The first reason given by the German [Roman Catholic] Bishops' Conference for saying that membership in the Catholic Church is incompatible with membership in Freemasonry is the following, as the bishops put it:
The Masonic Worldview. The Masons promote a freedom from dogmatic adherence to any one set of revealed truths. Such a subjective relativism is in direct conflict with the revealed truths of Christianity.This is a serious distortion of the position of Freemasonry. Like many such serious distortions, it would appear that the authors have taken some aspects of Masonic practice very far out of context.
Freemasonry has long taken the stance that membership in the fraternity is available to men who believe in a Supreme Being, whatever their other religious opinions may be. This attitude is found in one of the earliest major documents of the Grand Lodge era of Freemasonry, James Anderson's The Constitutions of the Free-Masons (first edition, 1723; frontispiece above). In a chapter titled "The Charges of a Free-Mason," Anderson presented what he said were extracts from very ancient records. The first section or 'general head' of this chapter, titled "Of God and Religion," includes the following:
A Mason is oblig'd by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law, and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons were charg'd in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish'd; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain'd at a perpetual Distance.
In plain modern English, Anderson is saying that Freemasons must obey the moral law, must not be atheists or libertines, and must be good men of honor and honesty; beyond that, as far as Freemasonry is concerned, individual Masons may hold privately whatever religious opinions they choose, and belong to whatever religious organizations that they wish. Freemasonry itself, Anderson says, is to be a place where people who might otherwise be separated by religious issues can come together in friendship and peace.
It is very important to understand what this means, and what it does not. No one is saying here that Freemasonry takes the position that "Masons should be free of dogmatic adherence from any one set of revealed truths"--in fact, this is not a Masonic position at all. As far as Freemasonry is concerned, the individual Freemason is permitted to hold as tightly as he wishes to whatever he holds to be revealed truths. However, what he may not do is to pressure others, in the confines of the Lodge, to adopt his religious opinions. (Indeed, discussion of sectarian religion is forbidden in the Lodge itself.) Beyond that, it may be said that Freemasonry extends to people of all beliefs the courtesy of respect. Thus, there is no real conflict with Catholic teaching here.
Of course, there are individual Masons who do believe that it is a mistake to hold to any religious beliefs dogmatically--just as there are individual Masons who hold very firmly and dogmatically to their particular religious beliefs. Freemasonry simply leaves all such matters up to the individual Mason, to consider in the privacy of his own conscience.
Anderson's writings are not some kind of Masonic 'scripture,' but they do represent an early expression of a number of Masonic ideals. Indeed, in the United States, many Masonic jurisdictions include "The Charges of a Free-Mason" as part of their own official Constitutions. Thus, what Anderson says here can be trusted as representing the mainstream of Masonic teachings.
But then, that raises the question: What did James Anderson believe? Did he promote some sort of 'liberation' from adherence to any one set of revealed truths? I think it is a safe bet to say that he did not think this at all--given that he was a Presbyterian minister.
The German Bishops' Conference seems to have made a fundamental error. They have confused the true Masonic practice--give respect to all religious positions--with a distorted idea: 'don't be bound to any religion or revealed truth.' Why they should make this error is an interesting question, beyond the scope of this essay--but make this error, they certainly did.
It may be of interest to know the background to the Masonic practice of treating different religions with equal respect. The Grand Lodge style of Freemasonry, established in 1717, arose in England after centuries of religious wars had bathed that land in blood. It may be that the founders of Freemasonry, consciously or otherwise, were trying to find a way for people of different religions to live together in peace. Such ideals were later embodied in the American Constitution, which specifically forbids the federal government from establishing a state church. (Of course, several Masons were prominent in passing the Constitution.) The modern world, where so much violence and pain result from religious intolerance, has a lot to learn from the example--and the worldview--of the early Freemasons.
[The image above is the Frontispiece to the first edition, 1723, or Anderson's Constitutions. The image was obtained from the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, which maintains one of the best websites in the world for information regarding the history of Freemasonry and other Masonic topics, including anti-Masonry.]