Freemasonry and the Catholic Church
For about the fifth or sixth time I have been asked my view on Freemasonry and the Catholic Church. First, I am no better a Mason than I am a Catholic. Second, I am neither a lawyer nor a canonist. I have no special skill at understanding all of this material other than being deeply interested. With those issues aside, this is an answer I wrote to a Past Grand Master who asked my view on the matter for a candidate who wanted to petition the lodge, but was worried about being a good Catholic. Though I have little doubt that people on all sides will be offended by my conclusion, at least it has the benefit of being honest.
[Since I first wrote this in 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger has become Pope Benedict XVI.]
Just so trust in me is not essential, you can obtain an excellent, if slightly paranoid, summary of the orthodox view from "Freemasonry: mankind's hidden enemy" by Bro. Charles Madden, O.F.M. Conv. ("Bro" hear means religious brother). The small book is very useful as it provides not just the author's opinion, but also the full text of various decisions and position statements.
When the Canon was revised and published in 1983, the explicit prohibition against Masonic association was dropped. The canon in question is 1374
Can. 1374 A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; however, a person who promotes or directs an association of this kind is to be punished with an interdict.http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P53.HTM
An interdict bans a Catholic from receiving the Sacraments, including a Christian burial. You may still confess and received a funeral Mass, which is what differentiates an interdict from an excommunication. An excommunicated person may only return to the Church with the express permission of the Bishop of his Diocese or by any pastor in the case of impending death.
Catholics had already started joining Masonry in greater numbers during the 1970s, and he dropping of Freemasonry from the Canon appeared to pave the way for even more Catholics to join. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the official interpreter of legal and doctrinal issues for Catholics, released this statement in response:
DECLARATION ON MASONIC ASSOCIATIONS
It has been asked whether there has been any change in the Church’s decision in regard to Masonic associations since the new Code of Canon Law does not mention them expressly, unlike the previous Code.
This Sacred Congregation is in a position to reply that this circumstance in due to an editorial criterion which was followed also in the case of other associations likewise unmentioned inasmuch as they are contained in wider categories.
Therefore the Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.
It is not within the competence of local ecclesiastical authorities to give a judgment on the nature of Masonic associations which would imply a derogation from what has been decided above, and this in line with the Declaration of this Sacred Congregation issued on 17 February 1981 (cf. AAS 73 1981 pp. 240-241; English language edition of L’Osservatore Romano, 9 March 1981).
In an audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II approved and ordered the publication of this Declaration which had been decided in an ordinary meeting of this Sacred Congregation.
Rome, from the Office of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 26 November 1983.
Joseph Card. RATZINGER
+ Fr. Jerome Hamer, O.P.
It is important to note that when Cardinal Ratzinger was a Bishop in Germany he participated in a study panel which condemned Masonry based largely on the explicit prohibition of the 1917 Canon.
You can see the formal position of the Church is quite severe, so you might ask why there is any question at all? According to the Catholic doctrine "odios a restringenda, favorabilia extenda" (English, favorable laws are to be interpreted broadly and odious laws are to be interpreted strictly), this muddies the water considerably. A strict interpretation of the Canon requires a provable plotting against the Church for a man to be interdicted. That is the key point on which the entire debate regarding Masonic associations for Catholics hinges.
Here is the United States, Freemasonry in no way plots against anyone, though the same cannot necessarily be said for Freemasonry in Italy or France, where some lodges probably do actively plot. The Grand Lodges of England and America began serious discussions with Archbishops and members of the Congregations in Rome to try and create a distinction between the violators of 1374 and the rest of the Craft.
When the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered to try and figure out whether Freemasonry in the United States was like its Italian variant, the Knights of the Immaculata popped up on the committee which studied the Craft and wrote the position paper for the USNCCB. This document is only about twenty printed pages and merits a read. A copy can be read online here:
This seems to be really bad news, until you see who the Knights of the Immaculata are. To set the stage, read what St. Maximillian Kolbe had to say about Freemasonry in 1939:
The Freemasons follow this principle above all: 'Catholicism can be overcome not
by logical argument but by corrupted morals.' And so they overwhelm the souls of
men with the kind of literature and arts that will most easily destroy a sense of chaste
morals, and they foster sordid lifestyles in all phases of human life...
St. Kolbe founded the order of the Knights of the Immaculata, so you can see they had an agenda before they took part in the USNCCB subcommittee. The document, in my view, wanders around quite a lot and makes only a single, salient point. The penalty portion of the obligation may indeed deserve to be removed entirely, and some US Masonic jurisdictions have already started the process by adding the word "symbolic." I suspect the penalty clause will be eliminated all across the US before I die. The Bishops were divided on the content of the document, but a majority of them did accept it.
In 1996, Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska issued a blanket excommunication against Freemasons and members of twelve other groups. It is worth the time to look the list and try to imagine what they have to do with each other. Are members of Planned Parenthood really morally equal to Rainbow Girls? The fact of the matter is that children may never be excommunicated because they "have not obtained the full use of reason." The other problem is that, as we noted before, interdict and excommunication are not the same at all, so Bishop Bruskewitz was promoting the gravity of the crime quite severely. This action lead other Bishops to say explicitly members of these associations were not to be excommunicated in their Diocese, a clear split.
Yet, with all this in mind the previous Bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Bishop Joseph Gerry, gave a speech to the Maine Lodge of Research about four years ago (in 2000), in a meeting held at the Grand Lodge of Maine. In the talk he indicated that he hoped for a detente between Freemasonry and the Church. His Chancellor participated in a committee with members of the Craft which found no conflict between Freemasonry, as practiced in Maine, and the principles of the Church. This is a non-binding opinion, but it most certainly opened the path for many more Catholics in Maine to become Freemasons.
I think it is clear the Church in the United States is divided on the issue. Whether Masonry plots against the Church is an open question. I believe the answer, here in the US, is a clear and definitive 'no.' Armed with that information and a strict interpretation, no interdict is deserved for Catholic Masons in the US.
With all this in mind, what is my feeling? When I was Master, if a Catholic petitioned, then I required the Investigating Committee to warn them of the rules of Canon Law and the possibility of a conservative Bishop or Pastor enforcing an interdict. As a bystander, I speak with the Master first, but in the end I make sure I talk to the candidate to warn them to look into the issue and speak with their confessor.
I was a deeply lapsed Catholic when I became a Mason about eight years ago. It was the Masonic ritual which really reawakened my spiritual side and lead me to eventually return to the Church. In 2001, shortly before taking the last step on the road to Master of Deering Lodge, I made a special appointment with my confessor. I explicitly confessed to my Masonic association and asked for his guidance including my willingness to leave the lodge if he felt I should. I answered all his questions quite fully; it remains my steadfast belief that confession (reconciliation) is a more important duty than any recreational oath of secrecy. He, in the past, had found no problem with Freemasonry, and did not see any reason for me to leave. If I ever found the lodge did plot against the Church, then I was under an obligation to resign from it. He did not see that such things occurred here in the US. I have since been very active in the lodge and in my parish, and never found anything in Masonry at odds with Catholicism.
In the end, I am willing to take the risk of being a Mason. If Masonry in Maine starts plotting against the Church, then I will leave it the very day. If Masonry ever tries to force me to do something contrary to my conscience, then I will leave it that very day. The day I finally die and appear before St. Peter my name may or may not be written in the Book of Life, however, I do not believe for an instant that the thing which sends me to eternal torment will be my doubt about whether Cardinal Ratzinger is right about Masonry plotting against the Church.
Finally, just to give you a point to meditate on. If M.W. Bro. X wanted to plot against the Church and lure you away to depravity, as the Knights of the Immaculata fear, then he would have asked another Mason to answer your inquiry. He knows I take the rules of my faith seriously and have thought a great deal about the issue. He would have asked someone who he knew would say "no problem at all." Instead, he came to me and he probably did know I would close with this statement:
Read what I have said, think about it, but before you submit your petition talk to your pastor.