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 third of these areas is the following, as the bishops put it:
The Masonic Notion of Religion: The Masonic teaching holds a relative notion of religion as all concurrently seeking the truth of the absolute.
Here the bishops have put together two ideas as if they were one. The bishops are half right--but, as we shall see, they condemn Freemasonry on the basis of the half that the bishops got wrong.
Religion in the Blue Degrees of Freemasonry
There is no teaching in the Blue degrees of Freemasonry--the first three degrees, the degrees that make a man a Master Mason--regarding the matter of the truth or value of different religions, either individually, or in comparison to one another. Instead, the degrees are imbued with a reverence for Religion and Spirituality in general.
For example, it is a matter of public knowledge that a Masonic lodge may not meet without the Volume of the Sacred Law open upon the altar that is at the center of all American lodge rooms. In the United States, that Volume is usually the Christian Bible. (When a candidate is initiated into Masonry, he is entitled to have a Volume that he holds sacred upon the altar; for example, Jews may have the Tanakh open upon the altar at their initiations.) I have heard of lodges that make it a practice to have multiple Volumes of the Sacred Law open upon their altars at every meeting; these Volumes may include the Christian Bible, the Jewish Tanakh, the Islamic Koran, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, and so forth.
(Some other Masonic organizations follow the same practice to teach the same object lessons. The House of the Temple, the headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in the Southern Jurisdiction, has the four sacred books that I named, and others besides, upon its black marble altar in the center of the dramatic Executive Chamber, where the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite, SJ, meets.)
Religion in the High Degrees of Freemasonry
The Blue Lodge degrees are the foundational degrees in Freemasonry. However, there are also what are known as 'high degrees,' administered by other Masonic bodies, which present additional degrees of initiation to Master Masons. How does high degree Freemasonry--and such bodies as the Scottish Rite and the York Rite--address the issue of the relative value or truth of different religions?
Religion in the Scottish Rite
The Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction is well known for presenting, in its degree ceremonies, ideas and concepts from different religions and philosophies as found throughout history (for example, Hinduism, Pythagorean mysticism, Kabbalah, Christianity, Rosicrucianism, and so forth). However, here again, the intent is clearly to serve as a sort of "Introduction to Religious and Philosophical Thought 101"-type course. No statement is made regarding the relative or absolute truth or value of the different positions conveyed in the degrees, not even the statement that they are 'equally valid' or some such.
The same can be said for the degrees of the Scottish Rite in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction (whose rituals are different from those in the South). A recent experience of mine demonstrates the Masonic attitude towards different religions, in the context of this organization.
As it happens, I am a member of the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction, now residing in the territory of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. The officials of the Scottish Rite in New York City recently allowed me, as a guest, to observe the ceremony of the 29th Degree (Knight of Saint Andrew). As conducted in the North, this ceremony focuses on a legend involving an outstanding episode of mutual respect shown between medieval Knights and their Islamic opponents during the period of the Crusades. The stated point of this degree is as follows: "This degree emphasizes the Masonic teachings of equality and toleration. We are reminded that no one man, no one Church, no one religion, has a monopoly on truth; that while we must be true and faithful to our own convictions, we must respect the opinions of others." In some ways, this is parallel to the lesson of the 10th degree (Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen) in the South, the point of which is stated as follows: "This degree teaches us to be tolerant and respect the opinions of others. Freedoms of political and spiritual ideologies should be shared by all." There is nothing here that contradicts authoritative, post-Vatican II Catholic teachings.
Religion in the York Rite
Among the degrees of the York Rite, it is true that the final set of degrees--the Chivalric orders--does give a privileged position to a specific set of religious doctrines. However, it would seem hard to understand why the bishops would have a problem with this, at a surface level. You see, the Chivalric orders are modeled on the legends of medieval knighthood. The two highest of these degrees, the Order of Malta and the Order of the Temple, traditionally considered the highest degrees in the York Rite, are explicitly Christian in nature.
Conclusions: Respect, Yes; Relativism, No
Thus, in its various degrees, Freemasonry teaches respect for different religions. This is not to say that Masonry teaches that all religions are equal in value or truth--because Masonry does not teach that. Such a question is beyond the competence of Freemasonry to make, and Freemasonry knows that. However, if one could put the symbolic teaching of the Volume of the Sacred Law into words, it might be something like this:
"Find the Volume of the Sacred Law that speaks to your soul. Follow it. Center your life upon it. Whatever path you choose, we shall respect it, and, in turn, you must respect the paths taken by others."
Thus, the message is one of respect, rather than one about the ultimate truth or value of a given religion or set of religions.
In Part 2 of this series, I described the historical background to the rise of Grand Lodge Freemasonry, which may explain why the early Masons were concerned about rendering respect to different religious positions. (On that webpage, do a Find function on the phrase, "bathed that land in blood": that's the paragraph of interest.) Freemasonry is supposed to be a place where men of different faiths can peacefully coexist. (See the illustration above; if there were an Eleventh Commandment, this would be it.)
So, the bishops got Freemasonry right, in part--sort of. Freemasonry does take the respectful stance that different religions are well-intended, that is, that "all concurrently [seek] the truth of the absolute."
However, this is also where the bishops got Freemasonry wrong. The bishops said that Freemasonry "holds a relative notion of religion." The word 'relative' is a technical term in philosophy, related to the philosophical position of Relativism. To hold a 'relative notion of religion' would be to teach that no one religion is ultimately true, or more valuable or more correct than another. This, Freemasonry does not teach.
Freemasonry does not take the relativistic stance that all religions are equally valid; it leaves that matter entirely to the conscience of the individual Mason. Freemasonry does not take the stance that all religions actually reach the truth, either; Freemasonry does not pretend to take a position on this. Thus, there is no real conflict with Catholic teaching here: as a secular organization, not a religion, Freemasonry leaves matters of religion to the individual; so do the Boy Scouts.
(Of course, no doubt some Freemasons do believe that all religions are of equal value--just as there are other Freemasons who believe that their own religions are the best routes to the Truth. Freemasonry leaves such matters to individual conscience.)
Here again, what I think the bishops did was to confuse rendering equal respect to different religions with the idea that different religions are equally valid. Why they should have made this error goes beyond the scope of this post--but make this error they certainly did.
Next time, in Part 5: The Masonic notion of God.
[The image above is from a bumper sticker marketed on the website StampAndShout.com. It combines symbols for (l.-r.): Islam, Wicca, Science, Judaism, Buddhism (the dot over the "i": the wheel of Dharma), Taoism, and Christianity. Other versions of this graphic concept exist, but this is my favorite so far. This is not an endorsement of all the bumper stickers marketed by this organization--but I do rather like this one.]