Not a Crime, But a Sin?
AXEL POHLMANN REPORTS ON DISCUSSIONS BETWEEN FREEMASONRY AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
For the first time in twenty years, Catholic priests and laymen met in an open and mostly friendly discussion with a representative of German masonry in November 2003.
There has been a long silence between the Catholic Church and masonic institutions in Germany since the Conference of German Bishops pronounced an unequivocal ban on Catholic membership in all masonic lodges in 1980. At the time, this came as a surprise to German Brethren, as a decade of seemingly friendly and open discussions between representatives of German and Austrian masonry and of the churches of both countries had originally led to a declaration of good will, instigated by the Viennese Cardinal König, and then carried to Rome to influence the new Code of Canon Law, the Catholic book of church law. The surprise was particularly bitter as the Church, in an aftermath of bad faith, styled the discussions as an inquest on masonry.
All hopes of Catholic masons then centred on the amendment of the Canon Law which until then had expressly condemned membership of masonic lodges, with the consequence of automatic excommunication and refusal of church burial. In fact, Canon Law was amended in 1983. Masonic lodges are no longer mentioned in church law, and excommunication may only strike members of any organisation which 'plots against the Church'. In fact, the Law only specifically threatens with interdiction someone 'who promotes or takes office in such an association.¹
Nevertheless, only days before the promulgation of the new Law in January 1983, the German Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith - previously known as the Inquisition - stated that membership in masonic lodges remained incompatible with being a Catholic. At this point, German masons gave up any hopes of reconciliation of the Church with its 'lost Brethren'. The formula was and is: it is not we who have a problem with the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church which has a problem with us.
Masonry and the Church
During November 2003 the Academy of the Catholic Church of Würzburg (Bavaria) held a one-day seminar, open to all interested persons, on the topic of 'Masonry and Church'. A Jesuit priest, Dr. Reinhold Sebott, professor of Church Law in Frankfurt, together with the director of the legal department of the Hamburg archdiocese, Klaus Kottmann, reported on the history of the difficult, sometimes violent, and always uneasy, relationship between Catholicism and Freemasonry, and on the current situation.
The writer, who is a member of the Senate of the United Grand Lodges of Germany and Chairman of its Committee on Foreign Relations, tried to give an outline of the many facets of masonry as a whole and German masonry in particular to an audience of 60 men and women, among them Catholic priests and a locally prominent member of the Christian Socialist Union party, the ruling political party in Bavaria.
It certainly came as a surprise to many listeners that both Catholic law experts hold the clear view that a Catholic's membership of a masonic lodge does not necessarily mean that he is not on good terms with his church. It seems important enough for Catholics all over the world to quote their result literally:
1.] The Code of Canon Law as amended in 1983, in contrast to its predecessor, no longer threatens a Catholic who is a member of a masonic lodge with ecclesiastical sanction.
2.] The declaration of the German bishops of 1980 on the incompatibility of membership of the Catholic Church with masonic membership was extended to the whole Church by the corresponding declaration of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 1983.
3.] These declarations mean that a Catholic's membership of a masonic lodge seems to be impossible and thus is disapproved on a moral, not necessarily criminal, basis.
4.] Only by examining the individual case may the Church shed light on whether this Catholic by his convictions fulfils other criminal offences such as heresies or apostasies which might lead to consequences.
5.] But when a Catholic in his conscience comes to the conclusion that the prohibition of membership (incompatibility) pronounced by the official Church is wrong, this decision must be respected by the Church.
This statement is based on the distinction between a crime (a violation of church law) and a sin (a violation of moral law, in this case as defined by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith). As church law does not specifically forbid masonic membership, and the law must be strictly interpreted, there can be no crime in being a member of a lodge - this does not include an association like the former Italian lodge P2. In contrast, a man sins if he knows that it is morally wrong to be a mason; he doesn't sin if he is convinced in his conscience that there is no moral wrong inherent in Masonic membership.
The statement of the experts on Church law may be rendered more comprehensible by an analogy: taking the birth-control pill is not a Church crime, but has been defined a sin by Pope Paul VI. However, the millions of Catholic women taking the pill for good reasons will not be excommunicated. Naturally this is not the Church speaking, but two individual law experts. But they seem to represent the major school of thinking on the subject. Klaus Kottmann quoted the example of a Hamburg mason, a Catholic, who is a member of his local parish council. When he was elected into a council of the archdiocese, he was asked to step down by the authorities, but his membership in the parish council was never challenged. Unfortunately, this is not every Catholic's view. Only in March this year a German lodge was confronted with the problems of one of its Brethren who is also a member of the 'CV', a Catholic brotherhood of students where you remain a member for life. The president of his local club having been advised of this Brother being a Freemason demanded immediate termination of his lodge membership, threatening to disclose his masonic connection to the public if he did not comply, a very substantial threat to somebody making his living as a sales manager with many contacts in his Catholic surroundings.
And what is in store for the future? When Father Sebott was asked whether contacts should be carried on, he said: 'Not as long as the men who made the decisions in the 1980s are in office, including the Pope.' This statement may be negative for the present, but bears hope for the future.
¹ The Code of Canon Law, rev. trans. London (HarperCollins) 1997, p. 305, Canon 1374.
Issue 31, Winter 2005|
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