Q. Has the Catholic Church lifted its condemnation of the Masons?
A. Much has been written about Freemasonry and the Catholic Church in recent years, with some writers suggesting that the condemnation of Freemasonry has in fact been lifted. But the truth is that Catholics are still forbidden to belong to any Masonic group, because the principles of Masonry are incompatible with the Catholic faith.
According to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a Catholic incurred the penalty of automatic excommunication if he joined the Masons (cf. Canon 2335, CIC 1917). While Masonic groups are not specifically mentioned in the current Code of Canon Law (1983), membership in such groups is prohibited by virtue of canon 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.”
Since Masonry is not specifically mentioned in the 1983 Code, a question was posed to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and its response, signed by then prefect, now Pope Benedict XVI, and specifically approved by the reigning Roman Pontiff, St. John Paul II, stated: “Therefore the Church’s negative judgment in regard to Masonic associations 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” (CDF, Quaesitum Est, November 26, 1983).
The U.S. bishops returned to this topic in 1985 and added this helpful clarification about the different ways Masonry was treated in the 1917 Code (penalty of excommunication) and the 1983 Code (gravely immoral, but no specific canonical penalty):
“What is at stake is the distinction between penal law and morality. There is a difference between the two. Not everything that is immoral is penalized in the church. Nor can one conclude from the fact that penal law does not cover some sin or that it is removed from it (or changed), that it is permissible to commit it.
“A clear example of this is abortion. Even if the excommunication were removed from abortion, it would still be wrong. Similarly, even if the excommunication was removed from joining an organization that plotted against the Church, it would still be wrong to join such an organization” (Cardinal Bernard Law, “Letter of April 19, 1985, to U.S. Bishops Concerning Masonry”).