Decree Against Freemasons (1738):
Churches v. Freemasonry
It was on this date, April 28, 1738, that Pope Clement XII (Lorenzo Corsini) issued the first papal decree against the Freemasons. The origin of the organization is obscure. Some rather fantastically claim that it grew up in Ancient Egypt, pointing to the evident masonry of the pyramids; others, more plausibly, claim that Freemasonry is a survival of the Ancient Roman guilds or unions that supported the craft and its members. Modern Freemasonry only dates from 1717, with the formation of the Grand Lodge of England.
It is not required to be a working mason to be a member, but the essential qualification for admittance is a belief in a Supreme Being. This should have been enough for the Catholic Church, but for the secret oath-bound nature of the society. Can't have any secrets in confession, you know. Clement's condemnatory Constitution, dated 28 April 1738, insisted on the objectionable character of societies that commit men of all or no religion to a system of mere natural righteousness, without reference to Mary or Jesus or even the Pope. The charge that Freemasonry — whose official purposes are brotherhood, charity and truth — was also plotting "against the tranquility of the State," was another excuse to censure them when Benedict XIV renewed the condemnation of his predecessor in 1751 (18 May). There have been 15 more censures since then, down to Pope Leo XIII, in 1890. (15 October)
It wasn't until 1877 that the French variety of Freemasonry cut out references to the "Grand Architect" and, consequently, declined to require a belief in God or immortality. This caused a split between the English and American lodges on the one side, and the French and Swiss lodges on the other. Though decrying the secrecy of Freemasonry, the Catholic Church apparently has no problem with its own secret organizations, such as Opus Dei — founded in 1928 and claiming several members in the highest reaches of US government — although Catholics finesse this by calling their own organization "private."
Originally published April 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.