[Note: For the last 18 months prominent online California "E-Mason's" have been posting copies of an ambivalently written letter
by a Californian Roman Catholic Judicial Vicar on the Church's current postion in regard to Masonic membership and Roman Catholics.]
On 15 September 2000 I wrote a letter in which I gave my opinion in answer to the question you had asked, "whether a practicing Catholic may join a Masonic lodge." As you know, I gave a qualified affirmative reply "at least for Catholics in the United States, I believe the answer is probably yes." My qualification was based on two points, uncertainty about the beliefs and teachings of Freemasonry, especially as this may vary locally, and uncertainty about the interpretation and application of the statement issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 26 November 1983. I concluded that the historical development of the Church's law was away from a blanket prohibition to a case-by-case assessment of what constitutes an association forbidden to Catholics.
As a result of my letter having been posted on several Masonic websites and of various inquiries this generated, it has come to my attention that my analysis was faulty, and accordingly I need to retract my opinion. I realize this will create much consternation, and I apologize for that. Please let me explain.
In early 1985 the Congregation mentioned above published an explanation of its position as given in the November 1983 statement. The explanation can be found in the English edition of the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano (11 March 1985, page 2) under the title "Irreconcilability between Christian faith and Freemasonry. Reflections a year after declaration of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."
The key point in the argument is that the system of symbols common to Freemasons around the world (centering on the Architect of the Universe and given added weight by the rule of secrecy) tends to foster a "supraconfessional humanitarian" way of conceiving the divine that neutralizes or replaces the faith dimension of our relationship with God. Even though given lodges may abstain from endorsing any particular position, including one that considers religious faith to be a matter of indifference (i.e., nothing more than a matter of personal preference), the contemporary world's social atmosphere of moral and religious relativism creates a climate in which a merely humanitarian symbol system works to undermine the religious faith by which we receive God's revelation.
It was for this reason that the Congregation declared that local church authorities are not competent to give a judgment on the nature of Masonic associations, and has reserved to itself the right to make any such pronouncements. Because of the serious danger posed to individual Catholics by the subtle but real influence of symbols described above, the Congregation declared that it would be objectively a grave sin for a Catholic to join a Masonic lodge. The prohibition from receiving Holy Communion is meant to highlight the gravity of the situation.
Let me add that the Congregation's explanation explicitly acknowledges "the efforts made by those who, with the due authorization of this Congregation, have sought to establish a dialogue with representatives of Freemasonry." I hope that this dialogue continues and that it will serve to clarify the philosophical, theological, and anthropological principles by which we understand our roles in human society.
I regret that my earlier letter has undoubtedly led people to misunderstand the concern behind the official statement of the Church's position regarding membership in Masonic societies. I ask that my letter of 15 September 2000 be removed from all websites and be replaced with this new letter.
Rev. Thomas C. Anslow