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Recommitted to Father McGivney’s Dream

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson delivered an address entitled “Committed to Father McGivney’s Dream” during the Order’s 125th anniversary celebration March 29, 2007.


Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and his wife Dorian attend 125th Anniversary Mass at St. Mary's Church, New Haven.

On an occasion such as a 125th anniversary, it would be customary to review the great accomplishments and the great personalities that have brought our Order to such heights. Tonight, I would prefer not to look back, but to look forward — to consider the great challenge that our Church today faces and to consider in what way we should act.

Throughout our history, we have faced many challenges regarding the acceptance of our religion. Despite those challenges, there remained a firm foundation in one sense. George Washington aptly described the view of the Founding Fathers toward  religion in the life of the United States when he said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.” 

 I am sure the founders of the Knights of Columbus would have agreed with our first president.

Today, sadly, Washington would hardly receive unanimous support. Instead, we see a strenuous effort to drive religion out of the public life of our nation — to create in the words of one Catholic author, a “naked public square” in which the words “under God” and “In God we trust” are erased from our national symbols.

 And across the Atlantic, the European parliament refuses to recognize the common Christian roots of Europe in its constitution.

How has this turn of affairs come about?

To find an answer we might consider the influence of men I would call the fathers of modern secular society, men such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre.

When Marx described religion as “the opium of the people,” he began an attack on religion that ultimately led to the destruction of thousands of churches and the murder of millions of priests and other believers in countries such as Poland and Ukraine.

And while the communist regimes throughout Europe have fallen, this influence is still strong.

Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre chose different words than Marx to express their negative views of religion, but they nonetheless agreed with him. Today we may easily dismiss Marx’s idea of religion in society, but we should not because there are still many people who do not. Although these people are not likely to quote Marx that religion is the “opium of the people,” they agree that religion is like a dangerous and destructive drug. 

And they may think, “What type of a society founds its basic institutions on drug addiction or gives a privileged place to those who promote this addiction?” The answer, of course, is that no sane or healthy society will tolerate such behavior or grant it a privileged place or recognize it as morally appropriate.

When we look at the situation this way, we see why some elites insist upon a “naked public square,” or why they do not accept rights of conscience for Catholic hospitals, schools and charities.

We might mention one further development in this regard: It is the widespread influence of the philosophy of existentialism — the idea that existence precedes essence.

Archbishop Henry Mansell celebrates 125th Anniversary Mass at St. Mary's Church with Supreme Chaplain Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, and Bishop Thomas Daily, Supreme Chaplain Emeritus and Bishop Emeritus of Brooklyn.

We might ask what practical difference does this make? But consider the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade that the unborn child is nothing more than “potential human life.” Is this not the judicial expression of existentialism’s basic idea that a being can exist before it has a real nature? 

 In other words, a human embryo can be treated as not yet really human. If human beings can be said to begin life as not yet really human in order to justify abortion, the same reasoning can say that human beings may approach the end of life while not really being human in order to justify euthanasia.

All of these modern thinkers have influenced the development of our laws in perhaps an even more important way.  

There is no room in existentialism for the idea of natural law. Nor is there any room for natural law in Marx’s understanding of the dialectic, in Nietzsche’s search for a morality “beyond good and evil,” or in Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams.

In fact, natural law is impossible within all of these modern ways of thinking. When the sense of natural law disappears, laws supporting the Christian understanding of marriage, family and even life itself become harder to maintain in our courts and in our legislatures.

But in a way it is even worse than that.

In today’s society, natural law is no longer regarded as that special guide written on the heart of each person. Instead, it is seen as something entirely contrary to the person and his or her freedom. It is seen as something fabricated, something artificial and something abstract. 

Today, Catholics are seen by many in society as coming to today’s cultural debates with an outdated rule book called “natural law” — a rule book that our critics say imposes unreasonable restraints on personal freedom and limits the “pursuit of happiness.” 

The Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac summarized the situation when he wrote that this secular world view “is built upon resentment and begins with a choice” (The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Ignatius Press). Nietzsche expressed this “choice” with even more precision when he wrote, “it is our preference that decides against Christianity — not arguments.”

The founding fathers of modern secular society — Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre — are radically different from the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Constitution. Unlike Madison, Jefferson and Washington, they have no interest in finding common ground with the Christian tradition nor do they value religion or religious morality. To the contrary, they seek to build a society entirely without Christian principles or morality.

Archibishop Henry Mansell speaks at 125th Anniversary Mass at St. Mary's Church.

They already have had great success in society’s treatment of marriage, divorce, abortion and euthanasia. Already, writers speak of an “abortion culture” and of a “divorce culture.” And it may not be long before sociologists suggest other types of social transformations.

I am sure you have noticed that Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre are all Europeans and their influence in Europe has been, to say the least, enormous. Europe has already undergone great social transformations, and one consequence has been the increasing marginalization of Christianity. Sunday Mass attendance in some European countries is now at such low levels that Catholic churches are being given over to be used as mosques.

Is America next? Is the recent past in Europe a reflection of what is to come in North America and beyond?

More than 70 years ago, as the storm clouds of World War II were gathering in Europe, the great French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that at the root of this crisis “there is a deep resentment against the Christian world — and not only against the Christian world but (also) against Christianity itself.” Maritain emphasized that this resentment was directed especially against those Christians “who have not been able to give effect to the truth of which they were the bearers” (Integral Humanism, University of Notre Dame Press).

Not long after he wrote these words, Europe, and soon the whole world, plunged into a global war brought on by regimes which embodied that deep resentment of Christianity. Today, more than 50 years later, the threat to Christianity still comes from those who resent it. The threat from an aggressive secularism is less violent, but potentially just as lethal. Maritain’s analysis of the threat of the 1930s suggests the only adequate response to our situation today: There must be a stronger and more visible living witness by Catholics that makes present to a skeptical and cynical world the living reality of Jesus Christ.

On this 125th anniversary of the Knights of Columbus, we must resolve as Catholics to turn the tide. We must begin with the spiritual renewal of Catholic life and a rededication to our charitable mission as Catholics. This renewal must take place precisely where people live — within our families and, especially, within our parishes. As we have done since our founding, this renewal must be pursued in close cooperation with our parish priests.

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson delivers the keynote address at the Knights' 125th celebration dinner honoring Connecticut's parish priests.

Last August, Pope Benedict XVI conducted a brief question and answer session with parish priests from the diocese in which the pope’s summer retreat, Castel Gandolfo, is located. He said, “The parish priest cannot do it all! It is impossible! He cannot be a ‘soloist’; he cannot do everything, but needs other pastoral workers.”

In those remarks, the pope was restating a truth that was well known and understood by our founder. It is a truth that guided the way in which he went about organizing the Knights of Columbus.

Father Michael J. McGivney could easily have become the head of the Knights upon its founding. He felt strongly that his pastoral responsibilities came first. He believed that the Knights would make its greatest contribution to the vitality of the parish as an organization led by laymen. In fact, he had a vision of the role of the laity that was well ahead of his time. It was a vision that would receive its ultimate articulation at the Second Vatican Council in its pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes.

I have long thought it providential that Father McGivney founded our great Order in 1882 — the year that the German philosopher Nietzsche wrote that “God is dead.” Father McGivney would never have written a book in response to Nietzsche’s contention; rather, he wrote his response in the living hearts of men.

These men they call “Knights” — Father McGivney’s knights — would not remain in ivory towers to debate with philosophers. Instead, they would take to the field. For 125 years we have been living his response as Knights of Columbus by providing a living witness to the reality of the Gospel of life through our works of charity, unity and fraternity.

Because of our devotion to the young parish priest whose vision and strength made these 125 years possible, in recent years we have worked harder to establish parish-based councils and promote greater solidarity with our priests.

We are proud that in so many ways we have earned the title of the “strong right arm of the Church.” In this regard, we often recount service to our Holy Father and our bishops. Our greatest contributions, however, will always be at the parish level. It is there that we must make our mark as the strong right arm of the local church and the strong right arm of our parish priest.

There are thousands of parish priests who are active members of the Knights of Columbus, and there are thousands of councils already active in local parishes. We are providentially positioned to help lead the renewal of parish life in every country where we are active.

Every parish can benefit from our works of charity, our programs of Marian and eucharistic devotion, and our efforts to promote family life and priestly vocations.

 Every parish can benefit from our programs and every parish should benefit. This year, in honor of the parish priest who was our founder, the Knights of Columbus pledges to devote new energy to increasing the vitality and spirituality that will help our parishes become the leading edge of a renewed and energetic Catholic Church. A more detailed look at how we will accomplish this important goal will be presented as our anniversary year unfolds.

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson delivers opening remarks at 125th celebration dinner. 

Beginning today, on this 125th anniversary of the Knights of Columbus, let us all rededicate ourselves to Father McGivney’s dream: Every parish must have an active Knights of Columbus presence, and every parish priest should see in the Knights of Columbus his strong right arm to lead a renewal of parish life.

Today, we say thank you to a special parish priest, the Servant of God Father Michael J. McGivney, to whom we owe so much.

Today, we say thank you to the thousands of priests throughout North America, Europe and Asia who, as loyal Knights of Columbus, have done so much to help our Order grow and thrive.

Today, we say thank you to every parish priest. With our gratitude comes a promise and a commitment of a new solidarity in the work of renewal for our parishes, so that the world may know its most precious reality: Vivat Jesus!