Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Templar Lessons for Today’s Masons, Part 1: What We Learn From the Templars’ Arrest

Today is a sad memorial, the 702nd anniversary of the arrest of the Knights Templar. It is a day for Freemasons everywhere to stop for a while and think of the example of the Templars, and the lessons that can be learned from their experience. Whether or not one believes the long-standing legends connecting the Templars and the Freemasons, there is no doubt that the Templars are held up as an important example to Masons within the York Rite (where the highest degree of the York Rite Commandery degrees is that of Knight Templar) and the Scottish Rite (several of whose degrees feature Knights Templar).

The history of the rise and fall of the Templars is well-known. After nearly two centuries of involvement with the Crusades and the protection of Christian pilgrims, the Knights Templar witnessed the recapture of Jerusalem by Saladin and, later, the Turks. Although thwarted in their main ambition, by this time the Templars had become wealthy, having invented an international banking system whereby they lent money to kings.

Their very wealth led to the downfall of the Templars. They had lent fortunes to King Philip IV of France, who, wishing to be free of his debt, and having his eyes on the Templar wealth, pressured Pope Clement V to use the accusations of a disgruntled expelled Templar to try to arrest the entire Templar Order and try all the Knights Templar for heresy. On Friday, October 13, 1307, by agreement with the Pope, Philip arrested as many Templar Knights as possible simultaneously throughout France. On November 22nd, Pope Clement, under pressure from Philip, issued the papal bull Pastoralis Praeeminentiae, which instructed the Christian monarchs of Europe to arrest the Templars and seize their assets. (The bull was not promulgated in Scotland, whose leader at the time was excommunicated, and from which the Catholic sacraments were withdrawn.)

Under torture, many Templars--including their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay himself (pictured)--confessed to the most lurid charges of heresy and blasphemy. Although Pope Clement absolved the Templars of all heresies in 1308 (apparently in secret), when the Grand Master recanted his confession after being released from torture, he and another Knight who had done the same were declared guilty as relapsed heretics, and burnt alive at the stake in Paris on March 18, 1314.

As reported in Wikipedia:
It is currently the Roman Catholic Church's position that the medieval persecution of the Knights Templar was unjust; that there was nothing inherently wrong with the Order or its Rule; and that Pope Clement was pressured into his actions by the magnitude of the public scandal and the dominating influence of King Philip IV. [Wikipedia notes as reference an article in an academic journal.]

There are many things one might want to say about the Templars and their lessons for today’s Mason. Today I will focus on one topic in particular.

Beware the Danger of Undue Influence Between State and Church

The travesty of justice that resulted in the arrest of the Templars was possible because of two things:

  • Influence of the State on the Church: The Pope was vulnerable to pressure by a political leader (here the King of France), who threatened military action unless the Pope complied with his wishes.

  • Influence of the Church on the State: The head of the dominant religious group of the time and place, the Pope, had great political power, so that he could pressure the heads of the various states of Europe to do his bidding under threat of excommunication.

These are aspects of undue influence, in both directions, between State and Church. The danger of such influence is one of the major lessons to be learned by the arrest of the Templars. Both types of undue influence are to be avoided.

Religious leaders and their groups should be permitted to practice their religions and preach their faiths as they see fit, without interference from the State. There are very few exceptions that should be made to this policy. (For example, practices that involve human sacrifice cannot be tolerated.) These exceptions should be rare. Governmental interference should not be imposed on religion merely for the sake of what seems respectable or what is comfortable to the public. (Hence, the rights of minority religious groups to conduct practices or preach teachings that make the public uncomfortable should be respected and protected.) Government influence on religion and religious leaders should be the rarest of things, done only out of nigh universally acknowledged necessity. King Philip of France could pressure the Pope to do his bidding; such must never be permitted to happen in a democracy. This is the principle of Freedom of Religion.

On the other hand, the open or de facto exercise of political power by religious groups is also not to be tolerated. Of course religious leaders may teach their followers that this is right, that wrong; although one may disagree with the content of another’s religious teachings, no one has the right to dictate another’s doctrine, in a free nation. However, for government to actually attempt to favor one religion over another, or to impose one religious doctrine or ruling over another, is abhorrent to democratic government. Pope Clement used his power as religious leader to force other political leaders in Europe into doing his will; such also must never be permitted to happen in a democracy. This is the principle of Separation of Church and State.

Why do I bring this up now? Is there some threat to religious freedom, on the one hand, or the separation of Church and State, on the other? Of course there is, every day that ends in the letter "–y." There is no particular case I have in mind at the moment. I don’t need to have a case in mind at the moment. As greater men than I have said, freedom is not free, and the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

I find it interesting that the Masonic Lodge has implemented both the principles I have mentioned above on the scale of the individual Lodge. In discussing a candidate for membership, we do not consider the candidate’s religion; indeed, in many jurisdictions, Masons are forbidden by Grand Lodge edict from even inquiring about the candidate’s religion. We have freedom of religion in the lodge. In addition, we forbid the discussion of matters of sectarian religion (or partisan politics) in the Lodge; we separate religious doctrine from lodge governance.

I think it no coincidence that the dual Masonic principles of religious freedom and separation of Church and State are written into the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states in part:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ….

The arrest of the Templars reminds us of the dangers of laxity with regard to these principles. May we as Masons each seek to enthrone these principles in our own lives, in our Lodges, and in the lives of our communities.

(I have titled today’s post “Part 1” with the thought that I might return to the Templars periodically, perhaps annually on this date, or the anniversary of the execution of their last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. Readers are welcome to suggest Templar-related topics. Readers are also welcome to comment, to become official “followers” of this blog, and to forward this post to others by e-mail through the use of the ‘envelope’ icon below.)

Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

[The image of Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay reportedly dates from the 19th century, as an illustration found in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. It is in the public domain, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]


  1. I dont understand.
    When freemasons solve something they glorify the fraternity,when something goes wrong or the solution is not good enough,they blame something or someone else.
    Why is so difficult to take responsability when the things go wrong?
    What are freemasons doing better to change these situations?
    Clearly the situation is worsening in the religious field,not only catholics,but among presbyterians,luterans,baptists,methodists,orthodoxs,evangelicals...
    Are they becoming more fundamentalists,or freemasons are not doing a good work in this field?

  2. Anonymous: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this matter.

    It is unfortunate that you seem to have the idea that I or other Freemasons have portrayed the idea of religious freedom and separation of Church and State as having been "solved" for all time by the Masons. Frankly, if my speculations about Masonic influence on the Bill of Rights is correct, then that is a pretty darn good achievement right there. It is not to be expected that this would be a solution to stand for the rest of human history without constant vigilance.

    Nothing lasts without maintenance. The Pyramids and the Sphinx themselves decayed for centuries before, I believe, the Egyptian Antiquities Authority was formed and started taking care of them. The roof to a building will begin to leak without maintenance. Of course it is to be expected that people need to take action to sustain both religious freedom and separation of Church and State. It was to encourage people to take that action that I wrote this post.

    Incidentally, the maintenance of American Constitutional freedoms is not the sole jurisdiction of the Freemasons, as you seem to imply. It is the job of every American. It is unfortunate that Freemasons comprise a smaller percentage of the American population than they have at any time in the last century, but the situation is what it is. We Masons who are here have that much more of a responsibility to encourage America as a whole to stand up for its own freedoms.

  3. freemasonry and the ancient order of tempars are not related this may prove enlightening, http://scottishknighttemplar.blogspot.com/2009/11/masonic-debuking-of-templar-roots.html

  4. The Knights Templar was in constant battle over the Holy Land with the Muslims, who were gaining strength in the 12th century, providing overwhelming competition for the Templars.

    Skull and Bones

  5. @Skull and Bones: Thanks for posting. I certainly agree that the Knights Templar were in conflict for generations with Muslim warriors for control of the Holy Land. I'm not sure where you're going with this, though.


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