Catholic Freemasons are “certainly not” excommunicated, an Austrian priest and member of Vatican interfaith dialogue body has said.

Enemies of the faith or good Catholics?

Since the 18th century, a succession of popes has condemned Freemasons as secret agents, heretics and enemies of the faith.

But one has to differentiate between “regular” masons – of which there are an estimated two million Catholics worldwide, and in Austria fall under the patronage of the Grand Lodge of England – and the anti-clerical and sectarian European ones, Austrian Vatican official Michael Heinrich Weninger said in Vienna February 12.

That European Grand Orient Lodge of Masons, active mostly in Italy and France, is the lodge that the Church has always been bent on condemning, the priest explained.

Weninger was presenting his new book, Loge und Altar, which explains in its almost 500 pages how it is possible to be simultaneously a Catholic and a Mason.

The member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue described how, during his trips around the world, he was repeatedly addressed by Catholic lodge members.

“They described to me their troubles of conscience and mental problems, whether they were actually excommunicated because of their membership [in the lodge]”, said Weninger.

“And I told them with a clear conscience that they weren’t”.

Confusion between canon law and a CDF directive

Weninger said the confusion over whether Catholics Masons are excommunicated stems from a contradiction between the 1983 Code of Canon Law – which removed the condemnation of Freemasonry contained in the 1917 code – and a damning declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), also from 1983 and one day before the 1983 Code came into force.

Though the CDF declaration is not binding under canon law, it does have a certain theological weight, Weninger admitted.

The Lichtenau Declaration (1970)

But still, Weninger recalled, that CDF condemnation of Freemasonry does not undo all the dialogue begun in the late 1960s by the then Archbishop of Vienna and president of the Secretariat for Non-Believers, Cardinal Franz König.

König held talks with Austrian, German and Swiss Freemasons in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), in the light of which Freemasonry in the Church was reconsidered.

That dialogue culminated with the 1970 Lichtenau Declaration, explained Weninger – sponsored by Masons and the Secretariat for Non-Believers and the CDF – which affirmed that Masonry was not a threat to the Church and recommended that all Church sanctions against Masons be lifted.

The Lichtenau Declaration also said former condemnations of Masons “are now only historically significant and no longer relevant in our time”, and added that such censures are unbecoming of “a Church that follows God’s commandment in teaching fraternal love”, recalled Weninger.

A Vatican gesture of reconciliation?

For his part, current Austrian Grand Master and committed Catholic Georg Semler welcomed Weninger’s book in the presentation Wednesday in Vienna.

Semler reiterated the Lichtenau Declaration point that Freemasonry is not a religion, and has in common with the Catholic Church the command to love one’s neighbour.

Semler said he looked forward, however, to an official gesture of reconciliation towards the Freemasons on the part of the Vatican, which could include a meeting between Grand Masters and Pope Francis, or even between Grand Masters and the Prefect of the CDF.

Weninger underlined that he had already given copies of his book to Archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, to high-ranking officials in the Roman Curia and even to Pope Francis himself.

The response from Schönborn, at least? “Nothing but goodwill”, according to Weninger.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.