Freemasons and Their Craft: What Catholics Should Know
To see why the Catholic Church has strongly and repeatedly condemned membership in Freemasonry or any of its allied movements requires a glance at Masonic teachings and history.
February 07, 2017
By Sandra Miesel
Left: The Masonic Square and Compasses (us.fotolia.com/Serj Siz`kov); right: Pope Leo XIII, who denounced the Masonic Lodge as “a deceitful and crafty enemy" (Wikipedia)
The basic unit of “regular” Freemasonry is the Blue (or Craft) Lodge, which “works” (imparts) the three traditional degrees—Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master. Initiation is the main business of a local Masonic Temple. Members learn grips, signs, and rituals. They re-enact their central myth, the death and resurrection of Hiram Abiff, legendary builder of Solomon’s Temple. With one exception, American local Lodges are grouped in state Grand Lodges that are recognized by the Mother Lodge in London. Master Mason’s wives can join the Order of the Eastern Star, their daughters Job’s Daughters or the Order of the Rainbow for Girls, and their sons the Order of the De Molay.
A fervent minority of Anglo-American Masons acquire additional degrees teaching more sophisticated symbolism in separate organizations called Appendant Bodies that are not controlled by the Mother Lodge. These are the York Rite (10 more grades) and the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (30 more grades) which is subdivided into Northern and Southern Jurisdictions. Holders of the highest degrees in either Rite are eligible to join the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Shriners) for philanthropy and fun.
Origins and early history
The Craft originated in the British Isles and the overwhelming majority of its members still live in English-speaking countries. According to the Masonic Service Association, there are about 1.2 million Freemasons in the United States, down from a high of 4 million in 1958. Far fewer men in Latin countries belong to the separate Grand Orient system, whose components are not usually recognized by the Mother Lodge. Many fewer still practice forms of “fringe Masonry” such as Co-Masonry, which enrolls both men and women. Prince Hall Lodges, originally for black men, are generally considered “irregular” by American Masons.
To see why the Catholic Church has strongly and repeatedly condemned membership in Freemasonry or any of its allied movements requires a glance at Masonic teachings and history. Freemasons pretend to preserve ancient secrets handed down from Solomon’s builders and pagan mystery cults via the medieval Knights Templar. Some have even identified Adam, Noah, and St. John the Evangelist as Brother Masons. The Craft claims to offer “Light” unobtainable elsewhere that will perfect the initiate and improve society. Their foremost modern commentator, Henry Wilson Coil, describes Freemasonry as “a system of morality and social ethics, a primitive religion, and a philosophy of life.”
But the real origin of the Craft, as Masonic historians now admit, lies in Renaissance esotericism, injected into the guild traditions developed by medieval stoneworkers. Spurred by interest in the symbolic possibilities of architecture, men who were not professional stonemasons (“non-operatives”) began joining workmen’s lodges in Scotland in the 1590s. These fellowships had just been turned into permanent organizations by the king’s chief builder, a Catholic named William Schaw. Professor David Stevenson has amply documented this transformation in The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s century 1590-1710 (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Lodges of “nonoperative” Freemasons appeared in England in the 1640s, attracting gentry and intellectuals of varying religions to the Craft. In 1717, four London Lodges united as the Grand Lodge of England, which issued constitutions in 1723 and became the Mother Lodge of all regular Masons. Spreading throughout the world, Freemasonry reached the Continent by 1721 and America by 1730. Exiled Scottish supporters of the Catholic Stuarts brought the Craft to France, where it proved especially popular among aristocrats and men receptive to the Enlightenment.
The Lodge’s initial appeal was as a place for men of different faiths to socialize and speculate in peace, for discussing religion and politics was forbidden. Haydn, Mozart, and many other luminaries joined. But avoiding sectarian disputes inevitably pushed Freemasonry towards mere Deism. Its seldom-mentioned God was the Great Architect of the Universe, reachable by reason alone. Belief in a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul was all that was required of eighteenth-century regular Freemasons.
English and Northern European Freemasonry retained these vague beliefs and functioned as a lowest-common-denominator religion “in which all men agree.” They even displayed the Bible during their rituals as the “Volume of the Sacred Law.” They were staunch supporters of the prevailing social establishment. Until recently, they dominated politics, the professions, the military, finance, and even the police. Prior to Prince Charles, many English royals were keen Masons as were some Anglican bishops. Martin Short’s Inside the Brotherhood: Further Secrets of the Freemasons is a good survey of their influence in the United Kingdom.
During the American Revolution, more Masons were Loyalists than Patriots but these did include such Founding Fathers as Washington, Franklin, Hancock, Hamilton, and Monroe. (John Adams, however, denounced the Craft.) Surprisingly, Freemasonry also enrolled Daniel Carroll, one of only two Catholics at the Constitutional Convention, brother of America’s first bishop, Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, and cousin of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence. In the Carrolls’ defense, papal condemnations of Freemasonry had not yet been officially proclaimed in America.
The 1826 disappearance of a New York man who had revealed the Crafts’s secrets sparked a brief outburst of anti-Masonic feeling but the Lodges were soon popular again. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American Catholics suffered from the Craft’s hostility as American Freemasons turned Nativist and anti-Catholic. They were conspicuous in both the original and the revived Ku Klux Klan. The Knights of Columbus, founded by Fr. Michael J. McGivney in 1882, offered Catholics an alternative to the Lodge.
American Masons came to hold disproportionate power at all levels of government, including the Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court. They led the fight against parochial schools and demanded absolute separation of Church and State. Networks of influence among Masons stifled competition from outsiders in business and the professions. Lodge membership became a badge of middle-class Protestant respectability at the peak of Freemasonry’s popularity, 1920-1960.
Freemasonry and anti-Catholicism
Meanwhile, the Grand Orient Lodges of France, Iberia, and Latin America were building a far grimmer anti-Catholic edifice. They attracted men hostile to both Church and State who found Masonic structures and secrecy useful for political subversion. Masons were prominent in the French Revolution and the Irish rising of 1798. They helped lead the South American revolts against Spain as well as the unification of Italy. Discarding even the pretense of Deism, Grand Orient Lodges ceased to revere the Bible or any Volume of Sacred Law. They dominated the bitterly anti-clerical French Third Republic (1870-1940) that confiscated all Church property in France. They persecuted and slaughtered Catholics after the Mexican Revolution and during the Spanish Civil War. Even in today’s European Union, Masons favor radical secularization.
Outraged by these activities, conspiracy-minded Catholics have claimed that they are all part of a vast “Judeo-Masonic plot” that also created Communism. Works by the prolific Irish priest, Fr. Denis Fahey, such as The Kingdom of Christ and Organized Naturalism (1943) are typical of such material. They argue that Old Testament references and Hebrew words in Lodge rituals prove Jewish origins of the Craft.
But the founders of Freemasonry were Christians Scots and its Constitutions were prepared by a Protestant clergyman. Not only is Marxism an entirely different entity, Communist regimes have always suppressed Masonry, as did Hitler and Mussolini. The Craft, however, could be criticized as an influence or template for Theosophy, some themes in New Age thought, and Wicca as developed by Gerald Gardner.
Fear of “Judeo-Masonry” and its ilk clouds analysis of the Craft’s intrinsic and irremediable flaws: Relativism and Naturalism. Blue Lodge Freemasonry treats all religions alike but inferior to the “Light” it offers to its select Brethren. They trust reason alone, not supernatural revelation. But Christians know that salvation comes from the real Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, not the dubious legend of Hiram Abiff.
Furthermore, the higher degrees of Masonry’s Appendant Bodies are frankly blasphemous. The Royal Arch Degree of the York Rite reveals that the true name of God is JAH-BUL-ON, a fusion of the Hebrew Jaweh (Yaweh) with the names of pagan gods Baal and Osiris. The Scottish Rite’s eighteenth degree (Rose Croix) reinterprets the Cross and its I.N.R.I inscription as pagan symbols. A candidate for the thirtieth degree (Knight Kadosh) must trample the papal tiara crying: “Down with Imposture!” He vows to propagate light and overthrow “superstition, fanaticism, imposture, and intolerance,” qualities implicitly identified with Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity. The best Catholic apologetics work against the Lodge is Christianity and American Freemasonry (Ignatius Press) by William J. Whalen.
From the time Freemasonry penetrated Europe, the Catholic Church has watched and warned against it. In 1738, Pope Clement XII condemned the Craft for its reliance on mere natural virtue while ignoring Christ’s unique role as Savior. Pope Clement also denounced the rash, blood-curdling oaths demanded of members to protect trivial Lodge secrets. Ironically, those precious secrets are anything but secret. All the details have been revealed numerous times, for example in ex-Mason Walton Hannah’s Darkness Visible: A Christian Appraisal of Freemasonry.
Pope Clement decreed that Catholics who joined the Masons were excommunicated with reconciliation reserved to the pope. Unfortunately, this had little effect because the rule was not published in every country, nor was it taken seriously where it was published. Eight subsequent popes had to repeat the message, most forcefully Leo XIII in his 1884 encyclical, Humanum genus. Denouncing the Lodge as “a deceitful and crafty enemy,” Pope Leo declared: “Let no man think that he may for any reason whatsoever join the Masonic sect, if he values his Catholic name and his eternal salvation as he ought to value them." This stern prohibition was included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
After the Second Vatican Council, however, the long antagonism between the Church and the Lodge seemed to be easing. A reinterpretation of the anti-Masonic canons in 1974 led some Catholics to think that only Masonic groups actively plotting against the Church were forbidden to them.
This liberalization was sadly ill-timed. Some notable Freemasons had been conspiring against the Vatican through its bank. In March of 1981, two of Pope Paul VI’s top financial advisors—known all along as Masons—were unmasked as members of a secret Lodge called Propaganda Due (P2) that was preparing a fascist takeover of Italy. Both men later died mysteriously, probably murdered. The Vatican lost 240 million dollars with the collapse of its bank.
The P2 Lodge, which was a scam on Italian Grand Orient Masonry as well as the Church, enrolled 953 members including high ranking figures in government, the military, security services, academe, business, law, media, and finance. None were churchmen. Although an argument from silence does not completely debunk the existence of Ecclesiastical Masonry, a bugaboo so dear to Italians and Radical Traditionalists, the evidence is suggestive.
Coincidentally or otherwise, Rome had already been having second thoughts. Just before the P2 scandal broke, local bishops had been warned in 1981 that they had no authority to judge the character of local Masonic associations and relax the old strictures. Although the new Code of Canon Law issued in 1983 did not mention the Craft or similar groups by name, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith firmly reiterated the old ban on 26 November, 1983: “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.” Pope John Paul II ordered this rule incorporated in Church law. The bishops of the United States reported the same conclusion in 1985: one cannot be both a Catholic and a Freemason.
Numerous other Christian bodies also condemn Freemasonry, including many Lutherans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Orthodox followers of the Holy Synod of Greece. Even the Mormons, originally influenced by Masonry, condemn the Craft.
The Catholic Church and the Lodge can never be reconciled. Freemasonry teaches a rival religion of Naturalism, whether it plots, persecutes, blasphemes, engages in philanthropy, or behaves politely. It treats all religions as equal but inferior to its own Gnostic wisdom. Alas, the vaunted profundity on offer never manifests itself from the shadows of secrecy. Even after a man has taken every degree known in the Masonic mansion, he will be no more enlightened than when he began, but considerably farther from the true Light. The Great Architect the Universe of Deism and Freemasonry is not the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—of Christians.
(Editor's note: The final sentence of this article was revised on February 8th for clarification. This article appeared in somewhat different form in The Catholic Answer, July/August, 2006.)
About the Author
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson.