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Masonry, Radicalism, and the Vatican

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March 2009
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I’ve been reading Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Humanum Genus which condemns Freemasonry.  Although it dates from 1884, I suspect that the opinions expressed in it have lingered on.  Once a Pope proclaims something it is pretty hard for Catholics to ignore it later and admit that it was founded on mistaken assumptions or bad information.  If I may be permitted to summarize, Pope Leo essentially claims that Freemasons are in league with socialists and communists and have virtually take over all the governments of Europe (or at any rate in several predominantly Catholic countries).  He asserts that Freemasons are also “naturalists” who believe that morality and truth can be based on the observation of Nature without regard for a deity of any sort, or divine revelation.

There are two lines of objection to these claims.  One is that the radical, anti-clerical element among Freemasons has always been a limited group and very often condemned by regular Masons.  The other is that the rejection of Naturalism as a philosophic stance depends on logical premises that the modern world has largely rejected.

A glance at the history of European Masonry in the nineteenth century (as I have taken) reveals that Masons were involved with the infamous Carbonari and with various other political groups of the period whose aim was indeed the destruction of the Ancien Regime, as the French called it.  In the early part of the century (when Pope Leo XIII was growing up and working his way upward through the church hierarchy in Italy) such groups were working for the secular unification of Italy and the aboliton of the temporal power of the Popes as rulers over the Papal States in central Italy.  Popes were essentially theocrats with lands of their own, operating as a government.

It is not surprising therefore that cardinals and popes of the period would be aghast at the notion, then emerging, of the separation of Church and State.  In countries that had long been dominated by Catholicism, the state and the church worked hand in hand, the aristocrats often becoming the priests, bishops and potentates of the church.  Indeed, Pope Leo himself was the son of an Italian nobleman, Count Pecci.  It is hard for Americans today to quite imagine how thoroughly interwoven church and state were in Catholic countries and how ancient this system was.  In brief, the alliance between noble families and the Catholic Church had been instrumental in preserving what civilization there was after the collapse of the Roman Empire around the year 500.

So, the 1800’s were, in fact, the very tail end of a long process of untangling the power of the popes and the Catholic institution from government in Europe.  Americans have not experienced this process because the British had extricated themselves from Catholicism in the time of Henry VIII (that is the 16th century).  Those religious protestors (the Protestants) who wanted to go even further and break from the state Church of England, were taking this same movement to its next logical step.  The English kings and queens had localized church-state power within their own domain, separating from what they considered to be foreign influence when they created their own state church.  The Church of England was modeled on the Catholic church but turned to the use of English and the elimination of many Catholic doctrines.  Most important among these was the idea of papal infallibility.

English culture, before America was even formed, had turned away from supernaturalism to naturalism, and Pope Leo XIII is correct to some extent in noting that Freemasonry emerged in the full flower of the 18th century, this Age of Reason, in which the philosophy of naturalism was fully in the accendent among intellectuals.  It is important to realize that such ideas were planted in America at its beginning and have been taken for granted, written into our Constitution, making the United States almost unique among nations for adopting the idea of the separation of church and state.  At the beginning of the 21st century, people have forgotten what a big deal this was and why.  But we need only look to the theocracies that still thrive in other parts of the world to imagine what Catholic Europe was like.

I do not mean by such remarks to condemn any of the religions involved but I do personally believe that the union of church and state is an evil.  Pope Leo XIII thought quite the reverse.  To unite the Catholic Church with state governments was the only way to ensure the morality of those governments.  Only the teaching and pressure provided by the Papacy could prevent the return of the sort of monstrous evil that Europe saw in its rulers in earlier ages.  It was taken as obvious that pagan princes and emperors of the Greco-Roman world were the worst kind of perverse tyrants and that society was awash in sinful behavior.  Leo complains about the return of licentiousness and luxury in the Europe of his time and blames it on the radicals, naturalists, and Freemason who have eroded respect for clerical rule.  We can see exactly the same complaints being made today in Afghanistan and Iran and other theocratic states.

“Naturalism” becomes the boogey man just as Westernization, Americanism, or Capitalism have been used as boogey men by various regimes.  Indeed in the Capitalist West “Communism” was the boogey man which had to be destroyed because it was the radical enemy of Us.  Pope Leo evokes the Us versus Them mentality that has been taught by Christian leaders for so many centuries at the beginning of Humanum Genus.There he follows St. Augustine’s idea of the universe divided into two camps, one founded by God and one by Satan; the former is founded on love of God and that latter on hatred for Him.  This model of the universe lies at the center of Christian thinking and is a real bugbear.  It prevents any middle ground, any subtlety of reasoning, and indeed any doubt.  You are either Us or Them, the Catholic Church (the only true religion) or else you are in league with Satan, whether you know it or not.  You don’t have to believe in Satan or even in supernaturalism.  In fact if you deny the existence of either of these things in reality, that just goes to prove how deluded you are by the wily arts of the great Enemy.

As a writer of Fantasy, I find this bugbear particularly annoying because it seeps into the genre of Fantasy to the point of being hackneyed.  How many books or movies can you count that are predicated on Good versus Evil in which these two vague forces are personified by a Hero and an Antihero. Once could almost say that this structure is the foundation of Western literature.  And that is because it is the foundation of Western Thought since the birth of Christian doctrine.  Indeed, two literary works did more to promote this idea as Truth than any number of papal bulls.  Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost developed the personificaton of absolute Evil into a stock character of Romance.

So, this great imaginary battle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil militarizes our whole way of thinking and causes many to think of the world in terms of this great cosmic battle.  Every other activity, idea, or freedom is put aside in the name of the War on Evil.  When someone comes along and suggests that we are talking about a myth and that War, in fact, is rather evil in its very nature, that person typically gets shouted down and called a lunatic.  But it is our whole culture that has been in the grips of this lunacy, I am afraid.  Druid of old understood that war was a bad idea, a stupid, destructive, and vain way to try to solve differences between peoples or factions.  Popes on the other hand have made a business out of promoting war.  Even when they embrace the idea of peace in a modern world, as some popes have done, the deep structure of they mythos is based on the War between God and Satan — what we might very easily call “The War on Terror.”

Such a cosmology, especially when a religon insists that it is factually true and not a myth at all, is insidious in shaping the minds of everyone who is exposed to it.  Ironically, the Protestant Reformation, while it broke from the temporal powers of the pope-kings and removed much of the pomp and glamour of Catholicism, only raised the myth of the War between God and the Devil as a central dogma to a fever pitch.  The Devil was everywhere, the reformers said, even in the papacy, so that constant vigillance was required to prevent temptation from entering one’s heart and planting there the seeds of vice.

Freemasonry responded to these irrational and supernatural ways of thinking by questioning their premises.  When whole institutions take as a premise that (a) there is only one true God, and (b) He has revealed all truth and right thinking to Man through the Bible and his chosen Apostles, including the Papacy, and (c) that the whole cosmos is divided into two warring camps whose war will not end until the End Times; then one will arrive at long strings of logic that are utterly untenable to anyone who does not accept those premises.  And those three statements above are exactly that: logical premises, postulates if you will, that are simply taken on authority as a starting point for all rational thought within Catholicism and many other branches of Christian churchdom.

Freemasonry, while trying to maintain the utmost respect for individual conscience in the matter of supernatural beiefs, and while actually requiring that a man profess a belief in some sort of God or Supreme Being, does not accept any of the above postulates.  Instead, under the influence of Naturalism and Rationalism during the 18th century, it takes as a postulate that we learn about God (however we imagine that Being) through the mediation of our five senses and the cultivation of our minds through the seven liberal arts.  I am sometimes unsure whether my Christian brothers in the Fraternity fully grasp how this stance differs from that implicit in most branches of Christianity.  For those latter institutions demand from their adherents obedience to church authorities and a belief in divine Revelation through the Biblical scriptures.  Moreover, even when they actively encourage their adherents to study those scriptures they seldom provide the framework necessary to understand them as historical documents written by men.

Pope Leo XIII in 1884 was surrounded by radicals demanding an end to Vatican power and the separation of religion from politics.  They were not demanding the separation of morality from politics but it is not surprising that Leo thought that was ultimately what would result.  Take the Church out of politics and morality goes with it, because one of the pope’s logical premises is that the Mother Church is the only soure of morality and that left to themselves in their “natural” state, Men are sinful and immoral.  It is a good point.  But Freemasons believed that morality could come from other sources and be taught without reference to supernatural dogmas and authorities.  Some even questioned whether God was a necessary element to inspire men to be moral.  And that, of course, was what got Pope Leo so mad.

But most regular Freemasons do not go that far.  They do not toss out God entirely.  Instead they recognize God as a key idea, a key premise, if you will, upon which morality is founded.  Not because moral behavior is founded on obedience to divine laws and commandments or a personification of some supreme Ruler, King of Kings, etc.  Rather because God is the postulated source of moral goodness, personified not as a King but as a loving Father who teaches his sons to be good men and the methods of self improvement within a view of the world that is fundamentally naturalist rather than supernaturalist.

There is, I believe, nothing in Freemasonry’s rituals and teachings that requires a belief in supernaturalism and indeed most of its lessons are drawn from the metaphorical or allegorical interpretation of men’s lives as workmen, managers, or government officials.  Even King Solomon of myth is shown as a Grandmaster of stonemasons and Geometers, not in the usual autocratic role of “King.”  Even when acting as judge over criminals, Solomon acts as the instrument by which they are punished by their own self-condemnation and guilty consciences.

Radicalism has perhaps not gone out of Freemasonry entirely.  One can only presume there are individual Masons who harbor radical ideas when faced with tyrants in the government of their respective nations, but for the most part Masons are admonished within the craft to be good and peaceful citizens.  This charge is no doubt a response to the hysteria of the nineteenth century in which Freemasonry and the lodge was accused of being a “cover” for illegal and subversive activities — subversive of kings and subversive of clericalism.  The hysteria was to some degree justified in that time and in Europe especially.  It spread to America and was sparked into an explosion in the Morgan affair, but there is no evidence that I have ever seen that such subversive or manipulative or illegal activities were ever a part of American Masonry.

In the Italy and France of Pope Leo XIII, things were quite different.  Social movements were indeed working to topple all the old monarchies and the power of the Papacy and by the end of World War I that had been achieved, mostly through the self-immolation of those power elites.  Of course there will always be those among those aristocratic cirlces who are convinced that Freemasons engineered the whole thing.  What they really mean is that the Devil engineered the whole thing and that Freemasons were his instrument.  The habit of calling all your political adversaries “Devil-worshippers” is a great evil, in my way of thinking.  It dehumanizes them and cuts off any possibility of mutual understanding or negotiaton between different social groups.  To the mentality of aristocrats and popes social groups were ordained by God and everyone should learn to be happy where they are, not strive for such ungodly notions as “freedom” or “equality” or “brotherhood.”

But so it goes.


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