Saturday, June 6, 2009

Part 6: Masonic Toleration. (Series: The Roman Catholic Church and Freemasonry)

(See Part 1 for the context of this presentation.)

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 sixth of these areas is the following:
Masonic Toleration: The Masons promote a principle of toleration regarding ideas. That is, relativism teaches them to be tolerant of ideas divergent or contrary to their own. Such a principle not only threatens the Catholic position of objective truth, but it also threatens the respect due the Church's teaching office.
Here again, the German Bishops' Conference has mixed some accurate information about Freemasonry with some seriously mistaken information. In this case, however, the Conference then went even further, and misrepresented Catholic teaching itself. (What?! Am I saying that the bishops got Catholic teaching wrong? Yes, that's exactly and precisely what I am saying.) Let me try to untangle this theological mess, one strand at a time.

The Masons and Toleration

The first sentence of the paragraph quoted above from the Conference report is, in fact, accurate as an expression of Masonic values: Masons do promote a principle of toleration regarding ideas. This can be seen in a number of ways, throughout the multifaceted structure of Freemasonry. In Part 2 of this Series, I quoted a portion of "The Charges of a Free-Mason" from Anderson's Constitutions (1st ed. 1723); the "Charges" fairly represent the values of perhaps all the Grand Lodge jurisdictions in the United States today. In the portion I quoted, it is clear that the basic Blue Lodge of Freemasonry is supposed to embody a toleration for different religious beliefs.

The usual standard in today's Blue Lodge Freemasonry is that religious or political beliefs should carry no weight when it comes to deciding whether to admit a man to the Fraternity, as long as he believes in God. This certainly reflects a principle of toleration. (In addition, the stated standard practice is that neither sectarian religious nor political discussions are to come up during a Lodge meeting.) In the high degrees, the Scottish Rite in particular explicitly promotes toleration of different religious and political ideas (in both the Southern and Northern Masonic Jurisdictions' rituals), as I described in detail in Part 4 of this Series.

However, things fall apart with the second sentence of the paragraph that I quoted above from the German Bishops' Conference report. The bishops state that "relativism teaches [the Masons] to be tolerant of ideas divergent or contrary to their own." That is, the bishops are saying that Masons are tolerant of different ideas because Masons believe that no beliefs are ultimately true, which is the philosophical position of Relativism, particularly Moral Relativism. However, Freemasonry does not, in fact, take the position of Relativism; rather, as I imply in Part 3, if anything, Masonry takes the opposite position, the philosophical position of Universality--the idea that some truths are indeed objectively true for all people, in all times and places. However, Freemasonry introduces some wrinkles into its position regarding Universality:
  • Freemasonry is highly selective regarding the specific truths that it explicitly puts forth as universally true. These are ideas like the notions that it is good to seek truth, that it is good to promote brotherly love among humanity, and that it is good to give relief to those who suffer. These are, of course, publicly known to be explicit values promoted by Freemasonry. Some other values and truths are promoted explicitly but confidentially within the Fraternity; these may be found, for example, in the three degree lectures.
  • Freemasonry presents some truths only symbolically (as in the degree rituals), and exhorts the individual Mason to ponder these and discover their meanings for himself.
  • When it comes to differences of religious and political opinion, Freemasonry promotes toleration, from a position of respect, specifically in order to strengthen the bonds which tie Masons together. (Consider the working tools of a Master Mason.)
Thus, it is an ethic of respect, not a philosophy of relativism, that impels Masons to show tolerance for different positions and opinions.

If Masonry did promote the position of relativism, this would be a problem from a Catholic point of view. Catholicism has always condemned relativistic positions. For example, in 1996, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Vatican office known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave a formal address titled "Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today." (Of course, the author of that discourse is now known as Pope Benedict XVI.)

However, as I have shown, Freemasonry is not founded on philosophical relativism. Masonry combines philosophical universality with an ethic of respect, which is the basis for Masonry's principle of toleration. As it happens, understanding that ethic of respect, not in Freemasonry but within Catholicism, is key to understanding the errors that the bishops made in the remainder of the paragraph of their report quoted above.

The True Catholic Position on Toleration

The bishops go on, as I quote above, to say that "such a principle [that is, a principle of toleration regarding different ideas] not only threatens the Catholic position of objective truth, but it also threatens the respect due the Church's teaching office." As it happens, the notion that toleration of different ideas is a 'threat' to Catholicism is completely opposed to current Catholic teaching, as this can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (second edition, revised; paperback edition, 2000); an authorized online edition of this book is available here.

There is a good litmus test available regarding current Catholic teaching on toleration of different ideas. One would think that, if toleration is such a threat, nowhere would this threat be more apparent, or greater, than in the case of toleration or respect regarding religious ideas that differed from Catholic doctrine. As it happens, the Catechism is crystal-clear on this issue: Catholic doctrine and teaching insist that respect (and, by obvious implication, toleration) must be rendered to religious views that are different from Catholicism. Let's look at some examples of Catholic teaching on this issue. (Note: You can find the text of any numbered paragraph of the Catechism by going to the online edition and using the Search engine there to conduct a search using the number of the paragraph. The text of the paragraph will usually be given as the first search result. After choosing that search result, if you wish to see the paragraph in context, select "Enter the CCC at this paragraph.") Consider these points:

  • The Catechism urges respect, even for non-Christian religions. In a section titled "The Social Duty of Religion and the Right to Religious Freedom" (paragraphs 2104-2109), the Catechism makes reference (par. 2104) to a "sincere respect" that should be shown to different religions. In the course of using this phrase, the Catechism makes reference to Nostra Aetate, the "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" (promulgated by the Pope in 1965), an important document emerging from the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II; for background, see here. Nostra Aetate, in turn, presents a fascinating message of respect and toleration for religions very different from Catholicism. Specifically mentioning Hinduism and Buddhism in one location (section 2, second paragraph), this Declaration states: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though different in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men." Later on (section 3, first paragraph), the Declaration notes, "The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems," several of whose teachings the Declaration singles out for approbation.
  • The Catechism specifies that it is the duty of each Catholic to show 'respect for the human person' (pars. 1929-1933). This involves "the duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them" (par. 1932), and the Catechism notes that "this same duty extends to those who think or act differently from us" (par. 1933, emphasis added); this would seem to be the essence of toleration.
  • In discussing the balance between freedom and responsibility, the Catechism states that the right to religious freedom must be respected. "The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order" (par. 1738; emphasis in original). "The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in religious and moral matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of man" (par. 1747). (See also pars. 1906-1907.)
  • The Catechism states that religious discrimination must be eradicated. In a portion titled "Equality and Differences Among Men" (pars. 1934-1935), the Catechism quotes from section 29, paragraph 2 of a document known as Gaudium et Spes (promulgated 1965): "Every form of ... discrimination ... on the grounds of ... religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design." As it happens, Gaudium et Spes, the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," is considered one of the major accomplishments of Vatican II; for background, see here.
Okay, then: Catholic teaching is fully supportive of respect and toleration for religious beliefs that are different from their own. However, this brings up some penetrating questions.

How Could the German Bishops' Conference Be So Wrong About Catholic Teaching Regarding Toleration?

Let's review. The single most authoritative printed source regarding current Catholic teaching--the Catechism of the Catholic Church--makes reference to documents insisting that the Catholic Church regards with "sincere reverence/respect" the teachings of Hindus and Buddhists, and that this church "regards with esteem" the Muslims. In another location, this same source says that Catholics should make themselves neighbors to those who think differently than they do. In multiple places, this same source vigorously emphasizes that religious freedom must be preserved, and states that religious discrimination must be eradicated. And the German Bishops' Conference criticizes Freemasonry for encouraging tolerance of those who have different ideas? Why is there this monumental discrepancy between the German Bishops' Conference's position on toleration and respect, and the position on toleration shown in the Catholic Catechism?

The plain fact of the matter is that Vatican II in the mid-1960s was a major development in teaching, doctrine, and practice that the Catholic Church is still working to come to grips with today, over 40 years later. The German Bishops' Conference, issuing their report only 15 years after Vatican II, clearly had not considered the implications of these developments in teaching and doctrine as they applied to the Freemasons and their tolerant, respectful ways. It is highly unfortunate that the many Catholic and other authors and websites that continue to make reference to Msgr. Jenkins' article fail to realize how out of step the German Bishops' Conference was, in comparison with the way that Catholic teaching on tolerance developed during Vatican II.

Summary and Conclusion

In sum, then: Yes, the Masons really do "promote a principle of toleration ... of ideas ... contrary to their own," but this principle proceeds from a profound sense of respect for others and their beliefs, not from a position of philosophical relativism. In addition, this principle of toleration and respect poses no threat to "the Catholic position on objective truth," or to "the respect due the Church's teaching office." Rather, this principle of toleration and respect is in many ways similar to the post-Vatican II Catholic position on respect for others' beliefs, a position put forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in such Vatican II documents as Nostra Aetate, Gaudium et Spes, and Dignitatis Humanae (see background here).

Next time (Part 7): Masonic Rituals.

[The image above is Norman Rockwell's famous painting, "Freedom of Worship," from his series Four Freedoms, done as an homage to U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'Four Freedoms' speech (1941).]


  1. What a wonderful article, especially coming on D-Day, when the battle to free Europe from tyranny began. We are now working in Iraq to establish Masonry, for both the American civilian/military forces, and for the Iraqi people. A group of Iraqis, is working (quietly) to establish a Masonic presence here.

    Read more about it in my blog:

  2. Mark Koltko-RiveraJune 6, 2009 at 4:42 PM

    Charles, thank you for your kind words. My goodness--establishing Freemasonry in Iraq! I look forward to reading of these efforts. I have read the last few months of your blog, and I look forward to reading a great deal more. However, I've read enough to say this: _You be careful out there, my brother!_ My best regards to Lady Larissa.

  3. there are many diferent views presented by many webs about free masons. would will you explain why free mason a secret society. i am not against free masons. but web rumors make me conscious for thinking to join

  4. Bro Mark, One of the best discourses I've come across re our toleration for differing religious beliefs.

    Will read previous posts. Thank you for your crystal clear explanation.


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