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Thomas Ryan, CSP Answers:
Question: I’ve heard it said fairly often that if someone joins the Freemasons, they can be excommunicated from the Church. Is that true? Why is Freemasonry such a bad thing in the Church’s eyes? I am a Catholic, and I love the Church, but I’ve also thought about joining the Freemasons, until I heard this.
Freemasonry is a fraternal organization that traces its origins to the loose organization of medieval stonemasonry. Today, in the United States, the Fraternity is divided between fifty-one Grand Lodges (one for each State, plus Washington DC), which taken together have a total membership of just under two million.
Freemasonry explicitly and openly states that it is neither a religion nor a substitute for one. “There is no separate Masonic God”, nor a separate proper name for a deity in any branch of Freemasonry.
Regular Freemasonry requires that its candidates believe in a Supreme Being, but the interpretation of this term is subject to the conscience of the candidate. Consequently, Freemasonry accepts men from across the range of world religions.
Although members of various faiths cite objections, certain Christian denominations have had high profile negative attitudes to Masonry, banning or discouraging their members from being Freemasons.
The Roman Catholic Church has the longest history of objection to Freemasonry. The objections raised are based on the allegation that Masonry teaches a naturalistic deistic religion which is in conflict with Church doctrine.
What is Deism? Deism is the belief that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of God, accompanied with the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge. Deism gained prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of the Enlightenment—especially in Britain, France, Germany and America—among intellectuals raised as Christians who believed in one god, but found fault with organized religion and could not believe in supernatural events such as miracles, the inerrancy of Scriptures, or the Trinity.
A number of Papal pronouncements have been issued against Freemasonry. The first was Pope Clement XII’s in 1738; the most recent was by Pope Leo in 1890. The 1917 Cole of Canon Law explicitly declared that joining Freemasonry entailed automatic excommunication and also forbade books friendly to Freemasonry.
In 1983, the Church issued a new Code of Canon Law. Unlike its predecessor, it did not explicitly name Masonic orders among the secret societies. This omission of Masonic orders caused both Catholics and Freemasons to believe that the ban on Catholics becoming Freemasons may have been lifted. However, the matter was clarified in November 1983 when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a Declaration on Masonic Associations, which states:
“… 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.”
In 1996 the Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, published a list of organizations in which membership by Catholics was forbidden. The Freemasons were on that list, and the Vatican backed the issuance of the list.
There was also a six-year study of Masonry by the German bishops and a study of American Masonry by Professor William Whalen, who was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Pastoral Research and Practices Committee. Both studies arrived at a similar conclusion: That the principles and basic rituals of Masonry embody a naturalistic religion in which active participation was judged to be incompatible with Christian faith and practice.
Thus, from a Catholic perspective, there is still a ban on Catholics joining Masonic Lodges. Are Catholics alone in this among Christians? No, but in contrast to Catholic allegations of rationalism and naturalism, Protestant objections are more likely to be based on allegations of mysticism and occultism.
In 1933, the Orthodox Church of Greece officially declared that being a Freemason constitutes an act of apostasy and thus, until he repents, the person involved with Freemasonry cannot partake of the Eucharist. This has been generally affirmed throughout the whole Orthodox Church. The Orthodox critique of Freemasonry agrees with both the Roman Catholic and Protestant versions: “Freemasonry cannot be at all compatible with Christianity as far as it is a secret organization, acting and teaching in mystery and secret and deifying rationalism.”
Regular Freemasonry has traditionally not responded to these claims. In recent years, however, this has begun to change, with some Masonic websites and publications addressing these criticisms. In this era of dialogue, perhaps it’s time for a new one between Freemasonry and the Christian churches.