Freemasonry And Christianity: Are They Compatible?
Perhaps no organization has aroused more suspicion and curiosity in the last few hundred years than Freemasonry: suspicion and curiosity because Freemasonry is a secret society. However, most people know that a) membership is reserved to men and b) the Catholic Church has traditionally forbidden Catholic males under pain of excommunication or expulsion from the Church to join the Masons. In recent times, new questions regarding Freemasonry are being asked. Does this penalty still apply? Why are a growing number of non-Catholic Churches speaking out against Freemasonry? This consideration of Freemasonry is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it intends to examine some of the core differences between Freemasonry and Christianity (in particular, Catholicism). This discussion is also limited to an analysis of the first three degrees of Freemasonry for two reasons: most Masons never advance higher than the third degree; there is ample material in the ritual for the first three degrees to demonstrate the incompatibility of Freemasonry and Christianity.1 Nor is this article going to address the question of whether Freemasonry is a religion or not. Many Masons respond to Christian objections by stating that Masonry is not a religion. A discussion of whether Masonry is a religion is largely a question of semantics and is at one level largely irrelevant: the focus of an analysis of Freemasonry must be on whether what it actually teaches is compatible with Christianity. To use a comparison: few would argue that communism is a religion. However, Catholics are forbidden to be members of a communist party because communist principles are incompatible with Catholicism.
Critiques of Freemasonry abound, however many of them are neither balanced nor charitable. A balanced critique of Freemasonry requires careful detail to evidence and charity towards Freemasons. It would seem that two extremes are to be avoided.
1. Many critiques of Freemasonry abound, which would have the reader believe that Freemasons are the instigators of the most wicked and (literally) incredible conspiracies. The problem with most of these critiques is that there is usually little if any solid evidence to support the assertions. Such critiques seem to have an adverse effect, in that Masons are liable to dismiss all critiques of Freemasonry as belonging to the "fringe." In his initiation, a Mason is not taught to overthrow or work against the common good. Instead, he is taught to help his neighbor "by rendering him every kind of office which justice or mercy may require, by relieving his necessities and soothing his afflictions and by doing to him as in similar cases you would wish he would do to you."2 Masons are also called to uphold the laws of their land, practice prudence, and truth. This would be particularly true given many of the positive ideals that Masonry espouses. Thus, Masons are known for their community work: in Melbourne for example, The Freemasons' Hospital and the Freemasons' Homes for the Elderly provide a high standard of care and service to the community. Members of the Masons continue to work for the rights of the family, youth, the aged, etc. In our society which is fast experiencing a growth in atheism, Masons as a body not only proclaim a belief in a supreme being, but in addition one in whom (according to the first degree initiation ceremony) they put their trust.
2. On the other hand, in recent years some Catholics have seemed to suggest that membership of Freemasonry in Australia is per se not incompatible with being a Catholic. In a recent edition of the Catholic Weekly (August 17,1997, p. 10), Rev. Bill O'Shea cites a letter by Cardinal Seper (1974) which stated that membership of masonic lodges was forbidden only in those countries in which Masonry manifestly worked against the Catholic Church. Although O'Shea, to his credit, concludes by stating that membership of Freemasonry is forbidden to Catholics, he nevertheless states, vis a vis the Seper letter, that many clergy in Australia at the time could see nothing wrong in a Catholic joining a lodge in Australia, arguing that Freemasonry was little more than a philanthropic society. He then criticizes the Vatican for later forbidding all Catholics membership on the basis that this decision should have been made at the local level.
Why has the Catholic Church traditionally been opposed to Freemasonry? Although some Freemasons claim that Masonry is an ancient institution, reliable scholarship suggests that it can be traced back only as far as 1717, with the formation of the Grand Lodge. From its inception, the Catholic Church condemned Freemasonry, beginning with Clement XI's bull In Eminente (1738). Other statements against Freemasons were issued by successive popes, the most notable being Leo XIII's Humanum Genus (1884). This document must be read in its historical context. Most of the condemnations of Freemasonry contained therein are directed at European lodges which were anti-clerical and anti-papal and which actively worked for the undermining of the Church's rights. Hence, it would seem that much of Leo XIII's critique of Freemasonry is of marginal relevance in late twentieth century Australia and the English-speaking world.
However, there are some elements of Freemasonry, which are perennially incompatible with Catholicism and indeed with Christianity. In his initiation ceremony, a candidate is given a copy of the V.S.L. (Volume of the Sacred Law). Inscribed therein is the following admonition: "As a Freemason you are charged to consider the V. of the S.L. as the unerring standard of Truth and Justice and to regulate your actions by the Divine precepts it contains." For a Protestant, who believes the Bible to be the final authority, this statement presents, at first glance, no problems. However, for a Catholic this statement is problematic since Catholics believe that oral tradition and the magisterium of the Church are essential elements of the matrix of authority.
What, though, is meant by the "Volume of the Sacred Law"? The "Volume of the Sacred Law" is the religious text of the religion of the candidate. Thus, for a Jewish Mason, it will be the Old Testament, the Christian the Bible and the Moslem the Koran. Masonry thus teaches indifferentism, or the belief that one religion is as good as any other religion. Leo XIII's condemnation of Freemasonry on the grounds of indifferentism is thus perennially valid. Christians do not believe that Christianity is as good as any other religion. In St. John's Gospel, Jesus states, "I am the way, the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through me." Whilst it is true that following Vatican II, the Catholic Church's attitude towards non-Catholic religious bodies (especially non-Christian religions) has been modified, in that it sees some positive elements in other religions, it still nevertheless firmly teaches that all the redeemed are saved through the person and work of Christ and that Catholicism teaches the fullness of God's revelation.
Perhaps equally incompatible with Christianity is Freemasonry's raison d'etre. According to the initiation ceremony, the candidate about to be presented is in a "state of darkness." Through his initiation ceremony he enters a state of light. The truths of Freemasonry are revealed only to the initiated and are given to him to lead him to the light. This belief is reflected in the blindfolding of the candidate for the first part of the ceremony. Wilmshurst, in The Initiation Ceremony: Analysis and Commentary states "For every Candidate, the Initiation Ceremony implies that whatever academic or scientific learning he possesses, whatever philosophical ideas he holds, whatever religious creed he professes, prior to Initiation, there remains something more indeed something vastly more for him yet to learn and to which the Craft can help him."3 Whilst Masons may claim that this is only one Mason's opinion, a careful reading of the initiation ceremony indicates that Wilmshurst accurately reflects its tone. A Christian must ask the question: what more is required than Christ? Or, what state of spiritual darkness is there that can be illumined apart from Christ? A central Christian image of Christ is of Jesus as the "light of the world." According to Christian beliefs, a person casts aside his spiritual darkness and enters a state of spiritual light through faith in Jesus and baptism. In the Catholic Rite of Baptism, the candidate is asked if he rejects "Satan, the father of sin and prince of darkness" and is given a candle with the words "receive the light of Christ." In the Australian Anglican baptism rite (AAPB 1978) immediately after the baptism, the minister says the following to the newly baptized: "You have been called out of darkness into the light of Christ."
By contrast, Freemasonry's raison d'etre mirrors those of mystery cults: all persons are in a state of darkness except members who have been brought to a state of light through participation in the mysteries of the cult. As membership is open only to adult males, does this mean that women, as a result of their gender, are doomed to perpetual darkness?
What are the means Masonry reveals to its members to find enlightenment? Masonry seems to teach that the Mason, through practicing the virtues, gains enlightenment, or to rephrase it, humans, through their own efforts can achieve salvation. This position is known as naturalism. According to naturalism, religions are useful insofar as they teach morality, but are not essential. Leo XIII's condemnation of Freemasonry on these grounds is perennial. Naturalism is incompatible with the doctrine of original sin and the belief that the Christ event was necessary for human salvation: indeed, whilst Freemasonry commends its adherents for trusting in God it makes no mention of the necessity of belief in Christ and him crucified. From what is taught in a lodge a Mason could well come to believe that all that is required of him is that he be a good person and do good works.
Whilst only two elements of Freemasonry have been analyzed in detail above, it is largely for these reasons, namely indifferentism and naturalism, combined with a total lack of reference to the person and work of Christ that Freemasonry is incompatible with Christianity. It is thus interesting to note the growing number of Protestant churches, who traditionally either approved of or treated Freemasonry with indifference, who have stated publicly that membership of Freemasonry is incompatible with Christianity: indeed, Hannah argues that all denominations which have seriously examined Freemasonry's claims have condemned it.4 In an era in which many young people who come from a Christian and particularly a Catholic background believe that one religion is as good as another religion and that all that is required of them is that they be good people, the Christian community as a whole must restate the fundamental differences between itself and Freemasonry.
1. I am assuming that the ritual as found in Walton Hannah Darkness Visible: a Revelation and Interpretation of Freemasonry (London: Britons Publishing Company, 1963) is correct.
2. Hannah, p. 108.
3. W.L. Wilmshurst The Ceremony of Initiation: Analysis and Commentary (W. H. Bean: Leeds, 1932), p. 4.
4. Hannah, p. 78.
Mr. Michael Daniel is a convert from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church. He has a Bachelor of Theology degree from the College of Divinity in Melbourne, Australia. Mr. Daniel has contributed an article and some book reviews to the Australian publication, AD2000.
© Ignatius Press 1998.
© Ignatius Press 1998.
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