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 or practice that, they said, conflicted with Catholic teaching. The seventh of these areas is the following, as the bishops put it:
The Masonic Rituals: The rituals of the first three Masonic grades have a clear sacramental character about them, indicating that an actual transformation of some sort is undergone by those who participate in them.At first glance, a Mason unversed in the intricacies of Catholic doctrine might be inclined to agree with this statement. My Masonic obligations preclude my posting a public statement or picture illustrating any of the details of the first three degrees of Freemasonry, but there are public Masonic ceremonies that will serve just as well to illustrate this point.
Even in a public Masonic ceremony, such as the installation of lodge officers, one can observe a great deal of ritual. Such an installation is depicted in the photo above (click for a much larger image; the photo is described in great detail at the conclusion of this post). Even in just this single photo, one observes an altar, a holy book carefully positioned on that altar, ceremonial clothing (the aprons), ritual objects (the baton, the electric light standing in for a taper or candle), and ritual stances (standing at attention on one side of the altar). Isn't this kind of 'sacramental'? After all, it certainly is ceremonial and ritualistic.
In addition, of course, many people know that one way to describe the purpose of Freemasonry is the time-honored phrase, "to make good men better." Surely, the point of Freemasonry and its rituals is to transform men, right?
The problem with that position is that it assumes that the bishops and the casual reader are using the same language. However, this is not the case. The terms "sacrament" and "sacramental character" each have a technical meaning within Catholic doctrine. As we become aware of these meanings, and how these concepts relate to the term "transformation," we will see that the statement of the German Bishops' Conference is actually grossly inaccurate.
The Meaning of "Sacrament" and "Sacramental Character" in Catholic Teaching
The sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church are not merely rituals or ceremonies, nor even just very important ones. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (online edition here), the seven sacraments were specifically instituted by Jesus Christ (paragraphs 1114 and 1117), and include Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist (that is, Holy Communion), Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders (that is, ordination to the priesthood), and Matrimony (par. 1113). (In all the quotations from the Catechism below, italics are in the original, and internal footnotes have been omitted.) As noted in the Catechism, some specific characteristics of the sacraments include the following:
- Sacraments are meant to bestow spiritual sanctification upon the recipient. "The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men ..." (par. 1123). In turn, sanctification involves a thoroughgoing transformation into a state of holiness through supernatural means: "The Holy Spirit is the master of the interior life. By giving birth to the 'inner man,' justification entails the sanctification of his whole being" (par. 1995).
- Sacraments confer grace, a special blessing from God that transforms the recipient by divine power, thus sanctifying the recipient. "... the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is ... he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament [that is, in the portion of the sacramental ceremony in which God is invoked], expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power" (par. 1127). 'Grace' is also a special term, of course: "Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us" (par. 1996). "The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification" (par. 1999).
- Sacraments bestow a spiritual transformation that is necessary for salvation. "The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments ... are necessary for salvation. 'Sacramental grace' is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful [into] partners in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with ... the Savior" (par. 1129).
- The term 'sacramental character' means that an action places an indelible spiritual seal, lasting forever, on the soul of the recipient. "The three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or 'seal' by which the Christian shares in Christ's priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different states and functions. This configuration to Christ and to the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible, it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church" (par. 1121).
- The power behind the sacraments is the power of God. "... [The] sacraments act ... by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that 'the sacrament is ... wrought ... by the power of God.' From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it" (par. 1128).
- The sacraments involve a special connection between the recipient and God. The sacraments "manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communication with ... God" (par. 1118).
Now, which of the above characteristics of the Catholic sacraments in any way resembles either the rituals of Freemasonry in general, or the initiatory rituals of the first three degrees in particular? None at all. Consider this:
- The rituals of Freemasonry do not pretend to bestow spiritual sanctification upon the initiate. The ritual may inspire a man to live a better life--we certainly hope this--perhaps even a holier life, but there is nothing about the ritual that says it bestows a supernatural blessing of sanctification upon the candidate.
- Masonic ritual does not pretend to confer transformative grace, as this is defined in Catholic teaching. Of course, Masons ask for the blessing of God upon their endeavors, including their efforts to become better men. However, there is no place where the ritual says it calls power from heaven (or anywhere else) to work some sort of spiritual transformation upon a man.
- Masonic ritual does not make any reference to having any effect upon salvation. Masonic ritual is spiritual, in the sense that it is meant to focus the mind of the participant upon his spiritual duties. However, there is nothing in the ritual that pretends to have any effect on the initiate's eternal salvation.
- There is absolutely, positively nothing about Masonic ritual that has a 'sacramental character,' as this is defined in Catholic teaching. There simply is no part of the ritual that pretends to put some kind of spiritual seal on the soul of the participant.
- The Masonic rituals do not pretend to have the power of God behind them. The rituals say nothing about being backed by or founded upon divine power. Yes, it is publicly known that Masons take their solemn obligations on the Holy Bible, but Masons do not pretend that they conduct these rituals through some special divine power bestowed by God or God's representatives, or that the ritual puts participants in some sort of spiritual communion with God.
Thus, contrary to what the German Bishops' Conference states, the rituals of Masonic initiation--either the three basic degrees in the Blue Lodge, or the high degrees--do not have a "sacramental character" about them at all. This is true, whether we understand "sacramental character" in the technical sense described in the Catechism, or in the more general sense of meaning "like a sacrament."
In addition, although through Freemasonry we seek to become better men, this is not remotely like some kind of transformation wrought by spiritual powers, to which the bishops are making reference when they mention that "an actual transformation of some sort is undergone by those who participate in them [that is, the first three degrees of Freemasonry]."
Freemasonry simply has different goals and means than sacramental religion. Sacramental religion seeks for eternal salvation through grace and divine power that thoroughly transforms a man into a different kind of being. Freemasonry seeks to make good men better, through exposing them to important principles and symbolic teachings; it is these men's own pondering upon these principles, teachings, and symbols that helps to change their lives.
Of course, in reading this, it is important to understand that Freemasonry is not proposing itself as some kind of substitute for sacramental religion. As in all things religious, Freemasonry leaves the choce of a religion to the conscience of the individual Mason; however, Masonry does not propose itself as a potential candidatefor a personal religion.
In sum, there is nothing in Masonic ritual that poses the kind of problems that the Conference report says it does. Sacraments involve rituals, it is true, but by far most rituals are not sacraments. Masonic ritual, in particular, does not pretend to be sacramental in nature.
Next time (Part 8): The Perfection of Humankind.
[The image above shows (l.-r.) Mark E. Koltko-Rivera and W:. John E. Devlin, PM, at the installation of officers at Winter Park Lodge #239 Free and Accepted Masons (Grand Lodge of Florida), December 29, 2007. W:. Bro. Devlin is serving as Marshal for the installation ceremony; he carries the Marshal's baton in his left hand, and wears the ornate apron of a Past Master of the lodge. Bro. Koltko-Rivera is being installed as the regular Marshal of the lodge--the most junior of lodge officers--for 2008; he wears the Marshal's apron, with the crossed batons that are a symbol of the Marshal's office. These brethren are standing west of the altar, facing east, where the presiding Installing Officer stands outside the frame of the picture. Friends and family are visible in the background on the left; the annual Winter Park Lodge installation of officers, like perhaps all such ceremonies in Florida, is a public event. Atop the altar on the left, an open copy of the Holy Bible represents the Volume of Sacred Law. Just to the right of the Bible is an electric light bulb on a post, standing in for a ritual taper or candle. The table covered with a white cloth on the right holds a variety of ritual objects, including an ornate ceremonial collar that Br. Koltko-Rivera will wear as Marshal of the lodge. Photo by Bro. Ricardo Parente of Winter Park Lodge.]