The pope has made clear that he is seeking common ground with the president, and I would assume the president will do the same. Some in the media focus only on the differences between the thinking of these two men, but, there is also much common ground on issues like abortion, religious liberty, persecuted Christians and human trafficking.
In what ways have the Knights worked with Pope Francis over the past few years?
From our earliest days, the Knights of Columbus has always been loyal to the Holy Father. We have a wonderful relationship with Pope Francis and have helped sponsor a number of conferences and projects with the Vatican during his tenure on topics including relief work in Haiti, the Church in America, and the continental Jubilee of Mercy. I’ve had the privilege to meet with Pope Francis privately each year and to review with him our priorities and new initiatives. Each time, I’ve come away deeply inspired by his love for the poor and those on the margins of society.
We see supporting the pope, his ministry and his charitable endeavors as central to who we are as an organization. I have repeatedly told our K of C leaders to take his words to us as our agenda, and I’ve personally assured him he can count on our support.
What are the main causes the Knights support?
We support causes large and small, but our primary focus over the past two years has been helping Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East who were targeted by ISIS. Because these communities are so small, they are too often overlooked by U.S. Government or UN aid programs and risk disappearing. We also have been supporting clean water projects in Africa, inspired by Laudato Si, and we just finished a project to improve the energy efficiency of our headquarters.
Two of the projects I’m very proud of are our work in Africa to educate and support AIDS orphans, many of whom are themselves HIV positive, and our efforts in Haiti to provide artificial limbs to children who lost their legs because of the earthquake there.
Also, at the local level, our members accompany their fellow parishioners and the members of their communities, supporting their needs in ways large and small. From food programs, to housing and clothing programs, to disaster relief, when people need us, we are there.
We also strongly support the right to life. Laudato Si section 120 states that without opposition to abortion, defending the rest of the vulnerable is increasingly difficult: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”
In our country today, abortion takes more lives each year than any other cause of death. But we certainly don’t focus all our charity efforts on beginning-of-life issues. For example, we continued to give away more than 80,000 new winter coats and more than 8,000 wheelchairs in 2015, and we are constantly engaged in tens of thousands of projects around the world to help clothe, feed, shelter and meet other pressing needs of our neighbors. Last year we gave away $175 million and 73.5 million hours to charitable causes. We also support the Vatican and national bishops’ conferences in numerous ways, including in the defense of religious liberty, especially – but not only – when assaults on religious liberty also implicate the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
How dire are things for the Christians in the Middle East and why did you choose that issue?
For the first time in nearly 2,000 years, we are reaching a point where Christians could literally cease to exist in a country like Iraq. The situation is incredibly dire, and in the next few days, we will be announcing a new initiative to help stabilize these communities because there is a real concern that they will not survive. We have been providing assistance with food for thousands of families, we have provided funding for medical clinics, for apartment buildings, rental assistance, clothing, education, etc. But even more is needed. We simply cannot allow Christianity and pluralism to be eliminated from this region by those using terrorism and genocide to achieve their ends.
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I am among the many who hope that the meeting between the pope and the president this week in Rome may include breakthrough solutions and closer cooperation between the American government and its aid programs and the Church to help ensure that these people survive, and that ISIS’ goal of eliminating religious minorities is not realized. As at least one commentator has also pointed out, no two organizations are more critical to surivival of these people than the U.S. government and the Vatican.
In terms of how we chose this issue, it came naturally to us, since the Knights of Columbus has been concerned about religious persecution throughout our history. We spoke up for Catholics being persecuted in Mexico in the 1920s, for Jews being persecuted in Germany in the 1930s, for people of faith being persecuted in the Cold War, and now, for these victims of ISIS.
You also mentioned your pro-life work. There have been some real advances in that area recently - what trends do you see?
We have seen some great strides in this area over the past months including moves to stop the taxpayer funding of abortion including via the Mexico City Policy. Appointments to the court and several cabinet positions are also very pro-life and this is very heartening as well.
As our polling shows, support for abortion restrictions is bi-partisan. For example, 70 percent of Democrats and 94 percent of Republicans support banning taxpayer funding of abortion abroad. In addition, about 6 in 10 Democrats, 7 in 10 Independents and 9 in 10 Republicans support substantial restrictions on abortion, and would limit it – at most – to the first three months of pregnancy.
Practicing Catholics are united in support for abortion restrictions in overwhelming numbers as well.