Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory could have played it safe. He could have hewed to the unwritten rules requiring church officials to defer to influential donors and powerbrokers. Instead, the archbishop set down an important marker for the church’s integrity last week. When President Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine—which is managed by the influential Knights of Columbus—Gregory, a soft-spoken leader known for his pastoral instincts, issued a notably blunt statement. “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles.” And, commenting on the treatment of peaceful protestors preceding the president’s appearance at Saint John’s Episcopal Church the day before, the archbishop added a clear rebuke to Trump, saying that John Paul II would “certainly not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter, or intimidate for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship.”
The Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882 by an Irish immigrant out of a church basement in New Haven, Connecticut, had an original mission of helping poor and working-class women and children through an insurance program. Today it is a financial juggernaut with $2 billion dollars in revenue, raised mostly from selling health insurance to its approximately two million members. The Knights do laudable charitable work in the United States and globally; their commitment to persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere is tireless and commendable. Over the past two decades, under the leadership of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson—a former staffer of segregationist Senator Jesse Helms who held various posts in the Reagan administration—the Knights also became a powerful political force inside and outside the church, helping to bankroll campaigns against same-sex marriage and for the bishops’ religious liberty initiatives, which often took on partisan overtones during the presidency of Barack Obama. The “strong right-arm of the church,” as John Paul II once called the Knights, in 2010 compared the violent persecution of Christians in Mexico under the 1920s-era strongman Plutarco Calles with Catholic claims of persecution under contraception-coverage provisions in the Affordable Care Act. The Tablet, a London-based international Catholic newspaper, has described Anderson, who earned a salary of $1.2 million in 2015 and once served at the Vatican Bank, as “one of the most influential Catholics in the world.” The organization showers dioceses across the country with millions of dollars. The Knights also pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into renovation projects to refurbish Saint Peter’s Basilica. In criticizing the Shrine’s decision to host Trump, Gregory knew he was taking on well-connected Catholics who write big checks and have friends in high places.