Your friends are mistaken. In the early 1980s, there was confusion over Catholic involvement in the Masons because the 1983 Code of Canon Law didn’t specifically prohibit membership (unlike the 1917 Code). That led to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith issuing the following clarification in November 1983: “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 enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.” This statement was approved by Pope John Paul II, who ordered it to be published.
So why can’t Catholics join the Masons? The answer is based in their belief system. The Masons emerged from the old masonic guilds of the Middle Ages and formally organized as a fraternal order in England in the early 1700s. (Originally they were
anti-Catholic, although that has largely fallen by the wayside.) Masonic beliefs reflected Enlightenment values: professing faith in a monotheistic God while downplaying individual doctrines that would cause division between members from different Christian sects. They continued to make use of Christian symbols, albeit devoid of their original meaning. (For example, they have crosses, altars, vestments and worship rituals, but all are used in a non-doctrinal way that negates our most basic beliefs.) There is also a large element of secrecy that violates the transparent relationship a Catholic should have with his or her pastor. It doesn’t matter that not every Masonic lodge is deeply invested in traditional Masonic practices; it should be enough that the Church expressly prohibits membership.
Of course, there are other groups Catholics should not belong to even if the Church has not specifically declared them off-limits. It would be seriously sinful to join any group that attacks human life or dignity, as well as any group that incites violence or discrimination against minorities. The Gospel provides us with the values that should guide us in all our social involvements.
I’ve known Catholics over the years who belonged to the Masons and they operated under the best of intentions. Most of them had no idea it was forbidden and they were drawn by the sense of belonging. All of this can be a good reminder that our parishes should be welcoming places that build close relationships between believers. The more we are able to provide this, the less likely our fellow Catholics will seek it elsewhere.
Father Scott Jones is pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis.