Explainer: Why Can’t a Catholic Join the Freemasons?
The Church has long opposed the fraternal organization and teaches that joining any Masonic association is a grave sin that bars one from receiving Communion.
The Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), in response to a question from a Filipino bishop, recently reaffirmed the long-standing position of the Catholic Church that being an active Freemason constitutes a grave sin.
“Active membership in Freemasonry by a member of the faithful is forbidden,” said the letter, signed by Pope Francis and DDF prefect Cardinal Victor Fernández.
The dicastery sent the letter to Bishop Julito Cortes of the Diocese of Dumaguete, who asked the Vatican for guidance on how to approach the “very significant” number of Filipino Catholics enrolled in Freemasonry and “a large number of sympathizers and associates who are personally convinced that there is no opposition between membership in the Catholic Church and in Masonic lodges,” according to the dicastery document.
In addition to reaffirming the Church’s teaching on Freemasonry, the dicastery encouraged Filipino bishops to conduct catechesis explaining why Catholicism and Freemasonry are irreconcilable.
Why Is the Church Against Freemasonry?
The first papal condemnation of Freemasonry came from Pope Clement XII in 1738, but it has been reiterated by numerous popes over the past three centuries. The pronouncement was in Clement’s papal bull titled In Eminenti.
In this bull, Clement commented on the secrecy of Masonic lodges and the “host of grievous punishment” received when violating the oath of secrecy. The bull did not delve into many specific objections to Masonic practices but concluded, based on “certain knowledge and mature deliberations,” that “all prudent and upright men have passed the same judgment on them as being depraved and perverted.”
Pope Leo XIII greatly expanded on the Church’s teaching nearly 150 years later, in his 1884 papal encyclical Humanum Genus. The encyclical detailed why Freemasonry is irreconcilable with Catholicism and accused the Freemasons of “planning the destruction of the holy Church publicly and openly” and holding to doctrines that contradict Church teaching.
According to Leo, Freemasonry adheres to naturalism, which he says is the idea that “human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide.” He adds that “they deny that anything has been taught by God; they allow no dogma of religion or truth which cannot be understood by the human intelligence, nor any teacher who ought to be believed by reason of his authority.”
The encyclical expands on the naturalism of Freemasonry, noting that people of all religions can become freemasons and that religion is “held as an indifferent matter and that all religions are alike,” which ruins “all forms of religion, and especially of the Catholic religion, which, as it is the only one that is true, cannot, without great injustice, be regarded as merely equal to other religions.”
Leo says that Freemasons desire to secularize marriage as simply civil contracts, desire that children be left to choose their own religion when they come of age instead of receiving proper religious instruction, and desire that governments refuse to recognize God. He adds that this proposed secularization seeks to eliminate fundamental truths from society.
“If these be taken away, as the naturalists and Freemasons desire, there will immediately be no knowledge as to what constitutes justice and injustice, or upon what principle morality is founded,” Leo says. “And, in truth, the teaching of morality which alone finds favor with the sect of Freemasons, and in which they contend that youth should be instructed, is that which they call ‘civil,’ and ‘independent,’ and ‘free,’ namely, that which does not contain any religious belief.”
Which Freemason Actions and Practices Promote Naturalism and Indifferentism?
Freemasons do not consider Freemasonry to be a religion; rather, they accept members from various religions, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Yet Freemasons do have altars at their lodges, they engage in secret rituals, and they say prayers to a generic conception of God, which they often call the “Great Architect of the Universe.”
This practice itself promotes religious indifferentism, but Freemasonry is very decentralized and does not adhere to a specific body of texts that declare all religions to be equal. Some prominent and influential Freemasons, however, have more clearly articulated support for indifferentism toward religion.
Albert Pike, who was the sovereign grand commander of the supreme council of the southern jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in the late 1800s, wrote a book called Morals and Dogma, which was given to 14th-degree Masons under that jurisdiction for about a century. His writings draw supposed connections between various religions and promote indifferentism.
“We do not undervalue the importance of any truth,” Pike says. “We utter no word that can be deemed irreverent by any one of any faith. We do not tell the [Muslim] that it is only important for him to believe that there is but one God, and wholly unessential whether [Muhammad] was his prophet. We do not tell the Hebrew that the Messiah whom he expects was born in Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago; and that he is a heretic because he will not so believe. And as little do we tell the sincere Christian that Jesus of Nazareth was but a man like us, or his history but the unreal revival of an older legend.”
Freemasonry has also used political influence throughout Europe and the Americas over the centuries to push a secularization of society and to diminish the influence of the Catholic Church.
For example, in his 1873 encyclical Etsi Multa, Blessed Pope Pius IX detailed Masonic political attacks on the Church in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. He referred to the Masonic “deceits and machinations” as forming “the synagogue of Satan” in reference to the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation.
The encyclical touches on attacks against Catholic education, specifically the Gregorian University in Rome being “suppressed and abolished.” Regarding Switzerland, it discusses the passage of anti-Catholic laws, state intrusion into Church matters, and “the violent banishment of our venerable brother Gaspar, bishop of Hebron and vicar apostolic of Geneva.” It also details the “persecution set in motion” against Catholics and the suppression of religious freedom in the German Empire, particularly in Prussia.
“Apply all your effort to protect the faithful committed to your care against the snares and contagion of these sects,” Pius urges the clergy. “Bring back those who have unhappily joined these sects. Expose especially the error of those who have been deceived or those who assert now that only social utility, progress, and the exercise of mutual benefits are the intention of these dark associations.”
Pius adds that these decrees are “not only [in reference] to Masonic groups in Europe but also those in America and in other regions of the world.”
In Mexico, as recently as 2007, the Masonic Grand Lodge of the Valley of Mexico fought efforts against the Church gaining authority over its own schools and communications. Prominent Freemasons played a major role in the Mexican revolution and other Latin American revolutions that diminished Church influence.
What Does Canon Law Say About Freemasonry?
Prior to 1983, the Code of Canon Law explicitly stated that if a Catholic joins the Freemasons that person incurs an automatic excommunication that can only be lifted by the Holy See. This applied not just to the Freemasons but to any group that engages in plots against the Church.
“Those giving their name to Masonic sects or other associations of this sort that machinate against the Church or legitimate civil powers contract by that fact excommunication simply reserved to the Apostolic See,” Canon 2335 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law reads.
The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law avoided a specific mention of Freemasonry and removed the penalty of automatic excommunication but maintained its ban on joining any groups that plot against the Church.
“A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or takes office in such an association is to be punished with an interdict,” Canon 1374 of the current Code of Canon Law reads.
Although the new canon did not explicitly reference the Freemasons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration on the Freemasons within the same year, clarifying that despite a change in the wording, there has been no change to the Church’s opposition to Freemasonry and that joining any Masonic association is still a grave sin that bars one from receiving Communion.
“Therefore 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 document reads. “The faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive holy Communion.”