In a recent article on The St. Louis Review, Msgr. Matthew Mitas wrote a "Dear Father" column that responded to a question about Freemasonry for Catholics. While I certainly grant that it is his and his Church's right to view Freemasonry however they like, and to set the rules for their membership, I do feel that some of the article is just absurdly wrong about Freemasonry, and needs to be challenged on that basis.
First off, let me clarify who I am. I am a Freemason from the state of Massachusetts in the United States. Msgr. Mitas makes some points about European vs. American Freemasonry, so I think that's useful context. I'm a Master Mason, which is to say that I've been initiated through the three "Blue Lodge" degrees that makes one a Brother to all other regular Freemasons throughout the world. I am also a 32nd degree member of the Scottish Rite and a Royal Arch Mason in the York Rite. These are additional bodies which one can join after becoming a Master Mason. I hold no official office within the governance of the Fraternity or its additional bodies, and what I have to say here is my own opinion, not that of Amicable Lodge in Cambridge where I am a member, nor of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Other Freemasons may disagree with my tone, content or line of reasoning.
Okay, now let's get to what is said in the article:
Freemasonry is still condemned by the Church and any Catholic who attempts to join them incurs excommunication. This prohibition has been in force from the very origins of Freemasonry and has never changed. This is a very serious penalty and is only applied when very serious matters are involved.This is a somewhat misleading statement. In general, there are offenses for which excommunication is a likely outcome. Being a Freemason is not really one of them. The problem is that so many Catholics are Freemasons, and the ones who are tend to be among the most energetic, involved and devout... excommunicating just the ones that the Church can identify would be disastrous. So, the occasional Freemason is ejected who probably merits discipline for other reasons, and other than that, the Church remains mostly silent as long as people don't advertise their membership in the Fraternity along side their identification as Catholics.
To say that it's a "very serious matter" though, is stretching the point. The Catholic Church has reservations about Freemasonry that are, in some ways, entirely understandable. We're a large organization that doesn't identify itself with any one religion, and so a Catholic Church that embraced Freemasonry would have to embrace our Brothers who are Catholics along side those who are not.
It's hard to live as Jesus did without judging, lest we be judged, and while the Catholic Church has made overtures in the past 50 years that are promising toward other faiths, its track record is certainly not pristine. The Crusades and the Inquisition tend to be the first things that many people in the world think of when they think of the history of the Catholic Church. I say this, not to admonish or shame, but to bring context. I honestly think that the modern Church is trying its best to leave those days behind, and I applaud that sincerely!
The 1917 code had explicitly stated that joining the Masons was grounds for excommunication and the 1983 code merely implied it. Realizing this confusion, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) issued a proclamation dispelling all doubt and reaffirming the long-standing ban.And another point of context: the "Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith" or CDF is a new name for an old organization, previously the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. You can see why it might be difficult for the world to forget the Inquisition... it literally still exists and makes proclamations about other, non-Catholic organizations, including Freemasonry!
It is true that Freemasonry here is different from Europe. Historically, European Freemasonry has been belligerently and virulently anti-Catholic...This is subtly wrong on several levels. First of all, you cannot speak of American Freemasonry as a monolithic whole. Each US State has its own Grand Lodge (as does the District of Columbia and various protectorates and territories). A Grand Lodge is a sovereign, governing body for its jurisdiction and cannot be commanded or overruled by any other Grand Lodge.
So, if you want to speak of differences, you must speak of an individual state when it comes to the US or, in most other cases, of a nation. English Freemasonry (and I do mean English, because there is a United Grand Lodge of England) is not identical to German Freemasonry which is not identical to Italian Freemasonry. But there is a system of "Landmarks" or core values which binds all Freemasons, and a Grand Lodge which rejects or modifies those Landmarks (such as the Grand Orient of France has done) will cease to be recognized as Masonic by other Grand Lodges. So, what is really being said, here, is that mainstream Freemasonry has nothing against Catholics, and in fact Catholics are welcome and embraced as Brothers without reservation. However, non-regular Freemasonry, such as that practiced by the Grand Orient of France, has diverged from these tenets and has been hostile toward Catholicism along with many other religious groups. This is unfortunate, but once a group decides to call itself Freemasonry but not acknowledge the fundamental universality of Freemasonry, there is nothing that we can do other than to turn our backs on them until they come to their senses.
... often using its vast wealth and influence to persecute the Catholic Church.This is, frankly, absurd! It is akin to the United States decrying how terrible and oppressive the American Indian tribes were toward European settlers! The Catholic Church has more money, resources and people than Freemasonry by orders of magnitude and has been extremely hostile to our Fraternity. To quote one bit of history:
... in 1751, Pope Benedict XIV, published the Bull entitled Providas which sought to justify to a greater extent the Church’s opposition to Freemasonry and which prohibited Catholics from joining any Masonic group. This new denunciation sparked a new round of persecutions and this period is famous for the actions of Father Torrubia, a censor and revisor of the Inquisition, in allegedly attempting to carry out a plan to exterminate all Freemasons in Spain. In order the achieve this he made use of the vast network of spies available to the Inquisition and, using a false name, joined the Order himself and was thus enabled to draw up a list of 97 lodges then in existence. It is alleged that he obtained from the Papal Grand Penitentiary a dispensation to join the Order under a false name and to break his Masonic oath taken on the Bible. Fr. Torrubia handed over his list to the Inquisition in Madrid and this led to the arrest of thousands of Freemasons. The King, Ferdinand VI, decreed the prohibition of Freemasonry throughout the kingdom. Finally, the Cardinal Vicar decreed the death sentence for all Freemasons.—from Death to Intellectuals the history and persecutions of Spanish Freemasonry by V.W. Bro Martin I. McGregor Grand Lecturer, Freemasons, New Zealand.
Even granting that, the condemnation of Freemasonry is legitimate for many reasons. First, Freemasonry may have all the trappings of religion, but seeks to replace true religion with its own unorthodox beliefs and practices.This is a grave misrepresentation of Freemasonry. Freemasonry is not, nor has it ever been a religion. There are religious allegories used within the context of Freemasonry, but we make no representation of them as elements of any one religion. We, instead, explicitly embrace the idea that every Brother comes to us with their own faith and that that faith is not to be questioned or impugned by any Freemason! In fact, when a new member takes their oath to uphold the traditions and Landmarks of the Fraternity, they do so upon the holy book of their own faith, not of Freemasonry's choosing. In my Lodge, men have taken their obligation on the King James Bible most commonly, but we keep the Jewish Tanakh, Book of Mormon and various other holy books from the religions that make up the very diverse community of Cambridge Massachusetts at hand, and they are used not infrequently.
As for our own "unorthodox beliefs and practices," this phrase is not applicable in the least. Freemasonry does not have its own beliefs and we are no more or less "orthodox" than a library. We are a repository of understanding of the meaning of Brotherly Love, Charity and Hope. We augment that understanding of morality that each Brother's religion imparts him with. That is all we are, and to confuse us with an organization which seeks to be a part of any religion is to misunderstand our cause. We offer no threat to any religion nor do we seek to change the beliefs of any member. In fact, sectarian religion is simply never discussed (nor is politics) within a Lodge of Freemasons.
... when one submits to its various rites of initiation, he is, at least formally, embracing that heterodox and peculiar understanding of the purpose of life and the means of salvation.This gets at a point which might be obscure to those not familiar with Freemasonry, so let me explain: Freemasonry has an initiation ceremony, broken up into three parts or "degrees." Throughout these degrees, there are mentions made of the "Supreme Architect of the Universe," a phrase which is meant to encompass the essence of the belief in deity which all Freemasons share, regardless of their particular faith. We do not place any boundaries on this conception of deity that endorses a unique being as the "means of salvation." We do not explain the mechanics of a system of salvation "through works" as many Catholic scholars have attempted to claim. We simply attempt to speak to the common elements of our Brothers' faiths and emphasize the bonds that we share as men of our faiths rather than the differences that we might be divided by.
This is not an anti-Catholic view and it is not a unique religious view. It is an abstracted and symbolized way of speaking about the understanding of deity which is present in some form in the hearts of all men, whether they choose to embrace it (as Catholics and many other religions do) or not (as, for example, atheists do not).
Third, the Knights of Columbus are so much better in every conceivable way that no Catholic should ever give Freemasonry even a first thought, much less a second. And the Knights are, by the way, the best cooks in North America!While I cannot speak to the culinary skills of the KoC, I've had conversations with some members of the Knights, and I have never gained the impression that they are more than a mere social and charitable organization. These are good and laudable things, but Freemasonry is the synthesis of literally thousands of years of strongly religious and philosophical men, attempting to unravel the mystery of the life lived among the world and to focus the lens or our individual religions on the challenges and joys of everyday life as a community, not just as factional members of insular faiths.
The KoC can simply never offer this universality of Brotherhood with all mankind, and so I see no reason that we would reach such a conclusion as this. They are not "better" because they are not the same sort of endeavor. It is akin to saying, "you shouldn't be a mathematician, but ice cream is so much better in every conceivable way!"