For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church has prohibited its members from joining Masonic lodges.
Freemasonry has been denounced by numerous popes, beginning with Pope Clement XII in 1738, on the grounds that it promotes religious indifferentism.
But after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics around the world suddenly became confused about whether it was permissible for Catholics to become Masons.
In fact, there was a seven-year stretch in the 1970s when the English-speaking Catholic world was taught by its bishops that, although it was not encouraged, it was in fact permitted to become a Mason, as long as certain conditions were met.
Then, at the end of those seven years, these Catholics were suddenly informed that joining the Masons was actually still forbidden under pain of excommunication – and always had been.
That period in history is all but forgotten today. But a survey of Catholic newspapers from the time period offers a glimpse into the confusion that surrounded the subject of Masonry in the American Catholic world 50 years ago.
Changes anticipated: 1971-1974
While work was underway on the revised Code of Canon Law in Rome in the early 1970s, it became clear that there was widespread anticipation that the Church would soon change her teaching on Catholic participation in Freemasonry.
In August 1971, National Catholic News Service - the news service of the U.S. bishops - issued a lengthy report which predicted that the Church would soon modify her teaching on the matter.
Headlined, “Catholic-Masonic Relations Enter Friendly New Era,” the report included commentary from leading experts in Rome, including Fr. Jean Beyer, SJ – Dean of Faculty of Canon Law at the Gregorian University in Rome and a consultor to the Vatican Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law. The syndicated story ran in official diocesan newspapers throughout the nation.
Two years later, in June 1973, National Catholic News Service again reported that Church officials were expecting and planning for a change in Church teaching.
The article, headlined “Church ban on Freemasonry expected to be relaxed,” revealed that the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales had sent letters to all priests in their country, informing them that some “relaxation” in the ban on Freemasonry was expected soon.
According to the letter from the English hierarchy, “it seems probable that each national bishops’ conference will be left to decide whether Masons will have to resign membership in being received into the Church, and also whether requests from laymen [to] join the Masons may be granted.”
This news was widely printed in official diocesan newspapers throughout the country and continued to be discussed in newspapers and clerical journals between the summer of 1973 and spring 1974.
The growing consensus — as promoted by the U.S. bishops’ news service — was that the old prohibition would soon be changed.
Changes Confirmed: The CDF letter of 1974
On September 18, 1974, National Catholic News Service released a story with a startling headline: “CATHOLICS GIVEN QUALIFIED PERMISSION TO JOIN MASONS.”
The piece announced that Cardinal Franjo Šeper, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, had sent a letter regarding Freemasonry to Cardinal John Krol, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The American bishops released the full translation of the CDF letter, along with commentary which emphasized that now “Catholic laymen may join Masonic lodges that do not plot against the Church.”
The text of the cardinal’s letter itself does not explicitly state that Catholics can be Masons. Instead, it states that Catholics are only forbidden from joining “associations which plot against the Church.”
But the U.S. bishops’ commentary made it clear that they understood this to mean that Catholics could in fact join Masonic lodges in some cases - that the Masons were not intrinsically anti-Catholic.
The full text of the Šeper‘s letter is as follows, as translated and released by the U.S. bishops:
Many bishops asked this Sacred Congregation about the force and significance of Canon 2335 of the Code of Canon Law which forbids Catholics under the pain of excommunication to join Masonic or other associations of the same kind.
During its long examination of this question, the Holy See frequently consulted interested episcopal conferences so it might be familiar with the nature of these associations and their present-day direction.
The great divergency of replies, however, reflecting the diverse situations of each nation, did not permit the Holy See to change the current general legislation, which therefore remains in force until the new canon law is published by the competent Pontifical Commision for the Code of Canon Law.
In considering particular cases, it must be remembered that penal law is always subject to strict interpretation. Therefore, one may safely teach and apply the opinion of those authors who hold that Canon 2335 regards only those Catholics who join associations which plot against the Church.
Clerics, Religious and members of secular institutes are still forbidden in every case to join any Masonic association.
F. Cardinal Seper
Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
The news was a sensation. The story from the bishops’ news service ran in many diocesan newspapers around the country. The story was also picked up by Reuters and the Associated Press and quickly circulated in secular newspapers throughout the United States and Canada.
Although it was not included in the press release from the American bishops, it would later become known that the letter was dated July 19, 1974. It appears that the bishops considered the matter for several months before deciding to publicly announce the letter and issue the story about its contents.
Changes in England and Wales
A month later, similar news broke in the British Isles. In November 1974, the Catholic Information Office (the official press office of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales) informed various news outlets of the change regarding Masonry, based on the same letter which Cardinal Šeper had sent to the English Catholic hierarchy.
The bishops discussed the matter at their annual fall meeting in mid-November and released a statement to explain how this would be applied in their country. In short, as they had previously described in their 1973 letter to the clergy, lay Catholics would be permitted to join the Masons with permission from their bishop. The official text of the English Hierarchy is as follows:
Canon 2335 of the Code of Canon Law forbade Catholics to join the Freemasons or any similar organisation under pain of excommunication. The ban was imposed because in many countries Freemasonry was regarded as being a secret society plotting against Church and State. Times change.
The Holy See has reviewed the Church’s present relationship with Freemasonry. Widespread consultations failed to produce a uniform response from the world’s bishops, so the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently told bishops that universal legislation is to remain unchanged, at least until the revision of the whole Code of Canon Law. But the congregation has ruled that Canon 2335 no longer automatically bars a Catholic from membership of Masonic groups. In particular cases it is to be subject to the restrictive interpretation applied to penal legislation, so a Catholic who joins the Freemasons is excommunicated only if the policy and actions of the Freemasons in his area are known to be hostile to the Church.
The bishops of England and Wales have taken note of this guidance. They wish to clarify procedure in their countries until such time as the universal law of the Church is reformulated. A Catholic should regard himself first and foremost a member of the Catholic Church, finding his inspiration for Christian living in the Church and his fellowship within that community; but if he sincerely believes that membership of Freemasonry does not conflict with this deeper loyalty he should approach his bishop through his parish priest to discuss the implications of such membership. Local conditions would of course have to be kept in mind.
A Catholic who has in the past left the Church to become a Freemason is urged to seek reconciliation. Priests, religious and members of secular institutes are still forbidden by the universal law of the Church to accept membership of the masonic order or similar organizations.
A new era: 1974-1980
Following the initial press releases, there was a period of adjustment as the Catholic world came to grips with this change. Diocesan newspapers regularly featured articles and editorials which reiterated the new teaching: while not encouraged, lay Catholics could now be permitted to join the Masons.
In October 1974, Bishop Walter Curtis of Bridgeport, Connecticut, released a statement in which he recommended that Catholics join the Knights of Columbus instead of the Masons despite the new permissibility.
National columnist and notable Vatican II peritus Fr. John Sheerin wrote an editorial praising the change.
The topic was covered repeatedly in diocesan newspaper Q&A columns as readers regularly sought clarity. For example, in February 1975 and October 1976, Msgr. Raymond Bosler (also a conciliar peritus) addressed the question in his nationally syndicated feature “The Question Box.”
In March 1976, Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York addressed the 31st annual Dedication Breakfast for New York State Masons. The U.S. bishops’ news service released coverage of this “milestone in ecumenism” and reminded readers that “[i]n 1974 the Vatican’s Doctrinal Congregation issued a letter saying that Catholics may join Masonic lodges that do not plot against the Church. However, ‘Clerics, Religious and members of secular institutes’ were still forbidden to join[.]”
Cooke told the Masons that the “estrangement between the Church and the Masons in the past” was partly due to a failure to communicate. “Many of the problems of the modern world are due to such failures. In charity we must forgive such human error. Whatever happened in the past, it should not affect our future.”
Questions continued to be asked about the change in the years which followed. In October 1978, a reader addressed the topic in the extremely popular “Dear Abby” newspaper feature. The columnist, Pauline Philips, was an admirer of Bishop Fulton Sheen and asked him to supply the answer to this particular question.
Sheen’s answer was featured in her column–the most widely syndicated in the world–and printed in more than 1,000 newspapers with close to 80 million readers between October and December 1978.
“Can a Catholic be a Mason? That depends,” said Sheen. “According to a letter sent to the presidents of the various National Conferences of Catholics Bishops by Cardinal Seper … membership by lay people in Masonic groups is acceptable, provided the groups are not actively hostile to the Church.”
A stern clarification: 1981
Throughout all of this, amidst all the declarations by bishops’ conferences and statements by bishops beginning in 1974 and onward, no additional statements were issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Although confusing and surprising, Catholics throughout the world were gradually coming to accept that things had changed according to the qualified permissions of the 1974 letter.
Then, suddenly, in March of 1981, a strongly worded “clarification” was issued by the Vatican. This second statement was also issued by Cardinal Franjo Šeper of the CDF, and took pains to emphasize that the law of the Church forbidding all Catholics to participate in Masonry had not been changed by the 1974 letter.
Warning against “erroneous and tendentious interpretations” of the 1974 letter, Šeper bluntly stated, “The present canonical discipline has not been modified in any way and remains in force. Therefore, neither excommunication nor the other penalties called for have been abrogated.”
This 1981 clarification by the CDF caught almost everyone by surprise and caused considerable confusion. Despite being framed as a reminder that nothing had ever changed, it seemed to stand in contradiction to the text of the 1974 letter.
Even the U.S. bishops’ news service, in its March 2 article announcing the 1981 clarification, stated explicitly that Cardinal Seper had previously given “qualified approval for Catholic laymen to join Masonic groups if circumstances allowed.”
Nevertheless, from March 1981 onward, the official line was once again that all Catholics were forbidden to participate in Freemasonry.
Membership in Masonic lodges remains forbidden for Catholics today.
However, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has received numerous questions about the matter since 1981, perhaps in part due to confusion stemming from the CDF’s 1974 letter.
And the story behind the CDF’s apparent abrupt change of tone on Masonry has never been fully unpacked.
Did the bishops in the U.S., England, and other countries all misunderstand what Cardinal Seper had been trying to imply in his initial letter? If so, why did it take seven years before a clarification was issued?
Did the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith originally fail to recognize the Masons as inherently anti-Catholic, and then later realize that the group was actually more problematic than it had realized?
Did someone else in the Vatican effectively push Cardinal Seper to backtrack on his initial letter?
The backstory of what happened in Rome during this time remains unknown.
But regardless of the backstory, the official clarification in 1981 was widely adopted as the official Vatican policy.
It does not appear that the bishops’ conference - or any individual bishop or prominent Catholic leader - ever publicly addressed the matter after the 1981 letter, either to apologize for or explain the misleading proclamations from seven years earlier.
Discussion of a change in Church teaching quieted down - although it has continued to flare up in different places periodically, prompting additional clarifications from the CDF, which all amount to the same message: Catholicism and Masonry are incompatible.