In his lecture on "The Catholic Church and Freemasonry," the Rev. Mr. John J. McManus quotes an article by Monsignor Ronny E. Jenkins, which in turn refers to a document generated by the German [Roman Catholic] Bishops' Conference in about 1980. In that document, the bishops state that membership in the Catholic Church is incompatible with membership in Freemasonry. The German Bishops' Conference apparently reached this conclusion on the basis of twelve areas of Masonic teaching that, they said, conflicted with Catholic teaching. The second of these areas is the following, as the bishops put it:
The Masonic Notion of Truth: The Masons deny the possibility of an objective truth, placing every truth instead in a relative context.
This is simply false from beginning to end. There is nothing in Masonic teaching or ritual that denies "the possibility of an objective truth." On the contrary, the various ritual initiatory ceremonies of Freemasonry--what Masons call 'degrees'--are chock-full of various philosophical truths. Some of these truths are presented through allegorical stories (such as the legend of the Third Degree). Other truths are conveyed through symbolic object lessons (for example, treating as symbols various tools of the stonemason trade, or astronomical objects, and so forth; see the illustration above). Yet other truths are illustrated through ritual. However they are conveyed, all of these teachings are presented as objective truths. (This is why 19th century and earlier Masonic literature sometimes referred to Freemasonry as a 'science.')
Some of the less complicated truths that are meant to be conveyed by Masonic symbolism, and which have percolated into society at large, are these:
- People should center their journey through life on the truths contained in their Volume of the Sacred Law--whatever it is that they understand that volume to be. (So: you are free to choose your own religion, or your own approach to spirituality--but then practice it, for heaven's sake.)
- In the eyes of God, all people are created equal. (If this sounds like the American Declaration of Independence, this is probably not an accident.)
- We should be careful to distribute our daily activities so as to allow time for work, time for service to God and to others, and time for rest and refreshment. (Consider this an early approach to prioritized time management.)
- We should make learning a life-long endeavor, across a broad range of subjects. (This is yet another of those instances where 18th century Freemasonry sounds strangely modern.)
These Masonic truths will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the first three degrees of Freemasonry, and remembers the experience.
This is hardly a "relative" approach to truth. The German Bishops' Conference claims that Masons place "truth ... in a relative context." Moral relativism is the philosophical position that there are no absolute truths at all, and that what is true or good in one situation can only be determined on the basis of context. Overall, moral relativism would have a hard time finding friends among the symbols or teachings of the Masonic Lodge.
Instead, what one has in the Masonic Lodge (when it functions as it should) is a respect for different positions, particularly different sectarian religious positions and political positions. This is entirely appropriate for a society (like, say, the Boy Scouts) that is meant to include men of many different religions and political groups. Thus, there is no real conflict with Catholic teaching here.
Here is how it seems that the German Bishops' Conference proceeded. For this group, if one shows respect for other people's positions and beliefs, this means that one is saying that no position is ultimately true. (This is a logical error of epic proportions, but we will run into it several times throughout this web series.) In that context, then of course the Masonic approach of mutual respect appears to be moral relativism--but only after passing through the pretzel logic that makes respect for different points of view to be something bad.
Next time (Part 4): the Masonic notion of religion.