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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Knights of Columbus Ditch Degrees and 'Secrecy' for Public Ceremony

"The BIG problem with our fraternity is our secrecy. And our rituals. Too long, too complicated.  If we speed it up, say we combine all three rituals, and do it in a single afternoon as a PUBLIC ceremony so their families could see that we're not creepy. — THAT'S what YOUNG men REALLY want!"
Some version of these very words at some point have dribbled out of the mouths of more than one Masonic leader in the U.S. or elsewhere over the last 25 years or so. Face it - that's how American Masons got One Day Classes starting in the 1980s. Minus the "let's do it in public" part. Regardless, even One Day Masons still at least get to witness our three Craft degree rituals essentially as they have been done for centuries. They are an intrinsic part of the entire initiatic experience that progresses in knowledge and responsibility by steps. 

Non-Masons have a total misunderstanding of what Masonic "secrecy" is all about and how and why it exists. Over the years, quite literally thousands of other organizations have attempted to model themselves after the Masonic template by initiating members into their various fraternities and advancing them in knowledge and understanding. The "secrecy" in "secret societies" usually has nothing to do with nefarious activity, except in the most criminal or deliberately spooky clubs.

Imagine this statement being given by a Grand Master at your Annual Communication:

The future of our Order depends upon growth, and we need a way to join that is inviting and accessible. The new combined ceremony removes the barriers of secrecy and commitment of time that inhibited many from joining our ranks. It also eliminates redundancies and presents the lessons of charity, unity and fraternity in a more clear and convincing way.
Except that it wasn't a Masonic leader. It appears in the latest issue of Knightline, an internal magazine for the Catholic fraternal order of the Knights of Columbus. After more than 130 years, the Knights have just decided to ditch their foundational three-degree initiatic system, blindfolding of candidates, and the whole "secrecy" business in favor of - you guessed it - one day classes. Or more correctly, 30 minute classes.

With a single "streamlined" half-hour ceremony replacing their three initiatic degrees. 

Held in public with families and friends. 

At least one wag online has already dubbed it "Knight Lite."

Never mind that they have had our bad example of a quarter century of Masons who have gone through one day events and uniformly stated out loud that they felt sorely cheated by the whole experience. Why am I imagining a group of 70-year olds telling a room full of 80-year olds "what young men want" without bothering to actually find out? Probably because I've seen it more than a few times with our own organization.

I've been following this story now for two weeks, and the most bewildering aspect is that, unlike every other voluntary associative fraternal organization in the U.S., the Knights of Columbus have defied the 'Bowling Alone' demographics and the generations and DOUBLED in size since 1960 to almost 2 million today. Which makes this even more inexplicable. 

The Knights of Columbus is a voluntary men's fraternal group for Catholics, and was founded in 1885 by Father Michael McGivney, a young priest serving at St. Mary Church in New Haven, Connecticut. This was during the Golden Age of Fraternalism when membership in so-called "secret societies" was in full flower and explosive expansion. Like so many other fraternal groups, the KofC patterned itself after Freemasonry's basic structure, with three principal degree ceremonies (eventually joined by a fourth degree that was optional, similar to the Knights Templar of Masonry, complete with their own patriotic drill teams featuring similar uniforms, swords, and plumed chapeaux).

One of the reasons for their formation was that so many other fraternal groups at that time would not admit Catholics as members – or the Church would not permit parishioners to join them, as with Masonry. Late 19th century America was overwhelmingly Protestant, and Catholicism was considered a religious minority that was paired with a huge influx of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigration. Distrust of Catholic foreigners waxed and waned throughout the 19th century - the anti-Catholic, nationalist 'Know Nothings' were a noisy force before the Civil War. The same sentiments would boil for another sixty years and eventually bubble over into the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan into the 1920s. In fact, the KofC's fourth degree was added in the early 1900s to specifically counteract anti-Catholic accusations and smears of their purported anti-American fealty to Rome (along with a desire to compete in parade drill teams with the Masonic Knights Templar). When Al Smith ran for President in 1928 as the first Catholic candidate for that office, all of those old "foreign agent for Rome" propaganda smears got dragged out again, and Catholics were quite right to not shrug off a few insults.

All four KofC degrees have historically been conferred in secret, with men only, and each teaches a different lesson or virtue - charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. In time, they also created an insurance benefit program (like the Woodmen of America), their own women's auxiliary, and youth groups for boys and girls. Today they have over two million members worldwide. And unlike Freemasonry, their membership since the 1960s has only INCREASED, while other older groups like ours have plunged in size. But that's a bit of a misleading figure, because their members are not participating or coming back. Yes they pay dues, but they don't participate.

Now their leadership thinks they have the solution. From a story in American Magazine circulated by the Catholic News Service:

[S]tarting this year, the Knights have adopted a new ceremony. Called the Exemplification of Charity, Unity and Fraternity, it combines the initiation for the first three degrees into a single ceremony that will be open to family, friends and fellow parishioners.

"There is nothing we do that is secret or needs to be secret," Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville. "We decided this is a way to let other parishioners know, family members know, what the Knights of Columbus is all about. We think that's a good thing."


At the Knights' Supreme Convention last summer, a resolution from the Illinois delegation calling for combining the first-, second- and third-degree ceremonies into one and removing the condition of secrecy was approved. Anderson directed a review of the ceremonies "with an eye toward staying true to our roots while at the same time presenting our principles of charity, unity and fraternity in a more clear and convincing way."

Anderson unveiled the new ceremony in November at the midyear meeting for the order's state deputies, who are the highest official in each jurisdiction. He said the ceremony "stays true to our traditions while addressing the needs of our times."

The fourth-degree ceremony will remain unchanged and will continue to be open to members only.

"Secrecy has to be understood in the context of the 19th century," Anderson said. "There was incredible bigotry against Catholics," with the anti-Catholic No [sic] Nothings in control politically in New England at the time, and the Ku Klux Klan later became a powerful political force across the country, he said. "There was some appeal to secrecy." Also at the time, the idea of progressing through the degrees as a journey toward Knighthood was popular.

But today, those features have proved to be an impediment to men joining, particularly young men, Anderson said.

The new single ceremony takes about 30 minutes, Anderson said.

By opening the ceremony to the public, "families and friends can see what we're all about and hopefully decide I or my brother or my husband should join," Anderson said.


"It's an exciting development for the Knights of Columbus," said Michael McCusker, the state deputy of Tennessee. "How many times do we go home from degrees with our hearts on fire and we had a desperate need to share it with our families, but we couldn't? To me that's akin to putting your light under a bushel."

"What I also like is it removes the struggle of getting a man to go through all three separate degrees," said McCusker, a member of Council 9317 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cordova, in suburban Memphis, Tennessee. "I like that they go, they and their families see what they're involved in, and the minute they leave, they're full members of the Knights of Columbus."

The latest issue of Knightline also contains a detailed article about this new streamlined degree conferral ceremony, along with several statements from Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, the national head of the Order:

“Just as our forefathers rallied to meet the challenges of their day, we must inspire the men of our day. We must reach out to meet these men where they are. And when we do, we must show them that they are called to be men of Charity, Unity and Fraternity. Because of this we are acting to make our Order more inviting and more accessible.”


“In recent decades, we have found it harder to bring men, especially young fathers, into the Order. When we ask them why, they tell us three ceremonies are too time-consuming and too difficult to attend. They tell us that secrecy is unnecessary.

“Many local councils lack ceremonial teams or the manpower to organize degrees. This means many candidates wait far too long to fully join our ranks. Some give up. Too many never take their Second and Third Degrees. Last year, only little more than half of the men who took their First Degree also took their Third Degree.

“Our most recent supreme convention adopted a resolution from Illinois to consider combining our current First, Second and Third Degree ceremonies into one and removing the condition of secrecy. ... We undertook an inclusive process with supreme directors, state officers and ceremonialists with many decades of experience in the exemplification of our degrees... Our new ceremony can be held in a council chamber or in the parish with families and friends seated in the pews. They will see firsthand, the organization that their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and friends are joining — the principles and values they are committing to and why it matters.”

So it's all the same justifications:  fewer qualified ritualists in the Order means fewer councils are able to confer their own degrees, and fewer active members means fewer personal mentors to welcome and instruct candidates. They have also ditched their longstanding personal petitioning and investigation requirements for new members, now permitting applicants to sign up and join conditionally entirely online without any personal contact whatsoever. That means more men sign up to carry a dues card who never even bother to show up to their own council's meetings or so much as meet with fellow members. 

Last year the Knights of Columbus threw their old chapeaux and tuxedos overboard for their
Fourth Degree drill teams in favor of a watered down blazer and beret,
under the justification that the old uniform was anachronistic
and "too expensive for young men."

All of this was the very opposite of why the KofC was formed in the first place. So the KofC has surrendered and joined society's mediocre march to more isolation and anonymity, lowered standards of behavior and conduct, and fewer expectations of personal growth and achievement.

One wonders what the KofC's Father Michael McGivney would think about all of this today.

On a related note, I'm currently reading Yuval Levin's book, A Time To Build, in which he discusses the former vital importance of trust in institutions and the critical roles they played in the U.S. until the last fifty years. Institutions like the Freemasons and the Knights of Columbus used to be formative, arguably even transformative. That is to say, participation in such institutions used to mold our character and personality, expect and erect standards of behavior and morality, and enforce their own systems of collective ethics on their members. In short, making good men better ones. In that way, American society developed a collective, inborn level of standards and fairness that permitted our unique democratic society to grow and prosper and function pretty smoothly. Joining a group like the Masons was intended to be formative.  

No more. Today, joining a group has become performative. In the rush to snag warm bodies in off the street, our fraternal groups are becoming just one more place to display our already preconceived notions of behavior and status. Members are transforming their institutions, instead of the other way around. 

What the fraternal groups used to teach to their members is far less important now than public positions held, vainglorious titles collected, shiny medals plastered across every lapel, and stacks of spiffy membership certificates nailed over the desk. Increasingly, more groups are being driven from within to be more publicly demonstrative of various favored cultural or political agendas. (The KofC, for instance, has made one of its primary public missions to demonstrate against pro-abortion laws.) Longstanding rules of membership and conduct that stood for centuries are now cast aside to demonstrate inclusiveness, woke-ishness, and intersectional sensitivity. Hairsplitting over whether a "transitioning transgender" is a man or not is now common conversation. Expectations of things like marital fidelity have been pitched overboard so some up-and-coming grand officer won't be embarrassed that he lives with his girlfriend who hasn't divorced her existing husband "yet." Requirements of even a nominal belief in God have been contorted and stretched to their farthest possible limits because "an otherwise good guy won't join if we make him believe in God anymore!"  And so on.

The Knights of Columbus aren't just offering their new 3-in-1 public ceremony as an option. As the Knightline articles point out, they are to eventually replace their old initiatic rituals entirely. "A final date for complete termination of the old ceremonies will be determined by the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors." It would be curious to look in 50 years from now and see if this creates a "traditional observance" movement within the KofC to preserve and revive their original rituals. After all, young Catholic conservatives managed to re-introduce the Latin Mass after decades of the vernacular mass had been forced upon them by Vatican II in the 1960s. Why? They felt cheated by losing the centuries-long connection to their foundation.

As for those old, previously-taken pledges of secrecy in their old degrees? The national organization declares, "Promises made in previous ceremonies should be honored."

And who says chivalry is dead?


A friend asked online why this should upset so many Masons in online discussion groups and Facebook over the last few days. Here's why. 

Doubtless there will be a little clot of Masonic GMs who think this is a fine idea and believe "Our biggest problem is secrecy and time-wasting. What an answer!" The KofC was ALWAYS a weak patched up fraternal cousin of Freemasonry so the Church could say "We have those, too." So this isn't a major concern outside of their group. But they've already seen the destructive result of online memberships for non-participants - they don't participate. All they are doing is further watering down the one-on-one friendship, mentorship and companionship aspects of any fraternal group. And this only reinforces that isolation.

It's a boney finger and an empty sleeve to Masonic leaders who harbor these same broken ideas in their own heads.



    Freemasonry was never a consideration when Father Micheal J. McGivney created the Knights of Columbus. He sought to get men to join the KoC as an alternative to the Sobriety Societies that were warring and brawling in the streets every night. These Sobriety Societies were militant pro-abstinent, Anti-vice (alcohol, tobacco, narcotics, gambling, gluttony, sloth, lust, et cetera)... They would physically fight anyone they felt were engaging in non-sober vice(s). Additionally, they fought with any other order they felt were rivals or competition.
    There was literally blood in the streets every night. The Secret Societies Father McGivney feared his parishioners might join was the Vril Society, the Thüle Society, Scull and Bones, Scroll and Key, et cetera. Freemasonry was never on his radar.

    He formed the KoC to emulate Saint Columbus, Saint Columbanus, and Saint Columba - and their love and devotion to Mary and the Holy Trinity. They were modelled after the Knights of Malta, and The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller. Again, Freemasonry was not Father McGivney's concern.

    What the Supreme Council and the Supreme Knight have done is slowly kill Father McGivney's dream that he sacrificed for and fought so hard to bring to fruition.

    First... They took away the iconic uniform of a Knight... Stating that the 4° or patriotic degree was too expensive for young people...

    Then they adopted the barret and sash that makes them look like a girl scout.

    Then they did away with memorization requirements... stating "no one had time, ability, energy, or commitment to learn the ritual... Millennials they cried... It's the young people that cannot be taught."

    Then they went to open book...practices became few and far between...ritual suffered... More young people left after feeling the degree teams were just phoning it in...

    So they removed the obligations... Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!!! None of the above worked...more local council's have turned in their charters than I care to think about.

    So watering it down didn't work the first umpteen times they did it... So what is their brilliant solution???

    Let's water it down some more! This time it will surely work!
    Now they get rid of the ritual that gave these young men a "rite of passage" and explained so much symbolism, and defined their purpose.

    One such common denominator here is everyone is speaking for these young; but no one is listening. When you sit down and talk to them, they all say the same things:

    "I'll find the time. Is that all it costs? I want the ancient traditions. I don't mind the time requirements. I can memorize whatever. I don't want it easy. I thought it was supposed to be challenging."

    So who do we listen to? Young men seeking what they are asking for? Or what we assume they are capable of?

    Psychology has established and proven the necessity for the youth to earn and experience a rite of passages with difficult challenges...



      Within Freemasonry, I can tell you the tougher we have become on our candidates... They more they've exceeded our expectations, and the stronger and healthier our Lodge has grown. We've even increased our dues and fees 3 times now... We've are so busy now... that it's becoming a personal challenge for me to keep up.

      So why are so many Masons upset? Because some well intending Brother who is either now, or will be in the near future entrusted with the authority to make similar choices... Might look at this as a 'good idea' and begin watering down Freemasonry again... We are finally recovering from the damage done by former Brethren who did the same to Freemasonry in the late 1980's to the mid 1990's...

      We are finally return to esoteric instructions, education, higher standards in ritual, self-improvement, and true Brotherhood... We finally are re-emerging and almost have are heads above water... We don't need to go backwards and lose the progress we have made.

      The 'old guard' who have transformed themselves into the 'Ostrich Mason'; with their cries of, "lawsuit, insurance, we can't do that, the young are incapable and incompetent..." whilst their heads are firmly buried in the sand, are motivated by fear and scramble to discover a 'silver bullet' solution... While well-intentioned, are as dangerous to the Craft as the 'Flintstone' Mason who just want to show up, complain about life, barely pay the bills, and go home...

      We are finally engaging the community again, we are finally seeking to improve ourselves again, we are finally living as Freemasons again.

      Anger is a secondary response to the root emotion of fear. So if we sound angry... Its because we fear the past haunting our future... We fear the mistakes of the Knights of Columbus will once again, attempt to destroy what we are still actively rebuilding. We fear the "Ostrich Mason" and "Flintstone Mason" will once again attack our Brotherhood like a virus and weaken us from the inside once more.

      I'm not calling anyone out, or trying shame or hurt anyone's feelings. The point of my response, albeit a passionate one, is that we must not live in fear. We must live by Love and the lessons of Freemasonry. We must learn from obvious mistakes, while moving forward.

      We have a lot to celebrate in Freemasonry. We do not need to waste time focussing on the negative. It would benefit us to listen to men knocking on our doors.

    2. "...Father Micheal J. McGivney created the Knights of Columbus...to get men to join the KoC as an alternative to the Sobriety Societies that were warring and brawling in the streets every night."

      And yet the irony is that most public and congregational functions at the Catholic Church I attend offer beer or wine. Go figure!

    3. If one read _Faith and Fraternalism_ by Christopher J. Kauffman, you'll see that is, at best, a light gloss on the origins of the KofC.

      More important to the discussion were the Friendly/Beneficent/Benefit Societies of the 19th C. which essentially served as mutual aid societies, which eventually codified their procedures into formal actuarial reviews and insurance programs.

      Many such groups in the USA at the time would not allow Catholics to join, and some of them were forbidden to Catholic under the umbrella bans against Freemasonry.

      McGivney traveled to Boston to examine the Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters and to Brooklyn, New York to learn about the recently established Catholic Benevolent League, both of which offered insurance benefits. ***He found the latter to be lacking the excitement he thought was needed if his organization were to compete with the secret societies of the day.*** He explored establishing a New Haven Court of the Foresters, but the group's charter in Massachusetts limited them to operating within that Commonwealth. McGivney's committee of St. Mary's parishioners decided to form a new club.
      (emphasis mine - this is important to note as the rituals get watered down more and more - when I took my Third Degree in the KofC in 1991, I was told that even by then, the "old form" was in disuse, and that it was unlikely I'd ever see the version from the Order's heyday, which, I'm told, verged on hazing (by way of offer-type assaults, occasionally compounded with simple battery).

      In addition to Kauffmann's work on the KofC, I highly recommend Amy Koehlinger's '"Let Us Live for Those Who Love Us": Faith, Family, and the Contours of Manhood among the Knights of Columbus in Late Nineteenth-Century Connecticut,' found in the Winter 2004 Journal of Social History pp. 455–469. doi:10.1353/jsh.2004.0126

  2. Been reading your blog for a while. Currently an Entered Apprentice and about to be passed to Fellowcraft soon. Also, your Freemasonry for Dummies book is an excellent resource, and might be the best Masonic resources out there in my opinion.

    I take no issue with anything in the article, but am curious about the comment from another brother you posted. He writes: "There was literally blood in the streets every night. The Secret Societies Father McGivney feared his parishioners might join was the Vril Society, the Thüle Society, Scull and Bones, Scroll and Key, et cetera. Freemasonry was never on his radar."

    While it is true that the KofC was in the same town as Yale, Skull and Bones and Scroll and Key are Yale senior societies (basically more prestigious local fraternities.) I don't think they had anything to do with temperance. The Thuele Society is of German WWI origin and while tangentially connected to the founding of the Nazi Part, has nothing to do with the founding of the KofC.

    In short, I'm curious to hear if that Brother Freemason has any evidence for his claims on the rivals of the KofC. It just doesn't seem to bear out in any histories that I know of. At least histories that don't involve conspiracy theories.

    1. If you reread the comments in the post, the brother commenting suggests that the sobriety societies were responsible for the blood in the streets.

  3. At its start the Knights had a very different ritual from the one they are now jettisoning. It involved protecting a priest whom the candidate was supposed to think was being assaulted. It led to actual injuries and was soon dropped. There are a number of other knighthoods for Catholic men that retain the chapeau and capes, including some for African-American Catholics, although the KC now does take Catholics of color. In addition there are knighthoods that the Catholic Church itself confers, as contrasted with voluntary societies. And the Vatican as a sovereign state has its own honors. I agree that there is no connection such as a rebuttal to Yale secret societies: very few Catholics would have been enrolled at Yale at that time. The KC has an immense and attractive insurance program with assets in the billions as well as the close association with local parishes, which is part of its success.

  4. While the Thule Society was made popular by the Nazis; it is suggested that its founding is significantly older. It's suggested that it had it's hand in the founding of the Skull and Bones; as well as its roots or founding in the Antient Noble Order of the Gormogons. Much like the origins of Freemasonry the actual origin of the Thule Society is lost to time.

    1. Actully the orgins of Thule society is not lost.
      It was popular before the nazis and was inspired by Ariosophy so it could not have been responsible for creating skull and Bones.
      Guido von List wasnt even born when skull and bones was created.

  5. I agree, Yale's Skull and Bones Society was not a Catholic threat at that time. It was founded in 1832 (in part) as a purposely ultra-secretive organization in response to the earlier,1776, Phi Beta Kappa becoming more open to the public.

    What makes the Knights of Columbus so unique is it's relationship with the Catholic Church. That is the source of its strength and its limitations. So despite its many challenges, it will probably continue in some form or another.

    The Knights of Columbus (KofC) were definitely founded as an "alternative" ,in part, for Catholic men joining Freemasonry. I think this was mentioned years ago on the official KofC website and is now taken down.

    The first Papal Bull banning Catholics joining Freemasonry is dated 28 April 1738. Father Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus on 6 Feb 1882, so he was probably well acquainted with Freemasonry at this time. According to the KofC current official website, Father Michael J. McGivney is currently being considered for Sainthood.

    Two other Catholic organizations of unique importance, and worth mentioning, are Opus Dei founded in 1928 and referred to in the movie/book, "The Da Vinci Code". And second, the Order of Malta, which celebrated their 900th anniversary in 2013!

    So what periods of history makes Freemasonry so unique and special? Well, the EnLightenment (spelling on purpose) for one, it is the source of our strength, has no known limitations, and (I would argue) is still ongoing. The need for Freemasonry never ended. The world is still, very much, in darkness.

    1. Why you choose to bring in a catholic chilvaric order into this Im not sure.
      They have their own place in the world but are not that unique when you boil it down to what it is at the core.

  6. ""Secrecy has to be understood in the context of the 19th century," Anderson said. "There was incredible bigotry against Catholics," with the anti-Catholic No [sic] Nothings in control politically in New England at the time, and the Ku Klux Klan later became a powerful political force across the country, he said. "There was some appeal to secrecy." Also at the time, the idea of progressing through the degrees as a journey toward Knighthood was popular."

    In the 13 years I've been a Mason in the United States, the idea of secrecy has never been related to concealing one's membership. I realize it's an issue in some other countries, but generally speaking we are an open society.

    The secrecy that Freemasonry promotes is more about loyalty, fidelity, and the initiative and progressive concept of learning. In some respects, it's no different from college in that you wouldn't take an upper-level course unless you've had the foundational courses on which to build your knowledge.

    IMHO, streamlining, distilling, and publicly preforming the rituals dilutes the experience.

    Personally, I'd rather see fewer members and fewer lodges if it meant more quality members and lodges. I regularly drive over an hour each way just to attend the AASR, and it's always worth the trip.

    1. Jim, you need to understand, weekend the KofC was created, they HAD to differentiate what they did from the other fraternal and friendly orders, in order to maintain Church approval.

      To do so, they claimed that THEIR secrecy was just about their ceremonials, to preserve the experience, not like the secrecy of other groups ... Which they intentionally never elaborated on.


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