Surprising some, on November 13 an old prohibition dating back to 1738 was confirmed. But while the prohibition is the same, the motivations are different.
by Massimo Introvigne
On November 13, a document issued by Pope Francis’ Vatican took observers somewhat by surprise. Catholics under Pope Francis live in a time of new openings, yet a very old prohibition has been confirmed. The Vatican stated that Catholics are still prohibited from joining Freemasonry.
What is typical of Pope Francis’ Vatican is the method, where a local situation is used to establish or re-establish a general principle. A document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, explicitly approved by Pope Francis, mentions a problem raised by a Catholic Bishop in the Philippines.
“Recently,” the document reads, “His Excellency, the Most Rev. Julito Cortes, Bishop of Dumaguete [Philippines], after explaining with concern the situation caused in his Diocese by the continuous rise in the number of the [Catholic] faithful enrolled in Freemasonry, asked for suggestions regarding how to respond to this reality suitably from a pastoral point of view, taking into account also the doctrinal implications related to this phenomenon. Membership in Freemasonry is very significant in the Philippines; it involves not only those who are formally enrolled in Masonic Lodges but, more generally, 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.”
“To address this issue appropriately,” the Congregation answered, “it was decided that the Dicastery would respond by involving the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines itself, notifying the Conference that it would be necessary to put in place a coordinated strategy among the individual Bishops that envisions two approaches: (a) On the doctrinal level, it should be remembered that active membership in Freemasonry by a member of the faithful is forbidden because of the irreconcilability between Catholic doctrine and Freemasonry (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Declaration on Masonic Associations” , and the guidelines published by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in 2003). Therefore, those who are formally and knowingly enrolled in Masonic Lodges and have embraced Masonic principles fall under the provisions in the above-mentioned Declaration. These measures also apply to any clerics enrolled in Freemasonry. (b) On the pastoral level, the Dicastery proposes that the Philippine Bishops conduct catechesis accessible to the people and in all parishes regarding the reasons for the irreconcilability between the Catholic Faith and Freemasonry.”
“Finally, the document concludes, the Philippine Bishops are invited to consider whether they should make a public pronouncement on the matter.”
Why is the Catholic Church not open to allow its devotees to join Freemasonry? One can see in the November 13 document a simple confirmation of a Vatican prohibition dating back to 1738, when Pope Clemens XII (1652–1740) issued the first statement that Catholics are forbidden from joining Masonic lodges of all kinds.
Things, however, are more complicated. The prohibition in 2023 is the same as in 1738. The reasons, however, are not the same. To say that the Catholic Church is still from a certain point of view “anti-Masonic” is not untrue, but it demands an exploration of distinct brands of anti-Masonry.
Even before modern Freemasonry was formally founded in 1717, lodges already existed and anti-Masonic reactions were already appearing. In 1698, for example, a British Presbyterian minister called Winter had a pamphlet circulated addressed “To all Godly people in the City of London” in which he warned of the “Evils practiced in the Sight of God by those called Freed Masons.” “They are the Anti Christ which was to come leading Men from Fear of God. For how should Men meet in secret Places and with secret Signs taking Care that none observed them to do the Work of GOD; are not these the Ways of Evil-doers?” he wrote. “Mingle not among this corrupt People,” the leaflet advised, “lest you be found so at the World’s Conflagration.” As can be seen, anti-Masonry is at least as old as Freemasonry.
However, just as it is more appropriate to speak of Freemasonries, in the plural, so there are different types of anti-Masonry. One must at least distinguish between a “political” anti-Masonry, based on a critique of Freemasonry’s activities in the public sphere, and a “doctrinal” type of anti-Masonry, which criticizes Freemasonry on a philosophical and cultural level. “Political” anti-Masonry draws its arguments from specific results of the Masonic method in this or that country, in this or that historical era, arguing that they are harmful or dangerous to society. In contrast, “doctrinal” anti-Masonry focuses its critique on the Masonic method as a constant throughout the history of Freemasonry, regardless of the specific results that have been derived from the method from time to time.
Of course, “political” anti-Masonry and “doctrinal” anti-Masonry are, to use a sociological term, “ideal types,” which the interpreter can reconstruct but are rarely encountered in their pure state. We are often confronted with hybrid forms of anti-Masonry, which have elements of both ideal types. However, it is important to point out two important aspects of the history of anti-Masonry. First, “political” anti-Masonry does not necessarily include “doctrinal” anti-Masonry. For example, Marxist critics may call for legal measures against Freemasonry believing that it is, in a given historical situation, politically harmful, and at the same time express appreciation for the Masonic method and the “progressive” role that, in other eras, it has played.
Second, the Catholic Church has moved from “political” to “doctrinal” anti-Masonry. The Vatican documents of the 18th and 19th century condemned the results of the application of the Masonic methods. These results included an active opposition to the Catholic Church, support of anticlerical laws and administrative measures, and the legal and political promotion of an idea of family different from the one advocated by Catholic moral theology. In the 20th and 21st century, after a dialogue between Catholic and Masonic scholars and institutions that took place in several countries, the Catholic Church acknowledged that there were different Freemasonries. If some Masonic obediences (particularly in France and other Latin countries) continued to promote anti-clericalism and laws the Catholic Church regarded as dangerous, other obediences in other parts of the world (including in the United States and Germany) were not anti-clerical or anti-Catholic, stayed away from politics, and even promoted a conservative morality Catholics could agree with.
Adding to this the relations of friendships that developed between Catholic and Masonic intellectuals and politicians, many believed that in the more liberal climate following the Second Vatican Council the documents prohibiting Catholics from joining Freemasonry would be revoked. This did not happen, however. The Catholic Church simply switched from political to doctrinal anti-Masonry, from criticizing the results of the Masonic method to criticizing the method itself. This change in tune was consecrated in the Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith of 1983, which is the explicit doctrinal basis of the 2023 document.