Report: Cardinal Calls for ‘Permanent’ Dialogue with Freemasons

Following a closed-door meeting in Milan, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmiero reportedly said he believed ‘an evolution in mutual understanding’ had taken place between masonry and the Church over the past 50 years.

(L-R) Bishop Antonio Staglianò greeting Stefano Bisi, grand master of the Grand Orient Freemasonic Lodge, at the Ambrosianum Cultural Foundation in Milan on Feb. 16, 2024.
(L-R) Bishop Antonio Staglianò greeting Stefano Bisi, grand master of the Grand Orient Freemasonic Lodge, at the Ambrosianum Cultural Foundation in Milan on Feb. 16, 2024. (photo: Riccardo Cascioli / La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana)

MILAN, Italy — A cardinal taking part in a “historic” closed-door meeting on Friday between the heads of Italy’s Freemasonic lodges and senior Catholic Church leaders has called for a “permanent” dialogue to be opened with the secretive organization, despite masonry being long condemned by the Church.

 A 1983 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stated Masonic principles “have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church.” And last November, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed that stance, quoting the 1983 document that “active membership in Freemasonry by a member of the faithful is prohibited, because of the irreconcilability between Catholic doctrine and Freemasonry.”

Addressing the Milan meeting on the theme The Catholic Church and Freemasonry, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmiero, 85, reportedly said he believed “an evolution in mutual understanding” had taken place between masonry and the Church over the past 50 years. 

“Things have moved on, and I hope these meetings don’t stop there,” said the retired Italian prelate, according to Il Messaggero, quoting sources present at the meeting that was closed to the press. 

Cardinal Coccopalmiero, who served as an auxiliary bishop in Milan under Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (1927-2012), said he wondered “if it’s not possible to think about a permanent discussion, even at the official level, so we can better deal with each other.” Cardinal Martini was known to be close to the Freemasons who paid a warm tribute to him as a “man of dialogue” when he died.

According to sources who spoke with La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, all three grand masters of the Italian lodges — Stefano Bisi of the Grand Orient of Italy, Luciano Romoli of the Grand Lodge of Italy, and Fabio Venzi of the Grand Regular Lodge of Italy — addressed the meeting. Two of them made their speeches public. 

“With different nuances, all defended the compatibility of Freemasonry with the Catholic faith,” reported La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana’s editor-in-chief, Riccardo Cascioli, who also spoke with people who attended the meeting at the Ambrosianeum Cultural Foundation.

Along with Cardinal Coccopalmiero, the Catholic Church was represented by Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan, Franciscan theologian Father Zbigniew Suchecki, and Bishop Antonio Staglianò, president of the Pontifical Academy of Theology.

Bisi, who said he thought the meeting was “very significant,” credited the Church for his education as someone coming from a poor background, and explained how a reconciliation between Freemasonry and the Church was his long-held desire. He also made a point of fondly recalling Cardinal Martini “who was at home here.”

He expressed his appreciation for Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s overture to Freemasons made in a 2016 open letter titled “Dear Brother Masons,” but lamented the pace of dialogue and reconciliation, and asked why Pope Francis had seemingly forgotten Freemasons in his embrace of everyone. He criticized the Vatican’s recent refusal to grant credentials to a masonic ambassador, and highlighted a Vatican ruling last November reasserting the Church’s ban on Catholics joining Freemasonry. 

The Pope, Bisi said, “made the famous statement ‘Who am I to judge?’ at the beginning of his pontificate, addressed to homosexuals” and then “opened the doors to divorcees” but he “forgot that, among Freemasons, are also many Catholics who are prevented from receiving Communion.” Members of Freemasonry have always been denied Holy Communion and until the 1983 Code of Canon Law, were explicitly and automatically excommunicated. 


Ode to Indifferentism

In an ode to indifferentism — the belief that differences of religion are of no importance and a central tenet of masonry — Bisi said “each man is brother to the other” and the “bond of brotherhood is independent of faith. It is only necessary to believe in the Great Architect of the Universe.” 

“The starry sky is the same for the Buddhist, for the Catholic, for the Waldensian, for the Muslim, for all those who believe in a supreme being,” he continued, adding: “We set our brothers free to adhere to any religion and to practice. Absolute truths and walls of the mind do not belong to us, and for us they must be torn down.” 

Bisi ended by expressing a hope that “one day a pope and a grand master may meet and walk a piece of the road together, in the light of the sun.”

Cascioli said the overall Catholic contribution to the meeting was “disconcerting.” 

Archbishop Delpini, who arrived at the meeting 45 minutes late, introduced the conference by stressing that dialogue with the secret society was important because “not everyone may have delved into the subject about such an ancient and prestigious organization, always surrounded by an aura of mystery and suspicion.”

The bishop of Europe’s largest diocese in terms of the number of priests and laity said the conference hosts, the Group for Socio-Religious Research and Information, a private association approved by Italy’s bishops’ conference, had continued “conversations and dialogue” with masonic lodges but added that the aim was not “absolution.” Rather, he said, it was about “fostering conversations between people to get to know each other's points of view, to record their convergence or distance.” Obviously, he added, “this conference does not conclude with any final document.”

Father Sucheki had prepared a knowledgeable report on the Church’s many pronouncements against Freemasonry, but Cascioli said his contribution was “somewhat snubbed” by Bishop Staglianò’s contribution, which appeared intolerant of the reminders of doctrine.

Although the bishop was scheduled to explain why Freemasonry is irreconcilable with the Church, he gave a “long speech” that “tore apart the doctrinal approach on the Catholic side, and basically went along with the demands of the Freemason exponents.”

Bishop Staglianò said he was “interested in the Christian event, not the doctrine,” and repeating comments he made last month in the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Avvenire, regarding the Vatican’s declaration on blessings for persons in irregular unions, Fiducia Supplicans (Supplicating Faith), he stressed that the Lord “is love, only and always love.” 

His mercy, he said, precedes original sin and “rains on the just and the unjust” — that is, on everyone. “Who am I to judge that a human condition is such that raining God’s mercy on the just and the unjust does not even touch it with its moisture? Because sometimes the moisture of the water of God’s mercy is enough to regenerate a life.”


Pressure to Lift Excommunication

Bishop Staglianò’s words coincided with Bisi’s complaint that Freemasons should be freely admitted to Holy Communion. 

One element of the way to overcome irreconcilability with Freemasonry is therefore clear, according to Cascioli, and an “ad hoc theology is also being prepared.” In fact, he added, Bishop Staglianò criticized last November’s Vatican ruling reaffirming the ban on Catholics being Freemasons, calling it “reductive” and remaining on the level of doctrinal confrontation.

It is notable that last November, in new statutes for Bishop Staglianò’s Pontifical Academy of Theology, Pope Francis controversially underlined the importance of a “fundamentally contextual theology,” one capable of “reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live daily, in different geographical, social, and cultural environments.”

Theology, the apostolic letter said, must “develop in a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different disciplines, between different Christian denominations and different religions.” It must engage “openly with all, believers and non-believers alike.”

Despite their obvious enthusiasm for some kind of reconciliation, Cascioli said both Bishop Staglianò and Cardinal Coccopalmiero seemed keen to appear inexperienced in matters of Freemasonry at the meeting, even though Bishop Staglianò had attended at least one such meeting with masons in 2017 when he was the bishop of Noto, Sicily. 

Furthermore, Cascioli explained, upon his arrival at Friday’s meeting, Bishop Staglianò “showed great familiarity with several Masonic exponents” and his pectoral cross was hidden — “a strange way of bearing witness.”