Knights of Columbus
The organization was founded in 1882 as a mutual benefit society for working-class and immigrant Catholics in the United States. It has grown to support refugee relief, Catholic education, local parishes and dioceses, and global Catholic causes.
The organization provides certain financial services to affiliated groups and individuals. Its wholly owned insurance company, one of the largest in the world, underwrites more than two million insurance contracts, totalling more than $100 billion of life insurance in force. The order also owns the Knights of Columbus Asset Advisors, a money management firm which invests in accordance with Catholic social teachings.
As of 2019, there were nearly two million members around the world. Women may participate in K of C through the Columbiettes and other female auxiliaries, and boys may join the Columbian Squires. The Order comprises four different "degrees", each one of which exemplifies one of the core principles of the order. There are more than 16,000 local Knights of Columbus councils around the world, including over 300 on college campuses.
EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
During World War I, the Knights established soldiers' welfare centers in the U.S. and abroad. After the war, the Knights participated in education, occupational training, and employment programs for veterans.
The Oregon Compulsory Education Act of 1922 would have disallowed parochial schools, including Catholic schools, in that state. The Knights of Columbus challenged the law in court, and, in a landmark 1925 ruling (Pierce v. Society of Sisters), the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down.
In the 1920s, to combat animus targeted at racial and religious minorities, the organization published a series of three books: "Knights of Columbus Racial Contributions Series": The Gift of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, The Jews in the Making of America by George Cohen, and The Germans in the Making of America by Frederick Schrader.
During the nadir of American race relations, the Ku Klux Klan promoted a conspiracy theory claiming that Fourth Degree Knights swore an oath to exterminate Freemasons and Protestants. The Knights began suing distributors for libel in an effort to stop this, and the KKK ended its publication of the false oath.
According to Church historian Massimo Faggioli, the Knights of Columbus are today "'an extreme version' of a post-Vatican II phenomenon, the rise of discrete lay groups that have become centers of power themselves."
The order is dedicated to the principles (Degrees) of charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism. The first ritual handbook, printed in 1885, contained only the first two Degrees teaching unity and charity. Assemblies may form color guards, which are often the most visible arm of the Knights, to attend important civic and church events.