The mutual antagonism of the Catholic Church and Freemasonry is well established and longstanding. For most of the past 300 years they have been acknowledged, even in the secular mindset, as implacably opposed. In recent decades the animosity between the two has faded somewhat from the public consciousness as the Church’s direct institutional involvement in civil affairs has become less pronounced and as Freemasonry has waned dramatically in numbers and prominence. But as Freemasonry turns 300 years old, it is worth revisiting what was at the core of the Church’s absolute opposition to the group. Freemasonry can appear to be little more than an esoteric men’s club, but it was and remains a highly influential philosophical movement – one which has made a dramatic, if little-noticed, impact on modern Western society and politics.

The history of Freemasonry itself is long and interesting. Its gradual transformation from the medieval workers’ guilds of stonemasons into a network of secret societies with their own Gnostic philosophy and rituals is a fascinating tale in itself. The era of the latter version of Freemasonry began with the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 in the Goose & Gridiron pub near St Paul’s Cathedral. In the early days, before the Church made any formal pronouncement on the subject, many Catholics were members and the English Catholic and Jacobite diaspora was crucial to spreading Freemasonry to continental Europe. At one point it was so popular among Catholics in some places that Francis I of Austria served as a formal patron.

And yet the Church became the greatest foe of the Masonic lodges. Between Clement XII in 1738 and the promulgation of the first Code of Canon Law in 1917, a total of eight popes wrote explicit condemnations of Freemasonry. All provided the strictest penalty for membership: automatic excommunication reserved to the Holy See. But what did and does the Church mean by Freemasonry? What are its qualities which are so worthy of condemnation?

It is sometimes said that the Church opposed Freemasonry because of the lodges’ supposedly revolutionary or seditious character. There is a widespread assumption that Masonic lodges were essentially political cells for republics and other reformers, and the Church opposed them as part of a defence of the old regime of absolute monarchy in which she was institutionally invested. But while political sedition would eventually come to the front of the Church’s opposition to Masonic membership, this was by no means the initial reason the Church opposed the Masons. What Clement XII described in his original denunciation was not a revolutionary republican society but a group spreading and enforcing religious indifferentism: the belief that all religions (and none) are of equal worth, and that in Masonry all are united in service to a higher, unifying understanding of virtue. Catholics, as members, would be asked to put their membership of the lodge above their membership of the Church. The strict prohibition, in other words, was not for political purposes but for the care of souls.

From the outset, the primary concern of the Church has been that Masonry suborns a Catholic’s faith to that of the lodge, obliging them to place a fundamental secularist fraternity above communion with the Church. The legal language, and penalties, used in the condemnations of Freemasonry were actually very similar to those used in the suppression of the Albigensians: the Church sees Freemasonry as a form of heresy. While the Masonic rites themselves contain considerable material which can be called heretical, and is in some instances explicitly anti-Catholic, the Church has always been far more concerned with the overarching philosophical content of Freemasonry rather than its ritual pageantry.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Catholic Church and its privileged place in the government and society of many European countries became the subject of growing secularist opposition and even violence. Now, there is little if any historical evidence of the lodges playing an active role in beginning the French Revolution. However, the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic horrors of the Revolution can be traced back to the secularist mentality described in the various papal bulls outlawing the Masonic lodges. Masonic societies were condemned not because they set out to threaten civil or Church authorities but because such a threat was the inevitable consequence of their existence and growth. Revolution was the symptom, not the disease.

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