I left a portion of the title field blank because the number of uninsured Americans that gets bandied about seems to rise and fall according to election cycle and party affiliation but I’ll stipulate that millions of Americans are, indeed, uninsured.

Which reminds me of a story. A long story, but if you’ll stick with me, I’ll eventually get to my Libertarian point. I usually try to blog about religious themes on Sunday and, while this would certainly qualify, I have to admit that furthering a political message is my primary motivation in this case.

In the 19th century, death benefits and sick pay were practically unheard of and public assistance meant shipping the new widow’s underage children off to a state funded institution. To provide for their families in the event of their deaths, men joined fraternal organizations and burial societies. More often than not, these organizations were Masonic, pseudo-Masonic, or just plain old secret societies – which meant, of course, that they were off limits to the wave of Catholic immigrants then flooding America’s shores.

frmcgivney.jpgEnter Father McGivney (†1890). Michael J. McGivney was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1852. After Seminary he was assigned to a debt-ridden parish in New Haven where, through his pastoral work, he regularly encountered poor and immigrant families who were left penniless when their breadwinner died at an obscenely early age. The widows of these common laborers were usually left with a houseful of children and absolutely no means of financial support.

Lacking a 21st century mentality, Father didn’t jump in his carriage and ride to Hartford or petition his local congressman for federal poor relief – he rolled up the sleeves of his cassock and went to work. Knowing that recourse to membership in the existing fraternal organizations was not an option for his parishioners, Father McGivney called a meeting of twelve men in his church basement and proposed the establishment of a mutual aid society for Catholics in the State of Connecticut.

That small group could not have known that they were about to form the largest fraternal organization in history. On that winter afternoon in New Haven, Connecticut the Knights of Columbus was born.

By the time Father McGivney died in 1890 (at the age of 38 which was not uncommon in an era when priests literally worked themselves to death) the society he founded for Connecticut Catholic men had grown beyond its state borders, if not the New England region. [A group in Providence wrote to McGivney and asked him if they could form a council (chapter) in Rhode Island. McGivney went to see the Bishop of Providence, secured his blessing and then personally swore in the new Providence council.] Today there are over 13,000 Knights of Columbus Councils in America and throughout the world.

The penniless widows that Father McGivney knew in New Haven became a thing of the past because when a father and husband died, the Knights presented the survivors with the equivalent of two years salary. Families remained intact; children remained in school; and food remained on the table. There was some leakage, of course, but the general plight of widows and orphans was largely addressed through private means.

Now here’s my point…

I use the story of Father McGivney to make an argument that there was a time in this country when people saw needs and banded together to address them. The local and federal governments were not engaged, problems were solved by the respective communities themselves.

I’m not suggesting that the model of the Knights can necessarily be applied to our current social problems but I do believe that the philosophy — once prevalent in this country — can go a long way in addressing contemporary needs.

  • If purchasing individual health insurance plans is prohibitive financially, why don’t people form parish, congregational, community, or fraternal organizations to secure group rates? Why are Hillary’s big government “Health Alliances” preferable to community action?
  • If delinquency is on the rise and neighborhoods are heading south, why is a federally funded Midnight Basketball program the answer when civic organizations can come together at the local level to address the issues and provide alternatives?
  • If tight credit is a problem in economically depressed neighborhoods, why aren’t credit unions established for neighborhood revitalization and economic expansion rather than the current loitering at the federal trough begging for a questionably effective block grant?
  • What ever happened to our sense of civic and community responsibility?

The success of the Knights’ efforts cannot be underestimated. Private, fraternal charity made it possible for fatherless children to go to college rather than go to work on the New Haven docks. The social and economic ramifications for those first generations (and for society at large) is incalculable.

But, like the Swedes, when Americans are confronted with social problems — rather than organize to address them with community based solutions — we now expect the federal government to “do something”.

Well, forty years of the welfare state has proven fairly conclusively that the federal government is neither completely willing nor entirely able to “do something” about crime, poverty, health care, etc. I’d argue that private organizations like the Knights of Columbus — a free people, freely associated — have a proven record of success that the feds cannot and will not match.

Try this: The next time you’re out and about and you see a homeless woman begging for change or a group of kids gathered on a street corner, instead of calling your congressman, call your doctor, your dry cleaner, your minister, and your next door neighbors and see what YOU can do to help them.

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A quick aside: Father McGivney’s Cause for Canonization is now before the Vatican’s Congregation for Saints. If a miracle is attributed to his intercession and the report is accepted by the Pope, he will be beatified and he’ll then be known as Blessed Michael. A second miracle will lead to his canonization and Father Michael J. McGivney will become the first American priest raised to Sainthood.

A good patron for anyone doing work in his community…

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