Can Catholics Become Freemasons?

Q: There’s a man running for office in my area whose campaign brochures describe his community involvement. They say that he is a member of a Catholic parish, and also that he is a member of a Masonic Lodge. I thought Catholics couldn’t become Masons. Has the law on that been changed? –Vicki

A: No, although many people wrongly believe that it has.

As we saw in “Are Women Required to Cover Their Heads in Church?” the Code of Canon Law that was promulgated in 1983 by Pope John Paul II replaced the earlier code of 1917. The 1917 code was thus abrogated—repealed and replaced, in other words—by the current code.

Canon 2335 of the 1917 code stated clearly that those Catholics who joined a Masonic organization or some other, similar group that plotted against the Church or against civil authority, incurred excommunication. The Church’s interpretation of Freemasonry’s main purpose was pretty clear: it was an association that plots against Catholicism. Membership in it was, therefore, obviously inconsistent with being a Catholic.

Except that to some it was not so obvious. Confusion subsequently arose as to whether every single Masonic lodge throughout the world was to be considered part of an organization actively plotting to harm the Church. After all, many men who are members of Masonic lodges view Masonry solely as a fraternal and charitable organization. They have no personal knowledge of anti-Catholic activities at their lodges, and often are bewildered at the very notion. Here in the U.S., for example, probably most of us are aware that the Shriners (who are Masons) raise funds to help sick and handicapped children. Both Masons and non-Masons might object that this sort of philanthropic work is surely a far cry from any alleged activity aimed at damaging the Catholic Church!

It would appear from the wording of the former canon 2335 that if perchance a Masonic lodge could have demonstrated that it had no involvement with or interest in conspiring against the Catholic faith, then the law would have permitted Catholics to become members. The question arose, therefore, as to whether some Masonic groups could be considered exempt from the canonical prohibition. Occasionally statements were made and letters written on the question by Vatican officials, but they were couched in terms that many found ambiguous, and unfortunately did little to clarify matters.

Far from resolving the confusion, the new Code of Canon Law that was promulgated in 1983 left many Catholics even more perplexed. The corresponding canon in the current law does not even mention Masonry by name. Instead, it uses much broader terminology: anyone who joins an association that plots against the Church is to be punished by a just penalty (c. 1374). This was interpreted by many sincere Catholics as an about-face, and they concluded that under the new law, since many Masonic lodges have no apparent involvement whatsoever in anti-Catholic conspiracies, Catholics are no longer forbidden to join them. To this day, one often hears vague comments about “the spirit of Vatican II” somehow having had a hand in reversing the former ban, and that this constitutes evidence that the Church nowadays is more open and ecumenical than it was before.

What these commentators apparently do not know, however, is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Declaration on this very subject in 1983, the same year that the new Code of Canon Law was promulgated. This document provides a theological interpretation of canon 1374. It notes that the new code does not expressly mention Freemasonry because of an “editorial criterion,” which led the Code Commission to avoid mentioning by name specific associations “inasmuch as they are contained in wider categories.” The Declaration asserts clearly that “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.”

Furthermore, the document states unambiguously that local church authorities do not have the authority to make any judgment on this matter that would constitute a relaxation of this ban. In other words, a diocesan bishop or chancery official cannot grant permission in a particular case for a member of the diocese to become a Mason. There are to be no exceptions!

This document was approved by the late Pope John Paul II. Lest anyone wonder whether the current pope might possibly reverse this ban, it should be noted that the Declaration had been presented to John Paul II by none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It seems fairly reasonable to assume that the prohibition will remain in force at least during the pontificate of Benedict XVI.

So what is the big deal about Freemasonry, anyway? Masons frequently describe their organization as one devoted to brotherhood and the improvement of society by enlightened means. They deny that they are a secret society at all, much less a society conspiring to destroy the Catholic Church. They emphasize that, as mentioned above, they are largely a social fraternity involved in charitable works.

It must be pointed out that many, many Masons make these assertions in good faith, genuinely unaware of the overarching aims of international Freemasonry. A thorough history of the Masons is of course beyond the scope of this article, but there is much historical evidence that there is a lot more to Masonry than just fraternity and brotherhood.

Over 100 years ago, Pope Leo XIII addressed the aims of Freemasonry in his encyclical Humanum Genus. The pope pointed out that their “fundamental doctrine… is that human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide,” which on the surface does not necessarily appear objectionable. But a consequence of this foundational belief is that “they deny that anything has been taught by God… And since it is the special and exclusive duty of the Catholic Church fully to set forth in words truths divinely received, to teach, besides other divine helps to salvation, the authority of its office, and to defend it…, it is against the Church that the rage and attack of the enemies are principally directed” (12).

In other words, Freemasons’ references to their enlightened ideas and generous ideals of universal fraternity may sound positive, but their insistence on acceptance of these concepts actually implies a fundamental conflict with the Catholic Church. Insofar as the Church teaches that it possesses divine truths which were revealed nearly 2000 years ago by the Son of God, it embraces a belief system that is diametrically opposed to Freemasonry. And in asserting its own beliefs, Freemasonry cannot but work against the Catholic Church. To cite just a few examples, if one delves in detail into the history behind the bloody persecution of Catholic clergy during the French Revolution in the 18th century, political upheavals in Catholic Spain in the late 1800’s, or the brutal assault on the Catholic Church in Mexico in the early 20th century, the quiet, behind-the-scenes direction and influence of Freemasonry can be seen. In other words, there is plenty of evidence that Masons have already in the past been involved in attacks on the Church. The Vatican’s assertion that Masonry is anti-Catholic is not based merely on some sort of vague notion of potential problems; it is grounded in cold, hard historical facts!

Consequently, the aspiring politician to whom Vicki refers is most decidedly not permitted to be a member of a Masonic lodge if he is a Catholic. It seems highly unlikely, however, that he is aware of this ban, especially since he is publicly acknowledging this membership in his campaign literature. Like so many other men, he probably joined the Masons in entirely good faith, viewing as a social organization and nothing more.

So what, if anything, should be done about it? Well, the person who definitely should intervene in a constructive, pastoral way in this situation is this political candidate’s pastor. Alternately, his diocesan bishop can and should play a role in educating him about the incompatibility of Catholicism and Freemasonry. Keep in mind that if this man has joined a Masonic lodge without knowing that it is forbidden for Catholics to do so, there may very well be others in his diocese who have done the same. This may prove to be a classic “teaching moment” for the clergy of the diocese, to explain to the Catholics under their care that no matter how noble the aims of Freemasonry may appear, they are at their root incompatible with the most fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church.

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