David Patterson, Executive Secretary of the Masonic Service Bureau of Los Angeles, wrote a letter to Cardinal Mahoney of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles inquiring as to the current position of the church concerning Masonic Membership. The reply on behalf of the Cardinal is reprinted (with permission) on page 2 of this issue of FOCUS.
Thank you for your inquiry of September 11, 2000 directed to Cardinal Mahoney, on whose behalf I am replying. The question is "whether a practicing Catholic may join a Masonic Lodge."
Unfortunately, the matter is too complex for a straightforward "yes" or "no" answer. But at least for Catholics in the United States, I believe the answer is probably yes. Permit me to explain this qualified response.
Your letter states that a member's "allegiance to one God is all we require". To the extent that this is an accurate statement of the organization's beliefs and teachings, and that its activities are humanitarian and charitable in nature, there is no reason to prevent a practicing Catholic from joining.
Past history, of course, has muddied the waters because earlier church law (prior to November 27, 1983) specifically named Masonic groups as a forbidden society (canon 2335, 1917 Code). The dialogues between Catholic and Masonic representatives in the years since the Second Vatican Council were generally very positive and yet did not resolve questions or concerns raised in certain parts of the world. As a result, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome issued a statement one day before the new Code of Canon Law took effect (November 26, 1983), in which it held that since Masonic principles were still contrary to the teachings of the Church, Catholics would commit a grave sin in belonging to Masonic associations and so could not receive Holy Communion.
Because this declaration has not been superseded by any further official statements, the question keeps recurring about its interpretation and application. There is no agreement among the experts in church law who have considered the matter. Consequently one can only judge the individual circumstances in light of the principles that clearly do apply. These principles are set forth in canons 1374 and 1364 of the 1983 Code, which forbid a Catholic from joining "an association which plots against the Church" and impose penalties for heresy under certain conditions. If "a particular Masonic lodge truly promoted heretical teaching or conspired against the interests of the Church" (Ronny E. Jenkins, "The Evolution of the Church's Prohibition Against Catholic Membership in Freemasonry," The Jurist, 56 (1996), pg 735,) then a Catholic would be bound to avoid membership.
The reason, then, I answer 'probably yes' is because I am unaware of any ideology or practice by the local lodges that challenges or subverts the doctrine and interests of the Catholic Church. In the previous paragraph, I have cited the article which best presents the current state of the question. The 1974 newspaper clipping that you enclosed with your letter probably refers to a letter written by Cardinal Seper, then in charge of the same doctrinal congregation mentioned above, which was addressed to certain bishops. In this letter one can see the movement at that time from a blanket prohibition to the application of a case-by-case judgment whether a group did in fact conspire against the Church. The history of the development of the Church's current law suggests that this case-by-case approach is what canon 1374 on forbidden associations intends.
Please forgive this lengthy reply, but a shorter one would not do justice to those inquirers who are aware that the matter is still controversial. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn more about it myself, and I close by asking God's blessing on your well-known endeavors to relieve human suffering and assist the needy.
Rev. Thomas C. Anslow, C.M., J.C.L.
From the Mar, 2001 issue (Vol. 8, Issue 1) of the Masonic Information Center FOCUS Newsletter, which is a communication of the Masonic Service Association of N.A.