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This 1851 vintage illustration depicts a large group of Freemasons gathering for a celebration. (Image courtesy of iStock)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Catholics are still forbidden from joining Masonic organizations and, with an increasing number of Catholics joining Masonic lodges in the Philippines, the Vatican has urged the nation’s bishops to find a way to make clear the church’s continued opposition to Freemasonry.

“Membership in Freemasonry is very significant in the Philippines,” said a note from Cardinal Víctor Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and approved by Pope Francis. “It involves not only those who are formally enrolled in Masonic Lodges but, more generally, a large number of sympathizers and associates who are personally convinced that there is no opposition between membership in the Catholic Church and in Masonic Lodges.”

The dicastery’s note, dated Nov. 13 and made public Nov. 15, was a response to a request from Bishop Julito Cortes of Dumaguete, Philippines, “regarding the best pastoral approach to membership in Freemasonry by the Catholic faithful.”

The bishop had voiced his concern about “the continuous rise in the number of the faithful enrolled in Freemasonry” in his diocese and asked the dicastery “for suggestions regarding how to respond to this reality” from a pastoral point of view, including its “doctrinal implications.”

The dicastery wrote “that active membership in Freemasonry by a member of the faithful is forbidden because of the irreconcilability between Catholic doctrine and Freemasonry” -- a position that was reiterated by the doctrinal congregation in its “Declaration on Masonic Associations” in 1983 and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in 2003.

Therefore, it said, “those who are formally and knowingly enrolled in Masonic Lodges” -- including clerics -- “and have embraced Masonic principles fall under the provisions in the above-mentioned declaration.”

The 1983 declaration states that Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations “are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”

The dicastery said it notified the Philippines’ bishops’ conference that “it would be necessary to put in place a coordinated strategy among the individual bishops” to address the issue appropriately.

The strategy should include both a doctrinal and a pastoral approach, it said, proposing the bishops “conduct catechesis accessible to the people and in all parishes regarding the reasons for the irreconcilability between the Catholic faith and Freemasonry.”

“The Philippine bishops are invited to consider whether they should make a public pronouncement on the matter,” it added.

The Catholic Church has long denounced Freemasonry; in particular, Pope Leo XIII, in the late 19th-century, insisted “Christianity and Freemasonry are essentially irreconcilable, so that enrolment in one means separation from the other.”

Freemasonry refers to the beliefs and practices of a number of fraternal organizations worldwide that are oath-bound secret societies tracing their ancient origins to the local guilds of stonemasons. Today many of the organizations are known for their charitable activity, and worldwide membership in various Masonic lodges is estimated between 2 million and 6 million people.

Freemasonry appears to relativize the religious faith of its members with respect to a “broader truth, which instead is shown in the community of good will, that is, in the Masonic fraternity,” according to a 1985 article in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

“For a Catholic Christian, it is not possible to live his relationship with God in a twofold mode, that is, dividing it into a supra-confessional humanitarian form and an interior Christian form,” said the article, which is also published in the doctrinal dicastery’s archives.

“Only Jesus Christ is, in fact, the Teacher of Truth, and only in him can Christians find the light and the strength to live according to God's plan, working for the true good of their brethren,” it said.

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