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ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH LAW REGARDING FREEMASONRY
by Reid McInvale
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
Benedict XIV, Providas, 18 May 1751
Pius VII, Ecclesiam A Jesu Christo, 13 September 1821
Leo XII, Quo Gravioria Mala, 13 March 1825
Pius VIII, Traditi Humilitati, 24 May 1829
Litteris Altero, 25 March 1830
Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos, 15 August 1832
Pius IX, Qui Pluribus, 9 November 1846
Quibus Quantisque Malis, 20 April 1849
Quanta Cura, 8 December 1864
Multiplices Inter, 25 September 1865
Apostolicae Sedis Moderatoni, 12 October 1869
Etsi Multa, 21 November 1873
Leo XIII, Etsi Nos, 15 February 1882
Humanum Genus, 20 April 1884
Officio Sanctissimo, 22 December 1887
Dall'Alto Dell'Apostolico Seggio, 15 October 1890
Inimica Vis, 18 December 1892
Custodi di Qualla Fede, 18 December 1892
Praeclara, 20 June 1894
Annum Ingressi, 18 March 1902
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 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.
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