Betrayal and a Way Forward

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: Continue reading

Doubling Down

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. Continue reading

Color Me Stunned

Well, I didn’t see that coming.

Last week, at the Knights of Columbus Supreme Convention, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson announced a major change to the Order’s uniform for the Fourth Degree. For decades, our official uniform has been a black tuxedo, a white ruffled shirt, and French cuffs. Note, in addition, the red-white-and-blue social baldric. Here I am, with my son, when we joined the Fourth Degree last year:

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A relatively small subset of Fourth Degree Knights also serve in the Color Corps — the most visible portion of the Order. You’ll see us as honor guards at funerals and other important Masses (especially when a bishop is presiding), in parades, and at other events where we want to lend special dignity. On top of the base tuxedo uniform, CC regalia includes white gloves, a cape, chapeau (the feathered cap), and a service baldric (which holds the sword) replaces the social baldric:

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Jackson (MI) Rose Parade, June, 2017

When a Fourth Degree honor guard processes into a church ahead of the priest (or bishop), swords drawn and at attention, you know something very special is happening.

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Going forward, K of C Supreme says, the cape and chapeau will be retired, and the official uniform will look like this:

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From the Knights Gear website:

The official dress uniform (Official Navy Blue Blazer, Official Fourth Degree Gray trousers, Official Fourth Degree Necktie, and Official Fourth Degree Black Beret with Fourth Degree metal badge) is purchased as a set.  Individual items are not for sale at this time.

The garments of the official dress are tailored in Italy.  The fabric used for both blazers and pants is woven in Italy specifically for the Knights of Columbus from a high quality super 130 wool.    The blazer buttons are made in Italy. The KofC blazer patches are completely hand embroidered.  The tie is Italian silk, but made in the USA.

Once you receive the uniform, please take it to your tailor for professional finishing.  Trousers come with an unfinished hem.

When I first saw this announcement, on social media, I thought it had to be a joke or a parody piece from The Onion. Ironically, in the days since, it has in fact become the basis for biting satire in the Catholic version of The Onion.

Reactions on social media have been overwhelmingly negative, especially when intensity is taken into account. It seems Supreme was as blindsided by this negative reaction as those of us in the Color Corps were by the announcement itself.

Supreme was looking for a way to energize the Fourth Degree — and they’ve done so. Just not in the way they were intending. I’ve never seen my brother Knights rally together so vocally as they have in reaction to this announcement.

The stated intention is to make the Color Corps more attractive to young men, who supposedly find the traditional regalia off-putting. I’ll believe that when I see a scientific, random-sample survey of the membership, rather than the handful of anecdotes offered so far.

But let’s grant for a moment that the new uniform is more popular with young Knights than the traditional regalia is. I would argue that it doesn’t matter. For at least several years, the new uniform would actually significantly depress Color Corps participation. The reason is simple: coming up with $510 (plus the cost of final fitting, and plus a dress shirt), for a super-high-quality Italian wool suit, is beyond the reach of many young people (not to mention the retirees on fixed incomes).

But … but … but … doesn’t the traditional regalia cost just as much? And don’t you also have to buy a tuxedo, in addition to the roughly $500 for a traditional regalia package? Continue reading

Taking the Fourth … And Lambs!

I’ve been an active member of the Knights of Columbus for many years now; the Knights are a Catholic men’s service organization, whose members give countless volunteer hours (and dollars) helping the Church and the community. I’ve also found that being active in the Knights is a great way to meet other like-minded men, and I very much enjoy the time we spend together. My oldest son (previously known on the blog as Homeschooled Farm Boy … which no longer really fits, because he’s no longer a boy and he’s graduated from homeschooling to college, but whatever) joined about a year ago as well.

The K of C has four “degrees” of membership. The First is where everyone begins. Over time, as members decide to make more of a commitment, they can advance to additional degrees. I quickly advanced to the third degree, which is considered “full membership,” and had been there for a long time. I guess I just hadn’t felt a big sense of urgency about taking the fourth degree; it is an optional “extra” on top of the full 3rd degree membership, so not strictly necessary. One practical barrier: it seemed the exemplification ceremonies were always a long distance from home, and would require too big of an investment of time. Don’t get me wrong: I did want to become a Fourth Degree Knight. I just wasn’t sure when I’d be able to do it. (For those unfamiliar, this link has a good summary about degrees of K of C membership.)

This spring, the opportunity finally presented itself. There would be a Fourth Degree exemplification not only in the area — but at our own parish. How could I pass that up? What sealed the deal was that my son also wanted to do it. We’d be able to advance to the highest degree of Knighthood together.

The standard “uniform” of the 4th Degree is a black tuxedo, and everyone needs one for the exemplification ceremony. (A small number of 4th Degree knights make up the “color corps” that most Catholics are familiar with: those are the tuxedo-clad men with cool hats, capes, and swords who sometimes form processions at Mass — but that’s only a small number of 4th Degree guys. The rest of us don’t dress up like that.)

I hadn’t even worn a tuxedo since my wedding, which was more than 20 years ago. My son had never worn one. I ended up buying one for myself, and we rented one for him; he needed it for the exemplification, but he’s probably not finished growing. Chances are, he’s not going to attend another ceremony where he’ll absolutely need the tux before he does finish growing, so we figured a rental made sense for now.

The exemplification was today. It was an absolutely wonderful experience. Not only the ceremony itself, but the full day of fellowship with my brother Knights from all over the region (some drove quite a distance). After the exemplification itself, we all attended the 4:30pm Mass at our parish with our families. There was then a reception, and a big catered banquet. If anyone reading this is a 3rd Degree Knight who’s been on the fence about advancing to the highest degree, my advice is: just do it. It’s totally worth it.

Here we were, after the ceremony, while waiting for Mass to begin:

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We finally got home sometime after 9pm. I changed out of my tux, pulled on my junky farm clothes, slipped into my boots, and headed to the barn. And … found a wonderful surprise. The first two lambs had just arrived! It’s hard to get a good photo in the barn at night, so this will have to suffice for now:

Cocoa Puff Twins 2016

They are twin females, from a chocolate brown ewe we call Cocoa Puff. She’s a good mother, and was busy getting them cleaned up. She still had afterbirth hanging from her rear end, and both lambs were still pretty wet, so they’d only recently been born. I was really glad I’d decided to keep the barn door closed tight today while we were gone; it was a pretty chilly day, with snow and wind gusts (so much for Spring). The temperature inside the barn stayed reasonably comfortable, so I’m hoping both lambs will be fine. I’ll check on them again before I go to bed, but Cocoa Puff is a pro.

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Last year, Cocoa Puff’s lamb died. That was sad, but Homeschooled Farm Girl saw an opportunity to begin trying to milk our sheep. Cocoa Puff gave a lot of milk, and we made quite a bit of really outstanding cheese (cheddar) from it. By summertime, HFG had gotten Cocoa Puff pretty tame and trained for milking — and really enjoyed it. The only disappointment about Cocoa Puff having twins is that they’ll need all her milk. We won’t be able to milk her again this year.

There are still about a dozen more ewes to deliver. I’m sure at least one of them will have a singleton, or will lose a lamb, and thus give us a chance to make sheep cheese again.

What an amazing day! From ceremonies with tuxedos, to the lambing pen, all within a couple of hours. I can’t imagine a better life.

Happy Columbus Day

Just in time for the holiday weekend, we get this story from the LA Times:

Like cattle being prepared for slaughter, some peasant children taken by the Inca were fattened up for months before being ritually sacrificed to the gods, a sequence of events calculated both to elevate the victims’ value to the gods and to strike fear into subjugated peoples, British researchers reported this week.

Since the reporter didn’t mention it, I will: This is what the opening of the New World to European exploration and conquest put an end to.

Perhaps these people might want to address that at their rally and “Pow Wow” today in Berkeley.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Bingo!

I spent Saturday evening working Bingo at our parish hall in Paxton. It’s our Knights of Columbus council’s biggest fundraiser, and is held nearly every Saturday. We start selling cards at 5:30, start calling numbers at 6:30, and usually wrap things up at about 9:15 or so.

Before we moved here, I used to chuckle at bumper stickers encouraging people to support Bingo to “keep grandma off the streets.” True, of the 55-60 or so people who show up regularly to play, 80-90% are female and the majority look to be at least 70 years old. And, yes, some do have names like “Mabel” and “Dorothy.”

But you know what? Bingo is great — and not just because of the money it raises for our charitable works in the parish. I’ve been on a Bingo team for a few years now, and the more times I work the more I come to realize the biggest value of these events: building the social capital of our community. In an age when people are increasingly isolated with their individual entertainments (see Robert Putnam’s classic “Bowling Alone“), Bingo brings people together.

The players start arriving well before 5pm, and many buy a light dinner from the kitchen staffed by ladies from our parish’s Council of Catholic Women. They eat, get caught up with each other, play cards, show off the latest pictures of their grandkids, etc, etc. Then we start selling Bingo cards, and they all line up. We joke around with the regulars, many of whom we know by name, and explain to the newcomers how our various games are played and which cards they’ll need. Sales slow down, and then at about 6pm we get a wave of players from the parish’s 5pm Mass. More talking and joking around, but this time it’s mostly parishioners. When sales slow again, the Knights take turns grabbing something to eat, and then the games begin at 6:30.

The social capital we’re building isn’t just for the Bingo players. What I like best about working Bingo is getting caught up with the other Knights on my team. Once the caller begins drawing and announcing numbers, and we’ve gotten the paperwork in order, there is a lot of downtime where we can talk quietly. These conversations get interrupted each time someone calls “Bingo!”, and we need to go check and pay off a winning card, but we still end up with a lot of time for just sitting around and talking. With each of us living in our own orbit, and so busy most of the time, I’ve grown to really look forward to these opportunities to hang out and get to know the other guys better.

It’s especially interesting when, on nights like last night, I was substituting on another team. I already knew the other three guys on that team, of course, but not as well as the guys on my own team. Talking with them, you discover an amazing range of life experiences. One example: the guy who grew up in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, with chickens and goats and all other kinds of livestock — right there in the city (“Everybody had something back then. It was the only way you could eat, what with all the shortages and rationing.”) He’s retired now, and races homing pigeons. I found out all about how these races are done, how GPS systems are now used for tracking and timing, and much more. Fascinating conversation, and a window into a world I otherwise never would’ve gotten.

Also that night, I mentioned that we raise Icelandic sheep. One of the guys remarked that he spent a year on Iceland, in the military during the cold war, tracking Soviet planes. We talked about Iceland, and all the other exotic places he’d lived and visited. He also asked if we sell any of our goat meat, and I answered in the affirmative. “Good,” he said, “because it’s so hard to find anybody who sells goat. I tried buying a goat from somebody awhile back, but when he found out I was planning to butcher it, he refused to sell it to me.”

“He thought you wanted it as a pet?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Thought I was going to make it a member of my family or something. Doesn’t anybody eat goat meat anymore?”

“We do,” I said. “It’s delicious.”

And so it goes, all evening. When it’s over, and all the ladies have gone home, and the marked-up Bingo cards and food wrappers are thrown away, we Knights crack open a beer and turn on a baseball or basketball game, and catch a few minutes before heading home to our families.

Anyway, I don’t mean to get all philosophical about something as simple as Bingo — but I really do think it makes an enormous contribution to the social capital of our community and of our council. Awhile back, there was talk in the council of eliminating Bingo and replacing it with one big fundraising raffle each year, like some of the other community organizations do. I’m glad that proposal got voted down, and I think most everyone else is too.

Yes, it’s a bit of hassle to lose a Saturday evening every six weeks…or so I thought, when I first signed up. That’s the funny thing about volunteering time for a charitable organization. When you first agree to do it, it seems the primary motivation is a sense of duty. “I need to pull my weight. The other guys are doing it, so I should volunteer too.” But it doesn’t take long before you’re actually looking forward to your team’s turn to work, and spending time with the guys…and joking around with Mabel and Dorothy, as you keep them off the streets — and keep yourself from Bowling Alone.

Really, Really Cold

Temps here have dropped through the floor, but that’s not the worst of it: the wind is blowing across the open prairie at 25+ MPH, sending the wind chills well below zero. The air temps aren’t supposed to get back above 20 until Thursday at the earliest. At least it’s bright and sunny outside, but we could sure use some global warming right about now.

Time to hunker down and throw another log on the fire. The wife and kids are out of town visiting grandparents, or they’d be bouncing off walls for sure. My plans: pull up a chair in front of the woodstove and read a J. A. Jance mystery novel I’ve been wanting to get to. No doubt the dogs will follow me in and sprawl out on the kitchen floor. Can’t blame them; it sure beats burrowing into straw in the barn, and they’ve long ago figured out that I’m a softie for letting dogs in the house. Here are Tessa and Scooter, in my office on a recent cold day.

How cold is it? The weekly Saturday night Bingo game at our parish has already been cancelled. Members of our Knights of Columbus council take turns running those games, and this was my week. I’ve been planning to blog about Bingo, with some thoughts I’ve had about these events. Maybe tonight, now that I’ve suddenly got several more hours than I thought I was going to have, and I’ll have the house to myself. But for now, I need to go throw another log on the fire.