Catholic Church and Freemasonry – Texas Lodge of Research paper
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Note: This paper was presented before the Texas Lodge of Research A.F. & A.M. (TLR) on June 13, 1992 and has been published in volume XXVII of “Transactions”, the official publication of the TLR. Further, this paper has also been reproduced and published in The Illinois Lodge of Research “Transactions”, Volume 8, Number 2, page 14 (August, 1997). Publication of this paper without permission of the author is prohibited by law. This web page has no relationship to the TLR or any Masonic organization, and the author is solely responsible for its content. Questions and comments regarding this paper should be directed to the Editor of The Freemasons’ Page of Reason and emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Freemasonry is an important topic of discussion for Catholic theologians and clerics. The Roman Catholic hierarchy are, and historically have been, quite interested in Freemasonry. For over two hundred and fifty years the Vatican has been condemning Masonry and seeking to prevent the Lodge membership of Catholics.
Masons are of many opinions regarding the present state of affairs between the Roman Catholic Church and the Masonic Fraternity (or Freemasonry). There seems to be a growing assumption that antipathy between the church and Masonry is a matter of historical importance only and that relations are such that Catholics can become Masons without retribution by the church. Some brethren and some Catholics believe that since the Second Ecumenical Council, which was conducted from 1962 to 1965 and is informally known as “Vatican II”, the attitude of the church has been to regard Freemasonry as an acceptable sphere for fraternal interaction. This paper is intended to present current Roman Catholic Church law regarding Roman Catholic membership and participation in Freemasonry, along with historical background to the development of that church law.
Roman Catholic Church Canon Law is defined as “That body of law constituted by legitimate ecclesiastical authority for the proper organization and government of the church as a visible society. The term Canon is used to designate the body of law that is proper to the Roman Catholic Church.”1
Canon Law was for centuries a simple compilation of Papal pronouncements including constitutions and encyclicals, as well as Sacred Writings and other church generated documents, some of which were contradictory. The first generally accepted authoritative collection of Roman Catholic Church Law was what is now known as the Decretum of Gratian, formally known as Concordia Discordant Cononum. This work by a twelfth century monk includes apostolic constitutions, Canons of Sacred Councils and patristic texts, all with commentary. Gratian’s commentary attempted to reconcile conflicting authorities and compose a comprehensive treatment of church law.
In later centuries various church councils promulgated laws, and popes made pronouncements, but a comprehensive, consistent and authoritative statement of church law was lacking. Finally, the Codex Iuris Canonici, commonly known as the Code of Canon Law, was promulgated by Pope Benedict XV on 27 May 1917 in the Constitution Providentissim Mater Ecclesia. It went into effect 19 May 1918, and constituted the first codification of church law.2
Whether under the influence of papal pronouncements or under the Code of Canon Law, the Church’s attitude toward Masonry has been consistent. After Freemasonry became known to the world at large in the early eighteenth century, the church took notice of it, and objected to it. Eight popes have issued pronouncements either explicitly condemning Freemasons or those activities and principles identified with Freemasonry.3 The pronouncements took the form of constitutions, encyclicals, apostolic epistles, and addresses. Constitutions were the old style position papers or statements of church law issued by popes. Encyclicals are letters from the pope circulated to the bishops stating the church’s position on certain matters.
The papal pronouncements relating to Freemasonry are as follows:
Clement XII, In Eminenti, 28 April 1738
This constitution was the first public written attack by the papacy against Masonry. In In Eminenti the principal objections to Freemasonry given were: that it was open to men of all religions; that there were oaths taken; that Masons denied clerical authority, and that Masons met in secret.4 Pope Clement forbade Masonic membership by Catholics and directed the “Inquisitors of Heretical Depravity” to take action against Catholics who became Masons or assisted Freemasonry in any way. He ordered excommunication as punishment for those who defied his ban.
Benedict XIV, Providas, 18 May 1751
This constitution confirmed In Eminenti and condemned Freemasonry on the grounds of its naturalism, demand for oaths, secrecy, religious indifferentism, possible threat to the church and state. It specifically forbids Roman Catholics from seeking membership in any Masonic group.5
Pius VII, Ecclesiam A Jesu Christo, 13 September 1821
The constitution Ecclesiam specifies excommunication for Freemasons and gives as reason for the censure the oath bound secrecy of the society and their conspiracies against the church and state. It also links Freemasonry with the Society of the Carbonari, known as the “Charcoal Burners”, who at that time were active in Italy and were believed to be a revolutionary group.6
Leo XII, Quo Gravioria Mala, 13 March 1825
This constitution restated the Roman Catholic Church’s objection to Freemasonry as a secret society, with oath-bound secrecy, which conspires against church and state.7
Pius VIII, Traditi Humilitati, 24 May 1829
This encyclical is considered by some Roman Catholic authorities to be an anti-Masonic polemic.8 It warned against a secret society whose “cunning purpose is to…lead the students along the path of Baal.” It called for Catholics to “…eradicate those secret societies of factious men who, completely opposed to God and to princes, are wholly dedicated to bringing about the fall of the Church, the destruction of kingdoms, and disorder in the whole world.”9 It also makes reference to the anti-Masonic pronouncements of previous popes.
Litteris Altero, 25 March 1830
This apostolic letter reiterated earlier papal condemnations of Freemasonry. It specifically condemns the influence of Freemasonry in education.10
Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos, 15 August 1832
This was an encyclical on liberalism and religious indifferentism. Religious indifferentism is defined as “… the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained.” This encyclical does not mention Masonry, but religious indifferentism is one of the charges often leveled against Freemasonry in papal pronouncements.11 Some Roman Catholic authorities identify this pronouncement as anti-Masonic.12
Pius IX, Qui Pluribus, 9 November 1846
This encyclical calls for Roman Catholics to fight against heresy. It decries those who put human reason above faith, and who believe in human progress. Strangely, it also attacks secret “sects” and “crafty” Bible societies who “force on people of all kinds, even the uneducated, gifts of the Bible.” This encyclical also calls “perverse” religious indifferentism.13 While not mentioning Masonry directly, it criticizes those it does not identify for those same faults that the previous papal pronouncements imputed to Freemasonry, and is regarded as an anti-Masonic pronouncement by some Catholic sources.
Quibus Quantisque Malis, 20 April 1849
This pronouncement is referred to by some authorities as anti-Masonic,14 but is unavailable in English translation.
Quanta Cura, 8 December 1864
This is an Encyclical condemning “current errors”, including naturalism. It calls liberty of conscience and worship the “liberty of perdition”. It attacks communism and socialism directly, but does not mention Freemasonry.15 Quanta Cura is referred to by some authorities as an encyclical dealing with Freemasonry.16 An attack on naturalism is usually understood to be an attack on Freemasonry.
Multiplices Inter, 25 September 1865
This is an address made by Pope Pius IX condemning Freemasonry and other secret societies. In it, he accuses Masonic associations of conspiracy against the church, God and civil society. He further attributes revolutions and uprisings to Masonic activities, and denounces secret oaths, clandestine meetings and Masonic penalties.17
Apostolicae Sedis Moderatoni, 12 October 1869
This is a constitution relating to Canon Law. It clarifies the procedure regarding censure in Canon Law, changes some Canons and establishes a new list of censures.18 Some authorities state the document relates to Freemasonry,19 but it is unavailable in English translation.
Etsi Multa, 21 November 1873
In the encyclical Etsi Multa, Pope Pius condemned Masonry by stating that Masonic groups were among the “sects” from which “….the synagogue of Satan is formed ….”20
Leo XIII, Etsi Nos, 15 February 1882
This papal encyclical speaks about the conditions then prevalent in Italy and refers to a “pernicious sect” at war with Jesus Christ, which sect he blames for civil unrest in Italy.21 Some Roman Catholic authorities identify this as a reference to Freemasonry.22
Humanum Genus, 20 April 1884
The encyclical Humanum Genus is considered to contain one of the most vicious attacks on Freemasonry of any papal pronouncements. It states that “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor a bad tree produce good fruit…the Masonic sect produces fruits that are pernicious and of the bitterest savor.” It goes on to say that Freemasonry’s goal is the destruction of the Roman Catholic Church, and that Freemasonry and the Roman Catholic Church are adversaries. Pope Leo further stated that many Freemasons are unaware of the ultimate goals of Freemasonry and should not be considered partners in the criminal acts perpetrated by Freemasonry. He also condemns the naturalism of Freemasonry, by which is meant the belief that “human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide…they allow no dogma of religion or truth which cannot be understood by the human intelligence, nor any teacher who ought to be believed by reason of his authority.”23 It is interesting to note that Brother Albert Pike stated that this encyclical was a “…declaration of war, and the signal for a crusade, against the rights of man….”24
Officio Sanctissimo, 22 December 1887
This is an encyclical epistle concerning Bavaria and includes a warning against Freemasonry. It states that Freemasonry is a “contagion”, and is a “sect of darkness”.25
Dall’Alto Dell’Apostolico Seggio, 15 October 1890
This encyclical, also known as Ab Apostolici, dealt with Freemasonry in Italy. It condemned the contemporary course of public affairs in Italy as the realization of the “Masonic programme”. This alleged “programme” was said to involve a “deadly hatred of the Church”, the abolition of religious instruction in schools and the absolute independence of civil society from clerical influence.26
Inimica Vis, 18 December 1892
This encyclical epistle to the bishops of Italy addresses Freemasonry in Italy. It reiterates the urgent necessity of combating the ends of Freemasonry, and entreats the bishops to work to convert victims of Freemasonry. It complains that some Roman Catholic clergy are entering into or cooperating with Freemasonry.27
Custodi di Qualla Fede, 18 December 1892
This is an encyclical epistle to the people of Italy attacking Freemasonry. It tells how to work against Freemasonry in ways such as guarding Catholic homes against infiltration, setting up Catholic schools and mutual aid societies, and establishing a Catholic press. It contains virulent criticism of Freemasonry.28
Praeclara, 20 June 1894
Praeclara is an apostolic letter to the rulers and nations of the world which calls for union with the church of Rome, and which warns against Freemasonry.29
Annum Ingressi, 18 March 1902
Annum Ingressi is an apostolic epistle to the bishops of the world reviewing the 25 years of his pontificate. It also urges resistance to Freemasonry.30
As one can tell from the increasingly harsh attacks on Freemasonry by the popes, the various papal pronouncements appear not to have impeded the progress of Masonry. The attitude of the Vatican has not always been the attitude of the clergy or of the people.
It is important to note that in the 18th century the then popes’ condemnations of Freemasonry were not promulgated in America by the church’s chief cleric, Bishop John Carroll. Bishop Carroll wrote in a letter in 1794, and spoke of the lodge question as follows: “I do not pretend that these decrees (against Freemasonry) are received generally by the Church, or have full authority in these dioceses.”31 That wasn’t to be the last time that American Catholics refused to freely support the Vatican’s position regarding Freemasonry.
British Roman Catholics had a similar attitude toward church authority. There were Roman Catholic Grandmasters of English Masonry during the 18th Century, including Thomas, Duke of Norfolk who was Grandmaster of the Premier Grand Lodge of England in 1730. Robert Edward, Ninth Lord Petre, who was considered the head of the Catholic community in England, became Grandmaster of the Premier Grand Lodge in 1772 and served for 5 years.32
With the advent of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Church incorporated the attitude of previous papal encyclicals into something akin to statutory law. In Canon 2335 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the church held that “those who joined a Masonic sect, or other societies of the same sort, plot against the church or against legitimate civil authority, incur excommunication”. This was explicit church law for decades thereafter.
After the Second Ecumenical Council (Vatican II) there began clerical questioning of the church’s condemnation of Masonry. In 1968 a book was printed in Spain entitled La Masoneria Despues del Concilio (Masonry after Vatican II).33 The author was a Jesuit Priest, Father J. A. Ferrer Benimeli, whose thesis was that regular Freemasonry should not be condemned. He condemned irregular Freemasonry only, since it was atheistic and anti-clerical.
The growing ambivalence of the church’s position regarding Freemasonry became official in 1974 when Franjo Cardinal Seper, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent letters to John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia and others regarding the force and meaning of Canon 2335 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.34 The Cardinal, doubtlessly prompted by the ecumenical fervor of the times, stated that the Canon still remained in force, but that since penal laws are subject to strict interpretation, excommunication would only be applicable to those Roman Catholics who joined organizations which actively plotted against the Roman Catholic Church. Given that Masonry does not plot against the Roman Catholic Church, the letter was interpreted by many to mean that the Cardinal’s statement signaled that the ancient strictures against Roman Catholic membership in Masonry had been removed.
It will be remembered that in 1978 both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I died and Pope John Paul II was elected. With him, conservatives in the church regained power. Their influence can be felt by the back tracking and retreat from ecumenicism of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is an authoritative high level organization in the Vatican concerned with church law and purity
of doctrine. On 2 March 1981, just seven years after Cardinal Seper’s letter, the Congregation retreated from borderline tolerance of Freemasonry. It issued the “Declaration on Catholic Membership in Masonic Associations”.35 In this declaration, the letter of 1974 was blamed for giving “rise to erroneous and tendentious interpretations”. By this declaration the Congregation was in effect saying that the old rules relating to Freemasonry were back in force.
The Roman Catholic Church presently operates under the new Code of Canon Law which was promulgated in 1983. This new Code revised Canon 2335 of the 1917 Code, and incorporated it into new Canon 1734, which reads as follows:” One who joins an association which plots against the church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or moderates such an association, however, is to be punished with an interdict.”36 As can be seen, no longer does the Canon impose excommunication on Catholic Masons, or even mention Masons directly.
One interesting feature of the 1983 Code is that it appears to differentiate between simple lodge membership, the punishment for which is a “just penalty”, and promoting or holding office in such a society, the punishment for which is an “interdict”.
An “interdict” is a punishment or vindictive penalty by which the Roman Catholic faithful, remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and are prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts. It is a censure. Those bound by a personal interdict are forbidden to celebrate or assist at divine services, and are denied ecclesiastical burial.37 It appears, therefore, that where Masonic groups are determined to have plotted against the church, Catholic officers of those lodges will be subject to a stiffer penalty than will regular members who are Catholic.
As a consequence of the new Code of Canon Law and Cardinal Seper’s letter, the church was faced with answering the question `since the new Code does not prescribe a punishment for belonging to a Masonic organization, does that mean that the church approves of such membership as long as no plotting against the Roman Catholic Church occurs?’ In other words, has there been a rapprochement between Masonry and Roman Catholicism? Numerous persons have, since the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, set out to answer that question. In this author’s view, the question has been answered conclusively in the negative.
On 26 November 1983, the same year that the church adopted the new Canon of Church Law, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement declaring that “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…Catholics enrolled in masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach holy communion.”38
One can see how this new policy statement conflicts with the ecumenical nature of Cardinal Seper’s 1974 letter and the changes in Canon Law. Clearly there had been retrograde movement in the church’s attitude toward Masonry. The Congregation avoided directly overriding their 1974 statement by drawing a distinction between penal law and morality. They held that what was meant in their 1974 statement was that Catholics could not be excommunicated or otherwise punished for merely being Masons, insofar as the particular Masonic group to which they belonged did not attack the church. However, the Congregation held that it was nonetheless immoral to belong to Masonic groups because Freemasonry was, in their view, antithetical to the teachings and authority of the church. Clearly, the momentum toward a rapprochement between Freemasonry and the church had been lost.
Influenced by the statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the reversal of the short lived drift toward ecumenicism, in 1985 the United States Bishops Committee
for Pastoral Research and Practices published a report entitled “Masonry & Naturalistic Religion“39. The Pastoral Research & Practices Committee Report states that while one can no longer be excommunicated for being a Mason, it is none the less sinful to
belong to Masonic organizations. The rationale is that the principles of Masonry are irreconcilable with those of the church. The report goes on to quote a six year study of Masonry by the bishops of Germany and the study of American Masonry by Professor William Whalen.40 The Committee Report quotes those sources as stating 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”.
As could be predicted, and in line with its history, the American church at large is more tolerant of Freemasonry. Perhaps the attitude of American Catholics and the American church was best expressed in a letter from Bishop Fiorenza of the Houston-Galveston diocese, in which he said:
“…. In the historical view, Freemasonry in Europe and Latin America has opposed the Catholic Church and has been
virulent in its anti-clerical attitude. To a great extent, however, this mentality is not typical of Freemasonry in the United States …. There is a concern that certain Freemasonry groups display all the elements of a religion, but forbid the mention of Jesus Christ within the lodge. This, too, is not exemplified in masonic groups in the United States but is found in other parts of the world. Most Masons in this country join for social and business reasons.
In general, there has been no conflict between Freemasonry and the Catholic Church in this country. Both organizations have existed in harmony in the United States….”41
While the apparent tolerance of American Catholics toward Masonry is encouraging, the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Bishops have made determinative rulings by which American Catholics at large are expected to abide. The final nail in the coffin of any possible near term rapprochement between the Catholic Church and Freemasonry appears to have been a declaration published in the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “…. The faithful who enroll in masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive holy communion…. In an audience… the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II approved and ordered the publication of this declaration…”42 Thus, the present pope is on record opposing Masonic membership for Catholics.
In subsequent editions of the newspaper the holding of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by the pope, has been restated and substantiated. For those of a philosophical bent, the 11 March 1985, L’Osservatore Romano (English language edition) contains an article which argues that Masonry establishes a relativistic symbolic concept of morality unacceptable to Catholicism.43
Thus, and despite the Second Ecumenical Council, the hostile tenor of Roman Catholic Church pronouncements toward Masonry remains unabated, and official church attitudes and law are not meaningfully different from those of previous centuries. The atmosphere and tradition established by long dead European popes and Freemasons continues to haunt American Freemasons. By denying communion to Roman Catholics who are Masons, the church denies obedient Roman Catholics the opportunity to share in the brotherhood of Freemasonry, and Freemasons lose the opportunity to share fraternal bonds with many Roman Catholics.
1 “Canon Law, History of”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
3 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
4 Papal Pronouncements, A Guide, 1740 – 1978, 2 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (The Pierian Press, 1990).
8 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
9 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
10 Papal Pronouncements, A Guide, 1740 – 1978, 2 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (The Pierian Press, 1990).
11 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
12 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
13 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
14 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
15 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
16 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
17 Papal Pronouncements, A Guide, 1740 – 1978, 2 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (The Pierian Press, 1990).
18 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
19 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
20 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
22 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
23 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
24 “Anti-Masonry”, Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia,by Henry W. Coil,(Macoy Publishing and Supply Company, Inc.,1961)
25 The Papal Encyclicals, 1740 – 1981, 5 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (McGrath Publishing Co., 1981).
29 Papal Pronouncements, A Guide, 1740 – 1978, 2 Vols., by Claudia Carlen, IHM, (The Pierian Press, 1990).
31 “Freemasonry”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
33 The Freemason at Work, by Harry Carr; (Lewis Masonic, Ian Allen Regalia; Terminal House, Shepperton, Surry, U.K.), p. 278.
34 Origins, 3 October 1974, Vol 4, p. 236, which published the letter from Franjo Cardinal Seper, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia. (Origins is a Catholic periodical dealing with church matters, published by the Catholic News Service, 3211 Fourth St. N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-1100.)
35 Origins, 12 March 1981, Vol 10, No. 39, p. 610, also, same or similar Declaration issued 17 February 1981, cited as (cf. AAS 73  pp. 240-241), published in L’Osservatore Romano, 9 March 1981.
36 The Code of Canon Law, a text and commentary commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America. Edited by James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, Donald E. Heintschel. (Paulist Press, 997 MacArthur Blvd., Mahwah, NJ 07430, 1985).
37 “Interdict”, New Catholic Encyclopedia, prepared by an Editorial staff at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., (McGraw-Hill Book Co.).
38 Origins, 15 December 1983, Vol 13, p. 450, original document cited as (cf. AAS LXXVI (1984), 300).
39 Origins, 27 June 1985, Vol 15, No. 6, in which appeared the article concerning the Pastoral Research & Practices Committee Report “Masonry and Naturalistic Religion“, published by the U.S. Bishops Committee for Pastoral Research & Practices.
40 “Catholicism and Freemasonry“, 2 April 1985, unpublished report to U. S. Bishop Pastoral Research and Practices Committee, Prof. William Whalen of Purdue University.
41 Bishop Fiorenza to Reid McInvale, 10 June 1991.
42 L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), 5 December 1983, Article entitled “Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-Declaration on Masonic Associations.”, p. 12.
43 L’Osservatore Romano (English edition), 11 March 1985, article entitled “Reflections a Year after Declaration of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-Irreconcilability between Christian Faith and Freemasonry.”, p. 2.