By a blog reader
In the relationship between the Catholic Church and Masonry, there are two key moments of tension and confrontation: one in the eighteenth century and the other in the nineteenth, and a third period of calm and rapprochement brought about, above all, in the aftermath of Vatican II, although in some sections of the Church, there have recently arisen certain problems of incomprehension and lack of understanding.
For Masonry, formally founded in 1717 in England — the eighteenth century was a time of anxiety and persecution; very few governments or states did not show concern about the Freemasons and banned their meetings. In this sense, the Holy See, or as we see from the documents of the time, the Court of Rome, was not the first nor was it alone in condemning and prohibiting in that century not just Masonry but meetings held by Masons as well.
In all of these cases, it can be seen that the alleged reasons given by one or another, whether they be Protestant or Catholic governments, are similar to those set out by Clement XII and Benedict XIV. In short, they boiled down to the secrecy with which Masons cloaked themselves, as well as the oath taken, and above all to the jurisdiction of the age—based on Roman law—under which any group or association not authorized by the government was considered illegal, a focus of subversion and a danger to the good order and peace of the State.
Within this range of motives, the Papal Bulls were no exception. This can be deduced not only from an analysis of their texts, but also from the abundant correspondence of the Vatican relating to this subject, including that sent out by the Holy Roman Office, especially in 1737. It is certain that both Clement XII and Benedict XIV added to the reasons of State security — that is to say political reasons — others of a religious nature, which were that meetings of Masons were ‘suspected of heresy’ for the mere fact that masons admitted into their lodges men of different religions (‘indifferentism’, that is to say, Catholic and non-Catholic) on condition that they expressed a belief in one God; a reason which in the eighteenth century was distinctly more significant than in our time. Meetings—including straightforward contact—between Catholics and non-Catholics were strictly forbidden under pain of excommunication, which was precisely the punishment inflicted on the Masons.
It is obvious, then, that there were reasons of State for condemning Masonry. When all is said and done, Clement XII and Benedict XIV only followed the example of other governments that were troubled and ill at ease facing the air of secrecy and sworn oaths that surrounded Freemasonry. The governments of Europe — and on this point the Protestants, Catholics were of one mind — did not like what they understood to be the clandestine nature of Freemasonry which prevented them from knowing what was taking place in Masonic meetings. The approach of the Holy See was the same. The proof for this can be found in the correspondence of the time and in the Edict issued by Cardinal Firrao, secretary of state, on January 14, 1739, which declared that masonic meetings were not only suspected of heresy but, more importantly, represented a danger to public peace and order within the Ecclesiastical State, for if they did not contain material contrary to the Catholic faith and against the State and public order they would have no need for such secrecy.
For this reason, the Masons were condemned to death, confiscation of their goods, and destruction of the places where they met, although at that time not even the Tribunal of the Inquisition — according to its own Penal Code — could condemn a person to death, but only to prison, for the offense of heresy.
The Bull Providas (1751) of Benedict XIV went further by calling on, as the strongest argument (apart from the charter of Pliny which, however, was not correctly applied), the provisions of Roman Law (Dig. 47, tit. 22: De Collegiis et corporibus) against collegia illicita, which forbade associations formed without the permission of the public authority. Here we should note that the illegitimacy of any such association, from the legal point of view, caused it to be considered and held as illicit, not only legally and politically, but also morally. Howeover, as the Jesuit Karl Michaeler makes clear in his 1782 reply to Benedict XIV’s bull, what appears to be a logical proof is in reality an argument that discredits that which it sets out to prove, then affirms precisely the contrary, since we know today that the quotation from Pliny was intended to be used against Christians. So, paradoxically, the Masons were accused of the same crime for which the pagans impugned the first Christians, which shows clearly both the deficiency of the Roman Laws and their application.
Many states, on the basis of the Papal Bulls, and following the wishes demonstrated by their pronouncement, prohibited Masonry under the severest of penalties. What happened next was that in those countries with a confessional political system, the Masons were persecuted not as such, but for an offense against the Catholic religion, since they were excommunicated, which declared the crime of Masonry as being harmful to the Catholic religion, and from the moment that this was enshrined in the constitution of Catholic countries, the ecclesiastical crime automatically became a political one and was punished as such. This is the reason why no document of the eighteenth-century states—and in this Clement XII’s and Benedict XIV’s Bulls are no different— that Masonry as an institution is prohibited, but rather ‘meetings’ held by Masons are considered illegal. These meetings are described in all manner of ways in Clement XII’s Bull In eminenti: assemblies, conventions, companies, gatherings, circles, meetings, societies, and so on.
Nevertheless, with the exception of Rome and those countries where the Inquisition was established, the majority of these prohibitions were not enforced in the eighteenth century. This is shown by the growth and prestige that, despite everything, Masonry enjoyed, coupled with the fact that many important men of the nobility and the clergy, and in at least one instance a monarch, were members.
One of the most striking facts is the presence in Masonry during the eighteenth century of a significant number of Protestant pastors, especially Anglican, Calvinist, and Lutheran, as well as Orthodox priests and above all Catholic clergy: bishops, canons, parish priests, vicars and members of practically all the religious Catholic orders, despite the Papal prohibitions.