Q. Can a local parish solicit or accept stipends for Masses from a Masonic lodge? — Joseph, Albuquerque

A. The short answer is sometimes. Permit me to explain.

Since the early 18th century, the Catholic Church has consistently prohibited Catholics from membership in the Masons (also called Freemasons*). This was because Freemasonry used symbols and held rituals that the Church judged to be at odds with Catholic faith and practice.

In 1983, in response to a query on the status of the long-standing prohibition, the Holy See replied:

“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.”

The prohibition still stands.

Looking at the above scenario, we see the Masonic Lodge is requesting that Masses be said — which, far from being evil, is very good. The fact that the Church ordinarily accepts a monetary stipend for saying a petitionary Mass, presuming the stipend is not excessive and not an absolute requirement (in which case the parish priest would be doing something wrong), is also good. If it’s good to request a stipend, it must be good to pay the stipend, presuming the intention for which it’s paid is good, which in this instance we know it to be.

Therefore, what’s being done is good (offering and receiving a stipend) and the reason it’s being done is good (to have Masses said).

Why, then, is it only “sometimes” acceptable?

Given that the prohibition still prevails, any Catholic group, especially a parish, receiving money from the Masons could look like it (the parish) is doing something wrong.

Now we’ve already concluded that in this instance it’s not doing anything wrong. But the ambiguous example — looking like it’s doing something it’s not — could lead people who learn of it to conclude wrongly.

They might conclude that membership in the Masons is now okay and so join or encourage others to join; or conclude that the parish is disregarding the Church’s teaching, is insincere and untrustworthy, and so distant themselves from their brothers and sisters, or worse, leave the Church.

These might sound like remote probabilities, but they are things we need to be attentive to when an action of ours, however legitimate, offers an ambiguous example.

Take another example, more innocent but perhaps even more ambiguous: A priest’s beautiful sister visits from out of town. The two decide to go out to a local pub, grab a brew and catch up. The priest would be doing something wrong if he failed to note the possible wrong impression that might be given from a cleric walking into a pub with an apparently available woman.

This does not mean that priests can’t take their sisters out for a beer, or that parishes can’t say Masses for Freemasons. But in both instances, the actors would need to be confident that their ambiguous example would not be taken wrongly and so lead others into error.

For example, the priest, when he enters the pub, might obviate confusion by calling over to his friend behind the bar and saying, with a voice that allows him to be heard, “Hey Eddie, this is my sister, Joanna; she’s in from Albuquerque.” Or if he is relatively certain that nobody at the pub knows who he is (say he’s visiting his sister at Albuquerque), then he probably shouldn’t wear clerical garb.

How about our parish receiving Freemason money? Well, since parishes don’t ordinarily publicize the stipends they receive, the parish priest might have a high degree of certainty that nobody who might draw wrongful conclusions will learn of the situation. Since this is not hiding something immoral, there’s nothing wrong with not publicizing it.

But if he has reason to believe that the donation will be widely publicized (perhaps a conspiracy-minded Catholic finds out and begins to shout it from the rooftops), then the priest has a moral responsibility to undertake whatever measures he deems necessary to obviate the possibility of error or scandal.

*For an accessible and instructive introduction to Freemasonry and Catholic teaching, see “What are the Masons? Are Catholics allowed to belong to this organization?” at EWTN.com.