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What is the Catholic view of freemasonry?

Across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Milwaukee stands the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center. The face-off of these two buildings could very well symbolize the centuries-old hostility between the institutions they represent: the Catholic Church and Freemasonry. But what about the present?

Today Freemasonry, also known as "The Craft," is a fraternal society that provides its more than 4 million members around the world with moral uplift as well as social and charitable opportunities. Of concern to Catholics, however, have been some of Freemasonry's principles, especially secrecy, a rationalist view of religion, solemn oaths, and the virulent anti-Catholic and anticlerical tone adopted by some European Masons.

Freemasonry's association with the French Revolution, which resulted in the disestablishment of Catholicism in France, and with other Enlightenment-era political and intellectual movements perceived by the church as anti-Catholic also encouraged the historical animosity between the church and the Craft.

Traditionally Masons have believed in God, the brotherhood of humanity, and the immortality of the soul, but they have maintained these beliefs can be discovered by human reason alone, and so reject the necessity of divine revelation. Members are generally required only to profess belief in a Supreme Being who has revealed the moral law and to whom humans must give an account for their actions. The Craft's inclusion of members from a variety of established religions led to Catholic charges of indifferentism, the idea that one religion was as good as another. As for oath-taking, the Catholic Church, in light of the Third Commandment, rejects the use of solemn oaths to join or advance in a fraternal society like the Masons.

No fewer than eight popes, beginning with Clement XII in 1738, have condemned the Craft. Catholics who joined Masonic societies incurred automatic excommunication. But in 1974 the waters got a little muddy when the Vatican seemed to open membership to Catholics as long as the particular Masonic entity they were joining was not hostile to the church.

The newest code of church law, published in 1983, repeats the old code's provision for penalties against joining an association that "plots against the church." And just before the new code took effect, the Vatican issued a declaration indicating that Catholics who joined the Masons were to be barred from the Eucharist. It seems then that the ecclesiastical jury is still out on this subject.

So the next time you're standing at the corner of Jackson and Kilbourn in downtown Milwaukee, don't let the symbolic stand-off be lost on you.

JOEL SCHORN, coauthor with Alice Camille of A Faith Interrupted: An Honest Conversation with Alienated Catholics (Loyola Press, 2004).
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Title Annotation:Glad You Asked: Q&A On Church Teaching
Author:Schorn, Joel
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 2005
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