The Knights of Columbus national organization has continued the push to replace our traditional Fourth Degree regalia with a more military-style suit and beret. If you haven’t been following this issue, two recent posts will bring you up to speed: Color Me Stunned and Doubling Down. (Incidentally, the latter was the most viewed and most commented-upon post in this blog’s history.)
I’ve deliberately not posted on the topic in a while, in part because I wanted to see how the controversy played itself out. I also wanted to gather and organize my thoughts before adding anything to what I’d already said.
These past several weeks, as I’ve communicated with Knights from around the world, a dominant theme has emerged: a deep sense of betrayal and breach of trust, previously unheard of in a fraternal organization such as ours. With this post, I hope to explain what’s driving this sense of betrayal, and to suggest a possible solution.
The central problem many keep coming back to is the rationale that Supreme has repeatedly implied (and continues to stand by, without further elaboration) for the uniform change: that the design of our traditional regalia was an impediment to recruitment, especially of younger members. In Supreme’s own words:
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.
In an email to all K of C members, dated August 4, 2017, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson stated:
The cape and chapeau, while popular among some Fourth Degree members, have become dated and are increasingly cited as a reason that eligible Catholic men, especially young men, do not join the Knights of Columbus.
To put it directly, these assertions simply do not resonate with the lived experience of virtually anyone I have communicated with. I have been in touch with a large number of people about this, inside and outside the organization. Some of them have held high (district-level) offices in the Order. I have not heard anyone outside the Order speak badly about the regalia. To the contrary, people often tell us how much they love it. Furthermore, no member I’ve spoken with can think of a man he tried to recruit, who cited the Fourth Degree regalia as a reason not to join.
I’m having trouble even imagining the conversation. But I’m a novelist, so let me try:
Current Member: “Hey, Bob, have you ever thought about joining the Knights of Columbus? It’s a wonderful fraternal organization that does all kinds of great service work in the parish and the community. Our meetings are fun, and I’ve made a lot of good friends through our Council. We always have a blast helping out with projects. There’s no minimum you have to volunteer. Whatever works for you and your family. And if you need life insurance, they have one of the best plans in the country. A bunch of guys are joining at our next meeting this Thursday. You should think about coming.”
Bob: “That all sounds great. What time on Thurs—. Oh. Wait. The Knights of Columbus? You mean those old guys who sometimes come to church with capes and feathery caps? Um … yeah. I’m not sure about that. I’m glad you like it and all. I’m just not sure a group like that is really for me.”
This is essentially what Carl Anderson and the Board of Directors are implying is going on out here. While the Fourth Degree knights have been serving faithfully in the Color Corps, often at considerable personal expense (of both time and money), believing our regalia was making a magnificent display that glorified God and significantly enhanced the public image of the Order … in fact, according to Carl Anderson and the Board, in recent years we have been doing precisely the opposite. These displays of regalia have in fact been harming, not helping the Order, according to the Supreme Knight’s line of thinking.
According to this line of thinking, when the Color Corps parades into Mass in full regalia, there may be some people who are impressed. Some peoples’ faces light up. Some people tell the Color Corps how much they appreciate their presence. Some people are like this boy, grandson of a brother Knight, who can hardly wait to grow up and serve in the Color Corps himself (and, from the color of the cape, he even aspires to be a Faithful Navigator!):
But, according to Carl Anderson and the Board, it seems we’ve been overlooking the significant numbers of young men who see the Color Corps enter a church, and are somehow actually turned off. If it weren’t for those unfortunate capes and chapeaux, these young men would be eagerly volunteering to give of their time and serve their parish through the Knights of Columbus.
Please ponder that for a moment. That is the foundational assertion on which this massively expensive, controversial, and disruptive uniform change is being foisted upon the Order. It is this foundational assertion that has so deeply wounded so many current and aspiring Color Corps members. Carl Anderson and the Board are implying that our service, at least in recent years, has harmed the Order more than it has helped.
Please ask yourself: Is this assertion even plausible? Can you imagine more than a handful of young men thinking in the way I have described? I have yet to hear from anyone outside New Haven who believes so.
So, what’s really going on here? Unless I’m missing something, it seems to me that there are three possibilities:
- Carl Anderson and the Board of Directors have access to a superb set of rigorous marketing-research data, which they are unable or unwilling to share with anyone outside their inner circle, but which definitively demonstrate something that runs contrary to the lived experience of the overwhelming majority of the membership.
- Carl Anderson and the Board sincerely believe, in good faith, that the traditional regalia has been preventing young men from joining the Order. However, they are also sincerely mistaken and – for whatever reason – are unable or unwilling to admit this, despite the tremendous outcry from the membership.
- Carl Anderson and the Board know that the design of the traditional regalia is not really a significant barrier to membership for many young men, but they are using the issue as a smokescreen to disguise the real reason for the change.
My own thoughts?
Number One is highly implausible, and is contrary to lived experience. Furthermore, if the marketing research existed, it would’ve been brought forward by now, to silence the critics. Perhaps there will be a detailed article in the next issue of Columbia which does just that. I’m not holding my breath.
Part of me hopes for Number Two. Having been in marketing research for 26 years, I’ve encountered many officeholders and corporate types who’ve based important decisions on anecdotal feedback that turns out not to be representative of wider public opinion. What’s troubling, however, is Supreme’s failure to adequately research this question — and their obstinate refusal to listen to member feedback. To believe #2 is the case, we would have to believe that the leadership of one of the best insurance companies in the world, a company which lives or dies by the diligence of the investment research (and marketing research) it performs, somehow failed to research this significant question before rolling out a major disruptive change. Possible? Yes, but not very probable.
That leaves us with Number Three. But … if I’m saying the Supreme Knight and the Board of Directors know the regalia isn’t really a significant barrier for membership, aren’t I accusing them of lying? Aren’t I slandering the names of good Catholic gentlemen, without direct evidence?
No. For #3 to be true, it’s not necessary to believe anyone is lying about anything. If you read the official statements carefully, in the same way you would read a statement from any politician, it’s clear that none of the assertions is actually, technically, false — because they never make any truly falsifiable claims.
Take, for example: “increasingly cited as a reason.” That could mean they got one comment to this effect in 2015, and two comments in 2016. Also, note that they never claim the regalia is the primary reason, or even an important reason, for anyone not joining. Likewise, look closely at the first block quote above: “received comments,” and “a barrier.” No claim as to the number of comments, and no claim as to the importance of the barrier compared to other barriers.
These official statements are so vague, I have no doubt that some evidence could be produced to demonstrate that no, nobody in New Haven is lying to us.
However, this carefully crafted, vague, technically true language is certainly working to create the impression that the regalia is significantly detrimental to our recruiting. Because no other substantive reasons are being given, other than these carefully crafted assertions about the traditional regalia, the public is concluding — just as Supreme seems to want them to — that “the new uniform will help recruitment” is Supreme’s primary reason for the change.
With my #3 above, I’m simply asking: Have we all been too quick to jump to this conclusion? Because, come to think of it, I don’t recall a statement in which Supreme flatly declares that improving recruitment is indeed the most important reason. In his email of August 4th, Carl Anderson does say:
“After careful consideration, the Board of Directors took this action motivated by the best interests of the Order as a whole and of the Fourth Degree in particular. The new uniform is part of a comprehensive and necessary effort to keep our Order relevant and attractive to men, particularly younger men.”
Read it carefully: part of. And best interests of the Order as a whole.
But that could mean anything.
Some Knights are speculating that there may be a financial motivation; after all, it looks suspicious that this uniform is being offered only through the official Knightsgear shop. Longtime suppliers such as Lynch & Kelly and The English Company have thus far been locked out. In fact, after faithfully providing K of C fraternal supplies for many decades, these suppliers say they were given zero advance notice about the uniform change. They were left with tens of thousands of dollars of inventory that is now virtually worthless (and will be completely so after 30 June 2018, when the traditional regalia is scheduled to be abolished).
What form might a possible financial motivation take? After all, the K of C is a nonprofit organization. And, on their website, K of C claims that “the uniform is being sold at (or sometimes below) our cost.”
However, note that they do not claim the $510 retail price is their true wholesale cost, or give any other accounting of what comprises “our cost.” Also, they don’t claim the uniform is being sold to everyone, in all cases, at “our cost.” It’s entirely possible that some officials are in fact purchasing their uniforms at the true wholesale cost (and that some are being given even steeper discounts), while the rest of the membership is not.
I don’t have a degree in accounting, but I do know that just because an organization is a “nonprofit” doesn’t mean it isn’t bringing in a lot of money — or that it isn’t paying its staff handsome salaries and bonuses. (According to 2015 federal filings, the most recent I could find, Carl Anderson received total compensation of $1,236,189.)
This uniform certainly represents a significant revenue stream, and I think a lot of people would be shocked if that revenue weren’t somehow serving “the best interests of the Order as a whole,” in whatever way those interests are being defined by Carl Anderson and the Board of Directors.
I do know this: the most dedicated members, many of whom are among the longest serving, are being asked to make an expensive, highly disruptive change against their will. The stated (or implied) reasons for this change are tenuous at best, which has led to widespread speculation that there is in fact some other “real” reason being masked by calling it “the best interests of the Order as a whole.”
What is this “real” reason? That’s just it. Nobody seems willing to share it with us. And that in itself has many people asking: If the real primary reason is such a good one, why aren’t they sharing it with us? Why are they cloaking it behind a smokescreen about recruiting younger members? Why aren’t they being open with us?
It’s often said that the Knights of Columbus is a family. That family aspect is something I’ve found most attractive about the Order. So …
Men: imagine the breach of trust it would create with your wife and kids if you were to treat an important, expensive, and disruptive decision in this way. Imagine if you were to announce that you were moving the family to a new city, far away from family and friends, and gave only carefully worded explanations which were implausible on their face? And then insisted your wife and kids fall in line for “the best interests of the family as a whole”? And refused to discuss your wife’s concerns about the move, or to attempt to forge a true consensus?
Your wife might go along with that move. She might follow you to that city. There might even be some things she ended up liking about living there. But your relationship with her would never be the same. There would forever be a wound, and she would never really trust you or open herself to you the way she had before. And your kids would probably resent you for a long time, especially if they’d had to leave behind a lot of family and friends.
Speaking of the wives: that could be a whole post in itself. They’re not happy about the new uniform, or the way the traditional regalia is being forcibly abolished, either. This is especially dangerous ground for Supreme; if wives aren’t happy with an organization, they’re not going to be happy with their husbands spending a lot of time volunteering for that organization. You can fill in the rest.
I hope I’ve adequately expressed the deep sense of betrayal that so many brother Knights (and their families) are feeling about this uniform change, and the breach of trust it has opened. At this point, for many, I suspect it’s no longer even mostly about the design of the uniform (though we do overwhelmingly prefer the traditional regalia). It’s the entire way this whole thing has been handed down, and then doubled-down upon, without consultation or even a real explanation.
Ask yourself: Is an organization with this kind of management style something that will appeal to millennial men? Everything about the way this has been handed down runs contrary to the organizational expectations and desires of the younger generation. Young people, like all of us, expect to have a voice in the organizations they belong to. They want to know their input is valued, and that they have been listened to and understood. By contrast, the new uniform has been commanded the way a Sergeant would have ordered a platoon of Army draftees to charge a particular hill in Vietnam in 1969. This management style is not the way to build and sustain a Catholic fraternal Order in 2017.
One way that Supreme could save face would be simple: They could announce that while they still believe the new uniform will be best for the Order in the long run, they sincerely underestimated the depth of attachment to the traditional regalia. So, current and future honor guards who prefer serving in traditional regalia would be allowed to wear it, as a legitimate alternative to the new uniform, indefinitely.
Supreme should have nothing to fear from letting the membership reveal its true preferences this way. Over time, if the new uniform were to prove itself as popular as Supreme believes it will be, the traditional regalia would begin disappearing on its own. Eventually, a tipping point would be reached, and the remaining holdouts would feel too self-conscious to continue wearing regalia.
We already have different colored capes and chapeaux in the same procession; why not different style uniforms? In a procession, people in the new uniform could even be allowed to lead the way, with those in traditional regalia following, to maintain a sense of order, just like we do now with the different colored capes.
I’d add that this solution would have the added advantage of saving longtime vendors such as Lynch & Kelly and The English Company from taking devastating losses on their current inventories.
This post is much longer than usual, and among the longest of the 700+ I’ve published. I’ve had a lot to say, and I thank you for reading through to the end. I sincerely hope the Supreme Knight finds a way to address these concerns and to forge a genuine consensus with the desires of the Order.