The Roman Catholic Church has long been an outspoken critic of Freemasonry, and has continually prohibited members from being Freemasons since In Eminenti Specula in 1739. Since the early 1700s, the Vatican has issued several papal bulls forbidding Catholics from becoming Freemasons under threat of excommunication. The Church argues that Masonic philosophy discourages Christian dogmatism, and that it is anti-clerical in intent.
The 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia went as far as to argue that some Masonic ceremonies are anti-Catholic. However, this claim does not appear in subsequent editions.
"The faithful, who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion...."
Quaesitum est clarified the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which did not explicitly list Masonic orders among the secret societies it condemns. This contrasted with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which explicitly declared that joining Freemasonry entailed automatic excommunication. The omission of Masonic orders from the 1983 Canon Law prompted Catholics and Masons to question whether the ban on Catholics becoming Freemasons was still active, especially after the perceived liberalization of the Church after Vatican II.
A number of Catholics became Freemasons assuming that the Church had softened its stance. Quaesitum est addressed this misinterpretation of the Code of Canon Law, clarifying that:
...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."
In May 1739 Tommaso Crudeli, who was a physician and freethinker, was taken into custody and questioned about his heretical beliefs and Masonic affiliation. It was reported in England at the time that he had been tortured, a claim that is still repeated today. He was released in April 1741 and died in January 1745.
Another case involved John Coustos, a Swiss Protestant living in England. He founded a Masonic Lodge in Lisbon and was arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition while traveling on business. After being questioned, he was sentenced to the galley. Three other Portuguese Masons were put to death. Coustos was released in 1744 as a result of the intercession of King George II of England, and after his return to England, wrote a book detailing his experiences at the hands of the Inquisition.
In 1815 Francisco Xavier de Mier y Campillo, the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition and Bishop of Almería, suppressed Freemasonry and denounced the lodges as “societies which lead to sedition, to independence, and to all errors and crimes.” He then instituted a purge during which Spaniards could be arrested on the charge of being "suspected of Freemasonry".
Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790, was a proponent of enlightened absolutism. His ecclesiastical policies of measured toleration and national control of the church, known as Josephinism, were aimed at breaking any real control of the Austrian church by Rome. There is no evidence that Joseph II was a Mason, but he was regarded as being favorably inclined towards freemasonry, most of his advisers were Freemasons and the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia claimed that he had an alliance with Freemasonry.
"The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith... has ruled that Canon 2335 no longer automatically bars a Catholic from membership of masonic groups... And so, a Catholic who joins the Freemasons is excommunicated only if the policies and actions of the Freemasons in his area are known to be hostile to the Church ...This advice led some Catholics to believe that the prohibition was no longer in force, and that the Church no longer had many of its traditional objections to Freemasonry.
"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."
This omission caused some Catholics and Freemasons to believe that the ban on Catholics becoming Freemasons may have been lifted, especially after the perceived liberalization of Vatican II, and caused confusion in the Church hierarchy. Many Catholics joined the fraternity, basing their membership on a permissive interpretation of Canon Law and justifying their membership by their belief that Freemasonry does not plot against the Church. It is claimed that Catholic Freemasons in America ignore the 1983 clarification from the Vatican, looking to the 1974 pronouncement.
"The faithful, who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion...This is the authoritative interpretation of the Vatican's position on this subject.
The official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano went further, claiming that Freemasonry acted as a rival to Catholicism because of the competing symbolic forms and the designation of Catholic non-Masons as outsiders.
Among the allegations were that Freemasonry denies revelation and objective truth. They also alleged that religious indifference is fundamental to Freemasonry, that Freemasonry is Deist, and that it denies the possibility of divine revelation, so threatening the respect due to the Church's teaching office. The sacramental character of Masonic rituals was seen as signifying an individual transformation, offering an alternative path to perfection and having a total claim on the life of a member It concludes by stating that all lodges are forbidden to Catholics, including Catholic-friendly lodges and that German Protestant churches were also suspicious of Freemasonry.
Freemasonry was accused of promoting state supported secular education and the prohibition of education by the Church. In Italy, Freemasonry has been accused of promoting civil marriage and supporting cremation. Freemasonry was also accused of being the motivating force behind the forfeiture of Italian church property and ending Papal temporal authority in the Papal States.
The Vatican criticized Freemasonry in this area in 2004.
Continental Freemasonry, the branch of Freemasonry that has been concentrated in traditionally Catholic countries, has been seen by Catholic critics as an outlet for anti-Catholic disaffection, and many particularly anti-clerical regimes in traditionally Catholic countries were perceived as having a strong Masonic element, even being compared by a Catholic spokesman, William Whalen, to the Ku Klux Klan.
According to Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston the American Grand Lodges, which are aligned to the United Grand Lodge of England are viewed as far less anti-catholic and mainly as a social and business group.
Catholic authors have often seen Freemasonry in France as being particularly hostile to Catholicism and the American Freemason Christopher Hodapp complained that the attitude of French Freemasonry towards Rome was a major reason why there was disunion between English speaking and French speaking Freemasonry, as long ago as 1918 this split has been emphasised by American commentators.
It was claimed that Napoleon I had encouraged the resurrection of Freemasonry after the French Revolution as a counterweight against the Catholic Church.
In 1877 the Grand Orient de France allowed atheists to join, and split from the United Grand Lodge of England, forming what became known as Latin Freemasonry. Catholic sources, quoting Masonic documents from both the United Grand Lodge of England and the Grand Orient of France, saw Freemasonry as the primary force of French anti-clericalism from 1877 onwards. During the Affaire Des Fiches (1904-1905) it was discovered that army promotions were partly determined by the Grand Orient of France's card index on public officials, detailing which were Catholic and who attended Mass. French Masonic publications called for religious orders to be expelled from France.
In the period between Italian unification (1870) and the Lateran Treaties (1929) there was a cold war between the Papacy and the Kingdom of Italy (see Prisoner in the Vatican). The Papal Encyclical Etsi Nos, complained about the way in which post-unification Italy denigrated the role of the church, which the Vatican blamed primarily on Freemasonry.
The hostility to Freemasonry shaped much of the Catholic church's strategy in regard to the newly established Italian state. For example, in the encyclical Custodi di quella fede Leo XIII warned against Catholics becoming involved with liberal groups and asked Catholics to become more involved in forms of Catholic Action away from the "Masonic" state.
In 2007 Italian politicians in the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats and Forza Italia accused “radical and Masonic” groups of being behind a threatened investigation by the European Commission of whether or not the tax-exempt status of the Church’s hospitals, schools, and other social service organizations should be withdrawn.
The Mexican government's anticlerical stance after the Mexican Revolution coincided with a succession of presidents who were "Masons and strongly anticlerical". Even recent President Vicente Fox stated, "After 1917, Mexico was led by anti-Catholic Freemasons who tried to evoke the anticlerical spirit of popular indigenous President Benito Juarez of the 1880s. But the military dictators of the 1920s were a more savage lot than Juarez."
President Plutarco Elías Calles, a Freemason sought to vigorously enforce the secularising provisions of the constitution and enacted additional anti-Catholic legislation known as the Calles Law, which enacted a number of anti-clerical provisions, for example fining priests for wearing clerical dress. Many Catholics rebelled against the oppression in the conflict which is known as the Cristero War. On May 28, 1926, Calles was awarded a medal of merit from the head of Mexico's Scottish rite for his actions against the Catholics.
In August 2007 Pedro Marquez of the Grand Lodge of the Valley of Mexico, in discussing a call by the Church to lift the ban in the Mexican constitution against Catholic schools and newspapars, stated "The Catholic hierarchy wants to dictate a political policy and that is a very grave error, as our society is no longer in the era of Christianity and priests are no longer viceroys of New Spain," and that "There is a tendency in the Church to meddle in the social and political affairs of Mexico, but the priests should return to their Churches".
By the 1830s Freemasonry was seen as a driving force in the anti-clericalism of Portugal's liberals.
The Grande Oriente Lusitano supported the Radical Republicans of Afonso Costa who pursued a strongly anti-clerical programme. Catholic sources attributed the apparent obstruction of Artur Santos, the mayor of Ourem, to the Fatima apparitions in 1917 to his Masonic membership.