By a blog reader
In the nineteenth century, a notable change took place in the way the Catholic Church viewed Freemasonry. Whereas in the previous century, it was the secrecy with which Masons practiced their craft, rather than the institution of Freemasonry per se that drew the ire of the Church, in the nineteenth century it was the perceived threat to its temporal power that was the focus of its enmity.
The new patriotic or political societies that arose in the new century and fought for Italian unification, especially the Carbonari, became the main object of Rome’s concern and attacks. Following the French Revolution in which several Freemasons had been persecuted, among them the Catholic priest Father Gallot from Laval, who was beheaded by guillotine since he refused to swear the oath to the new Constitution of the Clergy and who was later beatified by Pope Pius XII, the situation would change radically.
While Freemasonry in the Anglo-Saxon countries continued to gain a certain social prestige, especially in the United States, Great Britain and its colonies, and the Nordic countries and where the presence of non-Catholic clergy continued to be important and influential within Masonry, to the extent that kings of England and Sweden became Grand Masters of Freemasonry in their respective countries, in the so-called Catholic countries the ideals of Masonry were by and large confused and identified with those of liberalism, which caused the Catholic Church and the absolutist governments founded on the well-known union of the Throne and the Altar to react forcefully, in defence of their power.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, the clash between the Catholic Church and Masonry was coloured by the ways in which the French Revolution was subsequently interpreted, and by the birth of the famous myth of the masonic-revolutionary plot for which Abbe Barruel was largely responsible. From this time onwards, Masonry in Latin Europe saw itself tainted by an image far less respectable than how Freemasonry was seen in the Protestant world. And then it found itself especially affected by the confusion which arose out of the proliferation of secret societies and by it being falsely associated with the Illuminati of Bavaria (in fact Adam Weishaupt founded the organisation precisely because Freemasonry was NOT open to his ideas), the Carbonari and other similar organisations. The emergence of the so-called patriotic societies and their struggle for Italian unification particularly the Carbonari so readily associated with the Mason attracted the attention of Popes who saw their temporal power under threat.
Thus our attention is drawn to the fact that from Pius VII, in 1821, with his bull Ecclesiam Christi, up to the Humanum genus (1884) of Leo XIII, as far as Rome was concerned, Freemasonry was classed as a secret society whose aim was “to conspire against the Church and the powers of the State”. The result was that Freemasonry was a priori associated with the patriotic societies that were struggling in some countries for the independence of the people and in others, such as Italy, for unification.
The key period of confrontation between the Catholic Church and Masonry corresponds to the papacies of Pius IX and Leo XIII. These two Popes alone, in their documents and speeches, spoke out against Masonry more than 2,000 times, frequently identifying it with the Carbonari (which is unsustainable from the historical point of view) and always with the patriotic and secret societies which at the time were fighting for the unification of Italy and against the temporal powers of the Pope, who was opposed to the loss of his Papal territories.
The recurrent theme, throughout all of these Papal condemnations, essentially, simply stated, that masonry and secret societies were attacking “the rights of the Papal power and civil authority”, that they “were conspiring against the Church and civil powers”, and that they were “attacking the Church and legitimate authority”.
Leo XIII himself in his Humanum Genus alludes to the prohibition of Masonry by certain governments and emphasises that “the ultimate and principle aim” of Masonry “was to destroy to its very foundations any civil or religious order established throughout Christendom, and bring about in its place a new order founded on laws drawn out of the entrails of naturalism”. And as proof of the behaviour of the “masonic sect” and its determination to “bring to fruition all the theories of the supporters of natural law” he added that Masonry “has for a long time been striving tenaciously to put an end to any interference in society by the rulers and authority of the Church and for this purpose it openly contends that the Church and the State should separate, thereby excluding from the laws and administration of the public domain the very salutary influence of the Catholic Religion”.
It is indeed ironic, that later it was none other than the Catholic Chruch itself through Vatican II that likewise advocated this separation of Church and State and without, as a result, falling into naturalism.
In the years following the publication of Humanum Genus (1884) a multitude of studies and books were published, designed to ‘enlighten’ Catholic public opinion: anti-masonic associations and magazines were created; anti-masonic congresses were held, among which it is worth mentioning the International Congress of Trent (1896), at which the famous Leo Taxil played such an important part and where he made public the deception he had kept up for so long with regard to Masonry and the Catholic Church.
As a consequence of and reaction to this mostly baseless persecution by the Catholic Church and in an act of a self-fulfilling prophecy, several masonic orders in the Latin countries responded in kind, promoting anti-clericalism and secularism. This culminated in the Grand Orient of France removing the need for a belief in God and the prohibition of the discussion of politics from its landmarks, an act which resulted in the schism in Freemasonry between Regular and continental Masonry.
Finally, the Code of Canonical Law, promulgated shortly after the death of Leo XIII (May 27, 1917), brought together all the legal doctrines hitherto expressed, especially that of Pius IX and Leo XIII. In fact canon 2335 confirmed all previous Papal dispositions of the nineteenth century (thus overruling those of the eighteenth century: the secrecy, the swearing of oaths and the “suspicion” of heresy were completely forgotten and omitted, setting out the sanction by establishing that “those who belong to the masonic sect or other associations of a similar kind, which plot against the Church or against legitimate civil authorities, will incur ipso facto excommunication, which is the sole prerogative of the Holy Apostolic See”.
This identification of Freemasonry with a society which “plots against the Church or legitimate civil authorities” can only be understood from the standpoint of the problem created in Italy by the famous ‘Roman question’, or the loss of the Papal States. This symbolised the twin powers of the civil and ecclesiastical, or, if you wish, the Catholic Church and the ‘legitimate’ governmental power, which came together in one person, the Pope, as the King of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic church.
Commentators on the Code of Canon Law, when deciding on the exact nature of the crime set out in canon 2335, went on to state: “Societies which plot against the Church or against legitimate civil powers are those whose aim is to develop a subversive activity by using illicit means”. Therefore only those Catholics who belonged to a masonic or another association that was in reality plotting against the Church or civil authorities could incur the penalty of excommunication. Anyone who was in Freemasonry ‘of good faith’ (not finding it, for example, anything other than an association seeking universal brotherhood, or a society for social progress) would not be subject to the penalty of excommunication. For this reason Catholics could join Masonry so long as it did not coincide with what Canonical Law erroneously described as Masonry, that is, a society which plotted against the Church or legitimate civil powers.
This latter position, as we shall see in the next article, was in fact formally communicated by none other than the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and all reference to Freemasonry was likewise removed from Cannon Law.