In the Royal Albert Hall last week, an all-seeing eye above a circle and compass gazed down on thousands of men dressed in aprons and lavishly embroidered collars. The jewels of their regalia sparkled in the beam of spotlights.

English Freemasonry was celebrating its 300th anniversary, in a spectacular ceremony attended by its Grand Master, the Duke of Kent, and the grand masters of around 140 overseas grand lodges. The brethren sang the National Anthem and Jerusalem – a reminder that the origins of Freemasonry lie in England.

Among them were more than a few Catholics. The Catholic Herald spoke to two of them – but they asked not to be named. The Church has forbidden its members to become masons since 1738, under penalty of excommunication. In 1983 Cardinal Ratzinger repeated the Church’s prohibition, stating unequivocally: “The faithful who enrol in masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”

But is this fair? Did the future Benedict XVI really understand the nature of the organisation banned by the Church?

Grand Lodge Freemasonry, which sprang up in England in the 17th century, is often confused by continental Catholics with its offshoot, Grand Orient Freemasonry, which has flourished in Europe since the era of the French Revolution. The latter does not require masons to believe in a Supreme Being. It also allows political discussion in lodges and is traditionally anticlerical. The Catholic Church understandably reacted against it, accusing it of promoting atheism.

By contrast, belief in a divine “Great Architect” is one of the cornerstones of Grand Lodge Freemasonry, both in England and in associated international lodges. However, no discussion of religion is allowed in the lodge. Politics, too, is off limits.

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