NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Catholics can be good U.S. citizens and honest public servants, the head of the Knights of Columbus wrote Thursday in a message to members of the Catholic charitable organization.
“There have been times in our country’s past when uninformed or prejudiced people questioned whether Catholics could be good citizens or honest public servants,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson wrote in the letter.
“Sadly, it seems that, in some quarters, this prejudice remains.”
Anderson's Jan. 3 letter was occasioned by two senators objecting last month to a federal judicial nominee's membership in the Knights. The Knights of Columbus is active in 17 countries. In 2017, some 2 million members carried out more than 75 million hours of volunteer work and raised more than $185 million for charitable purposes.
Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked whether his membership in the Knights of Columbus would prevent Brian Buescher from hearing cases “fairly and impartially.” Buescher is an Omaha-based lawyer nominated to sit on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska.
The supreme knight noted that Buescher’s “fitness for the federal bench” was questioned by Hirono and Harris “precisely because our order holds firm to the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life and marriage.”
Anderson said, “Such attacks on the basis of our Catholic faith are hardly new. The Knights of Columbus was formed amid a period of anti-Catholic bigotry.”
From the founding of the Knights of Columbus until the presidential election of John Kennedy, “many still held that Catholics were unfit for public office,” he added.
The Knights of Columbus has always adhered to Catholic teaching, Anderson said, adding that “our primary motivation” is Christ's commandment “that we love God completely and our neighbor as ourselves.”
It is this commandment of love that compels the Knights' charitable work, he noted.
“This love also motivates us to stand with the Church on the important issues of life and marriage, precisely because the Church’s teaching reflects and is based on that love. We stand with our Church because we believe that what our faith teaches is consistent with reason, is timeless and transcends the changing sentiments of any particular time or place.”
The supreme knight also noted that in his letter to the Knights' 2013 convention, Pope Francis had asked that the organization “bear witness to the authentic nature of marriage and the family, the sanctity and inviolable dignity of human life, and the beauty and truth of human sexuality.”
Anderson pointed out the No-Religious-Test Clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution and the Free-Exercise Clause of the Constitution's First Amendment, saying that “any suggestion that the order’s adherence to the beliefs of the Catholic Church makes a brother knight unfit for public office blatantly violates those constitutional guarantees.”
“Let us continue to express our love of God and neighbor by helping those in need and by standing with our Church, regardless of the popularity of doing so,” Anderson stated.
“Let us also remember that, from our founding, we have embodied the truth that a good Catholic is a good citizen who shows civility and dignity even in the face of prejudice.”
Buescher was nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court Nov. 3. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Buescher’s nomination Nov. 28, sending him written questions Dec. 5.
Hirono had asked Buescher if he would end his membership with the Knights of Columbus if confirmed, so as “to avoid any appearance of bias,” saying the organization “has taken a number of extreme positions.”
And Harris described the Knights as “an all-male society” and asked if Buescher was aware that the Knights of Columbus “opposed a woman’s right to choose” and were against “marriage equality” when he joined.
Harris raised a statement from Anderson saying abortion constituted “the killing of the innocent on a massive scale” and asked Buescher if he agreed with Anderson.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., noted the nominee’s previously outspoken opposition to abortion and asked, “Why should a litigant in your courtroom expect to get a fair hearing from an impartial judge in a case involving abortion rights?”
Buescher ran in the Republican primary for Nebraska attorney general in 2014. During that campaign he described himself as “avidly pro-life” and said opposition to abortion was part of his “moral fabric.”
In his responses to the questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, Buescher said if confirmed as a federal judge, he would follow established rules regarding conflicts of interest and that he would not seek to advance personal opinions, but would make rulings in accord with the judicial precedents established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anderson is not the only voice to raise objections to the senators’ line of questions.
A Jan. 2 Wall Street Journal editorial said that the senators’ “argument against Mr. Buescher fits a distressing pattern. No longer is it necessary to engage the political merits of a position, or — in the case of a judicial nominee — demonstrate he’d use personal views to override the law. Today it is enough to label a nominee’s religion or associations ‘extreme’ and use that to try to banish him from public life.”
The editorial noted another recent instance in which a Catholic faced questions about her faith, mentioning the 2017 confirmation hearing for federal circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.” That comment sparked a groundswell of support for Barrett’s nomination.
Last month, a Washington, D.C., chapter of the Knights of Columbus invited Harris and Hirono to join in their charitable activities, including a February “Polar Plunge” raising money for the Special Olympics. Neither senator has responded to that invitation.