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Those Repulsive Knights of Columbus

Recently at Mass, I saw in my pew a “Family Consecration to the Holy Family” brochure printed by the Knights of Columbus, and I laughed.

I laughed because of a recent political debacle associated with the confirmation process for a Nebraska attorney, Brian Buescher, who has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska.

Buescher, a Catholic, has been on the receiving end of anti-Catholic rhetoric from some members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The anti-Catholic rhetoric against Buescher centers on is his membership since age 18 in the Knights of Columbus—a damning association, if there ever was one (please note the sarcasm).

To avoid any perceived conflict of interest, I should state up front that Buescher’s mother, Marge Buescher, formerly and joyfully served as the executive assistant for the Nebraska Catholic Conference for several years. Her association with the NCC, however, has no bearing on my reflections of this aspect of Brian Buescher’s confirmation process. Notwithstanding any relationship to the nominee or his family, this situation demands concern and outrage, as the behavior is an embarrassing stain on the democratic process.

Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice, it is said. In other words, in what is otherwise considered a “tolerant” and “welcoming” society, anti-Catholicism is the only remaining bias considered tolerable. Whether this is completely true is not readily apparent to me. Many forms of bias and prejudice continue to exist—such as racism, of which the U.S. Bishops recently wrote about. Nevertheless, the statement has at least a kernel of truth in it.

In written questions to Buescher, Senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California raised concerns about his membership in the Knights of Columbus and what the Knights stand for as a Catholic fraternal organization.

Sen. Hirono noted that the Knights have taken a number of “extreme positions” such as its support of Proposition 8, a political campaign which sought to ban same-sex marriage in California. Sen. Hirono also asked Buescher if he would quit the Knights “to avoid any appearance of bias.” Sen. Harris criticized the Knights as being an “all-male” organization that “opposed a woman’s right to choose [abortion]” and “marriage equality.”

Such tactics echo the statement made by Sen. Diane Feinstein of California during the confirmation process of Amy Coney Barrett to sit as judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (one of the 13 federal courts that sits directly below the U.S. Supreme Court). During her confirmation hearing, Sen. Feinstein raised fears about Judge Barrett’s devotion to her Catholic faith, noting that the “dogma lives loudly within you” and that is “of concern.”

The message sent by such so-called concerns by mainstream and powerful political officials is that faithful Catholics need not apply to high-ranking government positions, as their religious affiliation is socially unacceptable in a morally progressive society. As one Catholic journalist, John Allen of Crux, noted, “Hirono and Harris are employing a stalking horse in the Buescher case, because their real target isn’t the Knights of Columbus but Catholic teaching.

Presumably, however, they felt it would be poor form to say they wanted Buescher blackballed because he’s Catholic, so they picked a softer target.”

The response by the Knights to these demeaning comments and interrogatives have been virtuous. At the national level, the Knights have noted that they are an organization active in 17 countries worldwide, with members providing more than 75 million hours of volunteer service and raising over $185 million for charitable causes. At the local level, a Washington, D.C. parish council of the Knights have written to Senators Hirono and Harris, noting that they have worked with local parishes to raise money for coats, collect resources for the developmentally disabled, and gather newborn baby supplies for mothers in need. In a bold, evangelical gesture, the local Knights council invited Catholic men on the staff of Senators Hirono or Harris to join the Knights of Columbus.

Maybe anti-Catholicism isn’t necessarily the last acceptable prejudice, but it’s definitely in the running for the strongest acceptable prejudice that rears its ugly head within our democracy.

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