The current issue of Columbia, the monthly magazine of the Knights of Columbus, should give faithful Catholics pause. The cover is Orwellian, featuring an illustration of an apparent cowboy, astride a black horse, with a 30-30 Winchester in his right hand and a large crucifix around his neck. Emblazoned in red across the bottom the words read: “Freedom Is Our Lives.” The issue is devoted to mobilizing Knights to fight for religious liberty against the Obama administration.
Cracking the cover, it turns out that the Cowboy With Rifle and Crucifix illustration is a stylization of General Enrique Gorostieta Velarde. In the 1920s, Gorostieta was a guerilla leader in the Cristiada uprising against the dictatorial Mexican president Plutarco Calles. Calles blended the ‘20s-flavored dictatorships of Mussolini and Lenin with homegrown peasant populism. A zealous atheist, he outlawed Catholic religious orders, outlawed Catholic education, and severely restricted the practice of faith, including the administration of the sacraments. Thousands died as a result of his persecution. Perhaps best known to Americans through Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, priests were summarily executed by firing squads, churches were burned and looted, and Church land and properties were seized by the state.
The head of today’s Knights, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson argues in the Columbia issue that the Cristero War and the atrocities of Calles should inspire Catholics with “lessons as we defend religious freedom today.” “Today in the United States,” he claims, “it is impossible to recall these events without thinking of current threats to religious liberty, including the Obama administration insistence that contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs be included in the health insurance programs of Catholic organizations.” Anderson—formerly an aide to one-time segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms and subsequently head of public liaison for the Reagan administration—ends his exhortation by quoting Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, out of context: “We did not ask for this fight, but will not run from it. “
Such agitprop should frighten us all. This goes even beyond the over-the-top rhetorical comparison of President Obama to Hitler or Stalin—as Bishop Daniel Jenky did recently in Peoria while leading a 500 man march through that city. This is more than comparing the president with the dictator Hirohito, which seemed to be what Anderson intended in his remarks at this spring’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. No, Columbia’s implication is that things are so dire for American Catholics that even extreme rhetoric is not enough. Given the illustrated cover and Anderson’s connecting-the-dots, the implication is what? That it’s time for armed resistance?
A new Cristero War? Rifles with crucifixes? Let’s note what’s ridiculously obvious. There is no persecution of Catholics in the United States.
Catholics, though only one-quarter of America’s population, hold the majority of seats in the Supreme Court, hold about one-third of American governorships and about one-third of the seats of Congress. The false charge that the Obama administration is anti-Catholic runs directly in the face of the fact that the Vice President is Catholic and that more Catholics hold Cabinet positions under this president than probably any other administration in history. Catholics are significantly over-represented in the leadership of both political parties. Catholics are freer to participate in the nation’s public life than at any other time in American history—and overwhelmingly do so. By every conceivable measure Catholics are thriving today, thanks in no small part to American pluralism and to the modern protection of religious liberty by government since the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Catholic institutions are not denied religious liberty by the Affordable Care Act and not morally compromised by its contraception mandate. A pretty good wall of conscience protection surrounds the health care law, insulating religious institutions from complicity in providing drugs opposed by the Church. All diocesan health insurance plans (and all sub-plans organized under diocesan management) are completely exempt from providing contraception insurance. All plans for religious orders or sub-plans organized under religious orders are completely exempt. All Catholic colleges and universities with self-funded student plans can be completely exempt. And while employees of public Catholic institutions such as hospitals and charities will receive coverage for these drugs, the religious institutions themselves play no role in either paying for or facilitating that coverage. Planned accommodations shield Catholic hospitals and charities from involvement by having outside insurance companies or plan administrators pay for and facilitate the objectionable coverage. Moreover, these accommodations still remain open for tweaks and adjustments as religious groups work with the administration during the existing comment period that extends for many more months.
Around the world, in countries far more Catholic than the United States, the Church has found ways to co-exist with national health programs that include drugs and procedures at odds with its teachings. In these countries Catholic institutions still flourish. But in America, Columbia suggests, it must be another Cristiada? This is an unacceptable escalation of America’s highly partisan culture war. It needs to be called out for what it is: dangerous. It’s past time for cooler heads—perhaps sage Roman heads—to intervene before excesses driven by the deep pockets of organizations like the Knights of Columbus spiral out of control.
This is not to say that Church related groups ought not work for more Catholic friendly policies from government. Arguably, we must continue to work with Congress and the White House for more accommodations for our institutions in the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Likewise, it’s appropriate for Catholic groups to complain if they think that the programs of Catholic Relief Services are not getting funded like they should by USAID or that Catholic charitable programs are being unfairly limited by regulations that undercut their opportunities for government funding. But for Columbia to wrap such everyday policy-wrangling in the battle flag of religious liberty, to convey to Catholics in the pews that there’s a “war” being waged against their faith, or to suggest that the President of the United States should be compared to Hitler, to Hirohito, or to Mexico’s rabidly anti-Catholic Calles is scandalous. To look to the rifles of the Cristiferos for “lessons as we defend religious freedom today” borders on something even more than scandalous.
The Knights of Columbus is an important and worthy organization that has rendered extraordinary service to America and American Catholics for more than one hundred years. Founded as a mutual aid society for what was then a largely immigrant Church, the Knights provided services that enabled generations of poor Catholics to bridge from their 19th century ghettos to the full inclusion and success in American society and public life they enjoy today. In those early years, Catholics faced real discrimination in the United States and the Knights were there to help. The Church owes an enormous debt to the organization. I honor its history and mission.
But, the machinations of the Knights’ current leadership as evident in this month’s Columbia are very troubling. Enough with the war footing. Enough with the totalitarian-atheist comparisons. Enough with the agitprop. Most importantly, shame on Columbia for that rifle.