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Letter of April 19, 1985 to U.S. Bishops Concerning Masonry

by Cardinal Bernard Law


This letter from Cardinal Bernard Law to the U.S. Bishops contains three reports to show that Masonry is incompatible with Christian faith and practice.

Publisher & Date

Archdiocese of Boston, April 19, 1985

For your own personal information, the Administrative Committee, on March 20, 1985, authorized my sending you the report of the Committee for Pastoral Research and Practices on the pastoral issues arising from Catholic membership in Masonry.

The enclosed report shows that the principles of Masonry are incompatible with Christian faith and practice whether or not a specific Masonic organization happens to be engaging in activity against the church. For this purpose, we include three studies that explain the issue of incompatibility: the study of Masonic principles and rituals done by the West German Conference of Bishops in 1980, a study of American Masonry by Professor William Whalen of Purdue University written for the committee, and a recent article that appeared in the March 11, 1985, L'Osservatore Romano, "Irreconcilability Between Catholic Faith and Freemasonry."

This report should be seen in the context of the 1973 and 1983 decrees of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dealing with excommunication and incompatibility respectively.

Since many bishops stated in their reply to an earlier survey that confusion had been generated by a perceived change of approach by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we hope that the information you find here will be a useful clarification.

Pastoral Research and Practices Committee Report


I. History of the Masons' Situation

Recently (Nov. 6, 1983) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to an inquiry whether the church's position regarding Masonic organizations 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.

The congregation stated that the Masons and other organizations were omitted in the new code due to a different criterion adopted in drafting the code. They were included in broader categories. The congregation did not, however, specify the categories it had in mind (it might have been thinking of such canons as Canon 1364), but it insisted that the church is still opposed to Masonic associations, since their principles are irreconcilable with the church's doctrine, and that it would be seriously wrong to join them.

In the old code an excommunication was incurred by those who joined the Masons or other organizations that plotted against the church or legitimate civil authority.

In a response given by Cardinal Seper in 1973 regarding the force and meaning of Canon 2335, it was stated that the canon still remained in force but that since penal laws are subject to strict interpretation the penalty would be incurred in a particular case only by those who join associations which plot against the church. If the particular organization did not plot against the church, the excommunication would not be incurred by the person who joined them.

This was interpreted by some bishops to mean that it was permissible to join the Masons if the particular organization did not plot against the church, etc.

In 1981, since the previous letter had "given rise to erroneous and tendentious interpretations," the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith affirmed the current (at that time) canonical discipline, and while still admitting a strict interpretation of the penalty, denied any intention of remanding to bishops' conferences the making of public pronouncements of a general nature on the nature of Masonic associations, etc. But since the congregation spoke in the context of the old code (Canon 2335), it is not entirely relevant today.

The whole issue came into sharper focus with the advent of the new code and the absence of a censure for joining organizations that plotted against the church. The response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Nov. 6, 1983, was to this issue.

What is at stake is the distinction between penal law and morality. There is a difference between the two. Not everything that is immoral is penalized in the church. Nor can one conclude from the fact that penal law does not cover some sin or that it is removed from it (or changed), that it is permissible to commit it. A clear example of this is abortion. Even if the excommunication were removed from abortion, it would still be wrong. Similarly, even if the excommunication was removed from joining an organization that plotted against the church, it would still be wrong to join such an organization.

Moreover, even if the Masons did not plot against the church, it might be seriously wrong to join them for other reasons. The congregation presents as the reason for its judgment the fact that the principles of Masonry are "irreconcilable" with those of the church. The six-year study of Masonry by the German bishops and the study of American Masonry by Professor William Whalen (commissioned by the Pastoral Research and Practices Committee) both confirm that the principles and basic rituals of Masonry embody a naturalistic religion active participation in which is incompatible with Christian faith and practice. Those who knowingly embrace such principles are committing serious sin (they might also fall under the penalty in Canon 1364 in the new code).

Briefly, the conclusion is that even though there is no longer an excommunication attached to joining organizations that plot against the faith, it would still be wrong to join such an organization. And even though Masonic organizations may not in particular cases plot against the faith, it would still be wrong to join them because their basic principles are irreconcilable with those of the Catholic faith.

II. Problems With the Masonic Question

The committee recognizes two problems in regard to the Masonic question:

1. A pastoral problem for those who have become or continue to be Masons in good faith on the basis of the less-restrictive interpretation which followed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's letter to Cardinal Krol. It is the question of applying the traditional principles for leaving them in good faith.

2. A public-relations problem resulting from the common American perception of Masonry as a purely social and philanthropic organization.

Whalen Report for Bishops' Committee


Modern speculative Freemasonry began in 1717 with the establishment in London of the Grand Lodge of England. A little more than two decades later, Clement XII forbade Catholic membership in these lodges, and the opposition of the Catholic Church has been restated by seven other popes.

The most recent statement was given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Nov. 26, 1983. In part it declared, "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." The document added that "Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach holy communion."

This paper will examine the reasons for the historical and present position of the church viv-a-vis Freemasonry and will do so in the American context. We should understand that worldwide Freemasonry shares many beliefs and customs but is not a unified organization; it includes the United Grand Lodge of England; the 50 independent grand lodges in the United States; lodges in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; Prince Hall Masonry; the so-called Christian Masonry of Germany and three Scandinavian countries; the various Grand Orients of Europe and Latin America; co- Masonic bodies; irregular lodges such as the Italian P2 lodge; and others.

Pastoral Problem Due to Misunderstandings

That the church has for centuries condemned Freemasonry and excommunicated Catholics who joined the lodge or refused baptism to those who declined to sever their lodge affiliations is clear. That the church today considers Masonic membership serious enough to deny the eucharist to "Catholic Masons" is also clear. What has created a pastoral problem in some dioceses is that for a period of some years membership by the laity in Masonic lodges seemed to be an option. From 1974 to 1981 and even beyond, an undetermined number of Catholic men joined the lodge, and many retain their membership. Articles in the Catholic press told readers that under certain circumstances such membership was now allowed. The general public, Catholic and non-Catholic, got the impression that the church had softened its stand against membership in Freemasonry.

We will examine the major reasons why the church has taken the attitude it has since the mid-18th century and why these reasons justify the present position. But first we should take a brief look at the documents which created the recent confusion.

Cardinal Franjo Seper, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter dated July 19, 1974, to Cardinal John Krol which concluded that "Canon 2335 regards only those Catholics who join associations which plot against the church." Even if it were determined that a particular Masonic association did not plot against the church, membership was still forbidden to clerics, religious and members of secular institutes.

Presumably the local ordinary was expected to conduct an investigation to see whether a particular secret society in his diocese was engaged in a plot against the church. Cardinal Seper's letter made no reference to the traditional objections to Freemasonry, namely its religious naturalism and its oaths. Nor did the letter suggest a methodology by which a bishop might conduct his investigation, in view of the fact the members of the lodge, like members of the Irish Republican Army, the Mafia and other secret organizations, were sworn to secrecy.

As late as October 1984, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Catholic press was assuring his readers that Catholics "may indeed hold membership in organizations, Masonic and otherwise, which are not basically anti-Catholic and do not plot against the church." The columnist told his readers that "direction and guidance concerning the various organizations in your own locality can easily be obtained from the chancery office of your diocese." Would that it were so. At the very least one would suppose that anyone professing minimum expertise in the area of Freemasonry would have studied the ritual of the lodge as well as basic Masonic sources such as Pike's Morals and Dogma, Humanum Genus by Leo XIII and such criticisms as Father Walton Hannah's Darkness Visible and Christian by Degrees and Whalen's Christianity and American Freemasonry. One wonders how many people in the typical chancery have spent even this amount of time on the question so that they could answer inquirers' questions with confidence?

Some bishops evidently conducted such investigations or perhaps decided they had no way of determining the character of a particular secret society and allowed Catholic men in their dioceses to join the lodges. Other bishops denied requests to join.

A clarification from the congregation was published March 2, 1981. It referred to "erroneous and tendentious interpretations" of the "confidential letter" of July 19, 1974. The clarification affirmed that the present canonical discipline had not been modified in any way, that neither the excommunication nor other penalties had been abrogated and that it was not the intention of the congregation "to remand to the bishops' conferences the making of public pronouncements with a judgment of a general nature on the nature of the Masonic associations, such as would imply the derogation of the aforesaid norms."

Canon 2335 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law had stated, "Those who join a Masonic sect or other societies of the same sort, which plot against the church or against legitimate civil authority, incur excommunication." When the new Code of Canon Law was published, no mention was made of the traditional penalty of excommunication for Catholics who joined the Masonic lodge. Again the possibility of misunderstanding arose because the general public was not aware that the number of offenses for which excommunication was applied had been reduced from 37 to seven. The 1981 clarification had received little publicity. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger then issued the Nov. 26, 1983, document which reaffirmed the historic position against Freemasonry. This statement had also been specifically approved by John Paul II.

Reasons for Condemnation

The March 11, 1985, issue of L'Osservatore Romano carried an article titled "Irreconcilability Between Christian Faith and Freemasonry" as a comment on the Nov. 26, 1983, declaration. In part the Vatican newspaper said a Christian "cannot cultivate relations of two types with God nor express his relation with the Creator through symbolic forms of two types. That would be something completely different from that collaboration, which to him is obvious, with all those who are committed to doing good, even if beginning from different principles. On the one hand, a Catholic Christian cannot at the same time share in the full communion of Christian brotherhood and, on the other, look upon his Christian brother, from the Masonic perspective, as an 'outsider."'

Some have suggested that the reaffirmation of the historic condemnation by the church was prompted by the P2 scandal. Grand Master Licio Gelli directed this secret Masonic lodge known as Propaganda Two or P2, whose aim seems to have been to restore fascism in Italy and to bolster right-wing governments in Latin America. When Italian police raided his villa in 1981, they discovered the lodge's membership roster, which listed 953 people including the heads of Italy's intelligence agencies, generals, cabinet ministers, judges, bankers, industrialists and the like. Gelli had persuaded a number of individuals, such as financier Roberto Calvi, that membership in the Masonic lodge was now allowed by the church. Actually, it appears that the P2 lodge plotted more against the Italian state than the church, although the Masonic financiers who were called in to handle the Vatican's investments (such as Sindona) cost the church many millions of dollars. The P2 case did demonstrate that Masonic secrecy could camouflage and facilitate conspiracies of the political right even in the shadows of St. Peter's.

On the other hand, a recent book by Stephen Knight alleges that the KGB used the secrecy and networking of English Freemasonry to place spies in top intelligence jobs. It encouraged its operatives to try to join Masonic lodges to gain preferential treatment in their careers. In particular, the author charges that Freemasons propelled Sir Roger Hollis into a series of rapid promotions which led to his being named head of M15 counterintelligence in 1956. A book by Chapman Pincher, published in 1981, attempted to prove that Hollis was a Soviet agent. Knight's book was published in the United States in November 1984 by Stein and Day of New York, The Brotherhood: The Secret World of Freemasons.

Both the right and the left have seen the advantages of using the Masonic organizations to further their causes. At one time Masonry was known as a chief bulwark of republican forms of governments. Actually in the United States today most observers would probably label the lodges as both politically reactionary and racist.

Although the 1981 clarification by the sacred congregation came shortly after the exposure of the P2 conspiracy, nothing in the statement indicated that its intent was limited to Italian or continental Masonry. An estimated 30,000 Masons belong to 500 lodges within three jurisdictions in Italy. Everyone knows that the Grand Orient lodges of Europe and Latin America have been anti-clerical from the start. For the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to advise Catholics against joining these Grand Orient lodges would be like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People advising blacks against applying for membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Those who say that the church really directs her condemnation against the Grand Orient lodges must assume that the Vatican does not know that Freemasonry is English in origin and overwhelmingly English-speaking in membership. Of the estimated 6 million members in all the various types of Masonic lodges worldwide, about 4 million live in the United States, 750,000 in the United Kingdom, 250,000 in Canada, and 400,000 in Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps nine out of 10 Masons live in an English-speaking country.

For U.S. bishops and priests the pastoral problem not only involves those Catholic lay men who joined Masonic lodges during the period of confusion in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It extends to the general public, Catholic and non-Catholic, which does not understand why the Catholic Church in an era of ecumenism persists in condemning an organization often known for its charities and good works. We have no reason to doubt the testimony of so many American Masons that they have never heard a word of criticism of the Roman church in lodge meetings or functions. In fact Masonry rules out discussions of religion and politics in the lodge.

Masonic Stands, Ritual and Principles

We should understand that Masonry basically consists of the three degrees of the Blue lodge: entered apprentice, fellow craft and master Mason. The lodges are grouped in independent grand lodges in the 50 states.

If he wishes, a master Mason may elect to continue his Masonic career by entering the so-called higher degrees: The Scottish or the York (or American) rite. (Jews are, however, barred from the York rite.) Membership in the Scottish rite leads to the 32nd degree and the honorary 33rd degree. The fourth to the 32nd degrees are ordinarily conferred on a class over a weekend in a Scottish-rite cathedral; in Europe the candidate must spend many years to reach the 32nd degree, which is another contrast between the mass Masonry in the United States and the elite Masonry of the continent. The goal of all those who choose to go up the York-rite ladder is membership in the Knights Templar. Both 32nd-degree Scottish-rite Masons and Knights Templar are eligible to join the Shrine, which serves as the playground of American Masonry and supports notable charitable institutions such as its hospitals for crippled children. Father Hannah called its pseudo-Islamic ritual the "adolescent and occasionally Rabelaisian nadir of drivelling tomfoolery and burlesque blasphemies." English Freemasonry would never tolerate an organization such as the Shrine, but obviously hundreds of thousands of U.S. Masons find in the Shrine the fun they do not find in the teetotalling, sober Blue lodges.

Many other organizations require Masonic membership but they do not form-an integral part of Freemasonry. These include the Grotto, Square and Compass Clubs, National Sojourners, High Twelve clubs, Tall Cedars of Lebanon, etc. A Mason who quits or is expelled from his Blue lodge forfeits membership in any other Masonic organizations. Attendance requirements are unknown in the Blue lodge, so that simple payment of dues keeps members in good standing.

If the American Blue lodges are not especially anti-Catholic, the religious neutrality of an organization such as the Southern jurisdiction of the Scottish rite, which enrolls 600,000 Masons in 33 Southern and Western states, is another matter. The hostility of this group to parochial schools remains unabated, and readers of the New Age are well aware of the attitude of the Southern jurisdiction to Roman Catholicism.

In a 1978 article in the Review of Religious Research, two (non-Catholic) scholars examined "Fraternal Associations and Civil Religion: Scottish-Rite Freemasonry." Among many observations the authors noted:

In their support of civil religion, the Masons are militantly 'anti-particularistic,' to use Sidney Mead's term. They vigorously denounce parochial schools for challenging the public school system and, implicitly, the unifying civil religion. Sectarian religion has positive values, but it is relegated to the sphere of private morality and private faith (Pamela M. Jolicoeur and Louis L. Knowles, Vol. 20, No. 1, Fall 1978, pp. 13-14).

Those who direct the Scottish rite, Southern jurisdiction, would be delighted if every parochial school closed tomorrow. This may not technically involve a plot against the church, but it raises the question of allowing, much less encouraging, Catholics in these Southern and Western states from participating in the Scottish rite.

If anti-Catholicism and racism in U.S. Masonry were the major reasons for the church's condemnation, we might envision some sort of rapprochement in the foreseeable future. The irreconcilable principles to which the 1983 letter refers remain the basic reason for the condemnation by the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies. We agree with the assessment of the German hierarchy, which studied the Masonic question between 1974 and 1980 and observed in part:

Although it may be important to distinguish between favorable, neutral or hostile Masonry with regard to the church, the same distinction, in this context, leads to error because it insinuates that for Catholics, only membership in a hostile branch would be inadmissible.

If we try to make "plotting against the church" the sole criterion for allowing or disallowing membership, we in effect are saying that we do not concern ourselves with the nature of an organization or what it teaches. By the same token, we should allow membership by Catholics in organizations of spiritualists, theosophists and occultists so long as these groups do not plot against the church. But the church's historic stand has not been based primarily on whether the Masonic lodges are hostile or neutral toward the church, but on the principles for which the lodge stands.

To grasp the fundamental objections to Freemasonry we have to briefly review the history of the craft.

Unlike other craftsmen in the Middle Ages, the stonemasons who built the great cathedrals of Europe were forced to move from place to place to follow their occupation. To protect their skills and to recognize fellow masons, they devised a system of signs and passwords. These served the purpose of a union card. Their worksheds were called lodges.

With the decline of cathedral building, some of the lodges of stonemasons began to admit non-working or honorary masons. In time the number of honorary free and accepted Masons outnumbered the working masons. They used the tools, symbols, signs, grips and passwords of the masons' trade union to create what we know as speculative Freemasonry. This new craft Masonry usually defines itself as "a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols."

The masons of early medieval times were Catholics, like almost everyone else in Europe. But under the influence of deism, all traces of Christianity were excised from speculative Freemasonry. In the 1723 Book of Constitutions the new attitude toward religious belief was spelled out: "A Mason is obliged by his tenure to obey the moral law; and if he rightly understands the art, he will never be a stupid atheist nor an irreligious libertine. But though in ancient times Masons were charged in every country to be of the religion of that country or nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves.""

Freemasonry as Universal Religion

Clearly whatever constitutes "that religion in which all men agree," it is not Christianity or revealed religion. Masons as Masons believe in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of mankind and the immortality of the soul. These are beliefs which they maintain can be discovered by human reason. The inspiration of the Bible, the unique claims of Jesus Christ, the authority and teaching role of the church, and the sacraments as means of grace are "particular opinions" which Freemasons are asked to keep to themselves rather than disturb the brothers in the lodge.

A century ago, in his encyclical on Freemasonry Humanum Genus, Leo XIII defined naturalism, which he saw as the primary objection to the Masonic system:

Now the fundamental doctrine of the naturalists, which they sufficiently make known by their very name, is that human nature and human reason ought in all things be mistress and guide....For they deny that anything has been taught by God; they allow no dogma of religion or truth which cannot be understood by human intelligence nor any teacher who ought to be believed by reason of his authority.

In keeping with the naturalism of the lodge, no prayers in the Blue lodges are ever offered in the name of Jesus Christ. God, whom Christians have been told to address as our Father, is worshipped as the deistic Great Architect of the Universe. As the authors of the recent article in the Review of Religious Research put it:

The nature of the Masonic God is best seen in their favorite title for him: the Supreme Architect. The Masonic God is first of all a deistic God, who is found at the top of the ladder of Masonic wisdom (Jolicoeur and Knowles, pp. 14-15).

In U.S. Freemasonry all women, men under 21 and blacks are barred from Masonic initiation in regular lodges. Otherwise only the atheist, technically the "stupid atheist," and the "irreligious libertine" are unwelcome. By jettisoning the vestiges of Christianity, modern Freemasonry opened its doors to deists, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists and any who acknowledge the existence of the Grand Architect of the Universe and believe in the immortality of the soul. Perhaps a religious naturalism is better than no religious belief at all, but for the professing Christian it represents a retreat from the Gospel.

We can agree with Albert Pike when he wrote, "Every Masonic lodge is a temple of religion and its teachings are instruction in religion" (Morals and Dogma, p. 213). Pike served as sovereign grand inspector of the Southern jurisdiction of the Scottish rite for many years and is sometimes considered American Freemasonry's most eminent philosopher. His book Morals and Dogma is traditionally presented to those who attain the 32nd degree of the Scottish rite.

Not only does Freemasonry see itself as a religion, but it sees itself as the universal religion, while Christianity is simply another of the dozens of sects whose particular opinions have divided mankind over the ages. Again we may refer to Brother Pike:

But Masonry teaches, and has preserved in their purity, the cardinal tenets of the old primitive faith, which underlie and are the foundation of all religions. All that ever existed have had a basis of truth; all have overlaid that truth with error (p. 161).

Religion, to obtain currency and influence with the great mass of mankind, must needs be alloyed with such an amount of error as to place it far below the standard attainable by the higher human capacities (p. 224).

Catholicism was a vital truth in its earliest ages, but it became obsolete, and Protestantism arose, flourished and deteriorated (p. 38).

In his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, Albert G. Mackey writes:

I contend, without any sort of hesitation, that Masonry is, in every sense of the word, except one, and that its least philosophical, an eminently religious institution...that without this religious element it would scarcely be worthy of cultivation by the wise and good...Who can deny that it is eminently a religious institution?...But the religion of Masonry is not sectarian...It is not Judaism, though there is nothing in it to offend a Jew; it is not Christianity, but there is nothing in it repugnant to the faith of a Christian. Its religion is that general one of nature and primitive revelation, handed down to us from some ancient and patriarchal priesthood, in which all men may agree and in which no men can differ. It inculcates the practice of virtue, but supplies no scheme of redemption for sin...Masonry, then, is indeed a religious institution; and on this ground mainly, if not alone, should the religious Mason defend it (pp. 617-619).

Hannah comments:

On reading the ritual carefully, Masonry will be found to present itself as a complete and self-sufficient system of moral and spiritual guidance through this world and the next. It teaches one's whole duty to God and to man, and a way of justification by works which, if followed, will lead to salvation. Nowhere does it give the slightest hint that anything further is necessary to the religious life (Darkness Visible p. 40).

While religious, Freemasonry clearly rejects dogma and the possibility of absolute truth. After six years the German episcopal conference reported its conclusion in the June 1980 issue of Amtsblatt des Erbistums Koln, pp. 102-111. On this particular point the German hierarchy observed:

The religious conception of the Mason is relativistic: All religions are competitive attempts to explain the truth about God which, in the last analysis, is unattainable. Therefore, only the language of Masonic symbols, which is ambiguous and left to the subjective interpretation of the individual Mason is adapted to this truth about God.

Attitude Toward Christ, Bible

Some Protestant defenders of the lodge try to deny its religious character. Other Protestants and Catholics ask, What element is missing in Freemasonry which we find in a religion? Freemasonry has a creed and ritual, prayers to the Great Architect of the Universe, an altar and temples, feast days, chaplains, an initiation ceremony, a creed and a system of morality. As its funeral service makes plain, the lodge promises its members salvation and entry into the Grand Lodge Above if they follow the precepts of the craft.

The lodge honors Jesus Christ as it honors Socrates, Buddha and Mohammed. It cannot acknowledge any special spiritual claims by Jesus, since this would violate the basis of Freemasonry.

True, other fraternal and service organizations appoint chaplains and include prayers in their meetings, but the claims to a superior path to spiritual advancement and a superior morality are peculiar to Freemasonry.

Every lodge works with an open Bible on its altar, and to some Masons this seems to affirm its Christian orientation. The preferred term and the one used in English Freemasonry is the Volume of the Sacred Law. That no special authority is attached to the Old and New Testaments is clear since a lodge of Moslems may substitute the Koran, a predominantly Hindu lodge, the Vedas, etc. As the Digest of Masonic Law makes clear:

To say that a candidate profess a belief in the divine authority of the Bible is a serious innovation in the very body of Masonry. The Jews, the Chinese, the Turks, each reject either the Old or the New Testament, or both, and yet we see no good reason why they should not be made Masons. In fact, Blue Lodge Masonry has nothing whatever to do with the Bible. It is not founded on the Bible. If it were, it would not be Masonry (p. 206).

Again we turn to Brother Pike:

The Bible is an indispensable part of the furniture of a Christian lodge only because it is the sacred book of the Christian religion. The Hebrew Pentateuch in a Hebrew lodge and the Koran in a Mohammedan one, belong on the altar; and one of these, and the square and the compass, properly understood, are the Great Lights by which a Mason must walk and work. The obligation of the candidate is always to be taken on the sacred book or books of his religion, that he may deem it more solemn and binding; and therefore it was that you were asked of what religion you were. We have no other concern with your religious creed (p. 11).

Use of Oaths

The second major reason for the church's hostility is the Masonic oath or rather the series of oaths required of initiates. Unlike some of the Protestant sects such as the Mennonites or Quakers, the Roman Catholic Church has interpreted the biblical injunction against swearing to allow for exceptions in serious cases, e.g. in a court of law.

The use of solemn oaths taken on the Bible in order to join a fraternal society or advance to its higher degrees has never been countenanced. Objectively speaking, those who swear such oaths are guilty of either vain or rash swearing. For most American Masons the oaths are given for what turns out to be the supposed secrecy of a few passwords and handshakes. Anyone who has investigated Masonry knows what these "secrets" are anyway. In fact, someone has said that the greatest secret about Freemasonry is that there are no secrets. If there are not, then Christians have no justification for making such solemn oaths.

Hannah posed the basic dilemma of the Masonic oaths when he wrote:

Either the oaths mean what they say or they do not. If they do mean what they say, then the candidate is entering into a pact consenting to his own murder by barbarous torture and mutilation should he break it. If they do not mean what they say, then he is swearing high-sounding schoolboy nonsense on the Bible, which verges on blasphemy (Darkness Visible, p. 21).

For example, this is the oath of the master Mason's degree (each grand lodge controls its own ritual so there may be minor variations in wording from state to state):

I, (name), of my own free will and accord, in the presence of Almighty God, and his worshipful lodge, erected to him and dedicated to the holy Sts. John, do hereby and hereon most solemnly and sincerely promise and swear that I will always hail, ever conceal and never reveal any of the secrets, arts, parts, point or points of the master Masons' degree to any person or persons whomsoever, except that it be to a true and lawful brother of this degree, or in a regularly constituted lodge of master Masons, nor unto him or them, until by strict trial, due examination or lawful information, I shall have found him or them as lawfully entitled to the same as I am myself.

I furthermore promise and swear that I will stand to and abide by all laws, rules and regulations of the master Mason's degree and of the lodge of which I may hereafter become a member, as far as the same shall come to my knowledge; and that I will ever maintain and support the constitution, laws and edicts of the grand lodge under which the same shall be holden.

Further, that I will acknowledge and obey all due signs and summonses sent to me from a master Masons' lodge or given me by a brother of that degree, if within the length of my cable tow.

Further, that I will always aid and assist all poor, distressed, worthy master Masons, their widows and orphans, knowing them to be such, as far as their necessities may require and my ability permit, without material injury to myself and family.

Further, that I will keep a worthy brother master Mason's secrets inviolable, when communicated to and received by me as such, murder and treason excepted.

Further, that I will not aid nor be present at the initiation, passing or raising of a woman, an old man in his dotage, a young man in his nonage, an atheist, a madman or a fool, knowing them to be such.

Further, that I will not sit in a lodge of clandestine-made Masons nor converse on the subject of Masonry with a clandestine-made Mason nor one who has been expelled or suspended from a lodge, while under that sentence, knowing him or them to be such.

Further, I will not cheat, wrong nor defraud a master Mason's lodge nor a brother of this degree knowingly, nor supplant him in any of his laudable undertakings, but will give him due and timely notice, that he may ward off all danger.

Further, that I will not knowingly strike a brother master Mason or otherwise do him personal violence in anger, except in the necessary defense of my family or property.

Further, that I will not have illegal carnal intercourse with a master Mason's wife, his mother, sister or daughter, knowing them to be such, nor suffer the same to be done by others, if in my power to prevent.

Further, that I will not give the grand Masonic word, in any other manner or form than that in which I shall receive it and then in a low breath.

Further, that I will not give the grand hailing sign of distress except in case of the most imminent danger, in a just and lawful lodge, or for the benefit of instruction; and if ever I should see it given or hear the words accompanying it by a worthy brother in distress, I will fly to his relief, if there is a greater probability of saving his life than losing my own.

All this I most solemnly, sincerely promise and swear, with a firm and steady resolution to perform the same, without any hesitation, mental reservation or secret evasion of mind whatever, binding myself under no less penalty than that of having my body severed in two, my bowels taken from thence and burned to ashes, the ashes scattered before the four winds of heaven, that no more remembrance might be had of so vile and wicked a wretch as I would be, should I ever knowingly violate this my master Mason's obligation. So help me God, and keep me steadfast in the due performance of the same.

Opposition of Other Christian Churches

Like opposition to abortion, opposition to Freemasonry is often seen as solely a Roman Catholic position. But the Catholic Church is hardly the only Christian body to recognize the essential difference between the Masonic and Christian religions. In fact most Christians around the world belong to churches which forbid or discourage Masonic affiliation.

The Inter-Orthodox commission which met on Mount Athos (1933) and represented all the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches characterized Freemasonry as a "false and antiChristian system." This remains the position of Orthodoxy.

Other groups hostile to lodge membership include many branches of Lutheranism, the Christian Reformed Church, most Pentecostals, the Church of the Nazarene, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Holiness churches, the Quakers, the United Brethren in Christ, the Mennonites, the Free Methodists, the Church of the Brethren, the Assemblies of God, the Wesleyans, the Regular Baptists, the Salvation Army and significant minorities in such mainline churches as the Episcopal.

Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also oppose Masonry. Joseph Smith Jr. joined the Masonic lodge in Nauvoo, Ill., and turned to the lodge ritual to find elements for his secret temple rites. Masons in the mob which stormed the Carthage jail and murdered the prophet ignored his grand hailing sign of distress. The Grand Lodge of Utah refuses to initiate a Mormon, and any Mormon who joins the lodge outside of Utah finds his advancement in the hierarchy severely curtailed.

Obviously the problem all these religious groups have with Freemasonry is not its antiCatholic character.

The Lutheran Cyclopedia explains: "While frankly anti-Christian in its French, German and Italian branches, Freemasonry in England and the United States has always called itself a supporter of the morality and doctrine of the Protestant church. Very few candidates realize that they are joining an organization which is essentially antagonistic to the Christian belief in the inspiration of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus Christ" (p. 392).

For millions of other American Protestants, such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, dual membership in the church and the lodge is acceptable. Individual members, however, may have reservations about the compatibility of the Grand Architect of the Universe and the triune God. British Methodism has been less favorably inclined toward Freemasonry, perhaps reflecting John Wesley's observation about the lodge: "What an amazing banter on all mankind is Freemasonry." Currently a commission of English Methodists is studying the lodge question. Within the past year a general synod of the Church of England also voted to investigate Freemasonry to determine if Masonic beliefs and practices are compatible with Christianity.

Since neither the religious naturalism nor the required oaths of Freemasonry are ever likely to change, the hope that these irreconcilable principles can ever be reconciled is dim. Another objection to U.S. Masonry which should give pause to any Christian is the blatant racism of the lodges. This may someday change, but the lodges have lagged far behind the rest of American society in this matter.

Simply stated, the predominant Blue lodges refuse to initiate anyone known to be black. There is a single exception: Alpha Lodge No. 116 of Newark, N.J., which is recognized by the Grand Lodge of New Jersey. Stories have circulated in recent years about a black candidate in Wisconsin or some other state being initiated, but these are unverified.

Blacks long ago established their own parallel organization of Masonry known as Prince Hall, along with black counterparts of the Scottish rite, Shrine, etc. These are viewed as clandestine and irregular by white Masonry. A Prince Hall Mason cannot be admitted to a meeting of the Blue lodges, and a black man who evidences an interest in Masonry will be politely directed to a Prince Hall lodge.

This situation is an embarrassment to many American Masons as well as to the Grand Lodge of England, the mother lodge, which does not practice such racial discrimination. Sooner or later, we believe, the American lodges will have to re- examine their racist standards and bring them into alignment with the rest of society.

Ecumenical Attitudes

No doubt the ecumenical spirit has contributed to the desire on the part of many that the church relax its ban on Masonic membership. Maintenance of the ban may indeed hamper some ecumenical efforts, but a few things should be kept in mind. As we saw, most of the world's Christians now belong to churches which forbid or discourage Masonic membership. This may be a situation in which those who belong to denominations which allow membership should ask themselves why Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, many Lutherans and fellow Protestants take the stand they do against the lodge. Father Walton Hannah observed, "No church that has seriously investigated the religious teachings and implications of Freemasonry has ever yet failed to condemn it" (Darkness Visible, p. 78)

In his critique of Freemasonry the distinguished Anglican theologian Dr. Hubert S. Box examined the claim of the lodge that its chief purpose is to teach men about the nature of God and observed:

But to teach men about the nature of God is properly the responsibility of the church, by virtue of its divine commission, so that the church, being aware that some of its members are receiving instructions on the nature of God within the barricaded secrecy of a rival teaching body having no divine commission to exercise such a function, has the right to make inquiries as to the sort of instruction they are receiving (The Nature of Freemasonry, p. 5).

The Catholic Church and other churches need not apologize for their stand on lodge membership. One of the boasts of Freemasonry has been that it fosters brotherhood; the church's refusal to allow dual membership in the church and the lodge may seem mean-spirited to some. We can, however, ask our non-Catholic friends which institution best exemplifies brotherhood: American Freemasonry or the church, which is open to men and women, blacks and whites, young and old, rich and poor?

Does this mean that antagonism between Freemasonry and the Christian churches which forbid membership should be fostered? In no way. Dialogue between Christians and Masons can lessen hostility between these groups. Cooperation in civic and charitable works can be encouraged. Some Catholics believe the most fantastic things about Masonry and should be helped to form a rational judgment on the lodge. Some Masons see the church of Rome as the church of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the prop for discredited monarchies. No one benefits from such caricatures.

The Catholic Church now engages in dialogue with many Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and even non-Christian bodies. The fact that a Roman Catholic may not at the same time profess Islam does not mean that fruitful Catholic-Moslem dialogue is impossible or useless.

Problem of Catholics as Recent Members

The serious problem of Catholic men who joined a Masonic lodge during those recent years in which such membership was apparently tolerated remains, and the approach requires great tact. There are 32nd-degree Masons who are daily communicants and active members of Catholic parishes.

In good faith many of these men asked their pastor and/or bishop for permission to join the lodge. Some converts were received into the church during these years and were not asked to relinquish their Masonic affiliation. (In Freemasonry no one is supposed to be solicited to join the lodge, and no one is supposed to become a Mason by the consent of another. Some Masons viewed the 1974 statement by Cardinal Seper as requiring Catholics to obtain the consent of the bishop in order to petition for membership and as such this constituted unMasonic conduct).

One possible solution for these men would be to allow them to retain passive membership in their Masonic lodges. The apostolic delegation was empowered to approve such passive membership in a decree of the Holy Office of May 31, 1911, in Una Scrantonen, if the following conditions were verified:

1. If petitioners gave their names to the sect in good faith before they knew it was condemned.

2. If there is no scandal or if it can be removed with an appropriate declaration, they can remain in the sect passively and for a time so they do not lose the right to benefits, abstaining from communion with the group and from any participation, even material.

3. If serious harm would result for them or their family from their renunciation.

4. If there is no danger of perversion for them or their family, especially in the case of sickness or death.

This possible solution is far from perfect. In effect the church is saying that if an individual meets these conditions he may pay his dues but not attend meetings, read Masonic literature, consent to a Masonic funeral, etc. "You may remain a Mason but don't take Masonry seriously."

(Many bishops and priests seem to think that the Masonic lodge is a fraternal benefit society similar to the Knights of Columbus. Masons may expect some measure of financial assistance from fellow Masons, as may their widows and orphans, but Freemasonry is not an insurance company. Masons do not buy insurance from their grand lodges, and resignation from the lodge does not mean forfeiture of insurance benefits). In some respects most Masons are passive members. The week-to-week business of a Masonic lodge is simply dull and consists mainly in putting candidates through the three degrees. A lodge with hundreds of members may have difficulty rounding up enough members to conduct the ritual. American Masons who read much more than an occasional Masonic newsletter are rare, and most are unaware of the standard Masonic books by Pike, Mackey, et al. They may absorb the naturalism of Freemasonry unconsciously but seldom make a serious study of its Weltanschauung. Not to be smug about it, we should acknowledge that millions of Catholics are also passive or nominal members of the church.

Except in certain communities, often in the South or rural areas, the Masonic lodge has lost most of its erstwhile attraction. The term often applied to English Freemasonry, the "Mafia of the Mediocre," seems even more applicable to the American lodges. A recent article in the Texas Monthly (December 1983) points up the problems for the lodge in a state which has traditionally had a strong grand lodge.

Unless enrollment trends change soon, by the turn of the century few Masons will be left in Texas. The number of people who ask to join has been declining in both orders (white and black lodges) since the years immediately following World War II...Other fraternal orders that have fared better, such as the Lions and Rotary clubs, are wired to commerce; they are practical clubs for modern men, and joining them (by invitation) is simple. Joining the Masons (by application), with all their traditions and odd rituals of brotherhood, is akin to joining a college fraternity, but today's men of the world no longer seem interested in whiling away their hours by fraternizing in the lodge or memorizing ritual codes.

The lodges have conspicuously failed to attract the diploma elite. Even politicians no longer see the need to wear the Masonic apron. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and Reagan managed to win the White House without Masonic affiliation. Johnson received the first or entered-apprentice degree, but never advanced to master Mason.

This suggests that the requests from Catholic men to join the lodge are not likely to increase. The opportunities for making business contacts and enjoying fellowship in other organizations are so plentiful that no Catholic need feel he is sacrificing much by following the precepts of his church in shunning the lodge. He can join the Kiwanis, Lions, Elks, Eagles, Chamber of Commerce, Jaycees, Moose, Knights of Columbus, American Legion, VFW, Serra Club, Optimists, Exchange, Rotary and dozens of other civic and service organizations.

A separate pastoral problem arises when we turn to the affiliated Masonic organizations which enroll both Masons and non-Masons. An example would be the Order of the Eastern Star, whose membership is open to master Masons and their wives, widows, mothers, sisters and daughters. Thousands of Catholic women fall into this eligibility category. Other Masonic-related groups include the DeMolay order for young men, Job's Daughters and Rainbow Girls for young women and the Acacia college fraternity.

Although the possibility of scandal may exist, the fact remains that these women and young people do not swear Masonic oaths and are not considered Masons. We can apply the general canonical principle that "favorable laws are to be interpreted broadly and odious laws are to be interpreted strictly" (odios a restringenda favorabilia extendenda). This would not mean that pastors would encourage such affiliation.

The Catholic Church should not launch any kind of new vendetta against Freemasonry and should welcome the lessening of antiCatholicism, whether in the lodge, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod or any other group. At the same time it must affirm that membership by Catholics in the lodge is inappropriate.


My conclusion is the same as that of the German episcopal conference: "In-depth research on the ritual and on the Masonic mentality makes it clear that it is impossible to belong to the Catholic Church and to Freemasonry at the same time."

The false ecumenism which seeks to ignore basic differences between Masonic naturalism and Christianity, and the desire of a few Catholic men to find in the lodge a fellowship, a better chance for promotion or a wider base of customers than they can find through other organizations are no reasons to ignore the serious objections to Freemasonry raised by the church.

Perhaps some accommodations may be made for pastoral reasons in exceptional cases. Converts might be permitted to retain passive membership. Those Catholic men who joined the lodge in good faith during the recent years of confusion might be offered the same option. Membership in Masonic-related organizations such as the Eastern Star should be discouraged, but does not carry the same penalty of exclusion from the eucharist. Otherwise the position of the church remains what it has been for many years: Catholics in the United States and elsewhere may not be Freemasons.

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