Saturday, June 27, 2009

Announcing the "Key to The Lost Symbol Tweets" Blog

The Twitter tweets being generated by the publishers of Dan Brown's forthcoming novel, The Lost Symbol, are generating a good deal of interest. In order to address the subjects raised by these tweets without having them overwhelm this blog, I have founded a new blog, "Key to The Lost Symbol Tweets," at . Please drop by, and leave your comments / queries / civil criticisms; even become an official "follower," if you like.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The First Tweet Decyphered for The Lost Symbol

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Special Note: I now provide a comprehensive key to the Twitter tweets sent out by Dan Brown's publishers to promote The Lost Symbol in a new blog, "Key to The Last Symbol Tweets," available here.

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The first tweet on the Twitter page for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol had mystified me:

Codes of ethics? T 10 C; 6 P O T SOD; 12 S O T Z

However, Chris Hodapp, in commenting tonight in response to other comments on his blog regarding a post announcing the Lost Symbol website, laid it all out:

The 10 Commandments; 6 points of the Star of David; 12 signs of the Zodiac.

A tip of the hat to Chris.

Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol Will Feature Freemasonry

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Special Note: I now provide a comprehensive key to the Twitter tweets sent out by Dan Brown's publishers to promote The Lost Symbol in a new blog, "Key to The Lost Symbol Tweets," available here.

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(Your correspondent, following the Residential Move From Heck as scheduled by the Nostradamus Moving Company, is just now returning to the Internet. We will resume our ongoing series on the Roman Catholic Church and Freemasonry shortly. However, some late-breaking news in another part of the Masonic world requires our immediate attention.)

The imminent release of the sequel to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown's forthcoming novel, The Lost Symbol, brings up one special question for Freemasons and many others: to what extent will this novel feature Freemasonry? Although Brown had once stated explicitly on his official website that the sequel to The Da Vinci Code would be placed in the world of Freemasonry, that website ( has now been replaced by a website counting down the seconds to the release of The Lost Symbol ( Is Brown distancing himself from his earlier statement about depicting Freemasonry in his novel?

Not at all.

Brown is just creating a bit more mystery. His publishers have provided clues that demonstrate all but conclusively that The Lost Symbol will indeed be placed in the world of the Freemasons. This is shown in the Twitter page that Brown's publisher, Random House, has just created to promote the forthcoming book.

As of the composition of this post, the Twitter page for The Lost Symbol includes 9 'tweets' issued between 6 a.m. on June 23rd and about 6 p.m. on June 25. Several of these tweets name individuals and groups, for whom the only connecting link is a real or purported association with Freemasonry. These include the following:

"Unbroken codes ... mystery continues to shroud the cipher at the Rosslyn Chapel."

This 3rd tweet, sent out at 3:49 p.m. on June 23rd, mentions Rosslyn Chapel, the famous site in Scotland, figuring prominently in The Da Vinci Code. Several authors, such as Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in The Temple and the Lodge (1989), have stated that Masonic imagery can be found in Rossyln Chapel. Although this claim has been disputed by scholars (most recently by Robert L. D. Cooper in The Rosslyn Hoax?, reviewed here), Dan Brown has always shown a propensity to give controversial rumor a serious hearing in his fiction. For Brown, to mention Rosslyn is to point to Masonry.

"Before they were Illuminati, they were Perfectibilists."

This 5th tweet, sent out at 1:45 p.m. on June 24th, states a simple fact: the Bavarian Illuminati (the revolutionary group founded in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt) were originally called the Perfectibilists, after their belief that humankind could be perfected through rational (not supernatural) means. In real life, the Illuminati infiltrated perhaps dozens of Masonic lodges in Europe to further their interests, before the Illuminati were crushed by various governments around 1790. To the wild-eyed fringe of the conspiracy community, the Illuminati and Freemasonry are connected to this day.

"Who stole William Wirt's skull?"

This 6th tweet, sent out at 3:36 p.m. on June 24th, refers to William Wirt (1772-1834). Wirt was Attorney General for the United States during 1817-1829. Today, he is mostly remembered for the work he did helping to prosecute Aaron Burr for treason in 1807. However, he is a footnote to history for something he did after resigning as Attorney General. In 1832, he accepted the nomination for U.S. President running for the first national 'third party' and single-issue party in American politics: the Anti-Masonic Party, the sole plank of whose public platform was the elimination of secret societies. (He carried Vermont, received seven electoral votes, and a popular vote of over 33,000 voters.) Of course, the second-weirdest aspect of all this is that Wirt was himself a Mason, and delivered a pro-Masonic speech at the nominating convention. (The party was actually more anti-Andrew Jackson than anything else, one suspects.)

The very weirdest aspect of Wirt's history is that, indeed, his skull was stolen, and many years later returned under mysterious circumstances (2005); read about it here.

So: we have a prominent 19th century Mason--an associate of some of the American Founding Fathers--who ran for President under the anti-Masonic Party, and who then had his skull stolen. Why wouldn't Dan Brown write about this?

' "If we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin in doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties." '

This 7th tweet, sent out around 9 a.m. this morning (June 25), is a famous quote from Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), noted English philosopher who laid the foundations of what we know today as the scientific method. In his utopian work New Atlantis, he writes of a fictional community that included a scientific institution known as "Solomon's House." On the one hand, this institution was said to be the inspiration for the British Royal Society, founded in 1660, perhaps the oldest scientific society now existing in the world. On the other hand, the connection to Solomon, for some writers, is a connection to Freemasonry.

Was Bacon a Freemason? We have no direct evidence to indicate that, although Bacon's Masonic membership has been speculated at least since the time of Christopher Friederich Nicolai (1733-1811). (Read about the dispute here.)

However, what is indisputable is that a number of early Freemasons of the pre-Grand Lodge and early Grand Lodge era were prominent in the Royal Society:
  • Sir Robert Moray, the first person initiated on English soil (1641, in a Scottish military lodge), was the acting founding president of the Royal Society (1660-1662). (Some have claimed that these were two separate people.)

  • Elias Ashmole, long known for his 1646 diary entry being the first documentation of initiation into an English Lodge, was a member of the Royal Society.

  • John Theophilus Desaguliers, the third Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England (1719-1720), had become a member of the Royal Society in 1714.

  • Seven other early Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of England were members of the Royal Society. (See p. 73 of Alain Bauer's Isaac Newton's Freemasonry: The Alchemy of Science and Mysticism.)
In sum, mentioning Bacon's quote brings up the long-standing mystery of his association with Freemasonry, as well as the connection of early Freemasons with the Royal Society--a scientific enterprise that, in the world of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, was probably a cover for the Illuminati as Brown conceived them.

"Albrecht Durer, whose father was a goldsmith, was trained as a metalworker at a young age."

This 9th and most recent tweet, sent out about 5 p.m. today (June 25), references the famous artist Durer (1471-1528). Because some of his pieces contain compasses (Melencolia, above, which contains other esoteric symbolism, and Astronomer), and one shows someone holding a square (Portrait of an Architect), some have speculated that Durer was some sort of very early Mason.


Out of 9 tweets on the Twitter page for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, 5 involve a site or individuals with either a documented or reputed connection to Freemasonry. If that does not very strongly suggest that Freemasonry will be featured in The Lost Symbol, I don't know what would, short of an ad in The New York Times where Dan Brown says "Yes, it does feature Freemasonry, folks!" I'll continue to follow those tweets from time to time, and report them here.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Brief Hiatus

For the next week, I am bound to focus entirely upon the task of packing my possessions and moving my residence. Thus, I shall have to suspend new entries to the blog and the current, ongoing series for this period. Assuming that all goes well and my Internet access is properly restored in my new residence, I hope to be back up and running with the series on or about Monday, June 15. I look forward to getting back to this important subject.

Incidentally, it has been very gratifying to hear from a number of you through my various e-mail connections regarding the series. Any reader is also welcome to leave reflections or questions through the Comment feature at the conclusion of any post.

Part 7: Masonic Rituals. (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 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.]

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).]

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Part 5: The Masonic Notions of God and Divine Revelation. (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 fourth and fifth of these areas are the following, as the bishops put it:

The Masonic Notion of God: The Masons hold a deistic notion of God which excludes any personal knowledge of the deity.

The Masonic Notion of God and Revelation:
The deistic notion of God precludes the possibility of God's self-revelation to humankind.

It is utterly false to say that "the Masons hold a deistic notion of God." In this installment, I shall describe what Deism is, why the German Bishops' Conference was concerned about Deism, and what the real position of Freemasonry is, regarding the nature of God and divine revelation. I conclude by considering why the German Bishops' Conference might have thought, however mistakenly, that Masons are deists.

Theism vs. Deism

There are many ways to conceive of God. One set of ways comes under the heading of Theism, a group of ideas about God that encompasses Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

A theistic notion of God takes the position that God created the universe and is vitally concerned with its affairs, including the affairs of humankind; God watches over us, individually and collectively (part of the meaning of the 'Eye of God' symbol, illustrated above). A theistic God communicates the Divine Will to people from time to time, for their benefit--the process of revelation, which may result in the accumulation of scriptures as records of revelation. A theistic God may work miracles to serve divine purposes. Those who believe in a theistic notion of God are called theists.

A different way to conceive of God is the position of Deism. In the deistic perspective, God created the universe, but does not particularly intervene in the affairs of the universe or humankind. To some extent, humankind may come to know a deistic God through the workings of human reason, but a deistic God does not communicate through revelation; thus, whatever people designate as 'scriptures' are merely human creations and interpretations. A deistic God does not interfere with the workings of natural law, and so does not work miracles. A deistic God gave reason and compassion to all of humankind, but otherwise does not actively intervene in the lives of individuals. Those who believe in a deistic notion of God are called deists.

Why the German Bishops' Conference Was Concerned About Deism

The German Bishops' Conference had a legitimate reason to be concerned about Deism. The Deist notion of God does indeed preclude the possibility that God would reveal anything to humankind, either through prophetic revelation (such as the prophecies recorded in the Bible), or through the revelation of God that Christians say occurs though the person of Jesus Christ. Deism is philosophically incompatible with mainstream Christianity, no doubt about it. (Indeed, some prominent 18th century deists felt it was their mission to dispute Christianity.) If Freemasonry were deistic, it would indeed be incompatible with Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular.

However, Freemasonry is not deistic. As I show below, if anything, Freemasonry is not even neutral on the issue, but rather has a distinctly theistic bent.

The Position of Freemasonry on the Nature of God and Divine Revelation

It is the nature of Freemasonry that it avoids making specifically detailed statements about the nature of God. Of course, within the Lodge, Masons often refer to God as the Grand Architect of the Universe--but that's about as specific a statement about the nature of God (God as the Creator) as Freemasonry makes. But is God involved in the affairs of mankind, as far as Freemasonry is concerned? Most importantly, does God engage in the process of revelation to humankind--the crucial point in differentiating between Theism and Deism?

As I mentioned in Part 4 of this series, no Masonic lodge may meet without having, open upon its altar, the Volume of the Sacred Law (usually represented, in American lodges, by a copy of the Holy Bible). Recently, I had the privilege of attending the installation of the incoming Master of St. John's Lodge #1, Ancient York Masons, a lodge chartered in 1757, making it the oldest operating Masonic lodge in New York State. On the altar that evening, as a special treat, I saw the famous and aged Bible upon which George Washington himself had taken his oath of office in 1789 as first President of the United States (a story told here). I was given to understand that every Master of this Lodge since 1770 had been installed as Master using this very Bible as a central part of the ritual.

As special as this experience was, I have seen a Bible open on the altar at every Masonic lodge meeting I have ever attended. The opening of the Bible at the beginning of a lodge meeting, and the closing of the Bible at the meeting's conclusion, is a matter of solemn ritual and high ceremony; I have had the privilege of performing that ritual, and it is powerful. In addition, the Volume of the Sacred Law is central to the rituals of Masonic initiation in the first three degrees of Masonry.

The practice of having an open Volume of the Sacred Law on the altar during a Masonic meeting is universally observed throughout the so-called 'high degrees' of Freemasonry, as well. Whether I am attending a meeting of the Consistory in the Scottish Rite, a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons or a Council of Royal and Select Masters in the York Rite, or a Commandery of the Knights Templar in the York Rite, there is always an open Bible upon the altar.

I have seen this same practice observed by Masonic organizations that are even more esoteric. At Masonic Week in Virginia in February 2008, in the spirit of Masonic fellowship, I helped to set up a meeting room for a special conference session that I myself could not attend, a session to be held for members of a Masonic organization so exclusive that no one is even permitted to apply for membership: the Masonic Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis, whose Latin name means "Masonic Rosicrucian Society of the United States." The altar they used in the conference hotel was a common folding table with a cloth over it--but there was a Bible there, to be used later, during the ceremony.

I have even had the privilege of being in the Executive Chamber in the House of the Temple in Washington, DC, where the 33 active members of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction meet. (These are the people whom some conspiracy theorists say rule the world. Inside scoop: they don't. But that is another story.) There, in the center of the Executive Chamber, is a large black marble altar, and on that altar are multiple Volumes of the Sacred Law: a Christian Bible, a Jewish Tanakh, a Muslim Koran, a Hindu Bhagavad Gita, and other sacred books as well. (I count a total of 8 such volumes in the photo of the altar.) It was an interesting experience to see this. (Go on the free guided tour sometime: it's well worth it.)

There's a message here, folks, and it is not a deistic one.

One of the most important and central symbols of Freemasonry is the Volume of the Sacred Law. It is always represented, in every mainstream Masonic lodge in the world, and throughout the high degrees of Freemasonry, by an open volume of revealed religion. In my opinion, this is the most powerful symbolic statement possible of a theistic view of God and divine revelation.

Those purportedly 'Masonic' lodges that tamper with this practice--for example, groups that have no Volume of the Sacred Law on the altar, or that have a blank book there instead--are considered "clandestine," that is, outlaws in the mainstream Masonic world.

Can deists be Masons? Of course they can. What Masonry requires of its candidates is that they believe in a Supreme Being; the specifics of what the candidate believes about that Supreme Being is his own business.

However, the gentle push in the Lodge for the theistic approach to God is unmistakable. Every American Lodge I know of presents a copy of the Holy Bible, the Tanakh, or the Koran to its newly initiated members; typically, the Lodge Chaplain gives a little speech at the presentation, encouraging the new Mason to study this new gift. During a Lodge business meeting, while the Volume of the Sacred Law is open upon the altar of the Lodge, no one is supposed to walk between the altar and the chair of the Master of the Lodge, so that his view of the Volume of the Sacred Law is uninterrupted as he directs the meeting. All of this is a clear endorsement by Freemasonry of the value and importance of Divine Revelation.

Overall, anyone familiar with the way that Masonic Lodges actually operate during their ritual and meetings would have a hard time making a case for Masonry as a deistic organization. Freemasonry is tolerant of different points of view, and it leaves to its members' consciences the choice of religion, but nonetheless it has a clear inclination in a theistic direction.

Why Did the German Bishops' Conference Think Masons Were Deistic?

Given the evidence I cite, why would the German Bishops' Conference think that "Masons hold a deistic notion of God"? I think there were a couple of reasons.

First, the Grand Lodge style of Freemasonry, founded in 1717 in London, is definitely a child of the European Age of Enlightenment. Incorporating many Enlightenment ideals, Freemasonry promotes tolerance of different points of view, education, and the use of logic and reason. As it happens, these ideals were also generally compatible with Deism, and it would appear that the German Bishops' Conference made the logical error of thinking that, because Freemasonry (as an Enlightenment institution) shared some points of view with Deism, therefore Freemasonry incorporated Deism. There is a logical hole here big enough to drive trucks through, of course. (As any of my former students in statistics classes would chant, right about here: 'Correlation does not establish causation!')

Another issue is that some prominent American founding fathers were both deists and Freemasons. Certainly this is the case for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe; the case for their being deists is made convincingly by David L. Holmes, in his brief, excellent, and accessible book,* The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). (Of course, the French philosopher Voltaire, a prominent critic of the Catholic Church, was a noted deist, and became a Mason late in life in the presence of Franklin himself.) It may well be that the German Bishops' Conference made the logical error of thinking that, because these prominent deists were Freemasons, Freemasonry is therefore especially hospitable to deists.

As it happens, Freemasonry is indeed hospitable to deists. It is also hospitable to Catholics, Protestants, Latter-day Saints, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha'is, many varieties of Buddhists and Confucians and Taoists, Zoroastrians (Parsees), Shintoists, Wiccans, many 'New Age' religionists and adherents of aboriginal religions--you catch my drift.

In sum, Freemasonry welcomes deists, but is not itself a deist institution. If anything, there is a pronounced inclination within Masonry towards a theistic point of view.

Next time (Part 6): Masonic Toleration.

*My thanks to Sonya Koltko Grover and Miles Grover for presenting this book to me for my birthday last year.

[The image above was obtained from the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, which notes that this is a detail from the painting "Supper at Emmaus," by Jacopo Carucci, painted in 1525, and that the Eye of God in this painting is probably an addition by Empoli.]

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Part 4: The Masonic Notion of Religion. (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 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 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.]

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Part 3: The Masonic Notion of Truth. (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 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.

[The image above is found on the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, which has some web pages of downloadable Masonic graphics.]

Monday, June 1, 2009

Part 2: The Masonic Worldview. (Series: The Roman Catholic Church and Freemasonry)

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

The first reason given by the German [Roman Catholic] Bishops' Conference for saying that membership in the Catholic Church is incompatible with membership in Freemasonry is the following, as the bishops put it:

The Masonic Worldview. The Masons promote a freedom from dogmatic adherence to any one set of revealed truths. Such a subjective relativism is in direct conflict with the revealed truths of Christianity.
This is a serious distortion of the position of Freemasonry. Like many such serious distortions, it would appear that the authors have taken some aspects of Masonic practice very far out of context.

Freemasonry has long taken the stance that membership in the fraternity is available to men who believe in a Supreme Being, whatever their other religious opinions may be. This attitude is found in one of the earliest major documents of the Grand Lodge era of Freemasonry, James Anderson's The Constitutions of the Free-Masons (first edition, 1723; frontispiece above). In a chapter titled "The Charges of a Free-Mason," Anderson presented what he said were extracts from very ancient records. The first section or 'general head' of this chapter, titled "Of God and Religion," includes the following:

A Mason is oblig'd by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law, and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons were charg'd in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish'd; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain'd at a perpetual Distance.

In plain modern English, Anderson is saying that Freemasons must obey the moral law, must not be atheists or libertines, and must be good men of honor and honesty; beyond that, as far as Freemasonry is concerned, individual Masons may hold privately whatever religious opinions they choose, and belong to whatever religious organizations that they wish. Freemasonry itself, Anderson says, is to be a place where people who might otherwise be separated by religious issues can come together in friendship and peace.

It is very important to understand what this means, and what it does not. No one is saying here that Freemasonry takes the position that "Masons should be free of dogmatic adherence from any one set of revealed truths"--in fact, this is not a Masonic position at all. As far as Freemasonry is concerned, the individual Freemason is permitted to hold as tightly as he wishes to whatever he holds to be revealed truths. However, what he may not do is to pressure others, in the confines of the Lodge, to adopt his religious opinions. (Indeed, discussion of sectarian religion is forbidden in the Lodge itself.) Beyond that, it may be said that Freemasonry extends to people of all beliefs the courtesy of respect. Thus, there is no real conflict with Catholic teaching here.

Of course, there are individual Masons who do believe that it is a mistake to hold to any religious beliefs dogmatically--just as there are individual Masons who hold very firmly and dogmatically to their particular religious beliefs. Freemasonry simply leaves all such matters up to the individual Mason, to consider in the privacy of his own conscience.

Anderson's writings are not some kind of Masonic 'scripture,' but they do represent an early expression of a number of Masonic ideals. Indeed, in the United States, many Masonic jurisdictions include "The Charges of a Free-Mason" as part of their own official Constitutions. Thus, what Anderson says here can be trusted as representing the mainstream of Masonic teachings.

But then, that raises the question: What did James Anderson believe? Did he promote some sort of 'liberation' from adherence to any one set of revealed truths? I think it is a safe bet to say that he did not think this at all--given that he was a Presbyterian minister.

The German Bishops' Conference seems to have made a fundamental error. They have confused the true Masonic practice--give respect to all religious positions--with a distorted idea: 'don't be bound to any religion or revealed truth.' Why they should make this error is an interesting question, beyond the scope of this essay--but make this error, they certainly did.

It may be of interest to know the background to the Masonic practice of treating different religions with equal respect. The Grand Lodge style of Freemasonry, established in 1717, arose in England after centuries of religious wars had bathed that land in blood. It may be that the founders of Freemasonry, consciously or otherwise, were trying to find a way for people of different religions to live together in peace. Such ideals were later embodied in the American Constitution, which specifically forbids the federal government from establishing a state church. (Of course, several Masons were prominent in passing the Constitution.) The modern world, where so much violence and pain result from religious intolerance, has a lot to learn from the example--and the worldview--of the early Freemasons.

[The image above is the Frontispiece to the first edition, 1723, or Anderson's Constitutions. The image was obtained from the website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon, which maintains one of the best websites in the world for information regarding the history of Freemasonry and other Masonic topics, including anti-Masonry.]

Part 1: The Context. (Series: The Roman Catholic Church and Freemasonry)

From time to time, I come upon material published about Freemasonry that is not just inaccurate, but spectacularly wrong--material that apprehends Masons and Masonry so very deeply wrongly that it cries out for a response. I have come upon such material this day, consisting of a number of persistent falsehoods that have caused a great deal of trouble and pain for many people. I am speaking of the image of Freemasonry that, it seems, is held by many members of the Roman Catholic Church.

Greg Stewart, in his valuable on-line magazine Freemason Information, published on May 30 the remarks of the Reverend Mr. John J. McManus, JD, JCL, titled "The Catholic Church and Freemasonry." This talk was delivered in May at the fifth installment of the 'Religion and Culture' lecture series held by Gate City Lodge No. 2, a regular Masonic lodge in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Rev. Mr. McManus is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and he is an ordained Deacon in that church. He is an attorney, which allows him to practice in the secular courts of the land, and he also holds a pontifical licentiate that allows him to practice Canon Law in the courts of the Roman Catholic Church. In his presentation, his aim was to explain, from the perspective of Roman Catholic teaching and canon law, why it is that Freemasonry and Roman Catholicism are incompatible, to the point where canon law provides for excommunication for Catholic Masons.

In the course of his presentation, the Rev. Mr. McManus cites a number of sources regarding Catholic canon law. He notes that he relies heavily on an article by Monsignor Ronny E. Jenkins, one of the Rev. Mr. McManus' former instructors at The Catholic University of America, regarding the evolution of the Catholic Church's position on Freemasonry. In this article, Msgr. Jenkins in turn quotes from a document generated in about 1980 by the German [Roman Catholic] Bishops' Conference, a document in which 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.

I was stunned, reading the supposed twelve areas of Masonic teaching that are at issue here, stunned for two reasons. First, the Freemasonry described by the German Bishops' Conference is not remotely like the Freemasonry that I know and have studied for many years. Second, many of the historical reasons for the Catholic Church's long-standing antipathy towards Freemasonry--reasons that are plain to read in the papal encyclical Humanum Genus (1884)--were not mentioned at all.

So it is that I have determined to respond to this material in some detail. In this series, I shall respond to each of the 12 points about Freemasonry mentioned by the German Bishops' Conference. Following that, I shall describe the real historical reasons for the antipathy towards Freemasonry, as described in Humanum Genus.

My basic points here are twofold: (1) The Roman Catholic hierarchy's attitude towards Freemasonry is based on a thoroughly inaccurate understanding of the fraternity. (2) The real historical reasons for the Catholic Church's antipathy towards Freemasonry are a set of attitudes that the world--including the Catholic world--have left behind.

In turn, the reasons why I am going to the trouble of generating this series is also twofold: (a) Many Catholic Masons suffer unnecessarily because of the misunderstandings that their ecclesiastical leaders hold concerning Masonry. (b) The same misunderstandings held by the German Bishops' Conference are often held by the leadership of other churches and other religions. I hope that articles like mine will contribute to more accurate understanding, and perhaps even further evolution in the stance of the Catholic Church and other religious bodies regarding Freemasonry.

I certainly recognize the right of any religious body to determine its own stance regarding Freemasonry; however, I think we all can agree that it is important to base any such stance on an accurate understanding of Masonry, its teachings, values, history, and practices. Of course, it should be obvious to all that Freemasons have the right to correct misunderstandings and falsehoods held by anyone, regarding their fraternity.

And so to begin.

An index to each post of this series follows. Of course, the title of each post corresponds to the title of one or two paragraphs of the German Bishops' statement.

  • Part 2: The Masonic Worldview (June 1, 2009). Do Masons really teach that one should abstain from believing any one set of revealed truths?

  • Part 3: The Masonic Notion of Truth (June 2, 2009). Do Masons really "deny the possibility of an objective truth," as the German Bishops claimed?

  • Part 4: The Masonic Notion of Religion (June 3, 2009). Do Masons really teach a relativistic approach to religion?

  • Part 5: The Masonic Notions of God and Divine Revelation (June 4, 2009). Do Masons really teach a Deist view of the Divine?

  • Part 6: Masonic Toleration (June 6, 2009). Is what the Masons teach about toleration for different ideas actually a threat to Catholic notions of truth and authority?

  • Part 7: Masonic Rituals (June 6, 2009). Is Masonic ritual actually "sacramental" in character--in the Catholic sense of "sacramental"?

- - - - -

I now turn from the German Bishops' statement to Humanum Genus, the 1884 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII that constitutes the "classical" statement of the Roman Catholic objections to Freemasonry.
  • Part 8: Humanum Genus: Introduction and Overview (October 16, 2009). An orientation to the document, with a summary of its objections to Freemasonry.
  • Part 9: Humanum Genus: Are Masons "Naturalists"? (October 17, 2009). Considers the claim that Masons are philosophical Naturalists who deny Divine revelation and the very existence of God. Explains the basis of this misconception in the conflating of Freemasonry with the historical Illuminati and, perhaps, the revolutionary Marxists.
(The image above, depicting the emblem of the Roman Catholic papacy, was obtained from Wikipedia. The image itself has been released into the public domain for copyright purposes; anyone may legally use it for any legal purpose.)