Nearly two years ago, I wrote about Catholics and the Masons. Many readers were interested in a follow-up so, may this edited article from Ed Condon serve as such.
The principles of Freemasonry are fundamentally incompatible with Catholic teaching. The mutual antagonism of the Catholic Church and Freemasonry is well established and longstanding. For most of the past 300 years they have been implacably opposed to one another. In recent decades, the animosity between the two seems to have faded somewhat, but as Freemasonry turns 300 years old, it is worth revisiting what was at the core of the Church’s absolute opposition to it. Freemasonry can appear to be little more than an esoteric men’s club, but it was and remains a highly influential philosophical movement that has made a dramatic, if little-noticed, impact on modern Western society and politics.
The history of Freemasonry itself is long and interesting. Its gradual transformation from the medieval workers’ guilds of stonemasons into a network of secret societies with their own heretical philosophy and rituals is a fascinating tale in itself. It began with the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. In those days, before the Church made any formal pronouncement on the subject, many Catholics were members and were even crucial to the spreading of Freemasonry to continental Europe. However, the Church became the greatest foe of the Masonic lodges. Between 1738 and the promulgation of the first Code of Canon Law in 1917, a total of eight popes wrote explicit condemnations of Freemasonry. All provided the strictest penalty for membership: automatic excommunication reserved to the Holy See. But what are its qualities that are so worthy of condemnation?
It is sometimes said that the Church opposed Freemasonry because of the lodges’ supposedly revolutionary or seditious character. There is a widespread feeling that Masonic lodges were essentially political cells for rebels and other reformers, and that’s why the Church opposed them. But, while political sedition would eventually come to the forefront of the Church’s opposition to Masonic membership, this was by no means the initial reason the Church opposed the Masons. What Clement XII described in his original denunciation was not a revolutionary republican society, but a group spreading and enforcing religious indifferentism: the belief that all religions are of equal worth and that, in Masonry, all are united in service to a higher, unifying understanding of virtue. Catholics, as members, would be asked to put their membership in the lodge above their membership in the Church. The strict prohibition, in other words, was not for political purposes but for the care of souls. From the outset, the primary concern of the Church has been that Masonry places a Catholic’s faith beneath that of the lodge, obliging them to place a fundamental secularist fraternity above communion with the Church.
The Church sees Freemasonry as a form of heresy, and Masonic rites themselves contain considerable material which can be called heretical, and is, in some ways, explicitly anti-Catholic. The Church has always been far more concerned with the overarching philosophical content of Freemasonry rather than its ritual pageantry. The anti-clerical and anti-Catholic horrors of the French Revolution can be traced back to the secularist mentality described in the various papal condemnations of Masonic lodges. These were condemned not because they set out to threaten civil or Church authorities but because such a threat was the inevitable consequence of their existence and growth. Revolution was the symptom, not the disease.
The alignment of Church and state interests, and their assault by seditious and revolutionary secret societies, were clearest where the Church and state were one: in the Papal States of the Italian peninsula. In the early 19th century, a hidden item of Freemasonry became evident in its revolutionary character and its opposition to the Church. It used both assassination and armed insurrection against the various governments of the peninsula in a campaign for a secular government, and was seen as a violent threat to the faith, the Papal States and the person of the pope. It became clear that the gravest threat posed even by these revolutionary cells was their philosophy of secularism.
In the various papal condemnations of Freemasonry, what was always the first objection of the Church to the Lodge was its threat to the faith of Catholics and the freedom of the Church to act in society. The undermining of the Church’s teachings by the lodges, and the opposing of the Church on matters of faith and morals, were described repeatedly as a plot against the faith, both in individuals and in society. Pope Leo XIII outlined, in detail, what the Church considered to be the “Masonic agenda;” and, if we read it with contemporary eyes, it is still shockingly relevant. He specifically referred to its aim of secularizing the state and society. He referenced, in particular, the exclusion of religious education from state schools and the concept of “the State, which [Masonry believes] ought to be absolutely atheistic, having the inalienable right and duty to form the heart and the spirit of its citizens.” He decried the Masonic desire to remove the Church from any control in, or influence over, schools, hospitals, public charities, universities and other bodies serving the public good. He highlighted the Masonic push for the reimagining of marriage as a merely civil contract, the promotion of divorce, and support for the legalization of abortion. It is almost impossible to read this agenda and not recognize it as the underpinning of almost all of our contemporary political discourse. The concept of a secular state and its consequences on society, including the divorce culture, and a near universal availability of abortion, is a victory of the Masonic agenda. This raises very real questions about any Catholic participation in the modern secular political process. Throughout the years of papal condemnations of Freemasonry, it was normal for each pope to include the names of societies that shared the Masonic philosophy and agenda and which should be understood to come under the heading of “Masonic” in terms of Church law. By the 20th century, this had come to include political parties and movements such as communism.
When the Code of Canon Law was reformed, following Vatican II, the law specifically prohibiting Catholics from joining “Masonic societies” was revised. Canon #1374 referred only to societies that “plot against the Church.” Many took this change to indicate that Freemasonry was no longer always bad in the eyes of the Church. But, in fact, the reforming committee made it clear that they meant not just Freemasons, but many other organizations. The “plot” of its secularist agenda had spread so far and wide, that to keep using the umbrella term “Masonic” would be confusing. So, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) issued an authoritative clarification of the new law in 1983, in which he made it clear that the new canon was phrased to encourage broader interpretation and application.
Given the crystal-clear understanding in Church teaching regarding what the Masonic plot or agenda against the Church includes, it seems possible to ask: how many of the major political parties in the West can now be said to fall under the prohibition of Canon 1374? The answer may well be rather uncomfortable for those who want to see an end to the so-called culture wars in the Church. Recently, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken of his grave concern for Masonic infiltration of the Church and other Catholic organizations. Masonic infiltration of the hierarchy and Curia has long been treated as a kind of Catholic version of monsters under the bed, or a paranoia about commie infiltrators. But, 300 years after the founding of the first Grand Lodge, the conflict between the Church and Freemasonry is very much alive.