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Saturday, February 22, 2020

New Book by Austrian Priest Urges Reconciliation Between Catholicism and Masonry


The argument within the Roman Catholic Church over whether current Canon Law forbids Masonic membership continues apace. 
Entering into the fray, a new book has just been published in Austria, the Loge und Altar: Über die Aussöhnung von Katholischer Kirche und regulärer Freimaurerei (Lodge and Altar: On the Reconciliation of the Catholic Church and Regular Freemasonry) written by Father Michael Heinrich Weninger, a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He announced the book last week at a press conference in Vienna, and was accompanied by Grand Master Georg Semler of the Grand Lodge of Austria AF&AM on the dais. 

Weninger's book is based on his 2019 doctoral dissertation Über die Aussöhnung von Katholischer Kirche und regulärer Freimaurerei (On the Reconciliation of the Catholic Church and Regular Freemasonry) completed at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He was ordained as a priest in 2011.

Almost instantaneously after the book's announcement last week, the 'Catholic Militant' wing of the Internet erupted with indignation and demands for Weninger's immediate excommunication. Catholic hardliners have long declared that Freemasonry promotes 'indifferentism,' Deism and naturalism, which makes it heretical and in direct opposition to Church teachings and doctrine.


The reason why this is not just some minor or academic issue these days is because that two recent surveys of U.S. Freemasons have shown that about 20% of current American Masons declare that they are Roman Catholics. That means there may be about 235,000 Catholic Freemasons in the U.S. in 2020. And it's entirely possible that a similar percentage holds true throughout the rest of the Masonic world.

Father Michael Weninger
Back in 2014, Fr. Weninger celebrated a mass at the consecration of a new English Mark Master's lodge, St. Margaret’s Lodge No 1954, in the Austrian town of Swettl. He was named on a public website as the Chaplain during officer installations of three lodges, and he's been attacked in the hardline Catholic anti-Masonic press ever since. For decades, there have been countless conspiracy theories touted that "the Freemasons" are attempting to dismantle and destroy the Catholic Church from within the Vatican, and hardliners regularly insist that the administrative bureaucracy of the Vatican (the Roman Curia) is packed with secret Masonic clergy hellbent on heretical subversion. Or something.

I'm unsure where Fr. Weninger gets his figures, but he estimates there could be as many as two million Catholic Freemasons in the world. There's no real way of knowing, since Freemasons don't ask their members what their religious denomination happen to be. The surveys I cited above were conducted over the Internet and were voluntary, self-reporting ones. But in predominantly Catholic countries where Freemasonry is popular, such as the Philippines, I have seen estimates of their Catholic Masonic membership as high as 80%.

In his new book (currently only available in a German language edition), 
Weninger makes a strong argument that Catholics are not forbidden to become Freemasons, and that the Church needs to adjust its rules to account for the vast differences between regular, recognized Freemasonry, versus the very different irregular, unrecognized version practiced by some 'continental' Masons - most notably, the Grand Orient de France and its descendants. The GOdF permits atheists to join their lodges, and has historically (and quite publicly) fought against Catholic influence in France for at least 140 years or more—arguably longer. The GOdF and some of its high profile members over the years have, in some ways, been the among the loudest political antagonists of the Church in Europe since the 1780s. Fr. Weninger wants the Church to finally admit that the Anglo-American style of regular Freemasonry is no enemy of the Church and that their rules need to account for the differences.

This argument has been tried several times over the last six decades and longer, but the official position of the Church remains confusing to Catholic Masons, parish priests and bishops, and even cardinals. On the one hand, Freemasonry is not specifically forbidden by name or even mentioned in current Canon Law of the Catholic Church, which is Fr. Weninger's principal point. On the other hand, an official declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1983, written by then-Cardinal and Prefect Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), declared that Canon Law DOES forbid Masonic membership, even if it isn't mentioned by name:

"[T]he Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.
"It is not within the competence of local ecclesiastical authorities to give a judgment on the nature of Masonic associations which would imply a derogation from what has been decided above..."

The CDF acts as sort of a Supreme Court tribunal when it comes to rendering official Vatican positions on the subject of Canon Law, and is a hybrid of both religious and legal experts. When you lock any two lawyers in a room and ask them to debate a legal question, you'll get eight opinions — three of them passionate — and lots of qualifiers. But when it's about Canon Law, you also have to hurl in a gaggle of popes, theologians, bishops and cardinals, ambitious officials hunting local and Vatican appointments or advancement, and lots of armchair experts, along with about 1,900 years' worth of precedents, edicts, and opinions. 

And that's why the Freemason question remains so hotly debated whenever the topic arises among Church insiders and the modern hardline movement of so-called 'Catholic militants.' Cardinal Ratzinger's 1983 declaration concerning Freemasonry still being forbidden for Catholics to join was an official legal position affirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1983.  Yet, Freemasonry is NOT forbidden in Canon Law itself, because what is described in general terms in the law itself does not resemble the regular, recognized Freemasonry practiced by millions of men the world over. 

To cite a deliberately incendiary simile, it's analogous to saying, "I don't find abortion mentioned in the U.S. Constitution." It's not, but the Supreme Court rendered a controversial a decision on the matter and issued a majority opinion as to why they found it constitutional. That opinion remains the law until another decision comes down the road and either changes it or reaffirms it. Which means that states and municipalities seeking to overturn or alter the Supreme Court decision attempt to pass new laws that might be found compelling enough to a future court to change its collective mind.

The Roman Catholic Church has had a variety of justifications for opposing Freemasonry over the last 280 years or so, some doctrinal, some ideological, some political, some delusional, and even once or twice, just cases of vengeance. Catholics who join the fraternity who subsequently choose to remain Masons in defiance of Church policy do so for very important reasons: they actually see for themselves that Freemasonry does NOT conflict with the Church; that Masonry inspires them to strengthen their faith, not weaken it; that lodges advocate for their members to participate in their own churches and live by the precepts of their faith; and Freemasonry is not 'relativistic' or 'indifferent' concerning all religious faiths in any way, other than seeking a way to prevent religious arguments within the confines of the lodge by simply agreeing to use general terms for God that men of differing faiths will not find offensive or argumentative. In other words, the Freemasonry they see and live with daily has nothing to do with the way the Church formerly characterized it in Canon Law. So, every few years a couple of Masons and a couple of clerics get together and delude themselves into believing they can convince the Vatican to stop niggling at this same sore tooth, which never happens.




Works by notorious hoaxer Leo Taxil perpetuated the
myth of Satanic elements and worship in Freemasonry
Unfortunately, the most commonly recurring accusation in the Church's official and unofficial position against Freemasonry since the 1730s has been that it is 'heretical.' Masons have always known this to be completely untrue and a spurious slander. Worse, by the 1800s there were increasing attempts by Catholic leaders and authors to brand Freemasonry as 'Satanic' in nature (Leo Taxil's famous hoaxes being the most notorious), and that thread has persisted for more than two centuries. Again, actual Masons know this to be an absurd contention, especially for the largest religious denomination in the world to promulgate. 



Jack Chick's tracts reinforced the lie that heretical
elements and Satan worship are hidden from 'low-ranking' Masons
and revealed only in "the highest degrees."
Catholic Masons especially are galled by the notion that they are just too stupid, too 'low-ranking,' or too easily duped to comprehend that Freemasonry has somehow hidden this and hoodwinked them into 'worshiping Satan.' Because, you know, it's a big secret—EVERYBODY knows it. Everybody, that is, except for actual Freemasons.

As early as the 1890s when the Church organized an Anti-Masonic Congress at Trent and the Universal Anti-Masonic Union,  it was a delegation of German prelates who were the only attendees who scoffed at the wild accusations of Devil-worship, heresy and worse. Over the last 60 years, German, Austrian, Scandinavian, Mexican and South American clergy and bishops have made numerous argumentsto try to convince the CDF (and the succession of popes) that there is a vast difference between regular and irregular Masonry and our position about religion among our members. But when cornered on the subject, anti-Masonic Vatican officials who are often charged with deciding complex 'angels on pinheads' types of theological and doctrinal questions suddenly declare Freemasonry to be too complicated and confusing for them to see any differences between grand lodges and appendant groups. So they usually fall back on the 'heresy' argument as their most unbroachable accusation.

Freemasonry deserves at least as much latitude within the policies of the Catholic Church as other religious denominations or service organizations do—namely, respect for its devotion to its mission of a worldwide brotherhood of toleration, mutual respect, charity, and support for its members that seeks to unite men who would have otherwise remained at a perpetual distance because of arguments about divisive matters like religion. Masonry is a attempt to tear down barriers, not erect them. Ascribing some sort of nefarious, evil motive to the millions of regular, recognized Freemasons or subtext to the institution itself is a judgement based on either ignorance or deliberate deceitfulness. Far too many men of impeccable character for more than three centuries have embraced Freemasonry, while being models of faithfully religious belief and practice. And a great many of them have been Catholics on the quiet. If the surveys are correct, one fifth of our U.S. members are currently Catholics. Make of that what you will.

Father Winenger told reporters during his press conference that he has given a copy of his new book to Pope Francis and to influential members of the Curia. Far be it from me to tell him his quest is quixotic at best, and I admire his courage. Other priests who have revealed their Masonic membership or sympathies over the years have not fared well in the tribunals of the CDF when it got that far.




While waiting for an English version of his book that might never come, I highly recommend Fabio Venzi's excellent The Last Heresy: The Catholic Church and Freemasonry, published in 2019. It's some of the most recent scholarship, includes much material that hasn't been assembled in one place before, and written by a distinguished Italian Mason in English.


2 comments:

  1. Many years ago my Mother-in-law a very devout Roman Catholic Lady urged her daughter to not allow me to become a Freemason because my wife would become excommunicated. A few years later when I became a Shriner she immediately hooked me a wall mat featuring the Square & Compasses. Go figure.....Freemasonry has brought me closer to God and has strengthened my faith by helping to make me a better man.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bonjour je rejoindre la fraternite

    ReplyDelete

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