On June 24, 1717, at least fouri pre-existing Masonic lodges of London, England came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house (tavern) in St. Paul’s Church-yard to form a governing Grand Lodge; electing Anthony Sayer as their first Grand Master. This organizational meeting was preceded by one previously held in 1716 at the Apple Tree Tavern in Covent Garden where they agreed to form a Grand Lodge. There is no immediate alarm to be had that these lodges met in taverns, as these establishments of food, drink, and entertainment were usually the only available public meeting places for assemblies at the time.
To be sure, this idea of a governing body over local Masonic lodges was a modern innovation in Freemasonry. While this 1717 organization was the first of its kind, by the time Pope Clement XII would release his Papal Bull In Eminenti (On Freemasonry) on April 28, 1738, there would be Masonic Grand Lodges in England, Ireland, France, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, and even three in new colonies (Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina). This small number of Grand Lodges does not account for the hundreds of subordinate lodges spread throughout Europe and North America that were beholden to them at the time.
There is no question to the fact that the creation of the Grand Lodge structure aided significantly in the explosive growth, longevity, and peace-from-within that the Masonic Order would enjoy for centuries to come.
Yet, there was no peace to be held from without in regards to the Catholic Church. Exactly two hundred years after the establishment of the premier Grand Lodge of the world, the Roman Catholic Church would still have this to say about the Masonic Order in canon #2335 in its 1917 Code of Canon Law:ii
- “Persons joining associations of the Masonic sect or any others of the same kind which plot against the Church and legitimate civil authorities contract excommunication simply reserved to the Apostolic See.”
This Canon and the one that would eventually replace it in 1983 are merely succinct capsules of a very long history of exhaustive statements concerning the perspicuous Roman Catholic position and interdicts against the global Masonic order (i.e. the systems, practices, principles, and institutions of Freemasonry).
Words and phrases in these canons, such as ‘Masonic sect’, ‘any others’ ‘associations’ ‘plots against the Church’, and ‘promotes or directs’ that we read in the canons cannot be rightly understood outside of their original context found in the Papal bulls, encyclicals, constitutions, and allocutions that were written against Freemasonry. Indeed, these words and phrases are rooted the historical language of the Roman Catholic Church, as expressed in 17 documents, written by eight different Popes over a period of 164 years, from 1738 to 1902.iii
What happened? How did these institutions arrive at this point? How did the Masonic Order go from being a group of gentlemen meeting in local taverns in northern Europe to being, arguably, enemy number two (right behind Satan) of the Catholic Church?
This paper will explore the purpose and motives behind the first historical document of the Roman Catholic Church on Freemasonry that would end up shaping the language and position of all future statements of the Church against Masonic order and all similar associations.
1738 – Freemasonry
The Masonic degree system had been evolving for some time, but by 1738 the craft lodge system of three distinct degrees was in place, and the third degree (i.e. Master Mason) was becoming more popular throughout Europe and in the new colonies.
By 1738 there had been at least twelve exposes written about Freemasonry,iv but probably none more popular than Masonry Dissected, first written in 1730 by Samuel Pritchard, who styled himself as a late member of a constituted Lodge in London.
The Masonic order was growing quickly throughout the world; primarily through British maritime merchant activities and military soldiers. Prominent men from the aristocracy were becoming members. The Order was also making enemies just as quickly. By 1738 the Protestant governments of Holland (1735), Sweden (1738), and Geneva (1738) had all taken measures against Freemasonry. The next enemy it would make would be the Roman Catholic Church.
Anderson’s Constitution, which was originally published in 1723 to be a rule book of the 1717 Grand Lodge of London and Westminster to standardize the rituals, membership, and organization structure of the lodges and Grand Lodge, was amended slightly and republished in this year after the premier Grand Lodge changed its name to the Grand Lodge of England. Yet, already, Presbyterian Reverend James Anderson’s (c. 1679/1680 – 1739) rulebook had become the first Masonic book printed in the colonies by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1734. Anderson’s Constitutions are said to be based on the old Masonic manuscripts (i.e. the Gothic Constitutions) and on the General Regulations, which had been compiled first by George Payne in 1720.
A key chapter in Anderson’s constitution, in regards to this topic, is found in article one ‘Of God and Religion’. Both the Modern (1717) and the Ancient (1751) Grand Lodge versions of the first article of Freemasonry were very similar, as well as the version they agreed upon at their merger in 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England, but the purposes here I will quote the 1738 version:
- “A Mason is obliged by his tenure to observe the moral law as a true Noachide; and if he rightly understands the Craft, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine, nor act against conscience. In ancient Times, the Christian Masons were charged to comply with the Christian usages of each country where they traveled or worked; being found in all nations, even of diverse religions. They are generally charged to adhere to that religion in which all men agree (leaving each brother to his own particular opinions); that is, to be good men and true, men of honor and honesty, by whatever names, religions, or persuasions they may be distinguished; for they all agree in the three great articles of Noah, enough to preserve the cement of the lodge. Thus Masonry is the Center of Union, and the happy means of conciliating persons that otherwise must have remained at a perpetual distance.”
This first article holds that Freemasonry teaches that religion is a mere ‘opinion’, that it is good enough to be good, true, honorable, and honest (i.e. “probity”), and that Masonry is the true source of reconciliation. It would have been this very first rule of Freemasonry that Pope Clement XII would have pointed to as proof that Freemasonry teaches indifferentism (that it is unsectarian), and by such, is an error, vice, and danger to (plot against) the Catholic Church.
1738 – Pope Clement XII
Pope Clement XII was born Lorenzo on April 7, 1652, into the Corsini aristocratic family that had produced a cardinal of the Catholic Church in every generation for one hundred years They even had a saint in the family; Saint Andrew Corsini (1302 – 1373), a Carmelite friar and Bishop of Fiesole.
Lorenzo was educated at the Collegio Romano at the University of Pisa, and after his father and his cardinal uncle died in 1685, he renounced his inheritance as the eldest son and entered the clergy. By 1690 he was the Archbishop of Nicomedia, and in 1706 Pope Clement XI made him a cardinal priest. Pope Benedict XIII elevated him to the headship of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. After Benedict XIII died in 1730 a four-month-long conclave ensued, which finally elected Lorenzo, who then took the name Clement XII in honor of his benefactor. He was seventy-eight years of age at the time and would exercise his Petrine ministry until his death in on February 6, 1740.
Pope Clement’s first year in office was extremely productive. He worked to repair the finances of the Church, which were ruined by his predecessor, by bringing to trial and imprisoning Cardinal Coscia for embezzlement, and forcing Benedict XIII’s other assistants to repay the monies they had stolen. To further refill the papal coffers, Clement XII relaunched the lottery system, issued paper money, taxed imports, and created a free-port at Ancona. He also drained marshes and built aqueducts. By year two of his papacy, he became totally blind and bedridden with gout and a hernia. He would spend the rest of his pontificate governing from his bed, but no less ambitiously, with the help of his nephew Neri Maria Cardinal Corsini (1685 – 1770).
One of the most lasting actions of Pope Clement XII’s papacy was the issuance of the Papal Bull In Eminenti (On Freemasonry) on April 28, 1738. Space here permits me to quote the second and last two paragraphs of this document, which are most essential to the topic of this paper.
- “Now it has come to Our ears, and common gossip has made clear, that certain Societies, Companies, Assemblies, Meetings, Congregations or Conventicles called in the popular tongue Liberi Muratori or Francs Massons or by other names according to the various languages, are spreading far and wide and daily growing in strength; and men of any Religion or sect, satisfied with the appearance of natural probity, are joined together, according to their laws and the statutes laid down for them, by a strict and unbreakable bond which obliges them, both by an oath upon the Holy Bible and by a host of grievous punishment, to an inviolable silence about all that they do in secret together. But it is in the nature of the crime to betray itself and to show itself by its attendant clamor. Thus these aforesaid Societies or Conventicles have caused in the minds of the faithful the greatest suspicion, and all prudent and upright men have passed the same judgment on them as being depraved and perverted. For if they were not doing evil they would not have so great a hatred of the light. Indeed, this rumor has grown to such proportions that in several countries these societies have been forbidden by the civil authorities as being against the public security, and for some time past have appeared to be prudently eliminated.
“Wherefore We command most strictly and in virtue of holy obedience, all the faithful of whatever state, grade, condition, order, dignity or pre-eminence, whether clerical or lay, secular or regular, even those who are entitled to specific and individual mention, that none, under any pretext or for any reason, shall dare or presume to enter, propagate or support these aforesaid societies of Liberi Muratori or Francs Massons, or however else they are called, or to receive them in their houses or dwellings or to hide them, be enrolled among them, joined to them, be present with them, give power or permission for them to meet elsewhere, to help them in any way, to give them in any way advice, encouragement or support either openly or in secret, directly or indirectly, on their own or through others; nor are they to urge others or tell them, incite or persuade them to be enrolled in such societies or to be counted among their number, or to be present or to assist them in any way; but they must stay completely clear of such Societies, Companies, Assemblies, Meetings, Congregations or Conventicles, under pain of excommunication for all the above mentioned people, which is incurred by the very deed without any declaration being required, and from which no one can obtain the benefit of absolution, other than at the hour of death, except through Ourselves or the Roman Pontiff of the time.
“Moreover, We desire and command that both Bishops and prelates, and other local ordinaries, as well as inquisitors for heresy, shall investigate and proceed against transgressors of whatever state, grade, condition, order dignity or pre-eminence they may be; and they are to pursue and punish them with condign penalties as being most suspect of heresy. To each and all of these We give and grant the free faculty of calling upon the aid of the secular arm, should the need arise, for investigating and proceeding against those same transgressors and for pursuing and punishing them with condign penalties.”
Claimed Motives Behind In Eminenti by Freemasons
Some Masonic historians posit that Pope Clement XII’s objection to Freemasonry was not ideological at all. They say that it had something to do with the Pope attempting to reclaim influence Florence, Parma, and Piacenza, and reassert control over Naples and Sicily that had just been conquered by Spain. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francis Stephen (soon to be the Holy Roman Emperor) had become a Freemason, and Florence, Italy had a number of noblemen living there who had formed the first Italian Masonic Lodge in that city probably in 1733, which was being led by a protestant named Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex (soon to be Duke of Dorset).
At least one troubling problem with this claim is that out of one side of their mouth these historians say that the Pope couldn’t have possibly known for himself anything about the teachings of Freemasonry being that he was blind, infirm, and bedridden. Even if a blind, infirm, and bedridden person were incapable of asking the right questions of the right people, this notion discounts the time that Pope Clement XII spent as head of the headship of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which would have given him firsthand knowledge of the emerging Masonic order. Being that the Pope was blind, infirm, and bedridden they then point to Neri Maria Cardinal Corsini as being the person in charge, yet simultaneously they point to a letter that Neri wrote to his uncle after the Bull on Freemasonry was published in which he assures the Pope that Freemasonry in England is merely an innocent amusement. Surely, if Neri was the secret Pope while Clement XII was blind, infirm, and bedridden then either Neri did not write such a letter, or he was not the secret Pope.
Moreover, I am not altogether sure what degree of interest some Protestant Freemasons from Britain would have taken with a threat of excommunication from the Catholic Church. Also, no papal prohibition against Freemasonry was ever registered with the French parliament, therefore, never legally binding in civil law. The existence of many Catholic clergymen who were Freemasons prior to the French Revolution is evidence is that.
The other Masonic claim is a bit more credible. It says that the motive behind In Eminenti may have more to do with the disturbances and royal influence that Freemasonry was gaining in France and Italy than it had to do with moral and/or religious objections. They point to an incident in Paris, France involving Freemasons. By 1736 Freemasons had increased in the city to the point of having nine different lodges. Among those numbers were the Prince of Cinti, all the Dukes of France and even the Count of Maurepas.vi By March 29, 1737, the police of Paris had forbidden taverns and meeting houses from hosting Masonic meetings, due to a “great Feast” that had caused a degree of property damage.vii They also point to the Florence Freemasons who were quieter, but in 1737 had, nonetheless, earned a visit by the Holy Inquisitor who was sent there by Pope Clement XII to prosecute them at the request of the Duke of Tuscany. Of course, this persecution went nowhere after Francis Stephen succeeded him upon his death in that same year.
The Motives Behind In Eminenti as Delineated in In Eminenti
According to Pope Clement XII, the motives behind In Eminenti to condemn Freemasonry and prohibit Catholics from associating with it in any positive manner were because:
- Freemasonry is an error, vice, danger, and disturbance in the Catholic Church; being such the Orthodox Religion needs to be kept free from it; lest it (Freemasonry) breaks into the household of God like thieves, and like foxes seeking to destroy the vineyard.
- Freemasonry caters towards/relies on/was established on natural probity (i.e. indifferentism) and its own law. It obligates men by an oath on the Bible and by a host of grievous punishment and silence about what they do in secret together.
- Being that Masonic meetings take place in secrecy – lack of transparency – they cause rumor and the faithful to have great suspicious about it.
- Societies like these disturb the peace of the temporal state and well-being of souls.
For next three centuries the Catholic Church would continue follow these findings of Pope Clement XII and reaffirm her perspicuous positions against Freemasonry; most especially in regards to the charge of Freemasonry having a plotting indifferentism towards all monotheistic religions; particularly towards the true faith of Catholicism.
- i There is a dispute as to whether there were four lodges in attendance with some ‘unattached’ older Freemasons present, or whether there were actually six lodges in attendance that would account for all those who voted.
ii The 1917 Code of Canon Law was replaced with a newer version in 1983 which states, “A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; however, a person who promotes or directs an association of this kind is to be punished with an interdict.”
iii Constitution In Eminenti (1738) Pope Clement XII, Providas (1751) Pope Benedict XIV, Ecclesiam (1821) Pope Pius VII, Quo graviora (1826) Pope Leo XII, Encyclical Traditi Humilitati (1829) Pope Piux VIII, Mirari Vos (1832) Pope Gregory XVI. Six by Pope Pius IX include Encyclical Qui pluribus (1846), Allocution Quibus quantisque malis (1849), Encyclical Quanta cura (1864), Allocution Multiplices inter (1865), Constitution Apostolicae Sedis (1869), and Encyclical Etsi multa (1873). Five by Pope Leo XIII include Encyclical Etsi nos (1882), Ab Apostolici (1890), Encyclical Humanum genus (1884), Praeclara (1894), Annum ingress (against Italian Freemasonry) (1902).
iv A Mason’s Examination (1723), The Grand Mystery of Freemasons Discovered (1724), The Secret History of Freemasonry (1724), The Whole Institution of Free-Masons Opened (1725), The Grand Mystery of the Free Masons Discover’d, Wherein are the Several Questions Put to Them at Their Meetings and Installations, also Their Oath, Health, Signs, Points to Know Each Other by, etc. (1725), The Grand Mystery Laid Open, or the Free Masons Signs and Words Discovered (1726), The Mystery of Freemasonry (1730).
v Sources for these claims online can be found at http://www.quintestalbans.com/freemasonry-controversy.php (retrieval date: 05/01/2014), and http://www.masonicnetwork.org/blog/history/proven-history-afer-1700ce/ (retrieval date: 05/01/2014).
vi Read, Will. The Church of Rome and Freemasonry. Ars Quator Cornoatorum Transactions. Vol 104. (1991).
- Anderson, James, Anderson’s Constitutions of 1738.
Coil, Henry W. Freemasonry Through Six Centuries. Vol. I. Richmond, VA. Macoy Publishing Co. 1967.
Coil, Henry W. Gothic Constitutions, Richmond, VA. Macoy Publishing Co. 1996.
Gould, Robert Freke. The History of Freemasonry, its Antiquities, Symbols, Constitutions, Customs, etc. Vol. III. New York, John C Yorston & Co., Publishers. 1886.
Laux, John. Church History: A History of the Catholic Church to 1940. Charlotte, NC. Tan Books. 1989.
Mackey, Albert G. Those Terrible Exposures!. Short Talk Bulletin Series. Vol. XXX, No.7. Washington, D.C. Masonic Service Association, July 1952.
Read, Will. The Church of Rome and Freemasonry. Ars Quator Cornoatorum Transactions. Vol. 104. 1991.
Waite, Arthur E. The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry. Volume 1. Facsimile reprint. Whitefish, Montana. Kessinger Publishing LLC. 1992.
Wilson, Peter Hamish. German armies: War and German Politics, 1648-1806. London. University College London Press. 1998.