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This Friday, the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure hits theaters. The plot of this new action-adventure film hinges around a Masonic mystery and historical clues left by Freemasons like Benjamin Franklin. It is true that many of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons.

What is Masonry, and how did it start? What does this secret society mean to Catholics? Find out in this excerpt from Christianity and American Freemasonry by William Whalen.



English Grand Lodge Formed in Apple Tree Tavern

Masonry as we know it dates from 1717, but Masonic legends claim a much greater antiquity for the Craft. Many naive and credulous members take those fanciful pretensions seriously and believe that Masonry can be traced back to King Solomon’s Temple or to the Tower of Babel. One discredited Masonic historian, Dr. George Oliver, maintained that the lodge began with creation itself and that Adam was not only the first man but the first Masonic Grand Master. According to Oliver, this pure Masonry became corrupted at the time of the Tower of Babel but was rediscovered and purified by Saint John the Evangelist.

A candid appraisal of these fables is given by Delmer Darrah in his History and Evolution of Freemasonry: “Masons have believed the things concerning the origin of the institution that they wanted to believe and have gone forth and told them as facts. When links were missing, they have been supplied by drawing upon fertile imaginations.” 1

He adds: “If there is in Freemasonry any similarity between its customs and those of the practices of several thousand years ago, it does not mean that Freemasonry has any connection whatsoever with those rites but that they were woven into the fraternity in modern times with a view to enhancing the ritual and investing the fraternity with an atmosphere of antiquity.” 2

Masons are led to believe by their ritual and various commentaries that King Solomon, Hiram of Tyre, Hiram Abiff (Huram abi), and Saint John the Evangelist were all active members of the lodge. Intelligent Masons, of course, know this for the spoof that it is, but many others never question the claim to antiquity. Their brethren, realizing the value of antiquity to esprit de corps, do not bother to disenchant them.

Modern Masonry has borrowed from many diverse traditions, such as those of the suppressed Knights Templar, the Roman Collegia of Artificers, the Jewish Kabbalists, the mystery cults, the Rosicrucians, and the operative masons of the Middle Ages. The Masonic historians Pick and Knight admit:

Many of the doctrines or tenets inculcated in Freemasonry belong to the vast traditions of humanity of all ages and all parts of the world. Nevertheless, not only has no convincing evidence yet been brought forward to prove the lineal descent of our Craft from any ancient organization which is known to have, or even suspected of having, taught any similar system of morality, but also from what we know of the Craft in the few centuries prior to the formation of the first Grand Lodge in 1717, it is excessively unlikely that there was any such parentage. 3

Of the various influences that contributed to the Masonic fraternity, the greatest was that of the working masons. Father Humphrey J.T. Johnston states: “Modern Freemasonry, the creation of Deists and Jews with a measure of Huguenot assistance, built on a foundation provided by the old confraternities of stonemasons which in a degenerate form had survived the Reformation.” 4

These working masons, who built the magnificent cathedrals and castles of medieval Europe and were greatly esteemed for their know-how, served as apprentices and fellow craftsmen before qualifying as master masons. They devised a system of secret signs and grips that served the purpose of today’s union card and identified the initiated as properly qualified workmen. Masons were forced to travel from place to place to pursue their occupation; membership in the powerful stonemasons’ guild meant that a mason could rely on help from his brethren in difficult circumstances and in strange lands. He could likewise be counted upon to preserve trade secrets from outsiders.

After the Reformation had practically halted the construction of new church buildings, the waning masonic lodges began to admit “honorary” or nonworking members to their ranks. The original lodges were unquestionably orthodox in their adherence to the Catholic religion that they served so admirably. One of the earliest masonic charges reads: “The first charge is that you shall bee true man to God and holy church, and that you use no heresie or error by your understanding or by teachings of indiscreet men.”

Eventually the honorary members outnumbered the operative masons, more or less dispossessed the active members, and took over the symbols and secret signs of the lodges to form what we know as speculative Masonry. Members were expected to believe in God and in the immortality of the soul, but otherwise their religious views were completely irrelevant to the lodge.

In 1717 a governing authority known as the “Grand Lodge of England” was established at a meeting of four surviving lodges in the Apple Tree Tavern in London. Two Protestant clergymen, Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers and Dr. James Anderson, were instrumental in setting up the self-styled governing body. Not all lodges were willing to submit to the rule of the new Grand Lodge, but by 1725 the original four lodges had grown to sixty four, of which fifty were in London. The Craft captured the fancy of certain members of the English aristocracy after 1721, and they in turn were flattered by the brethren. The first royal Grand Master took office in that year, and this position has since then been reserved to a nobleman.

Originally, some lodges worked one degree, and others, two. The Hieratic legend that forms the basis for the present Master Mason degree was introduced by Anderson sometime after 1720; the three degree system was not adopted until 1730.

Anderson prepared a new Book of Constitutions in 1723 that spelled out the new policy of the lodge toward religious affiliation.

A Mason is obliged by his Tenure, to obey the Moral Law, and if he rightly understand the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient times Masons were charged 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 whatsoever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguished.

Obviously the religion to which masons in medieval times were expected to adhere was Roman Catholicism, since it was the religion of Europe. Obviously, too, the “Religion in which all Men agree” is not Catholicism or Christianity, since many men do not agree with the central theological positions of Christianity. These central beliefs are relegated to the role of “particular opinions”.

This change in policy opened the door to membership by Jews, Deists, and Muslims but supposedly barred atheists and polytheists. Jews might well feel at home in the lodge, since the Hiram Abiff legend was built on the Old rather than the New Testament, and the Craft borrowed most of its terminology from the Hebrew scriptures. The core of Masonry, that mankind has suffered a great loss that eventually will be recovered, could easily be understood to mean the loss of the Temple and of Jewish nationhood.

Although the aristocrats took up the Masonic hobby, the lower classes often sneered at the Masonic folderol and snob appeal and enjoyed pelting participants in Masonic processions. The lodges continued to meet in taverns and were known as convivial associations. Before mid-century, the first published exposes began to appear.

Eventually a rival Grand Lodge was founded, which charged that the main body had de-Christianized the Craft, had transposed the modes of recognition in the first and second degrees, omitted certain prayers, ignored saints’ days, and committed other crimes. The dissidents took the name “Antients” and labeled the original Grand Lodge the “Moderns”. The rivalry continued from 1751 to 1813, when two royal brothers headed the opposing factions and agreed to sign the articles of reunion. The amalgamated Grand Lodge consented to include the Royal Arch degree favored by the Antients as a part of pure and ancient Masonry, although most Masons in England, as in America, never take this degree. The Antients compromised on every point in which they had claimed to uphold the Christian orientation of the Craft. Reunion of the Antients and Moderns in America followed the English reunion by four years.

From England, the Craft spread to the continent and to British colonies throughout the world, often serving as a handy instrument of British policy. Although the Church’s basic objections to Masonry apply to all branches of the Craft, we can distinguish two main Masonic traditions: those of Anglo-Saxon Masonry, including England, Scotland, the United States, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries; and those of the Grand Orients such as France, Spain, Italy, and South America. We shall review the status of Latin and European Masonry in chapter 10. Suffice to say, the attitude of the Church toward the lodge meant that, in Catholic nations, only religious rebels and Jews sought admission to the lodges. This concentration of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Jews, and anticlericals turned Latin Masonry into a subversive and hostile critic of Christianity and all religions. When the Grand Orient of France in 1877 rejected the landmark of belief in God and removed the Volume of the Sacred Law from the lodges, the Anglo Saxons severed fraternal relations, which have never been resumed.

Latin Freemasonry grew increasingly revolutionary and anticlerical after 1860 but seems to be undergoing a process of disintegration today. English Freemasonry went on to become ultra-respectable, bourgeois, vaguely Protestant, and royalist. In the United States as well as in England, the lodge has assumed the proportions of a mass movement among the white Protestant middle class rather than an elite. The Catholic heritage of the operative Masonic lodges has been all but obliterated, and the brethren have long been nourished on a concoction of fables and falsehoods regarding the origin of the fraternity.

Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1983

The question has been raised whether the Church’s position on Masonic associations has been altered, especially since no explicit mention is made of them in the new Code of Canon Law, as there was in the old code.

This sacred congregation is able to reply that circumstance is to be attributed to a criterion adopted in drafting. This criterion was observed also in regard to other associations, which were likewise passed over in silence, because they were included in broader categories.

The Church’s negative position on Masonic associations therefore remains unaltered, since their principles have always been regarded as irreconcilable with the Church’s doctrine. Hence joining them remains prohibited by the Church. Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach Holy Communion.

Local Ecclesiastical authorities do not have the faculty to pronounce a judgment on the nature of Masonic associations, which might include a diminution of the above-mentioned judgment, in accordance with the intention of this congregation’s declaration delivered on February 17, 1981 (cf. AAS 73 [I981], pp. 240-241).

The Supreme Pontiff John Paul 11 approved this declaration, deliberated at an ordinary meeting of this sacred congregation, and ordered it to become part of public law.

Rome. From the office of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, November 26, 1983.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,


Jerome Hamer, O.P.,

Titular Archbishop of Loria, Secretary

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