American Knights of Columbus
Wlodzimierz Redzioch discusses with Carl A. Anderson
The last presidential campaign in the United States, which was held towards the end of last year, was an occasion for a wide national discussion on America's role in the contemporary world, its identity and the values of its citizens. It was a clash of two visions of the United States represented by the two candidates: George W. Bush and John F. Kerry.
In order to understand what was happening during the last months in the United States, Wlodzimierz Redzioch, Roman correspondent of 'Niedziela', interviewed several outstanding American personalities. The interviews were published in 'Niedziela', issues 52/2004 and 1/2005. At present we are publishing the interview with Carl A. Anderson.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, the biggest organization of Catholic laymen in the world.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: - How did the Order of Knights of Columbus come into being?
Carl A. Anderson: - The Order was founded by an American priest, Fr. Michael J. McGivney, in 1882. He envisioned an organization of Catholic men that would draw these men - many of whom were recent immigrants - closer to the Church, provide for the widows and orphans of men who died at an early age, and instill in its members the virtues of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. It quickly grew from just a few dozen men in the Northeastern United States to thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of members in every state, and then into Canada, Mexico, the Philippines and other smaller countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. True to Fr. McGivney's vision, our councils are the backbone of parish life at thousands of local churches throughout North America and the Philippines. The cause for sainthood of this remarkable and holy priest is now under consideration at the Vatican.
- What is the reality of your Order now?
- We are larger and stronger that we have ever been. Today, we have nearly 1.7 million members, and last year we donated more than $131 million to charity and devoted more than 60 million hours to volunteer service. This year, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Order in both Mexico and the Philippines, and look forward to a significant expansion of the Knights of Columbus in Latin America in the years to come.
- You have been recently in Poland. What was the purpose of your visit in the Pope's native country?
- Our Board of Directors meeting in Poland in October gave us an opportunity to conclude a special year of devotion to the Divine Mercy and to honor the Holy Father's 25th year as pope in a very personal way. We visited the Shrine of the Divine Mercy on the feast day of St. Faustina, and combined our meeting in Krakow with pilgrimages to such important Catholic sites as Wawel Cathedral, Jasna Gora and Our Lady of Czestochowa, and the Pope's birthplace in Wadowice. We also visited the death camp at Auschwitz, as well as the nearby Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, which is an especially important project for Cardinal Macharski, and which we have been privileged to support financially. The trip was a deeply moving experience for all of us, and everyone was impressed by the devotion, piety and warmth of the people of Poland.
- Let's change the topic. In the history of the USA only one president was a Catholic, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. JFK in his famous speech to Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960 said: "I'm not taking orders from the Vatican". Twenty years ago another Catholic politician, then New York Governor Mario Cuomo and presidential pretendent, delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame arguing that "approval or rejection of legal restrictions on abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty". Is it true that a Catholic could be the president of the USA only if he is a "liberal Catholic", not very faithful to the Roman Catholic Church? What influence had the legacy of Kennedy-Cuomo to the attitudes of John Kerry?
- The abortion issue turned out to be a pivotal one in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, and exit polls showed clearly that it was the decisive issue in several key states that Senator Kerry lost, including Ohio and Florida. The election results showed clearly that a Catholic candidate who publicly disagrees with the Church's position on such a fundamental moral and ethical issue cannot automatically count on the support of American Catholics, 53 percent of whom voted for President Bush this time. Senator Kerry's 47 percent of the Catholic vote represents a dramatic drop from the 78% won by John Kennedy 44 years ago, and says something very important about today's American Catholics: they care much less about the particular church that a candidate attends than they are with the positions that candidate takes on issues of importance to Catholics. And abortion is the most important issue of all. In the weeks since the election, a number of Democratic Party strategists have publicly conceded that their absolutist position favoring unrestricted abortion is a serious problem for them. Many American Catholics, including many Knights, have traditionally identified with the Democratic Party. And they've felt increasingly unwelcome in the party because of its position on abortion. One thing is certain: we will never be able to curtail abortion in the U.S. unless significant numbers of members of both parties are pro-life.
- The Catholics in the USA are 23% of the population and obviously 23% of voters. How did they vote in the last presidential elections and why?
- The results varied by state and depended a lot on which office was involved. It's hard to generalize about the Catholic vote except for the presidential election results I mentioned earlier. It is notable, however, that two pro-life Catholics won key races for the U.S. Senate and Catholic votes helped elect five others who are not Catholic, but strongly pro-life, including the candidate who defeated Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, and a Catholic who favoured abortion rights.
- Traditionally the Catholics vote Democrats party because of their "sensibility" to the social problems. I have heard recently one of the Democrat politicians, Ray Flynn, the former mayor of Boston, ex-Ambassador to the Holy See. According to Flynn in the Democratic party there is no place for pro-life, faithful Catholics. Do you agree that the Democratic party has betrayed Catholics?
- Ambassador Flynn was kind enough to contribute an article on that subject for our Columbia magazine, and as I mentioned earlier, there's no doubt that many Catholic Democrats are deeply dissatisfied with their party's position on abortion. I hope this year's election experience will prompt them to change that position.
- The majority of Catholics voted Bush like protestants and evangelicals, traditionally anti-Catholic and anti-Pope. Do you think that this common "moral vote" can facilitate ecumenical dialogue and the elimination of the anti-Catholic prejudice?
- Fortunately, anti-Catholic prejudice has declined dramatically among American protestants, and ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and members of other Christian churches, especially evangelical Protestants, has improved just as dramatically. We make common cause across a whole range of issues, ranging from abortion to same-sex marriage and the appropriate place for religion in the public square. We have come to appreciate how much we share, and the need for us to work together to confront the secularization of American society.
- You have invited the president Bush to your convention. What do you think about Bush's presidency and policy?
- We invited President Bush to speak at our convention in 2004 because we always invite the heads of state of the countries where we have members to send a message, and Mr. Bush chose to present his message in person this time. We were honored to have him appear, and our members particularly appreciate his actions to curtail U.S. government funding for abortions and for embryonic stem cell research, as well as his strong stand in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment. At our convention, he reiterated his support for a "culture of life," and he's done a great many things as president to put that into action.
- How do you see the leftist, liberal and anticlerical European Union from the other side of the ocean?
- The spread of radical secularism in Europe is very troubling, and the growing marginalization of religious practice in many places there is truly alarming. For the time being, at least, we're in much better shape on this side of the Atlantic. But the EU experience is a warning to us, and a clarion call to faithful Catholics throughout Europe. In America, we Knights of Columbus proudly and publicly proclaim our Catholic faith, and leave no doubt that faith and loyal citizenship are not merely compatible, but interdependent. Polish Catholics - without doubt among the most devoted and faithful Catholics in Europe - are in a position to help lead the defense of the faith in what may be the most momentous battle since the Siege of Vienna in 1683. This time, of course, the threat comes from within, and the enemy is lethargy and indifference. It can be fought only with the fire of the Holy Spirit.