We have seen that the spirituality of American Freemasons, which is essentially religious and has little in common with the cerebral exercise in which the Freemasons who present engraved plates in the French Masonic tradition indulge, as more broadly do those of continental Europe. In the temples of American lodges this anaesthetizing method assures peace and serenity as it is still forbidden here to broach any subject that might prompt debate, but it makes the contemplative exercise nigh incomprehensible to anyone accustomed to a fruitful exchange strictly regulated by the presiding venerable master assisted by the two wardens. In American lodges, everything is perfectly sterilized, sheltered by a consensual, fraternal culture kindly emptied of any intellectual effort. Conduct resides within a perfectly well-oiled liturgy in which each person knows his ritual by heart, a requisite condition for passing to the higher grades.
This situation, therefore, avoids any confrontation of opinion. Here too it is helpful to refer back to the Masonic literature and dissertations concerning the doctrine. This is what Mackey writes in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry:
A Mason is said to be “bright” who is well acquainted with the ritual, the forms of opening and closing, and the ceremonies of initiation. This expression does not, however, in its technical sense, appear to include the superior knowledge of the history and science of the Institution, and many bright Masons are, therefore, not necessarily learned Masons; and, on the contrary, some learned Masons are not well versed in the exact phraseology of the ritual. The one knowledge depends on the retentive memory, the other is derived from deep research. . . . The Mason whose acquaintance with the Institution is confined to what he learns from its esoteric ritual will have but a limited idea of its science and philosophy.5
He adds in his book on symbolism:
That skill which consists in repeating, with fluency and precision, the ordinary lectures, in complying with all the ceremonial requisitions of the ritual, or the giving, with sufficient accuracy, the appointed modes of recognition, pertains only to the rudiments of the Masonic science.
But there is a far nobler series of doctrines with which Freemasonry is connected, and which it has been my object, in this work, to present in some imperfect way. It is these which constitute the science and philosophy of Freemasonry, and it is these alone which will return the student who devotes himself to the task, a sevenfold reward for his labor.6
We should note here that the debate on the pertinence of a Masonic practice limited to the sole, unique formal exercise of a ritual learned by heart is therefore nothing new and that the matter was even then (starting from the end of the nineteenth century) prompting extremely lucid questions inside American Freemasonry itself and among its most erudite thinkers.
However, as nothing is ever perfect in this lower world, American Freemasons are not exempt or immunized from the exogenous accusations and debates that sometimes lead into more or less serious quarrels and tensions with the churches and numerous American religious communities. This occurs despite the absence of any Masonic demand for secularization—quite the contrary, as we have seen. In fact, some of these religious institutions do not view kindly here, or in the countries with a secular tradition, but for diametrically opposed reasons, the role and place of the Masonic order, which they rebuke for unfair competition by tromping through their personal flower beds.
The Masonic initiation, whether it bears the stamp of an obedience that strictly observes Andersonian Christian precepts or is secular, alarms the bulk of the clergy equally, but not for the same reasons. By very reason of the deist notion that the Order has in the United States and the difficult dialectic American Freemasonry developed in this regard, the religious community easily sees it as a second-rate copy of religion, thus an entity that could possibly begin competing with them on the terrain of spirituality. This is the case with many sects in the circle of influence of the Lutherans, Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and the whole of the Episcopal trend. In passing, they are quick to condemn the Order’s “secret” nature, which causes a chuckle when one is familiar with the entirely open exhibitionism of American Masons, who have long since broken with the tradition of discretion that is one of the foundational characteristics of the Order.
The relations between Mormons and American Freemasons illustrate in fairly exemplary fashion the ambiguous antagonism that can long prevail in certain powerful religious organizations that have built empires, like the ones of the Mormons in Salt Lake City, Utah. As Glen Cook showed in a study published in the magazine Philalethes, Mormons and American Freemasons have been waging a permanent power struggle since the inception of the sect.7 The Freemasons suspect the Mormons, apparently not without good reason as we shall see, of trying to infiltrate the Order and unconfessed ambitions for power. Until 1984, the members of this sect were therefore systematically excluded from entering Freemasonry by the Grand Lodge of Utah, where the Mormons have the headquarters of their Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City. And, until 1983, the General Handbook of Instructions of the Mormons recommended to their adepts to “not become members of secret societies that require the swearing of an oath of allegiance.”
This clearly again involves reminiscences and references implicit in the Morgan Affair even though the recommendations of Henry Clausen, a grand commander of the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, led to the lifting of the ban of the Grand Lodge of Utah, and, although the restrictions no longer exist explicitly concerning Mormon desires to join a lodge, a reciprocal, profound mistrust persists.
It is, moreover, fairly juicy to note that at the beginning of the 1990s a Mormon had raised himself—but discreetly to avoid attracting any attention beforehand—to the important duties of lieutenant commander of the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction. When his ultimate ambition to become grand commander became known, his ties with the Mormons were revealed and his plan immediately checkmated. His pure and simple expulsion from the Southern Jurisdiction was the source of one of the most serious crises ever experienced by these high grades of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.
This relatively recent case reveals how the specter of a seizure of sectarian control of the jurisdiction remains present in the Masonic collective unconscious. But it also speaks of the deep and reciprocal distrust fueled by experiences that had previously scalded the two organizations. To complicate things further, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism still states today that the founder of the sect, Joseph Smith, had “a revelation from the Lord that the true Masonry was . . . that practiced in the Mormon temples.” It is established that he had been initiated into a Masonic Lodge in Navoo, Illinois, and he seems to have drawn some elements of Mormon liturgy from this source.
On the other hand, for millions of Americans of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian faith, the problem of compatibility between Masonic and religious practices does not exist. This also explains how someone can be both a grand master and a minister, a situation that French Freemasons of every obedience find quite disconcerting as they are little accustomed to the customs of these Anglo-Saxon religious communities that form absolutely no part of the French spiritual environment. In any case, here the problem of compatibility between Freemasonry and religion does not even arise. It is quite simply an obvious fact.
The relationship of the Order with the Catholic Church, or vice versa, is considerably more complex. It seems fairly evident that, for Rome, semantic exercises remain without any real pertinence, and it would be perilous to seek to reserve a different treatment for Freemasons by engaging in the subtle differences that distinguish one obedience from another. This is a language that the church’s flock would have trouble grasping and that would expose them to something the church is averse to revealing. It should be known that, even if the apostolic and Roman Church has considerably less weight in the United States than in continental Europe, its voice is far from being insignificant and can be heard equally well in both locations. Another factor here is the influential Irish Catholic community, which combined with that of Latin American immigrants makes a strong demographic presence.
The somewhat hasty interpretation made of the encyclical of the Vatican II Council, Ecclesiam Suam (August 16, 1964), by some American exegetes and believers was tangibly corrected by the Roman authorities and their apostolic representatives in the United States. In fact, a number of Catholics initially thought they read in it that they could henceforth freely conciliate faith, dogma, and membership in a Masonic lodge without risk of excommunication or even finding themselves in a state of sin. The best-known doctrinal reaction to this subject is the extrasynodic decree delivered on March 22, 1996, by the bishop of Lincoln, Nevada, explicitly stating that membership in a Masonic order by a Catholic was incompatible with being a member of the Catholic Church and, ipso facto, was grounds for excommunication. This intransigent attitude had been preceded by the decrees of 1973 and 1983 of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Monsignor Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger, the conservative German archbishop who would later be elected as Pope Benedict XVI, an office he would hold from April 19, 2005, to February 28, 2013.
The positions taken in this regard were widely publicized and spread throughout the United States, mainly through the publication on an anti-Masonic website of the “Letter of April 19, 1996 to the Bishops of the United States,” signed by Cardinal Bernard Law. The problems this caused for American Freemasonry are obvious. In June 1996, the monthly journal of the Southern Jurisdiction devoted no less than five articles to reactions revealing the dismay of Catholics who had been initiated into lodges in perfectly good faith and, moreover, the desire of the Order to play for time by setting out on the path to ecumenicalism or a search for consensus.
More recently, the supreme councils of the two jurisdictions of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite even jointly published a book in which they endeavored to respond to the religious detractors of the Order, in whose number were found this time—a new occurrence—Protestant clergymen who were speaking in the name of denominations that until this time had never found themselves at odds with American Freemasonry.
The fact remains that the matter was deemed important enough to compel the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction to pursue diplomacy by sending a Masonic delegation to the Holy See. It was in the spring of the year 2000 that this delegation, headed by Grand Commander Fred Kleinknecht, was received for discussions by the secretarian status of the Roman Curia with the obvious goal of defusing the situation by giving the Vatican reassurance. Nothing indicates, however, that the American Masonic high delegation received the welcome they were looking for or benefited from any meeting that was more than a simple courtesy call. It would even seem, according to reliable sources, that their Roman interlocutors—applying a casuistry that was on a par with the best efforts of the Jesuits—had invited the American emissaries to exercise their authority, claimed by the Mother Supreme Council of the World, over the anticlerical obediences (with the GODF at the forefront) before any serious dialogue could be envisioned on a hypothetical normalization of relations.
There is no need to state that the denials of the high officials of the Southern Jurisdiction did not have the slightest effect on the prelates, who, mocking them, knew perfectly well where things stood and were not at all dissatisfied with their little effort. Since that time, not only has the line adopted by Rome not evolved, but American Freemasons also have realized that this horizon remains closed.
Lastly, here is an almost anecdotal local element, but one that is of interest because of its surprising nature for Andersonian Freemasons with an ambition to gather what has been scattered: the Swedish Rite, which only accepts Masons of the Christian faith, has been the beneficiary since 2012 of an exemption decreed by a special commission of the Grand Lodge of New York, giving them authority to practice discrimination in the affiliations and initiations of Freemasons in accordance with exclusively Christian confessional criteria.