In a new declaration published by the Vatican, the Catholic Church is reaffirming its opposition to one of its ancient enemies. The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document last week reiterating, “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.”
Conspiracy theories abound surrounding the mysterious, secretive Freemasons, but the Catholic Church bases its condemnation of the sect not on theories and tales of political plots but on the tenets of Masonry itself, which are, as the Vatican notes, “irreconcilable” with Catholic doctrine.
What Is Freemasonry?
Freemasonry bills itself as a series of fraternal organizations centered on common tenets, principles, beliefs, and practices. The basic unit of these fraternities are typically local “lodges,” which are in turn overseen by a regional “Grand Lodge” or “Grand Orient.” Masons, as members are called, progress through varying “degrees,” each of which requires its own unique initiation rituals and oaths. While most lodges in the U.S. are considered “blue lodges” and offer only three degrees, other rites and lodges of Masonry have as many as 33 — at least, 33 that are known, as oaths of secrecy become more restrictive and intense as one progresses higher.
Although the history of Freemasonry is somewhat murky, the organization is widely agreed to have stemmed from stone masons’ guilds in the late Middle Ages, which, rather akin to labor unions, regulated how masons were to charge for their services and pay their employees’ wages and ensured that members were not cheated of their commissions. Sometime in the 15th or 16th century, members of these guilds began dabbling in practical magic, particularly alchemy, the magical transmutation of lead and base metals into pure gold. This is where Freemasonry devolved from a fraternal labor union into an ideological sect.
Many Masons now see alchemy as merely allegorical — a mystical illustration of making a man better or “perfect” through the rites and practices of Masonry — but history suggests the magical art was sincerely practiced many years ago. In a lecture from 1949, the 32nd degree Mason S.H. Perry, in an extensive discussion of alchemy, posited that Masons could trace their oaths to secrecy back to the alchemists who had done the same, noting that this was “perhaps because their philosophy did not agree with the various religions of their times.” Perry also linked the Masonic emblems of square, circle, and semi-circle to the alchemist’s “three great lights” of earth, sun, and moon.
Like the alchemists, the Masons developed rituals and even began wearing elaborate emblematic regalia, often strikingly similar to the vestments worn by Catholic priests and bishops. They built “temples” and erected “altars” within, and members swore terrible blood oaths to keep rituals and ceremonies a secret, promising to suffer torture or damnation if these were ever violated. Much more to the point, the Masons asked that all members admit belief in a “supreme being” — the Christian God, Allah, Buddha, Zeus, Gaia, or really any deity. Masonry holds all to be equally true, a principle further evinced by “temples” or lodges keeping the sacred scriptures of numerous faiths — the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, etc. — all on altars side-by-side.
Why Does the Church Oppose Freemasonry?
The history of Freemasonry is mysterious and checkered, with some arguing that the organization is nothing more than an elaborate social club and others presenting strong cases that Masons orchestrated the bloody French and Russian revolutions, assassinated both Tsar Nicholas II and President John F. Kennedy, and even continue to control world government. But it is not for any of these reasons that the Catholic Church condemns Freemasonry.
The Catholic Church first formally condemned Freemasonry in 1737, after the Inquisition (which would later be renamed the Holy Office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and eventually the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith) investigated a Masonic lodge in Florence, and Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury found that French Masons — some of them prominent Catholics — were organizing political rebellions across Europe and attempting to covertly pressure the Church to support their causes. Fleury took this information to Pope Clement XII, who canonically forbid Catholics from participating in Masonry with his 1738 publication In eminenti apostolatus.
Clement’s condemnation of Freemasonry was based largely on the sect’s strict laws of secrecy, which he said “caused in the minds of the faithful the greatest suspicion, and all prudent and upright men have passed the same judgment on them as being depraved and perverted. For if they were not doing evil they would not have so great a hatred of the light.” He further argued that because of this secrecy and the oaths sworn in Masonic rituals, Masonry does “not hold by either civil or canonical sanctions,” being dangerous both “to the peace of the temporal state [and] also to the well-being of souls.” Clement XII, therefore, banned all Catholics of any and every state from participating in Masonry to any degree under penalty of excommunication.
Over the next 150 years or so, six different popes condemned Freemasonry, with Pope Pius IX writing no less than six papal declarations against the society. Pope Pius VIII forcefully declared of Masons, “Lying is their rule, Satan is their God, and shameful deeds their sacrifice.” But perhaps the best-known Catholic foe of Masonry was Pope Leo XIII, who laid out perhaps the most irrefutable case against the sect.
In his 1884 encyclical Humanum genus, Leo XIII leveled two chief charges against Masonry: pantheism and naturalism. The pantheism of Masonry is evident in its holding of numerous faiths and gods to be equally true. Since each of these religious creeds professes a different god, and each of these gods is in contradiction to the others, Masonry actually confirms each to be equally false.
So why does Masonry require a profession of faith in a “supreme being”? The second charge, naturalism, is the reason for this. Naturalism, in theological terms, refers to attempts by the created to usurp the role of creator. It is, in short, the sin of Satan, which led him to rebel against God and be cast out of Heaven by the archangel Michael. Leo XIII explained:
[T]he fundamental doctrine of the naturalists, which they sufficiently make known by their very name, is that human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide. Laying this down, they care little for duties to God, or pervert them by erroneous and vague opinions.
The “supreme being” of Masonry, as evinced by the sect’s connection to alchemy as well as its very creeds and principles, is man himself — man as God. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, recognizes that God is supreme, that God is master over all. Masonry inverts that principle, much as the Serpent inverted God’s established order in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). In Masonry, man rules as supreme, with government and society remade in his image alone, and God is cast to the side and ignored. Leo XIII wrote:
[T]heir ultimate purpose forces itself into view — namely, the utter overthrow of that whole religious and political order of the world which the Christian teaching has produced, and the substitution of a new state of things in accordance with their ideas, of which the foundations and laws shall be drawn from mere naturalism.
[R]eason and truth itself make it plain that the society of which we are speaking is in antagonism with justice and natural uprightness. And this becomes still plainer, inasmuch as other arguments, also, and those very manifest, prove that it is essentially opposed to natural virtue.
Leo XIII also posited that Masons had “begun to exercise great weight in the government of States,” effectively controlling the highest levels of most governments — and even the Church.
In 1859, the French Catholic journalist and historian Jacques Crétineau-Joly published a copy he had obtained of The Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita, a how-to guide written by Masons of the Italian Carbonari lodge on infiltrating and corrupting the Catholic Church. The authors detail their plan to flood seminaries, rise through the ranks of the priesthood, secure positions as archbishops and seminary professors, and dilute Catholic teaching with liberal theology, religious indifferentism, and a self-imposed anti-clericalism.
Leo XIII was horrified by the Alta Vendita’s contents and urged all Catholics to read it. When Monsignor George F. Dillon, an Irish theologian and missionary, published the Alta Vendita in his book The War of Antichrist with the Church and Christian Civilization, Leo XIII personally wrote a preface to the volume and gave Dillon an apostolic benediction.
So appalled was the pontiff with the goals and tenets of Masonry that he wrote a second, though less exhaustive, condemnation of the sect. In Praeclara gratulationis publicae, he openly urged Catholics to reject Masonry outright, even pushing government authorities not under the thrall of Masonry to root the shadowy sect from their nations.
The 20th Century and Beyond
Pope St. Pius X reiterated the ban on Catholic participation in Freemasonry with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which clarified that Catholics joining the sect incurred latae sententia, or automatic excommunication, and were forbidden Catholic burials. Additional and stricter penalties were imposed for clerics and religious who became Masons. Although the Second Vatican Council brought with it much confusion on the Church’s position regarding Masonry — with some publications reporting that the penalty of automatic excommunication had been revoked — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified in a 1981 declaration that Catholics were still forbidden from becoming Masons. The letter, signed by then-prefect Cardinal Franjo Šeper, was based on an investigation conducted by the German Bishops Conference, which concluded that religious indifferentism and the man-as-God principle were fundamental to Masonry, and, thus, the sect was fundamentally opposed to Catholic teaching.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law, published under Pope St. John Paul II, expanded the ban to include any secret society “which plots against the Church,” removing any explicit reference to Masonry and erroneously giving rise yet again to the belief that Catholicism and Masonry are not incompatible. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, later Pope Benedict XVI — clarified that the ban on Masonry was still in effect, since “their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church.”
Catholics, of course, are not without their own fraternal organizations, though there are no blood oaths or secret rituals. In America, Fr. Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in 1882 to combat the rise of Masonry. He aimed to give Catholic men their own fraternal organization that not only allowed for camaraderie and fellowship but also carried out acts of charity and helped men live out their Catholic faith. The Knights of Columbus currently has over 2 million members across the globe, and McGivney was beatified in 2020.
Likewise, in 1917, St. Maximilian Kolbe founded the Militia of the Immaculata, a fraternal Catholic organization rooted in evangelism and praying for the conversion of sinners, with the Blessed Virgin Mary as its patroness. Kolbe came up with the idea for the Knights while studying in Rome: He saw a procession of Freemasons carrying banners depicting Satan crushing the head of St. Michael the archangel beneath his heel and distributing pamphlets opposing the Pope. Kolbe took his idea for the Knights to his Jesuit spiritual adviser and his Franciscan superior, who both approved. Today, the Knights of the Immaculata have over 3 million members worldwide.