Despite a tremendous outcry of protest over the last week and a half, the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council has confirmed and doubled down on the decision to move forward with new Fourth Degree uniforms.
According to the K of C website, the board made the decision because of:
the aging of our Fourth Degree membership, the slow growth of the fourth Degree, (fewer than 20 percent of Knights are Fourth Degree members, and only a fraction of that number even serve as honor guards), and consistent reports that the old regalia presented a barrier to Fourth Degree membership, especially among younger men.
Further down, they say:
For years, supreme officers and directors have received comments from members and prospective members that the old regalia was a barrier to membership overall, or to membership in the Fourth Degree.
Of course they have. I’m sure they’ve received all kinds of comments, from all kinds of people. But as someone who has been a professional public opinion researcher for over twenty-five years, I’m not convinced by anecdotes. Everyone in my line of work remembers what that one focus group participant in Omaha (or wherever) told us that one time.
The question is: Where are the numbers? What kinds of comments have they received or solicited from current members? How many of those members joined precisely because of the traditional regalia? And let’s not forget another important group: what does the average Catholic in the pew think about the traditional uniforms, and the proposed new ones?
There’s a more fundamental question that’s not being asked, however: Why is the Color Corps disproportionately composed of older men? This question is critical for understanding why it will be so difficult to grow the ranks with younger recruits. And you don’t need survey data to answer it.
Participating in the Color Corps requires two essential resources: money (for the regalia), and also time (to actually participate in call-outs). Both of these can be in short supply for younger men, especially full-time students, those struggling with education debt, those establishing themselves at a job, and fathers of young families with small children still at home. To the extent that young men have some additional time or money, there are a thousand priorities for these resources more pressing than the Color Corps.
It is when men grow into middle age, and their prime earning years, that more disposable income for “extras” such as CC regalia becomes available. Just as importantly, with children growing and leaving the nest (or, at a minimum, preoccupied with their own activities and not so much needing or wanting Dad’s constant attention), more time becomes available for volunteer activities of all kinds — including the Knights of Columbus in general, or the Color Corps in particular.
Retirees have the most time of all, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they show up for the most events. Though they now may be living on a fixed income, the treasured regalia was usually purchased long ago. Now they’re putting that investment to good and regular use, and have grown deeply attached to it.
Older guys are especially critical for mid-week events. Last month, we received a call-out for honor guard duty at a deceased Knight’s Friday-morning funeral. One by one, I watched the emails, all with variations of “Sorry, wish I could, but have work commitments,” go back to the Color Corps Commander from middle-aged guys who do come for a lot of weekend call-outs. Their unavailability was completely understandable. They have jobs.
When that Friday arrived, almost everyone working the funeral, except me and my son, was a retiree. My son was only able to come because he’s on summer break from college. I only came because I’m self-employed, have a lot of control over my schedule, and had a light week. If this had been during the school year (for my son), or an election season (for me) … forget it.
During the reception, the family told us how greatly they appreciated the presence of the Color Corps, and how much it meant. I was so glad we were able to be there for them.
But what happens when the retirees on fixed incomes get priced out of the new regalia? Or feel so alienated and betrayed by the way this decision was handed down (and, yes, I’ve heard it first-hand from some of them) that they decide they’ve “had enough” and wouldn’t continue even if the new regalia were free? Where are the hoards of young men who will presumably love the new uniforms so much, they will rearrange their work schedules so they can wear those uniforms to a mid-week funeral?
I should add that I don’t doubt young men prefer the new uniforms. My own twenty-one-year-old son says he is fine with the new look. He likes the current uniform well enough to wear it, but wouldn’t have a problem moving to the new. As he explained, in words only a millennial computer science major would use, “If the new uniform were a free downloadable update [i.e a software patch], I would do it.”
However, that’s the problem: it’s not free. It’s a $510 Italian wool suit (plus tailoring, and likely plus shipping). In my own most recent blog post, I explained why the cost of the new uniforms will likely have exactly the opposite effect for younger men who might otherwise be inclined to serve as Color Corps honor guards.
Even with the 25% discount that K of C is offering for orders placed before the end of September, that’s still nearly $400. If we hadn’t spent over $300 on a tuxedo for him two months ago … maybe. But certainly not, given what we’ve just spent. When you add the $300+ that I spent on a tuxedo last year, and the nearly $550 for regalia earlier this year, we’re tapped out for now.
In addition to the 25% early bird discount, the K of C is also offering a $200 credit for those who purchased a regalia set recently; they seem to have heard the outcry from new honor guards like me. However, the purchase must have been made after May 1, 2017. Guess when I bought mine? March 21, 2017. Six weeks too soon.
I will say this about the new uniform: the suit is probably more versatile than a tuxedo. I could see swapping a different tie, and removing the Fourth Degree emblem from the jacket, and being able to wear that suit to all kinds of non-K of C events that I’ve never been able to wear my tuxedo to. Business meetings. Weddings. Funerals.
So… if they were giving me the $200 credit, plus the 25% discount, would I order the new uniform? Maybe. If for no other reason, $200 for a quality Italian wool suit is a good deal.
Still, even with the discount, I’m not sure I would want the new uniform. And I’m not sure I want to wear it as an honor guard, after the old uniforms are officially retired on June 30th of next year. The money is certainly a consideration, but it’s becoming about more than that. The way this whole change was sprung on the membership, without widely consulting those who have been serving faithfully up till now, and ignoring extensive blowback from those who were attracted to the CC precisely because of the traditional uniform, strikes many as a serious breach of trust.
As a result, many of us are going to have trouble trusting Supreme going forward — or motivating ourselves to spend time attending Assembly meetings or serving as officers in the Fourth Degree. This whole kerfuffle has created an “us versus them” mentality out here. It just doesn’t seem the “thems” care about the concerns of the “us”. It makes me (and Mrs Yeoman Farmer as well) wonder, what’s next?
I’m far from alone in this. Just read the comments on the K of C’s latest social media post, confirming the new uniforms. (This comment in particular is typical of the “trust issues” I’m describing.) Yes, I realize I’m appealing to anecdotal comments which are not necessarily representative of the whole membership, and that I criticized such an approach above. Lacking any formal scientific survey research, however, it’s the best I can do right now. And I think the number and intensity (not to mention the lopsidedness) of the responses on social media do tell us something.
I’d also add that there is an online petition at Change.org, urging Supreme to keep the traditional uniforms. When I signed it on Sunday night, I was #917. When I checked on Monday morning, the signatures had nearly doubled. As I type this, on Tuesday evening, it’s at 3,346.
Last Friday evening, my son and I served in full CC regalia at a local minor league baseball game. It’s the annual “family night to celebrate vocations,” when tickets are distributed through parishes across the diocese, and the overwhelming majority of the crowd is Catholic. It’s a terrific event, and the Color Corps serves as an honor guard during the national anthem.
My son and I arrived early, and spent quite a bit of time hanging out in the clubhouse and behind home plate, mingling with the more experienced CC members. Everyone’s mood was dark, and I heard many negative comments about the regalia change. Not a single person voiced support for the new uniform. Only a handful said they would consider buying it, at any price. The atmosphere wasn’t quite like a wake, but it was close. It was more like the scene at a hospital waiting room, just after a doctor has delivered a dire prognosis for a beloved family member.
And then the 27 of us lined up in formation, drew swords, and marched onto the field in a double line behind the District Marshal. I felt a sense of being part of something magnificent, and timeless. Viewers in the stands told us later what a spectacular sight it was, the long double line of us in our traditional regalia, standing at attention and saluting with swords as the Anthem was sung.
As we marched on and off the field, grouped in line by color of cape and chapeau, the sense of order and hierarchy was immediately recognizable. This will be much less obvious with the new uniform. The only differences between members will be the color of a patch on the beret, behind the K of C emblem.
Rank and hierarchy are important for men; we like to know where we fit within the unit, and to be recognized for our achievements. It’s easy to spot the Color Corps Commander, or the Marshal, because they wear purple or green (respectively). Those who wear the white capes, indicating they are current or past Faithful Navigators (top officer in the Assembly) do so proudly; it’s a mark of honor. Even more so for the gold cape and chapeau worn by current and past District Masters. These signs of office will now be much less distinctive. I can’t see this change helping morale any.
I honestly have no idea how this will play out as the June 30 deadline next year approaches. This controversy may draw a lot of attention to the Fourth Degree that it otherwise wouldn’t have received, and inspire many young men to join up and serve the Assembly in all sorts of capacities.
I fear it’s more likely that we’ll see mass retirements from the Color Corps, especially among older men who decide they’re frustrated and have had enough (and have spent enough). As they retire from the CC, they may withdraw from leadership in the Assembly itself, and these retirements could come too quickly to be replaced. Offices may go unfilled. Call-outs may go unanswered. Lacking a critical mass of experienced members, Assemblies could wither.
As for us, assuming nothing changes, it’s highly unlikely that my son or I will be serving in the CC after June 30. That said, we’re certainly not resigning from the Fourth Degree, or the Order. If anything, I’ll redouble my dedication to serving my local Council.
And, dim as it may seem now, I’m still holding out hope that Supreme will reverse this decision, so my son and I can continue serving together in the traditional regalia for years to come.