Paul Hale rolls up his trousers and investigates a dispute most of had thought long gone

Can you be a Christian and a Freemason? This question has become topical once again following the Bishop of Rochester’s intervention to prevent the Dean from recognizing the financial contribution made by the East and West Kent Freemasons to the new fresco in Rochester Cathedral on the commemorative plaque placed next to it. Interviewed by the Church of England Newspaper, Bishop Michael said that his decision was informed by the 1987 Synod Report Christianity and Freemasonry – are they compatible? which answered No. However, he is taken to task in the current issue of Freemasonry Today for claiming authority for a document that was ‘commended for discussion’ only.

Italian connection

The same magazine carries a report that the new Grand Master of the Regular Grand Lodge of Italy, Professor Fabio Venzi, has just appointed a Roman Catholic priest to be Grand Chaplain, a move he describes as ‘an historic step’ which he trusts will lead to reconciliation with the Catholic Church. The article congratulates the Italians for adopting the English model of Freemasonry (Grand Lodge) in place of the anticlerical continental brand (Grand Orient).

Professor Venzi’s hopes will not be fulfilled if Fr Ashley Beck is right. In his informative new CTS booklet, Freemasonry and the Christian Faith, he refers to the 1970s meetings between Cardinal Heenan and influential Masons which gave the impression that the ban on Catholics being Freemasons might be lifted. Then along came the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the bishops were told in no uncertain terms that, though not mentioned by name, ‘Masonic Associations’ – including the Anglo-Saxon Grand Lodge – remained ‘plots against the Church.’

Since Clement XII issued the first papal condemnation of ‘the Craft’ in 1738, evidence of such Masonic conspiracies abounds, but Fr Beck argues that the unwavering hostility of the papacy to Freemasonry has not only been caused by the political threat it has posed but on its ‘theological outlook.’ This is deist (God is called The Grand Architect of the Universe), an understanding quite contrary to the belief that God is revealed in Christ. The claims of Christ as the source of salvation are relativized, in favour of a naturalistic religion which supposedly comprehends all particular faiths. Thus ‘the Christian faith of the Christian Mason becomes incidental,’ and the rituals of Freemasonry with their promise of ‘enlightenment’ loom large instead.

Whiff of Pelagianism

While acknowledging the charitable giving characteristic of Freemasonry, Fr Beck finds aspects of this problematic from a Christian perspective: ‘there is a system of recognizing how much individual brothers give, the award of the Charity Jewel – medals and bars on medals are awarded according to specific sums of money given,’ which contrasts of course with Our Lord’s injunction that ‘your almsgiving must be secret.’

He sees Pelagianism in all this: the Mason does not need grace since he is making progress by his own efforts. Fr Beck concludes his critique by arguing that the social exclusiveness of Freemasonry is contrary to recent papal teaching on the virtue of solidarity, while another exclusion it operates, that of women, who are by nature cowans, viz, among the uninitiated, ‘contradicts so clearly what Christians believe about the equality of men and women before God’.

Fr Beck is of the opinion that ‘the Craft is much weaker in the Church of England than at any time in its history’, due in part to the increased influence of Evangelicalism. But he expresses surprise that Masons are sometimes to be found ‘in churches of an Anglo-Catholic tradition where there is a strong desire for reunion with the Holy See.’ So perhaps even now there are Anglo-Catholics, as well as other sorts of Christians, who find no incompatibility between professing their faith and being a member of the Freemasons? Is this the sort of subject that can be discussed in public, or is it, as so often, best kept covered by embarrassed silence?