Peter Kwasniewski writes for The Remnant — When it comes to the nature and aims of the international, quasi-religious society known as Freemasonry, disagreement has been the rule, not the exception. For every book that emphasizes the law-abidingness, philanthropy, and tolerant universalism of masonic organizations, another book condemns them for their hidden role in political upheavels or the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church, while still others extol, or mock, their esoteric doctrine and elaborate ritualism.
Research is complicated by the fact that Freemasonry is not a single entity, but a conceptual whole made up of regional networks of lodges and sister organizations, each with rituals, doctrines, and enterprises more or less similar to those of others—rather as we speak of “Protestantism” when there are scores of independent sects with more or less overlapping beliefs and practices.
Freemasonry may be defined as “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols,” or, as a German handbook from 1822 puts it, “the activity of closely united men who, employing symbolical forms borrowed principally from the mason’s trade and from architecture, work for the welfare of mankind, striving morally to ennoble themselves and others and thereby to bring about a universal league of mankind, which they aspire to exhibit even now on a small scale.”
“The origin of Freemasonry is one of the most debated, and debatable, subjects in the whole realm of historical inquiry,” declares Frances Yates.
One must carefully separate what can be established by serious historical investigation from the legendary and fanciful accounts found in traditional texts, both masonic and anti-masonic. Modern Freemasonry emerged not in 18th-century England, as is often asserted, but in early 17th-century Scotland, when the “medieval contribution of craft organisation and legend” was combined with “aspects of Renaissance thought . . . along with an institutional structure based on lodges and the rituals and the secret procedures for recognition know as the Mason Word.”
Originally, lodges concerned themselves with the working lives of stonemasons (in this respect, as also in the use of religious symbolism and paraliturgical ritual, continuing the precedent of medieval trade guilds), but by the middle of the 17th century a significant number of members had no real connection with this craft, and were assembling for social and ritual purposes. By the start of the 18th century, the English lodges, composed mainly of gentlemen and not of working stonemasons, assumed a certain preeminence, and began shifting the theoretical platform toward the cutting edge of Enlightenment thought. By the middle of the same century, this English brand of Freemasonry had spread to every corner of Europe and the New World, changing rapidly into an agent of revolutionary ideology and praxis.
It was this Enlightenment Freemasonry that the popes so vehemently opposed, once they had seen the danger it represented for integrity of faith and tranquillity of order.
Radicals among 18th-century Freemasons openly supported secularizing policies such as the dissolution of religious orders, the expropriation and redistribution of church property, civil marriage and divorce legislation, political toleration for non-Catholic religions, and compulsory state-run schooling for children, all of which became hallmarks of 19th-century continental European liberalism.
The Church’s reaction began in earnest during the pontificate of Clement XII (1730–1740), who with his constitution In Eminenti of 1738 became the first pope to condemn Freemasonry. (For comparison, the Grand Lodge of London, a foremost symbol of the organization, was founded in 1717, and the first Provincial Grand Master in North America was appointed in 1730.) Condemnations were repeated, often with mounting severity and appeals to civil authorities to take action, by Benedict XIV in 1751, Pius VII in 1821, Leo XII in 1825, Pius VIII in 1829, Gregory XVI in 1832, and Bd. Pius IX in a number of documents ranging from Qui pluribus of 1846 to Etsi multa in 1873. The papal objections against Freemasonry may be reduced to four heads: its commitment to a philosophical naturalism that inevitably results in religious indifferentism; its character of secrecy, which cloaks evil designs; its demand for oaths of total fidelity when such oaths cannot be morally justified; the danger presented to the security and tranquillity of the civil order by the existence of secret societies.
Of the papal encyclicals dedicated to the subject, the greatest and most influential has been Humanum Genus, promulgated by Leo XIII in 1884. After reminding his readers of the Church’s unchanging verdict, Leo XIII offers a summary and critique of the philosophico-religious principles and revolutionary activities of the society. “Their ultimate purpose,” he writes, is “the utter overthrow of that whole religious and political order of the world which the Christian teaching has produced, and the substitution of a new state of things in accordance with their ideas, of which the foundations and laws shall be drawn from mere naturalism” (§10). Since the “fundamental doctrine” of this system is “that human nature and human reason ought in all things to be mistress and guide” (§12), “they endeavor to bring [it] about . . . that the teaching office and authority of the Church may become of no account in the civil State” and “imagine that States ought to be constituted without any regard for the laws and precepts of the Church” (§13). They hold, too, that “power [to rule] is held by the command or permission of the people” and so “the source of all rights and civil duties is either in the multitude or in its governing authority when this is constituted according to the latest [Enlightenment] doctrines” (§22).
Leo XIII identifies a number of characteristic tenets or tendencies of masonic thought: a humanism aspiring to universal brotherhood apart from obedience to Christ and the Church; a moral Pelagianism that denies original sin and locates the spring of virtue and happiness primarily in the self-governed human will; a deism that accepts the existence of a God conceived of as an architect of nature, but rejects special revelation, miracles, and the divinity of Christ; an indifferentism, whereby all religions are held to be equal in value or analogous symbolic languages for hinting at divine things. These views are unequivocally condemned by the pope as contrary to the Catholic faith and, not seldom, as contradicting reason itself (§24).
Though issued more than a century ago, Humanum Genus has lost none of its relevance; one may note, for instance, its searching analysis of the consequences of masonic principles. What the pope predicts will happen, has now happened throughout the Western world, and for exactly the reasons he gives. The critique is accompanied by a counter-proposal to find in the Christian Gospel the liberating power for human society vainly sought for in ideologies. Indeed, the slogan of the French Revolution, a veritable motto of Freemasonry, is invested by the pope with a Christian meaning:
The liberty, We mean, of sons of God, through which we may be free from slavery to Satan or to our passions . . . the fraternity whose origin is in God, the common Creator and Father of all; the equality which, founded on justice and charity, does not take away all distinctions among men, but, out of the varieties of life, of duties, and of pursuits, forms that union and that harmony which naturally tend to the benefit and dignity of society” (§34).
Though it was the most important, Humanum Genus was not the sole word of Leo XIII on Freemasonry, which he censured in documents from 1882, 1890, 1894, and 1902.
In the 20th century, pronouncements specifically targeting Freemasonry are scarce, not because the Church renounced or modified her stance, but because that stance needed no further clarification in the wake of Leo XIII. From Clement XII down to Leo XIII, a single, most severe penalty was appointed for any Catholic who joined the Lodge: latae sententiae excommunication. The Code of Canon Law issued by Benedict XV in 1917 expressly repeated this warning.
In the wake of Vatican II, some suggested that the time for rapprochement between Catholics and Freemasons was at hand. This idea was taken seriously by the German bishops who entered into dialogue with representatives of the German lodges between 1974 and 1980. The inquiry led to an unsurprising judgment: “Simultaneous membership of the Catholic Church and of Freemasonry is impossible” (Amtsblatt der Erbistums Köln, June 1980). When the new Code of Canon Law was issued in 1983, certain people interpreted its lack of any explicit mention of Freemasonry as a quiet softening of the Church’s prohibition. To quell this false interpretation, in the same year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of John Paul II, published a Declaration stating that “the Church’s negative position on Masonic associations . . . 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.” Bishop Athanasius Schneider has done the Church a signal service in once again highlighting the issue, as in his talk “The True Face of Freemasonry,” given in 2017 on the 300th anniversary of the founding of modern Freemasonry in London.
One should not be misled into thinking that the Catholic Church stands alone in her suspicion of the Lodge. Leaving aside the condemnations of Freemasonry by Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians, monarchs and statesmen of the last two hundred years took an active interest in so-called secret societies, which were assumed, and very often proved, to be entertaining views or promoting schemes subversive of the established order, often functioning as nerve-centers of intrigue on a global scale.
Far from being idle guesswork, the involvement of Freemasons in anti-authoritarian (particularly anti-clerical) ventures from the Enlightenment period well into the twentieth century can be taken as among the basic facts of modern history, though evidently it cannot be assumed that the lodges of each country were equally occupied with political machinations (the lodges of the Grand Orient in continental Europe and Latin America, considered “heretical” by the mainstream English-speaking Freemasons, contain the highest concentration of anti-clericals and revolutionaries), nor that lower-ranking members knew what their superiors were doing or why; arguably the majority of Freemasons have only a superficial interest in the religious and political doctrine of the Lodge. Given the discipline of secrecy that has reigned among them for centuries, many historical lines of causality remain at best obscure, at worst unknowable.
Nevertheless, that the Freemasons are witting or unwitting collaborators of the deceiver, the father of lies, the accuser, the “light-bearer,” is, given what we do know, beyond all reasonable doubt. A future pope in the image of Leo XIII will once more become their implacable antagonist, and future States, recast on Christian lines, will once again rightly seek their suppression.
 William J. Whalen, Christianity and American Freemasonry, third rev. ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 169–86 et passim.
 Ibid., 15.
 David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry. Scotland’s Century, 1590–1710 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6.
 See Whalen, Christianity and American Freemasonry, 136–49.
 Latin text: Acta Leonis 4:43–70; Acta Sanctae Sedis 16:417–33; English trans. in The Church Speaks to the Modern World, ed. Etienne Gilson (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1954), 117–39. Text also available on many internet sites.
 See “Freemasonry and Allied Societies,” in E. Cahill, The Framework of a Christian State  (Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books / Catholic Media Apostolate, n.d.), 221–41.
 Cited in Whalen, Christianity and American Freemasonry, 144. Whalen’s is the best book in English on the opposition in principles between modern Freemasonry and the Catholic religion.
 The Declaration may be found in ibid., 195–96.
 See ibid., 150–68.