreme Court of the United States it was to challenge a 1922 Klan-inspired law in Oregon that tried to outlaw Catholic education. The Knights beat the Klan and the decision established a legal principle that “the child is not the mere creature of the state.”
“So this goes way back,” Andrew T. Walther, Knights vice-president for communications and strategic planning, told The Catholic Register. “I could tell you almost a story a decade.”
In this decade the stories have been the fight against the contraceptive mandate of the the Affordable Health Care For America Act and the fate of Christians in the Middle East. Both issues were front and centre in Toronto.
For three years the Knights funded and accompanied the Little Sisters of the Poor as they fought against a regulation which would have required them to buy health insurance for their employees which covers artificial birth control, sterilization and abortion. Even if Catholics in the United States today are no longer the suffering, impoverished Irish immigrants of the 19th century, it matters when Catholic religious rights are cast aside, Walther said.
“People like the Little Sisters of the Poor are certainly victims of that polite persecution,” he said. “Catholics are socio-economically well off and so on, but certain beliefs that Catholics have — which in some cases are in the minority — those are not appreciated. And increasingly not tolerated.”
Without the right to buy insurance that complies with Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception, the Little Sisters would have a choice between paying confiscatory fines, abandoning their work and the 27 homes for indigent elderly they have established or abandoning their religious convictions.
“We would never have chosen to be the public face of resistance to the HHS mandate,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire as she accepted the Knights’ Gaudium et Spes award, capping a triumph at the Supreme Court in May.
For Maguire it was a fight for the right to continue serving poor people at the end of their lives. It was a fight to protect the religious rights of all Americans, and the very idea that rights are not malleable material we feed into the meat grinder of politics, Walther said.
When the Islamic State rode into Mosul, Iraq, and gave Christians there a choice between paying a fine for being Christian, leaving the region or death, that also got the Knights’ attention. It’s all the same issue as far as Walther is concerned.
“We have a very, very strong focus internationally in terms of protecting the rights of Christians and of religious minorities in the Middle East. We also have a very strong interest in ensuring we don’t have the erosion of the protections we have enjoyed in our own country and in other western democracies,” said Walther. “This is a central and important thing in people’s lives and it’s not something that should be chipped away at or eroded.”
So as the Little Sisters of the Poor were celebrating their victory on the front steps of the Supreme Court in May, the Knights were down the street circulating copies of their 300-page report on “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East” to members of Congress.
The report had been requested by Secretary of State John Kerry and played a key role in persuading Congress to declare Islamic State persecution of Christians a genocide.