How the Prohibition Against Freemasonry Disappeared from Canon Law

By Fr. Paolo M. Siano

From October 20 – 29, 1981, the Plenary Congregation of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law met in the Vatican to discuss and vote on the renewal of canon 2335 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law which conferred excommunication on Catholics enrolled in Freemasonry or other sects which conspired against the Church and against the State. This canon was ultimately not renewed in the new 1983 Code of Canon Law.

It is interesting to note the two positions that existed within the Plenary Congregation: a minority position which favored renewing Canon 2335 (excommunicating Catholics enrolled as Freemasons), and a majority position which successfully proposed that this canon would not be renewed and thus there would be no excommunication of “Catholic Freemasons.”

I will now consider several points of the record of the Plenary Congregation translated from the Latin by Fr. Zbigniew Suchecki, OFM Conv., and published in the review “Religioni e Sette nel mondo (Religions and sects in the world)” of GRIS (Socio-Religious Research Group) of Bologna, in issue number 1 of 2008 dedicated to the theme “The Catholic Church and Freemasonry.”

The principal arguments of the majority position seem false to me and pastorally imprudent. They may be summarized as:

  • Canon 2335 should not be renewed because to do so would go against the principles of the revision of the Code of Canon Law approved by the 1967 Synod of Bishops and Pope Paul VI, which requested the reduction of the number of cases calling for the penalty of latae sententiae.
  • Because there are various degrees of adhesion to Freemasonry, it is not possible to know at which degree activity against the Church begins or if the offender, “judge of himself,” would know with certainty that he is culpable of acting against the Church and thus incurring the penalty [of latae sententiae excommunication].
  • The opinion remains valid according to which canon 2335 applied only to those who actively worked against the Church, as attested by the Notificatio of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of July 18, 1974.

Among those who held this position:

  • Esteban Gomez, OP [Dominican from Spain] (instructor at the Angelicum in Rome) asserted that “it is more grave to be a communist, and so if we have a canon excommunicating freemasons we would also have to have a canon excommunicating Communists”.
  • Cardinal Rosalio José Castillo Lara, SDB [Salesian Venezuelan, nephew of the Archbishop of Caracas] (Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law), was in accord with Gomez and asserted that “Freemasonry is not the same in all countries”.
  • Cardinal Franz König [Archbishop of Vienna] affirmed that “the position of the German Bishops’ Conference (see below) applies only to Masonry in that country but not for all…” König appealed to the same rescript of the CDF of 1974.
  • Bishop José Vicente Andueza Henriquez [Venezuelan bishop, also a Salesian] affirmed that “in countries like Venezuela Freemasonry coexists peacefully with the Church,” and that “there are Freemasons ‘of good faith’ who do not work against the Church but who cooperate with her…” Bishop Henriquez further maintained that “the excommunication of Freemasons is futile, it does not stop them from adopting new methods, and renewing this penalty in the new Code of Canon Law would stir up ‘needless new animosities.’” According to the Venezuelan prelate, “in Latin America the true danger is Communism, not Freemasonry.”
  • Bishop Roman Arrieta Villalobos, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Costa Rica, was convinced that “in many parts of the world Freemasonry no longer conspires against the Church, neither openly nor secretly”.

Let us now consider the principal arguments of the minority position favoring the renewal of the penalty prescribed by canon 2335:

  • The German Bishops’ Conference observed that the Church has the right to indicate clearly to the faithful whatever is dangerous for their faith, and “the adherence of a Catholic to Freemasonry shakes the very foundations of the faith.” After about six years of dialogues with the official leadership of Freemasonry of Germany (expressly favorable in its attitude towards the Church), the German bishops had nevertheless concluded that the essence of Freemasonry was the same, and so they asked for the renewal of canon 2335 in the new Code of Canon Law. Other bishops’ conferences, in contrast to the German conference, had perhaps not been familiar with authentic Masonic facts, documents and rituals. It was noted that anti-Church activity is one of the very principles of Freemasonry.  Moreover, German Freemasonry had made a “categorical refusal” to the bishops who asked to examine the rituals of the other degrees beyond the first three. If judgment about Freemasonry in each country were left to the individual bishops’ conferences, “one can well imagine how many and how great would be the pressures brought to bear upon bishops by influential persons of power or social influence, as well as the pressure of public opinion formed by thinking that is not alien to Freemasonry.” The German bishops observed still further that “for almost the entirety of the faithful it is impossible to form an exact judgment on this question. The right of the Church is properly this: to indicate to the faithful where dangers are hiding for their faith and for their Christian life.”
  • Cardinal Giuseppe Siri [Italian, from Genoa] observed: 1) Nothing has practically changed in the procedures of the Masonic sect. 2) If one objects that the authority of the Church (Paul VI) has said that the penalty ought to be reduced, I respond: ‘In taking counsel we must do those things that are fit for this time.”
  • Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger [German, Prefect of the CDF] noted that the different positions of the bishops’ Conferences do not signify that Freemasonry is different in different places, but that other Bishops were not as well-informed as the German Bishops, who had found that the essence of Freemasonry affirms relativism between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, the same relativism that feeds the contemporary moral crisis. For this reason Freemasonry constitutes “an extraordinary danger” and one that is much “more subtle” as compared to communism. In the first 3 degrees German Freemasons were open to dialogue, but in the 30 higher degrees they held to “an arcane discipline that became ever more severe.” Ratzinger maintained that the “opinion” of Fr. Gomez was “made with a certain lenience, which does not correspond to the gravity of the question and to the work [of research] which we have done.”
  • Cardinal Pietro Palazzini [Italian, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints] replied thus to the “unanimous” objection of the Consultors of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law: “the renewal of Canon 2335 does not violate the principles approved by the Pope and the 1967 Synod of Bishops; the reduction of penalties does not imply the elimination of all penalties; among the German bishops who asked for the renewal of Canon 2335 were some who took part in the [1967] Synod but who, having learned from experience, understood the necessity of maintaining the penalty of excommunication for Freemasons because their “creed” is “apostasy, at least implicitly”; that is, it eliminates truth and revealed religion while welcoming Catholics as “useful idiots”. In pastoral practice there is a need to avoid equivocating and to clearly show the sure way to salvation. Freemasonry is more dangerous than Communism, because while Communism is the explicit enemy of the Church, Freemasonry is is more subtle.

* * * * *

In the wake of the position of Cardinal König, Bishop Henriquez, etc., it seems one can also add the “Commentary on the Code of Canon Law” published in 1985 by the Pontifical University Urbaniana (PUU), then republished in 2001 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV) with the presentation of Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. In both editions (PUU, pp. 806-807; LEV, p. 814), edited by Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto [appointed in 2014 by Pope Francis to chair the pontifical commission for the reform of the marriage nullity process], on the topic of “Freemasonry” it is understood that “it is not easy to apply canon 1374 (which calls for a just punishment for anyone who enrolls in an association which works against the Church) unless the competent universal and local ecclesiastical authority clearly indicate which organizations fall under the authority of that canon…” [Editor’s note: as we have reported in the past, Msgr. Pinto himself has held a spot on one of the most well-known lists of suspected ecclesiastical Freemasons for decades.]

I ask myself: why does this commentary not cite the 1983 Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which reaffirmed the incompatibility between being a Mason (of any sort whatsoever) and being a Catholic?

In short, I am of the opinion that the crisis of the Church, yesterday as also today, results among other things from the differing attitudes of the Prelates of the Church towards Freemasonry.

Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino

A version of this article originally appeared at the website, Amici del Timone di Ferrara. It has been translated, edited, and reprinted with permission.

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