Carl Anderson: Threats to Religious Liberty Bring Opportunity for Authentic Catholic Witness

Knights of Columbus head says Catholics will have ‘something great to offer’ by living their faith in public.

(photo: Alan Holdren/CNA)

Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, has been a prominent supporter of the U.S. bishops’ push for religious freedom since the Obama administration launched the so-called contraception mandate.  The Knights filed a formal comment with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services June 20, calling on the government to rethink the mandate, which, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, would force many Catholic employers to cover interventions that violate their faith without regard for the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

In the letter, the Knights noted that the Mandate "requires private Catholic individuals and entities, including organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, to violate their most deeply held religious beliefs," and that "it appears to do so in violation of federal law and the First Amendment of the Constitution." The letter also pointed out that "it is improper to deny statutory and First Amendment rights to religious liberty in order to create an entitlement to sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception."

Register Editor in Chief Jeanette DeMelo interviewed Anderson June 23 at the annual Catholic Press Association conference in Indianapolis.


The Knights of Columbus strongly supports the Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period during which the U.S. bishops have called for prayer, fasting, education and public action. What do you hope the outcome will be?

For the Knights of Columbus, it has certainly energized us. It’s a call to action and to rededicate ourselves to the great tradition we have as Americans and as Catholics for the free exercise of religion and also demonstrate that to our fellow citizens and to continue to reach out in works of charity and other ways to make lives better in our parishes and communities. For us, it is something which we talk about as a fortnight and we hope will lead to a platform in which action will develop way beyond the fortnight.


The Knights has had a long history of defending religious liberty.

The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882 by the sons of Irish citizens, and, really, the organization developed from a whole era of anti-Catholic prejudice and bigotry of the Know Nothings. So religious liberty was always very important to the Knights.

Then we move into the 20th century, and the Knights are standing up against the Ku Klux Klan, which as a part of a national strategy wanted to close down all the Catholic schools in America. We fought them on that. We then were very much involved in trying to help our brother and sister Catholics in Mexico when the Church was being persecuted there in the 1920s and ’30s. Then in the ’50s, (with) the question of communism and the Iron Curtain and the churches there, we were trying to work for them and their freedom. And that pretty much brings us up to today, the HHS mandate and other issues.


You recently had the opportunity to support the movie For Greater Glory. Is that due in part to the role the Knights played in that history?

One of the things when I became Supreme Knight that I wanted to do was build a closer relationship between Catholics and the Knights of Columbus in the United States and Mexico. During part of that work, it became clear the great sacrifice that Catholics made in Mexico in the ’20s and ’30s. So, with this idea of a movie, we got very excited about it … and we promoted to our members that they should see it because it was telling our story in Mexico. The Knights in the 1920s and the 1930s here and in Mexico were working overtime to try to find a peaceful solution to the situation. … We were trying to mount a national campaign in the United States to educate the public and to try to get the United States government to put pressure on President [Plutarco] Calles to stop all the persecution of the Church, but to do this in a way that promoted democracy, that promoted peaceful resolution.


Would you say in the current situation in the United States that we are entering another period similar to that of the Cristeros?

Well, I think we are entering a period of witness for Catholics. Certainly, Mexico was very different than the United States. They were trying to have a dictator. We have freedom of the press. We have our legislatures, our courts. We have all the liberty that Mexicans did not have, so that’s very different.

But I think what’s the same is the fact that Catholics at that time laid down their lives and made great sacrifices to defend freedom and religious liberty. With all the benefits and all the freedom we have today, the resources we have today, we have to measure up. It’s our turn. So we have to stand up and be counted for freedom and the mission of the Church.


Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in a recent address at the Catholic Press Association conference, said the Catholic laity as well as the bishops and clergy are somewhat responsible for the threat that we are now facing as Catholics because we haven’t lived out our faith with vigor, and we haven’t passed it along from one generation to the next. He said the reinvigoration of our faith will give us the strength to fight for religious freedom. How are you encouraging people — Catholics, the Knights of Columbus — in the spiritual battle?

At the heart of the New Evangelization is the question of mission and witness. And so Archbishop Chaput is exactly on point. This is a question of Catholics living an authentic Catholic life, an authentic Catholic witness. To the extent we do that, we will convince our fellow Americans, our fellow citizens, that we have something not just good to offer, but something great to offer.


He was saying that you can’t fight for religious freedom if you are no longer religious believers. And I think that’s exactly what we are struggling with today: that too many of us are no longer believing Catholics.

Yes. The question is: Do we protect something we do not value as a good? Pope Paul VI used to remind us that … people listen to teachers who … are witnesses. Witnessing is more than just speaking about something. Witnessing is living it.


The Knights of Columbus joined many other institutions in filing comments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service to register their concerns about the contraception mandate. What should the HHS do?

Well, first of all, we asked the administration to … rescind the mandate. But if you are not going to do that, then don’t present a very narrow exception; [and] be consistent with our tradition. ... Grant conscience exemptions to religious institutions [affiliated with] churches and also to individuals and private employers. Our faith community, after all, is made up of individuals, and we also need to protect their right of conscience.


The individual’s right to conscience doesn’t seem to be getting as much play as recent arguments upholding the rights of church-affiliated institutions.

Yes. And … the real problem with the HHS mandate is that it restricts the role; it is redefining the role: It is excluding religion from the public square.

In the Hosanna Tabor litigation before the Supreme Court … the question was the definition of ministry. The administration argued a very narrow definition of ministry — and now, with the HHS mandate, a very narrow definition of what is an institution that can be exempt.


In your address to Catholic journalists at the Catholic Press Association conference, you were critical of today’s political environment for what you call “an intransigence and partisanship” that “makes the search for solutions virtually impossible.” What is your solution?

I think that Catholics are as upset as anyone else with the political gridlock that we have and the politics of destruction that we see all the time. It is not just enough to disagree with your political opponent; you have to kind of grind him down. So what do we have as a solution as Catholics?

I think we have a great solution: That is Catholic social teaching, which presents a unified vision of the human person, of his dignity, of his rights and a vision of society which is a vision that really depends on brotherhood, looking at each other and having responsibility. We are our brother’s keeper in the Catholic tradition, so if we have an authentic understanding and a consistent commitment to Catholic social teaching, I think this is how we can break out of this kind of politics of destruction and politics of gridlock.


During this Fortnight for Freedom campaign, the U.S. bishops and the Knights of Columbus have been criticized for what some call partisanship. But you have said that Catholic social teaching gives us a reason to rise above the politics of partisanship. How does Catholic social teaching help us to do that?

Partisanship is a red herring. It’s a diversion. I think as Catholics, again, if we focus on consistent, authentic commitment to our social teaching in our tradition of the Church, that gives us a way to transcend partisanship. One of the problems is that we have to stop looking at every issue on every Church teaching from the standpoint of who does it immediately benefit. Does it benefit this candidate or this party? And take a longer view …

Right now we are being told, “This party or this candidate is okay on this issue but not on this. This one is okay on this but not on that, so choose the lesser of evils.” Why do we want to choose the lesser of evils? Why don’t we insist, “If you want our vote, come to us on our terms, on the terms of Catholic teaching of respect and dignity of the human person and of marriage and of family. And if we do that, now let’s talk about what is the best health-care program and what’s the best immigration program.”


What are the issues we need to be basing our political decisions upon?

Religious liberty is a very important issue, and we ought to have the autonomy and integrity of the Catholic Church. I think every politician ought to respect clearly our integrity as Church, as Catholics, and the integrity of other religious denominations. I think the dignity and sanctity of human life. I think the integrity of marriage. … You may say that those cut in a particular way most of the time, but they don’t cut that way all of the time, because there are candidates in both parties who obviously meet that criteria.


You have said in your address to the Catholic journalists that the HHS mandate is a different kind of battle, that this isn’t the same kind of policy battle that we have fought over abortion or same-sex “marriage” or contraception even. Why?

Well, it’s different because it’s not simply about a particular policy. It’s really about the mission and integrity of churches and about the government telling churches what they must do. And that is very different. We’ve never had at this level our national government forcing churches to do something, which the leadership of the Church says is against our fundamental belief.

I think the great strength of America is that we’ve said, “When it comes to that kind of issue, we are going to respect conscience. We are going to respect the teachings of individual churches. We are not going to force people to choose between loyalty to their country and loyalty to their faith.”

So this is different. It changes the landscape of politics in the country, and I think that is why we have seen such immediate and uniform response from the Catholic bishops.