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Alta Vendita

I find it hard to take Freemasonry seriously. I have known a few Freemasons and observed others. Most seemed to enjoy belonging to a congenial club away from their wives. Many seemed to regard it rather like a Rotary Club in a provincial town – as useful for advancing their trade, business or employment. I never personally encountered, but read about, several cases where the Masonic practice of helping a brother Mason in distress was clearly exercised in a way which should be illegal.

There has certainly been concern in my lifetime about both the police and the judiciary. Where some judges and policemen failing to exercise their offices impartially and fairly? I am fairly clear that they were, although I have not examined the detailed evidence carefully.

But I find it hard see the Masons as a serious threat. I therefore find the attitude of the Papacy in the two centuries up to about 1970 fairly bewildering. The 1910 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia (available online) lists no less than 17 encyclicals (or similar documents) devoted in whole or in part to papal denunciations of freemasonry, including 6 by Pius IX (earliest 1846, latest 1873), and 5 by Leo XIII (earliest 1884, latest 1902). The best known may be Humanum Genus 1884:

At so urgent a crisis, when so fierce and so pressing an onslaught is made upon the Christian name, it is Our office to point out the danger, to mark who are the adversaries, and to the best of Our power to make head against their plans and devices, that those may not perish whose salvation is committed to Us, and that the kingdom of Jesus Christ entrusted to Our charge may not stand and remain whole, but may be enlarged by an ever-increasing growth throughout the world.

and much, much more (12 closely typed A4 pages).

Arguably, the continental freemasons were more involved in political activity than the English. Freemasons were undoubtedly heavily involved in the French revolution, although to what extent freemasonry itself was involved is debatable. Similarly, various related organisatins, such as the Carbonari and the Alta Vendita were involved in Italian politics, and some of these groups expressed clear hostility to the Church and claimed to be determined to destroy it (see end of next para).

Even in England, there was much more concern about the evils of freemasonry than today. Mgr George Dillons’ short (about 60,000 words) book on the Masons (based on a series of lectures in Edinburgh in 1884) was a best seller at the end of the nineteenth century. It reads fairly strangely today, with serious discussion about the Illuminati, Napoleon, Lord Palmerston, the Black Hand, and the complete text of the “Permanent Instruction to the Alta Vendita” = detailed instructions on how to bring obout the downfall of the papacy over the coming decades or centuries.

From 1739 Catholics were forbidden to become Masons on pain of automatic excommunication, which could only be lifted with the permission of the Pope. This remained the position in the 1917 edition of Canon Law. The 1983 revision removed any direct reference to Freemasonry:

Can. 1374 A person who joins an association which plots against the Church is to be punished with a just penalty; one who promotes or takes office in such an association is to be punished with an interdict.

However, Quaesitum est from the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) in 1983 made clear that the prohibition on membership still stands:

This Sacred Congregation is in a position to reply that [the removal of a direct reference to Masonic associations] is due to an editorial criterion which was followed also in the case of other associations likewise unmentioned inasmuch as they are contained in wider categories.

Therefore the Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic association remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.

It is not within the competence of local ecclesiastical authorities to give a judgment on the nature of Masonic associations which would imply a derogation from what has been decided above …

So the automatic excommunication is no longer imposed, but Catholics are still forbidden to be freemasons.


I first got interested in this because of the summary dismissal of Archbishop Bugnini in 1975 from his position as Secretary, Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW). He had effectively been in control of the work to reform the Roman Rite after the Second Vatican Council. The CDW was summarily wound up, or rather merged with the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments. Bugnini was dispatched to spend most of the rest of his life as Nuncio in Iran. It turned out that he had been accused of being a freemason. Pope Paul VI was apparently horrified.

I am still reading Bugnini’s own account – The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, ISBN 0814515716, a massive tome of almost a thousand pages. But it looks to me as though he was falsely accused. At that time, debate about the reform was at its height. Many conservative clergy and laity were appalled at what they saw as the destruction of one of the finest treasures of the Church.


Indeed, some went much further. The Abbe de Nantes delivered a 60,000 word “Complaint to Our Holy Father Pope Paul VI … against our brother in faith Pope Paul VI on account of heresy, schism and scandal”, asking him to convict himself for allowing modernism to run riot at Vatican 2 and since. In particular, he accused the Pope of being a Mason, although this was probably not meant literally:

And what do you offer [mankind]? Christ? The Law of the Gospel? The Grace of the Sacraments? Not a bit of it, only this, which is surely a descent from the sublime to the ridiculous: “We must come closer to one another, not merely through press and radio, by boat or by jet aircraft, but with our hearts, by mutual understanding, esteem and love.” You remain on the human level, leaving religion out of your flights of fancy. The love of man from which you expect so much is based on the cult of man himself. You are a Mason, if a Christian one. But it is the Mason that speaks in you, and never the Christian.

There is a certain logic in this extreme traditionalist approach. They wish to uphold pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism, in particularly the infallibility of the Pope, proclaimed at Vatican 1, and to dismiss Vatican 2. But Pope Paul VI personally approved all the Vatican 2 documents, and the subsequent reform to the Roman rite. The only way around that is to attack Paul VI (and his successors) as heretical and hence anti-popes, who do not benefit from infallibility.

It is always a question whether it is worth responding to apparently outlandish opinions. If one’s initial instinct is that they are dotty, but it is clear that substantial work is involved in a detailed rebuttal, is that a sensible use of time? Is it worth it anyway? Experience with conspiracy theories, for example, is that those holding them are not interested in examining the evidence objectively, they just slightly shift their ground to avoid your rebuttal.

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