The mutual antagonism of the Catholic Church and Freemasonry is well established and longstanding. For most of the past 300 years they have been acknowledged, even in the secular mindset, as implacably opposed. In recent decades the animosity between the two has faded somewhat from the public consciousness as the Church’s direct institutional involvement in civil affairs has become less pronounced and as Freemasonry has waned dramatically in numbers and prominence. But as Freemasonry turns 300 years old, it is worth revisiting what was at the core of the Church’s absolute opposition to the group. Freemasonry can appear to be little more than an esoteric men’s club, but it was and remains a highly influential philosophical movement – one which 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 Gnostic philosophy and rituals is a fascinating tale in itself. The era of the latter version of Freemasonry began with the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 in the Goose & Gridiron pub near St Paul’s Cathedral. In the early days, before the Church made any formal pronouncement on the subject, many Catholics were members and the English Catholic and Jacobite diaspora was crucial to spreading Freemasonry to continental Europe. At one point it was so popular among Catholics in some places that Francis I of Austria served as a formal patron.
And yet the Church became the greatest foe of the Masonic lodges. Between Clement XII in 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 did and does the Church mean by Freemasonry? What are its qualities which 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 assumption that Masonic lodges were essentially political cells for republics and other reformers, and the Church opposed them as part of a defence of the old regime of absolute monarchy in which she was institutionally invested. But while political sedition would eventually come to the front 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 indifferent ism: the belief that all religions (and none) 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 of the lodge above their membership of 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 suborns a Catholic’s faith to that of the lodge, obliging them to place a fundamental secularist fraternity above communion with the Church. The legal language, and penalties, used in the condemnations of Freemasonry were actually very similar to those used in the suppression of the Albigensian: the Church sees Freemasonry as a form of heresy. While the Masonic rites themselves contain considerable material which can be called heretical, and is in some instances explicitly anti-Catholic, the Church has always been far more concerned with the overarching philosophical content of Freemasonry rather than its ritual pageantry.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Catholic Church and its privileged place in the government and society of many European countries became the subject of growing secularist opposition and even violence. Now, there is little if any historical evidence of the lodges playing an active role in beginning the French Revolution. However, the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic horrors of the Revolution can be traced back to the secularist mentality described in the various papal bulls outlawing the Masonic lodges. Masonic societies 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. As the 19th century began, a new iteration of Freemasonry came to prominence which was explicit in its revolutionary character and avowed in its opposition to the Church; they called themselves the Carbonari, or charcoal merchants. They sanctioned and practised both assassination and armed insurrection against the various governments of the Italian peninsula in their campaign for a secular constitutional government, and were perceived as an immediate threat to the faith, the Papal States and the person of the pope.
The link between the passive threat of the philosophy and secrecy of Masonry and the active revolutionary plots and acts of the Carbonari was laid out in Pius VII’s apostolic constitution Ecclesiam a Jesu Christo, promulgated in 1821. While the Carbonari’s avowed and active opposition to the temporal governance of the Papal States was addressed and condemned, it was still made clear that the gravest threat posed even by these violently revolutionary cells was their philosophy of secularism.
Throughout all the various papal condemnations of Freemasonry, even when lodges were actively supporting military campaigns against the pope, as they did with Garibaldi’s conquest and unification of Italy, 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 teachings of the Church in the lodges, and the suborning of her authority on matters of faith and morals, were described repeatedly as a plot against the faith, both in individuals and in society.
In the encyclical Humanum Genus, Pope Leo XIII described the Masonic agenda as the exclusion of the Church from participation in public affairs and the gradual erosion of her rights as an institutional member of society. During his time as Pope, Leo wrote a great many condemnations of Freemasonry, pastoral and legal. He outlined, in detail, what the Church considered to be the Masonic agenda and, reading it with contemporary eyes, it is still shockingly relevant.
He specifically referred to the 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 also decried the Masonic desire to remove the Church from any control in, or influence over, schools, hospitals, public charities, universities and any other body serving the public good. Also specifically highlighted was the Masonic push for the re imagining 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 settled view on these matters of many, if not all, of our major political parties, indeed the very concept of the secular state and its consequences on Western society, including the pervasive divorce culture and near universal availability of abortion, is a victory of the Masonic agenda. And this raises very real canonical questions about Catholic participation in the modern secular political process.
Throughout the centuries of papal condemnations of Freemasonry, it was normal for each pope to include the names of new societies that shared the Masonic philosophy and agenda and which should be understood by Catholics to come under the heading of “Masonic” in terms of canon 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 canon specifically prohibiting Catholics from joining “Masonic societies” was revised. In the new code, promulgated in 1983 by St John Paul II, explicit mention of Freemasonry was dropped completely. The new 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. In fact, the reforming committee made it clear that they meant not just Freemasons, but many other organisations; the “plot” of its secularist agenda had spread so far beyond the lodges that to keep using the umbrella term “Masonic” would be confusing. The then Cardinal Ratzinger 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 (marriage as a merely civil contract open to divorce at will, abortion, exclusion of religious education from public schools, exclusion of Church from the provision of social welfare and or control of charities), it seems impossible not 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.
More recently, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken of his grave concern at Masonic infiltration of the Curia and other Catholic organisations. At the same time, he has warned against the Church becoming a mere “NGO” in its methods and goals – which is the direct danger of that secularist mentality which the Church has always called a Masonic philosophy.
Masonic infiltration of the hierarchy and Curia has long been treated as a kind of Catholic version of monsters under the bed, or McCarthyite paranoia about commie infiltrators. In fact, when you speak to people who work in the Vatican, you will quickly discover that for every two or three people who laugh at the very notion, you can find someone who has directly encountered it. I myself know at least two people who were approached about joining during their time working in Rome. The role of Masonic lodges as a confidential meeting point and network for those with heterodox ideas and agendas has changed little from pre-Revolutionary France to the modern Vatican; 300 years after the founding of the first Grand Lodge, the conflict between the Church and Freemasonry is still very much alive.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history of the Church’s legal sanctions against Freemasons
An 1891 cartoon in Puck shows Pope Leo XIII doing battle with Freemasonry