According to multiple sources in Catholic media, during the 135th Convention of the Knights of Columbus, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson made an announcement that the Fourth Degree will no longer use the plumed hats and capes that have been the staple of pomp and parades, great feasts and civic celebrations, as well as solemn occasions of bereavement and remembrance for over 70 years. According to Anderson, the Knights of Columbus are in need of “modernization” even though in his annual report, membership continues to grow and the Knights donated a record amount to charity in the past year. If the Knights of Columbus isn’t broken, why fix it?
The Knights are a conspicuous and active defender of Holy Mother Church. Especially considering what is happening to our Christian brothers and sisters in Europe and the Middle East, the saber and baldric are not merely symbolic, but a necessity. In America, we have the luxury of fighting for religious freedom through the ballot and the courts, but in the strife and carnage of Syria and Iraq, Christians have seen their churches burned down, their homes bombed, and their lives torn apart. They are fighting for their lives, but the Knights are helping at least one town rebuild now that ISIS is being routed from Iraq. A century ago, the Knights were also at the forefront of religious freedom when they supported the Cristeros in opposition to the brutal anti-Catholic repression in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and many Knights were martyred for their defense of the faith.
A few months ago, the National “Catholic” Reporter–famous for their heterodox tendencies–ran what they probably imagined was supposed to be a hit piece on the Knights of Columbus, but it reads more like a recruiting brochure. In addition to many ways that the Knights fight for religious freedom, they also perform many other good works in ways large and small, from fish fries, coat drives, and supporting the needs of the local parish to funding EWTN, the Vatican press office, and recently moving into the digital media space with the acquisition of Crux. As the supposed “exposé” makes clear, the Knights of Columbus are a vigorous and dynamic organization with strong growth and an active membership. It makes one wonder exactly why the organization needs to be “modernized.”
The chapeau and cape are admittedly antiquated, perhaps more in character for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than the 21st century. However, the proposed replacement of a beret is oddly reminiscent of third world dictators and Communist revolutionaries. Even the Army no longer uses the beret with combat fatigues and is considering bringing back the classic “pinks and greens” as an alternative to the current beret and service uniform. Both the military and the Catholic Church are steeped in rich traditions, full of deep significance and meaning. Indeed, many religious orders have nicknames which are simply the color of their habits such as the Blackfriars (Dominicans), Whitefriars (Carmelites), Greyfriars (Conventual Franciscans), and Brownfriars (Capuchins). A uniform is the ultimate expression of identity and belonging and should not be changed or discarded lightly.
As Mark Twain famously observed, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” As the popularity of ripped jeans, cargo shorts, and “athlesiure” wear attests, there are many people who give little thought to their appearance these days. The change in uniform was perhaps conceived as a way to appeal to the younger generation, but if anything, it is only even more off-putting. Among this writer’s circle of friends and fellow Knights on social media under the age of 40, the new uniform is the subject of unanimous ridicule. The whole point of the Fourth Degree is to give the Knights of Columbus a sense of prestige and exclusivity which is a source of civic pride and a recruiting tool. The new uniform utterly fails in both respects.
Likewise, what is a knight without his sword? According to the Knights of Columbus Twitter account, the saber will remain a part of the regalia, but this only raises more questions. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but wearing both a long necktie and the baldric seems too busy. At the same time, the baldric will have a tendency to pull down on the tie choking the wearer. Additionally, many Knights have antique swords which have been passed on from father to son for generations. Thus, the formal white gloves are not only for looks, but have the essential function of protecting the hilts of these priceless family heirlooms from rust and wear. From this, we can only conclude that the new uniform was hastily conceived and little thought was given to either sartorial or practical considerations which might have been easily obtained had the membership been consulted in this decision.
Supreme Knight Anderson’s announcement includes a caveat that Fourth Degree assemblies will be able to continue using the old regalia on a “limited basis” but it is unclear what this will mean in practice. Hopefully this is an opening for a compromise that will allow assemblies to use both the formal regalia and the new uniform in parallel as appropriate for different settings. While the former is unquestionably more appropriate for solemn liturgical observances, the latter might be more appropriate for summertime wear on patriotic celebrations like the Fourth of July–or, for more traditionally minded parishes, not at all. However, if there is to be no compromise, then this is a terrible decision which will reduce the Fourth Degree to a distinction without a difference and will only sow division and disunity among the ranks of the Knights.
All people–whether they recognize it or not–have a natural and deep yearning for traditions and continuity with the past, and this is especially true of converts like your humble columnist. If we want to change the world for the better–and as Christians, this is what we are called to do–we must remain faithful to what makes us unique. Saint Michael the Archangel is depicted as a warrior and protector of the Church. In a similar way, the Knights of Columbus are always waging spiritual warfare as a strong and vigorous arm of the Ecclesia Militans. Like the typical depiction of Saint Michael in armor and bearing a sword, the Fourth Degree regalia is an iconic expression of our mission. If it must be replaced–and it is not clear this is the case–we deserve something with gravitas and visual impact that the proposed design utterly lacks.