Chivalry Is Not Dead

I gave this presentation at the Knights of Columbus Council 9672 business meeting on 17 September 2013 at the request of Grand Knight David Symonds. Fellow knights have asked me where they could read the text of the speech, so I am publishing it here at the C-blog for those who asked.

* * *

At our last meeting, a question arised. How can we recruit more men to become fellow Knights? Ideas pop into the head immediately of marketing campaigns involving ads, posters, billboards, radio spots, and the ever important celebrity endorsement. It is my personal belief that we live in an age that is oversaturated in marketing. I prefer the method of marketing championed by minimalist blogger Leo Babauta:

When you’ve created something of real value, you don’t need to do any marketing, spend any money on advertising, or push people to subscribe. People will find you, and they’ll think you’re so great they want to tell their friends about it.

Babauta’s idea is that a superior product needs no marketing. When people find something of real value, they do the marketing for you. If we are having trouble getting men to become Knights, it behooves us to consider the value that we are providing. It is my belief that all men want to become knights. They just don’t know it yet. It is our job to let them know it.

My personal interest in the Knights of Columbus came before my conversion to the Catholic faith. My wife told me about some fellows in Tampa that liked to drink beers down at the local Irish pub. These guys had all been raised Catholic though they had degraded to attending Mass a few times a year. None of them would have ever met the minimum requirements of becoming a Knight of Columbus. But they would escort women home when they left the bar to make sure nothing happened to them on the mean streets of Tampa. Now, the cynic would say they were just trying to score, but these guys always returned to the bar shortly after their escort duties were done. When my wife told me about these guys, I was amazed because there were actually some decent men left in this world. Chivalry was not dead.

Chivalry is in short supply these days. Women are routinely degraded in the media and in life. Men have disposed of notions of virtue and honor and have replaced them with hedonistic indulgence, pornography, and misogyny. We are the age of the fatherless child, the single mom, and my “baby’s daddy.” Men dress no differently than boys and act no differently either as they live a perpetual adolescence of video games and superhero movies. When they want to feel like men, they engage in either simulated or real violence or go and mistreat some woman. When I ask men about treating women with dignity and respect, I get a response like this:

“When they start acting like ladies, I’ll start treating them like ladies.”

I don’t think all men are conditioned to think like this. But the decent men that remain in this world are left with surrender, retreat, and defeat believing the mantra that nice guys finish last. Chivalry is for the weak.
My interest in the Knights of Columbus began with the story of those men at the bar. I didn’t know any better, so I would jokingly refer to those guys as the “Knights of Columbus.” For all their failings, I admired those guys. They were the only example I had of what it was to be a Catholic gentleman.

Pope Francis remarked that the Catholic Church was not just another NGO. Those remarks meant to highlight and eliminate a growing perception that the Church was just about feeding the poor and bringing relief to the unfortunate around the world. The Catholic Church could be lumped in with the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Goodwill, and the Salvation Army. But the Church is not just about helping the poor. It is much more than that.

The Knights of Columbus are in a similar peril. When I talk to people including lapsed Knights, the popular perception is that the Knights of Columbus are just a bunch of guys raising money for worthy causes. I hear about fish fries and coats for kids and the like. These are all good things, but this popular perception has dulled the moral edge of what the Knights of Columbus is supposed to be about. We are not the Rotary Club.

Father McGivney originally conceived the order as the “Sons of Columbus” and was to be a mutual aid society on par with many of the others that existed at the time. It was our first Supreme Knight James T. Mullen who suggested the name “Knights of Columbus.” I think this was a watershed moment because it tapped into the larger interest of the society in medievalism, knighthood, and chivalry. This interest was sparked in 1820 by the publication of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. By the 1880’s, it was cool to be chivalrous, and those ideas of manhood had a lasting influence on American society until their destruction in the 1960’s.

We have the Catholic Church to thank for chivalry. In ancient times, a man with a sword was nothing more than a serial murderer and rapist known as a barbarian. He looted and pillaged at will, and he showed no mercy to either man or woman. The weak were not to be protected and defended but exploited, assaulted, and slaughtered. We may shake our heads at the abomination of the barbarians, but their mentality has already returned to our day as chivalry erodes.

The knight stood in contrast to the barbarian. Inspired by Christ and devotion to the Blessed Virgin, they pledge to defend the weak and the powerless. Like the barbarians that preceded them, they were warriors, but they fought for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Women were to be treated well in honor to the Mother of Our Lord. Make no mistake about it. The Catholic Church is what made Western Civilization the best in human history, and it is the Church that humanized men from being beasts to being men of valor and compassion. The knight’s oath from the movie Kingdom of Heaven captures it best:

Be without fear in the face of your enemies.
Be brave and upright that God may love thee.
Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death.
Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong – that is your oath.

What man can hear such words and not feel a stirring in his heart? What man cannot want to aspire to such honor and nobility? And what man does not feel ashamed that he has not lived up to such an ideal?

Knighthood is what true manhood is all about. It is not about wearing armor, carrying a sword, or jousting on the battlefield. Those things are gone, but the idea of chivalry remains. To be a knight today is to be respectful to women even if they aren’t so ladylike anymore. To be a knight today is to be a good husband, a good father, a good employee, and a good citizen. To be a knight today is to be devoted to our Lord and our Lady. And if all of this seems quaint and boring and the relic of some bygone era, realize that precious few men are doing these things today. To be chivalrous today is a revolutionary act.

Our society is screaming out for men such as this. Men are frustrated believing that their only options are to either be weak losers or belligerent jerks. We, as Knights and Catholic gentlemen, show with our words and our actions that there is a third way and a better way. This is the way of chivalry. Compassion and strength are not exclusive.

People remember a time when men were real men and not wimps or coldhearted misogynistic bastards. Websites such as the Art of Manliness give tips on dressing like your grandpa, and a throwback men’s movement has coined a new term--the “menaissance.” But this will almost certainly be shortlived as a nostalgic fad. This is because these things echo the style but forget the substance of true manhood. Among the religious, men’s movements like the Promise Keepers among evangelicals in the 90’s were very popular but faded as quickly as they emerged. These things show that the desire is there, but nothing has satisfied it.
Men want to be knights. They don’t know it, but they are searching for this. This is what they want to be. Nothing less will fulfill them as men. We need to let men know they want to be knights, and we need to let them know that a good way to be a knight is to become a Knight of Columbus. If we can connect the desire that is already there with the mission that we have here, we won’t lack for recruits. As for me, I became a Knight of Columbus because of the good men I see here today. I suspect many of you became knights because of the example of some other knights or the gentle but firm nudge of your wife to join the Knights. If all men want to be knights, all women want their men to be knights.

We can’t let the popular conception of us be that we are just a bunch of nice guys raising money for worthy causes. As much as we help the unfortunate, the ones who really need our help at the present hour are the ones who don’t cry out, and that would be the sad men of our decaying society who have forgotten what it means to be a man. This requires fraternity on our part. As iron sharpens iron, we need to sharpen one another into becoming better men. We need to befriend those who aren’t knights in order to show them that they really want to be knights. And most of all, we need to pray to God for ourselves and our fellow knights that we will be true and honorable men.