The Corner

Equality vs. Fraternity and the Knights of Columbus

Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., decided last month not to recognize a Knights of Columbus group as a student club, citing the organization’s religious and gender exclusivity. The Knights are a Catholic men’s organization.

So are the Jesuits, who run Gonzaga, which over the weekend released a diplomatically worded statement in the wake of some online reporting and commentary on the irony of it all. A blogger at Patheos calls it a “dog bites self” story. Gonzaga now explains that it “honors and respects the purpose and good works of the Knights of Columbus.” University president Thayne McCullough is reviewing the matter.

I’m glad to see some eyebrows finally raised over the larger issue. The Knights were banned at Fordham, too, as of five years ago, and maybe they still are banned, on grounds not of religion, as it was explained to me, but of sex. (Students who inquired about joining the Knights were politely directed to a council that met somewhere just outside the campus gates.) The undergraduate says “fraternal,” and his dean hears “sexist.” To a generation of university administrators educated in the hermeneutics of suspicion, the fraternal character of a fraternal organization is largely invisible. What they see is that it excludes women.

If the Knights admitted women, they would still be a Catholic organization dedicated to charity and service, presumably, but without the promise of male bonding molded to the values and sensibilities of practicing Catholics. Knights get together to do good works, raise money for worthy causes, and in the process support each other in the understanding that a real man is not above going to church and saying the rosary. If a bunch of Knights go out for drinks after a meeting, it’s probably not going to be to a strip club. High-minded they may be, but a fraternity nonetheless.

The phrase “male bonding” was popularized by Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist who looks at human and primate societies and posits a biological basis for “men in groups,” the title of his book (1969, 2005) that still provokes strong reactions from feminists for whom sisterhood is good, brotherhood bad. Their assumption is essentially Marxist: Men and women are caught in a class struggle against each other, oppressor versus oppressed. Women in groups are self-empowering, while the Knights of Columbus only serve to reinforce the patriarchy.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, most men continue to need what should be the unremarkable and therefore unremarked experience of being a man among men. Tiger adds male bonding to a list of “universals” that includes “sex, food, shelter, social interactions, etc.” He argues (and that one has to strikes me as an indication of how far our social fabric has unraveled) that male bonding “is as important to the social and emotional standard of living of both individuals and communities as the provision of security in childhood, the opportunity for the young to learn, and the maintenance of some social order.”

Gender-equality ideologues will have none of that, of course, and hence the story out of Gonzaga. Libertarian-minded conservatives have long been aware of how égalité, as it’s pressed into service by egalitarians, clashes with liberté. Here’s a reminder that it clashes with fraternité too.

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