Why are Roman Catholics really forbidden to join Freemasonry

When I first became a Freemason in 1986 I was surprised to learn that Roman Catholics were forbidden to join, even though we had a few defiant Catholic members. After many years of puzzlement I decided to dig deeper to see if I could find a plausible reason. It all began in 1738 when Pope Clement XII issued the Papal Bull “Il Eminenti” condemning Freemasonry; but why? Some books cite politics of the time, namely Jacobites and Hanoverians. However, this article concentrates on the many challenges to the Roman Catholic doctrine over many centuries, leading up to the formation of speculative masonry, then to a speech made by a gentleman Freemason and Roman Catholic, Andrew Michael Ramsay, and finally to the Papal Bull itself. As an insider I have full knowledge of our current rituals, but as an amateur historian there is limited knowledge of masonic ritual in 1738, but what is certain then and now is that religion, along with politics, is a strictly banned subject at our meetings, but all regular Freemasons must have a belief in God. In an attempt to be as brief as possible I have linked some of the history to the Encyclopaedia Britannica 

Since Clement XII’s first Papal Bull against Freemasonry there has been about 25 more (some suggest less); I have yet to read them all. The last Papal Bull was in 1983 under Pope John Paul II, at least this one actually lessened the punishment.

A journey through time.

Whilst reading through, try to set your mind to those living in these specific times, they were very different to today’s living.

Freemasonry began in Britain, no one can be sure of an exact date as it was an evolving philanthropic society, but it didn’t begin until at least the 16th century as documents in Scotland suggest. Christianity, however, entered Britain in the1st century AD (CE) and had to compete against the pagan cults of the time, but unlike the cults of Rome, Christianity demanded exclusive allegiance from its followers, which upset the authorities in Rome and led to persecutions, so Christians had to meet in secret!!!

Next we entered the ‘Dark Ages’ as the Roman Empire fell and Europe was left to its own devices until the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, a time when the Roman Catholic Popes had control over Western Europe’s rulers.

Our journey through time will pause and take a brief look at a few areas where rifts appeared in the Roman Church as, in the heart of Europe, a serious threat faced Christendom; heresy! This was viewed in the medieval world not as benign religious diversity but rather as a cancerous threat to the salvation of souls. The Albigensian Crusade (1209 – 1229) involved Pope Innocent III against the Cathari, a dualist** religious movement in southern France that the Roman Catholic Church had branded heretical. This crusade was held to be even more dangerous than the faraway Muslims, because it harmed the body of Christ from within. See: https://www.britannica.com/event/Albigensian-Crusade

**Dualism, in religion, the doctrine that the world (or reality) consists of two basic, opposed, and irreducible principles that account for all that exists. 

Fast forward to the 16th Century and we reach the Reformation. The greatest leaders of the Reformation undoubtedly were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Martin Luther precipitated the Reformation with his critiques of both the practices and the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. John Calvin was the most important figure in the second generation of the Reformation, and his interpretation of Christianity, known as Calvinism, deeply influenced many areas of Protestant thought. Other figures included Pope Leo X, who excommunicated Luther; the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, who essentially declared war on Protestantism; Henry VIII, king of England, who presided over the establishment of an independent Church of England; and Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss reformer. See: https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation

One century later brought about the Age of Enlightenment. This era began with the thought that human reasoning could discover truths about the world, religion and politics, and could be used to improve the lives of humankind. Scepticism about received wisdom was another important idea; everything was to be subjected to testing and rational analysis. Religious tolerance and the idea that individuals should be free from coercion in their personal lives and consciences were also Enlightenment ideas. See: https://www.britannica.com/event/Enlightenment-European-history 

Next challenge for the Roman Catholic Church was Quietism, a doctrine of Christian spirituality that, in general, holds that perfection consists in passivity (quiet) of the soul, in the suppression of human effort so that divine action may have full play. The term is usually identified with the doctrine of Miguel de Molinos, a Spanish priest who became an esteemed spiritual director in Rome during the latter half of the 17th century and whose teachings were condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Innocent XI sentenced Miguel de Molinos to life in prison. See: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Quietism. (Quietism will enter our story again later.)

Very little of the above directly is relevant to the condemnation of Freemasonry itself, but I include it as a reminder that the Roman Church was challenged by pious and also enlightened men (I am sure women too) for many years as people sought to find their own solutions rather than blindly follow the doctrines of the Roman Church. In none of this was there ever a challenge to God, just to the principles adopted in His name by Rome.

Still very much in the Age of Enlightenment, in 1717, the first Grand Lodge was created in London, England by the coming together of four local Lodges. It came into prominence when Royalty and other important gentlemen joined. In the early 1720’s they set about creating a constitution, which was  published in 1723, mentioned here because it is the first of the ‘Old Charges” that was amended from specifically referencing the religion of the Holy Trinity (Christian) 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 distinguished.” This is the ‘rule’ that I suspect upset the Roman Catholics the most as they apparently considered that the influence of other religions was another threat to the salvation of Catholic souls.

Now to that Scotsman named Andrew Michael Ramsay, a writer, born into Calvinism but he later converted to Roman Catholicism. He also took a great interest in Quietism, which, as mentioned earlier, was deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Ramsay had a friendship with the senior Roman Catholic of France, Cardinal Fleury; he was also the French Prime Minister. So his interest in Quietism was apparently not an issue (or maybe not known by all).  In 1737, Ramsay gave a speech in France to a group of new or would be Freemasons in which, among much else, he referenced Freemasonry to the Crusaders (there is no connection). Before he gave his oration he sent a copy to Cardinal Fleury. In the accompanying letter, he suggested that  supporting this new society (Freemasonry) is an action worthy of a great minister, of a Father of the Church, and of a holy Pontiff. He requested that “your Excellency returns it to me to-morrow before mid-day by express messenger.” Like me today, Ramsay obviously saw no threat in his speech to the Roman Catholic Church.

He gave the full oration the very next day and some of it may have offended the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, that it did may never be proven.

Extracts from Ramsay’s Oration:

“,,,,,the sole aim of which is to unite minds and hearts in order to make them better, to form in the course of ages a spiritual empire where, without derogating from the various duties which different states exact, a new people shall be created, which, composed of many nations, shall in some sort cement them all into one by the tie of virtue and science.

            “The second requisite of our Society is sound morals.  The religious orders were established to make perfect Christians, military orders to inspire a love of true glory and the Order of Freemasons to make lovable men, good citizens, good subjects, inviolable in their promises, faithful adorers of the God of Love, lovers rather of virtue than of reward.

Our ancestors, the Crusaders, gathered together from all parts of Christendom in the Holy Land, desired thus to reunite into one sole Fraternity the individuals of all nations.

“They agreed upon several ancient signs and symbolic words drawn from the well of religion in order to recognise themselves amongst the heathen and Saracens. These signs and words were only communicated to those who promised solemnly, and even sometimes at the foot of the altar, never to reveal them. This sacred promise was therefore not an execrable oath, as it has been called, but a respectable bond to unite Christians of all nationalities in one confraternity.” 

Bear in mind that the new Constitutions of the Freemasons admitted men of all religions into their assemblies, which included Protestant Christians, members of the Jewish faith and those of the Muslim faith, AND Roman Catholics. Ramsay then contradicts this with reference to  our ancestors were fighting on behalf of Christianity. Ramsay, being a Roman Catholic himself, and with much attention to Christianity, appeared to be suggesting that Freemasonry would unite men of all nations, but Christian men only. Therefore some of the above words could easily have been interpreted as a creation of a new Christian authority rivalling the Holy Roman Empire.

The day after his oration, Ramsay sent another letter to Cardinal Fleury, and the opening line was:

“I learn that the assemblies of Freemasons displease your Excellency.”

Apparently Cardinal Fleury wrote in the margin of this letter “Le roi ne le veut pas,” (the King doesn’t want it).

As all Roman Catholics will know, Cardinals rank very highly in the Roman Catholic Church; it is they who elect Popes. Whilst there is no evidence that Ramsay’s oration was seen by the Pope, the Papal Bull ‘In Eminenti” states that:

Free Masons, or by whatever other name called, herein acting on the advice of some Venerable Brethren of ours. Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and also of our own motion, and from our certain knowledge,,,, as by this present Constitution we do condemn and prohibit them. [Free Masons]

Which brings us to the Papal Bull itself, the opening lines being:

“Condemnation of the Society, Lodges, Conventicles of LIBERI MURATORI, or Freemasons, under pain of excommunication to be incurred ipso facto, and absolution from it being reserved for the Supreme Pontiff, except at point of death.”

A little further down it states that:

the integrity of orthodox religion may be best preserved, and dangers of disturbances may be repelled, in the present very difficult times, from the whole Catholic world.”

It gets more interesting:

in which men of any whatsoever religion and sect, content with a certain affectation of natural virtue, are associated mutually in a close and exclusive bond in accordance with laws and statutes framed for themselves; and are bound as well by a stringent oath sworn upon the Holy Bible, as by the imposition of heavy penalties to conceal under inviolable silence, what they secretly do in their meetings.”

Connecting that Freemasons “Take an oath, sometimes at the foot of an alter never to reveal the secret signs and words”  to the Papal Bull in which is stated “men of whatsoever religion are bound as well by a stringent oath sworn upon the Holy Bible, as by the imposition of heavy penalties to conceal under inviolable silence, what they secretly do in their meetings,” must have been seen as a direct threat to the salvation of Catholic souls, as Roman Catholics were kneeling side by side with men of any whatsoever religion and sect.

Another example from “In Eminenti” is:

“the aforesaid Societies or Conventicles have excited so strong suspicion in the minds of the faithful that to enrol oneself in these Lodges is quite the same, in the judgement of prudent and virtuous men, as to incur the brand of depravity and perverseness, for if they were not acting ill, they would not by any means have such a hatred of the light.”

Implying, maybe, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why the secrecy?’ 

And finally I cite these words of this Papal Bull thus state:

“that no one, under any pretext or farfetched reason dare or presume to enter the above mentioned Societies,,,,” and this Papal Bull concluded with a threat “But if any one presumes to attempt this [infringe this proclamation], let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God, and of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul”.

In conclusion to this part it is a strong possibility that it was Ramsay’s speech that became the ‘straw the broke the camel’s back’ with regard to this Papal Bull. Roman Catholicism does not allow any interpretation of the Holy Trinity, that Jesus, the son of God, is their direct connection in Heaven, with the Pope being God’s representative on Earth. Deism is often a reason given, but in order for Freemasonry to ensure all our members feel comfortable socialising with other religions, Freemasons use the term “Great Architect of the Universe” as our reference to God. Unlike Deism, where God is seen as the creator of the Universe and not a personal God, Freemasonry uses this term only for reference to the God in which all men agree, and encourages the Brethren to worship their personal God in their own religious temples, churches, mosques, etc. The heart of Freemasonry is not a religion, nor politics, it relies on the fact that religious organisation, such as Roman Catholics, take care of their own followers, Freemasonry simply encourages members to be good citizens of their own country, and to be as good and respectful when visiting other countries when the main religion may be different to their own. Regular Freemasonry insists that all members believe in God, and to ensure that members of varying religions are not offended by the name they give to their God, we simply refer to Him as the Supreme Being. 

So it is, and never was [I believe], the intention of pure and ancient Freemasonry to take the place of our members personal God or personal religion, Andrew Ramsay was wrong in much of his oration. Apparently the control the Roman Catholic Popes had over the people and governance of Western Europe was slipping away to non Catholic religions; Freemasonry must have been viewed as another threat to this control. 

In the next article I will take us through the 19th century where the Roman Catholics felt challenged by Freemasonry even more, but I intend to reveal that it wasn’t pure and ancient [regular] Freemasonry that was their main enemy, but offshoots that were believed to have an affiliation with Freemasonry, when they simply did not! In France, for example, the Grand Lodge split when the Grand Orient of France amended the main ancient charge, that of belief in God, but allowed each Lodge under their jurisdiction the freedom to choose to allow only men who believe in God to join them, or allow a mixture of believers and non believers to join. This action caused the first major rift between two bodies of Freemasons, the regular Freemasons (believers in God) and irregular Freemasons (of France) who allowed in atheists. This caused the United Grand Lodge of England, and other Grand Lodges such as Scotland, Ireland and those in the states of America to disassociate with these French Lodges.

Read the full Papal Bull here:

Latin: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/paul06/in-eminenti.htm

English: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Clem12/c12inemengl.htm 

These articles are written by W Bro Steve Froggatt PPJGD, former Chaplain of Neptune Lodge No 5150 EC. Steve was initiated into Freemasonry in 1986.They do not represent the view of any Grand/Provincial Grand Lodge.

© Copyright 2019 Al-Khabar/Stephen Froggatt all rights reserved 

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About Steve

Steve is part of the publishing team of Al-Khabar. He was initiated into Neptune Lodge 5150 EC In 1986 and completed his third degree by being exalted into Neptune’s Royal Arch Chapter in 1989; he also enjoyed two successive years in the Chair of KS in 1993/4. He has also enjoyed being a Mark Master Mason and a Royal Ark Mariner. He has been honoured with the position of Past Provincial Junior Grand Deacon. All the articles are his own and represent no Official Masonic Body

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