The Evangelical Knights of Columbus
James G. McCarthy

Particularly in countries with large numbers of evangelical Christians, it is not unusual for the Roman Catholic Church to adopt the very wording of its former critics. Take, for example, an advertisement that recently ran in several newspapers. It features a picture of Jesus, and a question in large type, asking:

If You Die Tonight And God Asks,
"Why Should I Let You Into Heaven?"
What Will You Answer?

Below this banner, in smaller type, the advertisement continued:

The answer is looking into your eyes. The answer is Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose from the dead to make us God’s children. By His grace, we become a "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) and our good deeds become pleasing to God (Revelation 19:8).

What’s wrong with that? you ask. Nothing, but that’s the point! The advertisement’s wording, emphasis, and approach are evangelical and biblical. It reads like something out of well-known evangelical James Kennedy’s course, Evangelism Explosion. But it’s not. The advertisement’s sponsor is the Knights of Columbus, and they are anything but evangelical.

The Knights of Columbus are a Catholic fraternal society claiming 1.5 million members, mostly in North America. Their goals include the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church, promotion of vocations to the Catholic priesthood, greater participation in the sacrament of confession, and the advancement of devotion to Mary. They boast of distributing 100,000 Rosaries each year. Since 1947 the Knights have been advertising in secular publications, recruiting for the Catholic Church. At the bottom of the advertisement described previously, there is the offer of a free correspondence course called A Survey of the Catholic Faith. This is described as the "basics of Catholic belief, cross-referenced to the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

Now why would a conservatively Catholic group like the Knights of Columbus want to appear evangelical? Why in explaining how to get into heaven is there no mention of the Church, baptism, the sacraments, or the Mass? All of these are necessary for salvation, according to the Church. So are good works. Yet the advertisement would lead the reader to believe that none of these things are essential. It presents good works as the fruit, not the root, of salvation. That, however, is the Protestant position—a belief condemned by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. Are the Knights of Columbus denying Roman Catholic dogma? Have they switched their allegiance and become Protestants?

Not at all. The Knights have created a clever advertisement that sounds evangelical without compromising a single Roman Catholic belief. They are following the Church’s modern strategy in dealing with non-Catholics: Stress what is held in common. The Knights have found that when promoting Catholicism in areas with a Protestant majority, more can be accomplished by taking on the profile of the highly successful evangelical movement. The advertisement described above, for example, ran in the Southern Missouri Shopper, deep in the Bible Belt of the United States. Generally speaking, the readership would be wary of anything Catholic. This advertisement, however, would catch them off guard, and some would be certain to respond.

But don’t be fooled by the advertisement. Neither the Knights of Columbus nor the Roman Catholic Church are about to become Bible-preaching revivalists. The advertisement is evangelical only in appearance. Its wording has been constructed loosely enough to accommodate a Roman Catholic reading. A Catholic theologian might read the Knights’ advertisement explaining how to get to heaven this way:

The answer is Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose from the dead to make us God’s children [not securing eternal life for those who believe, but opening the door to heaven, and thus providing the potential that some might achieve entry]. By His grace [sanctifying grace, that is, received through the sacraments of the Church], we become a "new creation" [in the sacrament of baptism] and our good deeds become pleasing to God [earning additional sanctifying grace and eternal life].

Had the Knights’ advertisement stated that salvation was by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, it would have been noteworthy, a real turnabout, and a denial of Roman Catholic doctrine. That would have left no room for the Church’s false gospel of salvation by grace plus merit through faith plus works in Christ plus the Church, the sacraments, and Mary. The way the advertisement is worded, however, leaves plenty of room for both an evangelical and a Roman Catholic reading.

This, of course, did not just happen. The Knights knew exactly what they were doing. Since they began recruiting in secular publications in 1947, some 7.5 million people have responded to their advertisements. And 800,000 of these individuals enrolled in courses on the Catholic faith. Whether these people understood what the Knights were doing is another question.

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)

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