Question: What are the Freemasons? May Catholics belong to their lodges? Why is the Church antagonistic to people who do such charitable work?
Answer: The generally accepted wisdom holds that Freemasonry was founded in 1717 at the Apple Tree Tavern in London, as a bourgeois gentlemen's club that quickly attracted the attention and membership of the more powerful classes. The legends of the Lodge itself claim an ancestry dating at least to the masons involved in the building of King Solomon's temple, and in some cases to the building of the Ark by Noe. They also claim continuity with the medieval guilds that did fine work in stone fabrication. Occasionally the distinction is made between the older "operative" masons (those working in stone decoration), and the newer "speculative" masons (those more concerned with philosophical affairs).
An alternative conjecture places the origin of Freemasonry in the violent suppression of the military-religious order of the Knights Templar by Philip IV of France and (his more or less puppet) Pope Clement V at the beginning of the 14th century. The Templars were the "American Express" of the crusades, and King Philip found himself increasingly in their debt. Unable to pay his obligations, Philip found it expedient to accuse the Templars of heresy and put to death all that he could gather into his dungeons. Clement V, the first Avignon Pope, was generally acquiescent. Most notable among their victims -- cursing both pope and king as he roasted at the stake -- was the last grand master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay. (Today, young Freemasons join the Order of de Molay, a sort of junior Lodge.) The conjecture has it that those knights who escaped used the secret signs (previously developed to authenticate their banking transactions) of the Templars to identify each other and render mutual assistance -- and later, in their descendants, formed an organization seeking vengeance against those responsible for their downfall.1
Any discussion of Freemasonry makes more sense if it is recalled that 1717 falls within the time known as the "enlightenment"; the period following the "renaissance" celebration of pagan pre-christian Greek and Roman culture, and preceding the period of major "democratic" revolutions in Europe and the Americas. For good or bad, the "enlightenment" was a time in which all the theories of secular and religious authority were called into question, and during which God was often thought of as nothing more than the "Grand Architect of the universe," or the "clockmaker who wound up the universe and threw away the key"; a god not much more personal than the "Force" of the Starwars movies.
Self described as "a system of morality veiled in allegory," Freemasonry's deistic outlook is an implicit denial of the possibility of any divinely revealed religion. While the Bible is placed on the "altar" of Masonic temples located in Christian lands, other books of "scripture" are equally acceptable in the lodges of non-Christians. One of the fundamental tenets or "charges" of Freemasonry is the avoidance of discussions likely to lead to conflict among the brethren on account of disparity of class, religion, or politics.
The Catholic Church condemned Freemasonry at least as early as 1738 (Pope Clement XII). Various other papal and curial condemnations followed. Generally speaking, the Church objects to the following Masonic concepts:
1. The perception of God as an abstract, non-personal force.
2. The repudiation of ecclesiastical authority.
3. The reckless and unlawful repudiation of secular authority.
4. The taking of oaths binding one's self to blood curdling penalties completely out of proportion to their object, and binding one's self to the authority of unnamed superiors in presently unknown matters.
In English speaking countries the Masonic influence has been relatively peaceful. This might be attributed to the fact that by the 1700s England had already undergone anti-clerical and anti-monarchical revolutions. The 16th century Anglo-catholicisim of Henry VIII quickly yielded to continental Lutheranism, and then to Puritanism. In more or less the same timeframe, monarchy yielded to a more parliamentary government. By 1717 the British culture was in relative "sync" with the Masonry of its time.
Masons were prominent in the American Revolution and in post revolutionary American government.2 The revolution involved relatively little domestic violence beyond pushing out the forces of the British ruler; perhaps because the resulting colonial government conformed well to the Masonic ideal of religious indifference. One can imagine that it was beyond the conception of 18th century Englishmen to take Masonry to its more extreme and dogmatic denials of the rights of God and nations.
In France, however, Grand Orient masonry replaced its more moderate York and Scottish rite English counterparts. Voltaire and many of the Enclop‚distes were masons, as were many of the leaders of the French Revolution (some were members of related societies like the Jacobins and the Illuminati); yet modern history books rarely reflect the Revolution's Masonic connection.3 In Mexico the revolution of the early 1800s was actually a clash between the York and Scottish rites, with Catholics caught in between! Masonic, anticlerical government persisted well into the 1940s.4 Restrictions on priests and church ownership of property are still in effect.5
In Italy, in the latter half of the 19th century, the leaders of Italian unification, Mazzini and Garibaldi were Masons, as were many of the Carbonari. Until the latter part of the century (1859-1870) the Pope was the temporal ruler of the states surrounding Rome, so unification challenged him both as Pope and as king. The Papal States fell to invasion during the reign of Pius IX. In the 1970s, "Propaganda Duey," The Italian Lodge's involvement in Italian politics became great enough that when it became known the scandal toppled the government.
There is a good sized body of literature that holds that the modern Church has been infiltrated by Freemasons. Freemasonry is also often identified with the ephemeral "New World Order," a conjectured conspiracy aiming at a one world government and religion. It is not altogether possible to write accurately about any secret society or organization. Those who claim to have access to membership lists, meeting minutes, ritual books, (or whatever) of secret societies may be correct; or they may be attempting to bias their readers for or against the society in question; or they may have been misled themselves. Since VaticanÿII Papal documents on Ecumenism and World Politics/Economics tend to confirm both theories. In his autobiography, Anibale Bugnini (the architect of the New Mass) states that he was exiled to Iran by Pope Paul VI -- the pope reacting to a threat that unless Bugnini were removed from Rome, irrefutable proof of his Masonic ties would be published. The implication is that at least Pope Paul thought that such proof was likely to exist.
It is undeniable that American Freemasonry has been very generously philanthropic. The Shriner's children's' hospitals are a good example of their charity. Most of us have known men who belonged to American Freemasonry; men who were more interested in a night with their friends or a chance to make business connections than to overthrow civilization. Yet, American Masonry is connected to and may be influenced by its more sinister European counterparts. In any event, the repudiation of the one personal God who has revealed Himself in time and place and the taking of reckless oaths, coupled with the possibility of cooperation in anticlerical affairs makes membership in any of the various organizations of Freemasonry "off limits" to Catholics.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law places Masons and members of similar societies under the ban of excommunication reserved to the Holy See.6 The more liberal Code of 1983 does not mention Freemasonry by name but prescribes "a just penalty" against those who "join and association which plots against the Church."7 This liberalization raised doubts about the status of Catholics who belonged to Masonic organizations after the New Code was issued. The following statement of the Holy See confirms the prohibition of membership:
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
The question has been raised whether the Church's position on Masonic associations has been altered, especially since no explicit mention is made of them in the new Code of Canon Law, as there was in the old code.
This sacred congregation is able to reply that circumstance is to be attributed to a criterion adopted in drafting. This criterion was observed also in regard to other associations which were likewise passed over in silence, because they were included in broader categories.
The Church's negative position on Masonic associations therefore remains unaltered, since their principles have always been regarded as irreconcilable with the Church's doctrine. Hence joining them remains prohibited by the Church. Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach Holy Communion.
Local ecclesiastical authorities do not have the faculty to pronounce a judgment on the nature of Masonic associations which might include a diminution of the above-mentioned judgment, in accordance with the intention of this congregation's declaration delivered on Feb. 17, 1981 (AAS, vol. 73 p. 240-241).
The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II approved this declaration, deliberated at an ordinary meeting of this sacred congregation, and ordered it to become part of public law.
At Rome. From the office of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith, November 26, 1983.
1. This is conjecture but often quite compelling. Cf. John J. Robinson, Born In Blood (New York: M. Evans, 1989); among others.
2. Cf. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, The Temple and the Lodge (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1989), part 4. The layout of the city of Washington, D.C. is an interesting example of Freemasons leaving perceptible evidence of their influence.
3. Nesta H. Webster, The French Revolution (1919), is an exception.
4. Stanley C. Green, The Mexican Republic: The First Decade 1823 - 1832 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987).
5. David C. Bailey, Viva Cristo Rey! The Cristero Rebellion and the Church-State Conflict in Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974).
6. Canon 2335.
7. New canon 1374.