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En:Michael Weninger - Catholic Church and Regular Freemasonry

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Another Brick in the Temple: An Interview with the Very Reverend Prof. Weninger on the Relationship between the Catholic Church and Regular Freemasonry di LUCA BELLARDINI

Introduction by Rudi Rabe: Professor Michael Weninger, Austrian Catholic priest and Vatican diplomat, is the author of the 2020 published book "Loge und Altar". In it he describes the history of the longlasting conflict between the Catholic Church and Freemasonry and the perspective for reconciliation. His conclusion: Concerning "regular Freemasonry" the conflict is a kind of fallacy, and it is high time that relations were normalized.

The interview was published in mid-2020 in the Italian online magazine "Madama Louise". We thank Prof. Demetrio Marco De Luca for the permission to reproduce the English translation in Freimaurer-Wiki (Mail 14 November 2020).



The Very Reverend Prof. Michael Weninger is a prominent Austrian cleric according to the old meaning of this word: an intellectual whose brilliant mind seeks the truth by investigating the mystery of God, and conveying it to others. A high-rank Austrian diplomat until 2009, now a Catholic clergyman from the archdiocese of Vienna, he is the author of „Loge und Altar: Über die Aussöhnung von katholischer Kirche und regulärer Freimaurerei“ („Lodge and Altar: on the Reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Regular Freemasonry“). An English translation of his work will soon be printed by GBPress, the publishing house owned by the Gregoriana Pontifical University: there, upon the Rector's invitation he successfully wrote a PhD thesis on the same subject. The defence thereof garnered him 10.0 summa cum laude, the maximum possible grade. Yet the issue is far from circumscribed to a narrow academic context: in fact, the encounter between Catholics and freemasons has been a very relevant topic at least since the Second Vatican Council, when Christendom made very little steps toward what was regarded - at that time - as a long-standing, irreducible foe. The two worlds finding common ground was an almost-unthinkable prospect. In the last fifty years, however, incredible progress has been made. Outstanding personalities like Weninger - who held multiple positions in different countries, all around the world - patiently worked overtime to make mutual understanding possible. They employed all their wit, knowledge, endurance, and commitment to doing good. Results are now visible, even if both worlds - the Christian and the masonic, as well as any religious tradition - point to the invisible dimension of being. The number of believers is shrinking worldwide; regular freemasonry is often blamed due to the faults of the irregular one; but their transcendent goals keep becoming wonderful realities. Unfortunately, due to the anti-Covid social distancing measures, the interview with the Very Reverend Professor Weninger has been conducted via videoconference: we saw each other per speculum in aenigmate, as man to God in Saint Paul's II Corinthians12,2-4, yet the topic has been treated as "face to face" as it could. Openly, just as it deserved.

Thank You, Professor, for such a remarkable opportunity to investigate the relationship between the Church and regular freemasonry. How did You become interested in that?

"Well, it was many years ago. For a long time, I had been in close contact with several freemasons. Then, between 2001 and 2007 in Brussels, I served the European Commission as political advisor to presidents Prodi and Barroso. I had responsibility for the dialogue with churches, religions and 'communities of conviction', meaning a variety of organizations and institutions: humanistic, non-governmental and other ones, including freemasonry. I was in close contact with all kinds of freemasons: I knew the difference between 'regular' and 'irregular', between 'high grades' and 'side grades'; how the Brethren started, how Obediences and so on. Since I was in charge of the dialogue, no one was excluded: I accepted everyone. Several freemasons came to Brussels to talk with me, even Grand Masters and Grand Officers: and it happens that, among them, many are Catholic too! They used to discuss with me about the problems between the "two worlds", as I was an archpriest from the diocese of Vienna. Basically, they wanted to know whether they were allowed to profess their Catholic faith while being masons at the same time: whether they could baptize their childrer, attend the mass, taking the holy communion…"

Then You decided to study the whole problem in depth …

"Yes, for it had become a necessity. When I moved from Vienna to Rome as member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the issue came to the forefront: as a matter of fact, dialogue means meeting people, listening and talking to each other. In the meantime, other masons were reaching out to me about the problem. Hence, I started writing a book on the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the regular freemasonry, focused on the ultimate reconciliation between the two. And I chose to investigate regular freemasonry because the irregular one is very reluctant to religion and has been opposing the Church in many ways. Therefore, a catholic joining irregular freemasonry would be contradictio in se. Not only among my personal acquaintances, but all over the world are many people who are Catholic and regular freemasons at the same time. Maybe hundreds of thousands... !“

Let us come to Your book, Professor. How did its writing and publishing history begin?

"I started studying all the problems from different points of view: the historical and the dogmatic one, as well as under a perspective rooted in both canonical law and pastoral care. Upon the occasion of a formal lunch at the Gregoriana Pontifical University, with roundtables with about 15 people sitting, I had the Magnificent Rector on my right-hand-side. We started talking, and I told him I was writing a book on the final reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and regular freemasonry. He got very much interested: listened, asked, made questions. He eventually invited me to join his university as a visiting scholar, with the goal of pursuing my studies and having the book published. I was welcome and supervised by professors from the Department of Spiritual Theology: at my age, being a student is such a wonderful thing! I continued working on the book: before the volume, the output of my research was a PhD thesis titled Weisheit, Stärke, Schönheit ('Wisdom, Strength, Beauty'), which are key words in both the Roman Catholic Church and freemasonry. Upon them, we might well build our hopes for an ultimate reconciliation!“

Press conference in the famous Palais Todesco just opposite the Opera House in Vienna on February 11th, 2020.
From left to right: Publisher Erhard Löcker
Georg Semler, Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of Austria
Author Michael Heinrich Weninger

And, after such a remarkable intellectual effort, Your work was presented to the relevant authorities at Gregoriana. How did the audiences react? Not only at Gregoriana but in the many and diverse places where Your amazing excursus of mason-Catholic links was presented…?

"Reception has been particularly warm everywhere. The first edition got sold-out over a few weeks: actually, during the Covid-19 lockdown I worked on the third one, for the second was already running out. The press conference in Vienna - at Palais Todesco, just opposite the Opera House - was very well visited. Press coverage was remarkably wide, for there were many journalists: a very diverse audience from press, radio, television and other media, along with religious people. In many countries the media paid respect to the book: Belgium, Germany, France, South America ... especially the latter, where many freemasons are Catholic and, thus, pastoral interest in the subject is relatively high. Almost any reaction to the book ranged from positive to enthusiastic, with a high degree of objectivity as well. Just four articles were negative, but three were from the same author! He is a person ideologically opposed to freemasonry, about which he does not know anything. And he was prejudicially against me, since a Roman Catholic priest working in the Curia could not be open to freemasonry in his view. Conversely, a large number of cardinals and leading representatives of the Holy See, as well as many other prelates, congratulated me on the volume.“

In fact, Your book is profoundly Catholic! It aroused a lot of scientific interest in the subject, but also served the cause of a final reconciliation between the Church and regular freemasonry. Professor, could you provide an overview of that relationship? How did it unfold across ages?

"How much time do we have? (he laughs). Anyway, freemasonry has its roots in Christianity: as a matter of fact, it has developed starting from the Middle Ages construction companies, which built all these wonderful chapels, churches, abbeys, and cathedrals. They are not built anymore in so large numbers and such a quality! Yet builders continued by ,,constructing,, themselves: freemasons do believe that anyone has to better himself or herself as a human being, in terms of values. There is a beautiful image: a freemason regards himself as a 'rough stone', which must be perfected into a very noble piece to be inserted as cornerstone in the great temple of humanity. This belief directly relates to Christian values, and other elements were added over time. The first Grand Lodge was created in London in 1717 by gathering some smaller ones: it encompassed Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist members, and even some Jewish brothers, but the majority thereof was Christian. At that time, there were many splits across Christendom: the Thirty Years' War had been a catastrophe. In the British Isles, people were going to believe that there should have been no wars anymore because of religious beliefs. They thought to be all Christian and, thus, brothers. Fighting for faith reasons started being regarded as an offence against God. When they decided to come together, endeavouring toward common goals, freemasonry developed."

Hence, the Brethren expanded thanks to ordinary people's goodwill. But what about the political powers? Was the birth of modern masonry followed by appeasement trumping rivalries?

"This was not the case, unfortunately. Due to political, societal, dynastic reasons - for instance, the long-standing Anglo-French conflicts -, in certain context freemasonry moved away from its original ideas. Here, irregular freemasonry started: grades began proliferating, beyond the traditional three and even beyond the 33 of the Scottish Rite! Atheists were admitted into lodges: in fact, it is impossible for a regular freemason to be an atheist, for by definition s/he believes in a supreme being (whether it be God, or Allah, or another). The outcome was a bunch of different Obediences and rites, organisations, and rituals. This divergence between 'regular' and 'irregular' freemasonry is really important to understand how the relationship with the Church changed over time. In regular lodges, a large number of people professed a Christian faith, often of Roman confession. As I told before, this was particularly the case of Latin America: yet a very harsh confrontation broke out starting from early 19th century, as freemason revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar fought against the Catholic Spanish Crown which was deeply Catholic, and had been one of the closest allies of the Papal States for very long time. Therefore, it seemed that they were struggling against the Church itself: but this was not the case. In Europe, the cleavage was made deeper by events like the French Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento. In these cases, irregular freemasons - which would be better labelled as "pseudo-masons" - started fighting against not merely the Papal States but the Church of Rome and Catholicism itself. As a defendant of believers (and Christian institutions, and himself), the Pope could not accept this; and, because of this confrontation, the Church started regarding the whole of freemasonry as opposed to itself, extending a negative judgement upon freemasons in general. No distinction was made. This did not reflect reality: in fact, several members of the Italian institutions were at the same time Catholic and regular freemasons. These were excommunicated by default. Actually, there were no theological differences or any meaningful divide from a philosophical standpoint: just a failure in discerning between regular freemasons and Satanist, heretic organisations."

In this regard, which role was played by Mazzini? He was a known freemason but, also, a profoundly devout Catholic ...

"Well, it would not make sense to focus on a single historical character: events occurred not only because of him, but of others as well. Discussing about what happened with the Italian Risorgimento would require very much time. Nevertheless, I would like to underline that in the last years of the 19th century, following First Vatican Council, there had been voices in the Roman Catholic Church advocating reconciliation. In certain countries, a very positive relationship developed: some very authoritative prelates including university professors, were freemasons. There has always been a close connection between leading clergymen and freemasonry! And towards the end of the 20th century, many voices raised to advocate a more fruitful encounter. Under the Nazi and the Fascist regimes, Catholics and freemasons both suffered terrible experiences, up to sacrificing their lives: it also happened that they be held captive in the same concentration camp at the same time. Faced with a common enemy, they strengthened their links: everyone became convinced that the two worlds should stick together. Finally, approaching the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, an increasing number of prelates spoke in favour of igniting a better relationship."

Maybe the process benefitted from liberty-seeking voices in Eastern Europe, where both Catholics and freemasons endured communist persecution?

"Yes: you are completely right. Many fathers of the Council upheld a reconciliation: not just by speaking in support of it but highlighting a path thereto. It was not the main subject of discussion, for there were many other topics to be covered: yet, in spite of all oppositions, a very positive movement in favour of reconciliation was actually commenced. It was Pope Paul VI who implemented the decisions of the Council with regard to the dialogue with non-believers, agnostics, humanists, and others. He created the necessary instruments and institutions. And Cardinal Franz König, the archbishop of Vienna - one of the most brilliant purpurates at that time and ever - was entrusted by the Vatican to establish a dialogue on a world basis, along with other cardinals, experts, and people from the Holy See. The dialogue actually involved many representatives of freemasonry, including the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Italy. In fact, I wrote my doctoral thesis in German not only because it is my native tongue ... but because many documents on that subject are in German since works were chaired by Cardinal König.“

Austria is, also, the motherland of a milestone in that dialogue...

"Yes: fifty years ago, on 5 July 1970, meetings culminated with the so-called Lichtenau Declaration. At that castle, northwest of Vienna, convened the leading representatives of both the Church freemasonry and from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. The declaration paved the way to a new Catholic position toward freemasonry, enshrined in the 1983 Codex luris Canonici. There, freemasons were not mentioned anymore: excommunication was no more inflicted upon them. This meant a final reconciliation: it was made crystal-clear that freemasonry was not fighting against Catholicism, but they were cooperating instead. Had they become members of a lodge, Catholics would not have been ousted from the 'assembly': no one would have asked them to renounce their faith. Common effort has ever since replaced infighting. Nowadays, many bishops and prelates told me that, as freemasons, they are doing a wonderful job for both their believers and themselves! With irregular freemasonry, of course, it is different..."

However, stop-and-goes have been frequent. Even high-level dialogue not always resulted in an appreciable outcome …

"A few attempts were no real dialogue at all. For instance, talks between the German Bishops' Conference, on the one hand, and the United Grand Lodges of Germany, on the other, ended up in a disaster. The report by the episcopal delegation was very elaborated, as it summarised a notable work: but conclusions on freemasonry were remarkably negative, and the Conference could do nothing but accept them. This negative outcome was received by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in turn - on 26 November 1983 - issued a declaration on the relationship between the Church and freemasonry basically stating that nothing would change. This was in contrast with Codex luris Canonici! Yet the dialogue went on, for canonical law outranks a simple declaration. Today, there is no reason whatsoever for the Roman Catholic Church to remain opposed to freemasonry. In the Brethren are many brilliant people - intellectuals, politicians, businesspeople, etc. - who, in their spare time, work with their brothers to become better human beings: and I see nothing wrong with it!“

You have just led us to present-day, Professor. I have an additional couple of questions for You: first, I would like to understand what the Church and regular freemasonry might accomplish together to address contemporary issues; then, I wonder how they would relate to other faiths to foster interreligious dialogue …

"The common goal is building a better, more peaceful, more sympathetic world. Cultures, ethnicities and even religions should work together to save mankind and God's creations: for instance, by countering climate change and rescuing the environment from disruption. The Church and regular freemasonry should work together, for they are competent in their own world and in many fields of human knowledge. In a globalised context, interreligious dialogue is even more a necessity. In fact, any corner of Earth now
sees different religions
and cultures, but the
question is: do we
understand other
religions? Actually, no:
this yields problems
within the same faith,
and between religions
as well. In turn here lie
the roots of unrest, fear,
even fundamentalism
and international
terrorism. Dialogue is
the means whereby the
world can be made
better, with more
widespread solidarity
and a greater sense of
brotherhood, as envisioned by the signers of the Abu Dhabi Declaration on 4 February 2019. The latter paved the way for further developments, as interreligious dialogue is the key for solving many contemporary problems. We often witness terrible socio-economic unrest: many people have to struggle against poverty in several countries. Religions should commit to eradicating this plague together, even in places where Catholics represent a minority, in order to prevent the world economy from - collapsing. There have been very fine results since the Second Vatican Council and the creation of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, yet much still abides. At the same time, however, interreligious dialogue also questions ourselves: do we know about our own faith? Are we able to sustain a dialogue with others, if they ask us what we do believe in, or maybe what it does mean to be a Catholic priest? In practice, unfortunately, even very well-intended people cannot withstand dialogue, for they actually do not know what their convictions be about. Failing to understand the essence of their inner faith, even less they know about that of others. How can dialogue be a successful one if counterparties know neither their own faith nor others?“

I get Your point, Professor. Is there a positive side of the coin too?

"Sure! If dialogue unfolds, then an impetus to studying religious matters arouses in different faiths and cultures. What better example than the outstanding career of Professor Demetrio Marco De Luca? He is a great intellectual, a unique humanist, a bridge-builder between people of different philosophical, societal and religious conceptions. What he is doing has the utmost importance. Not only a leading representative of the Italian cultural tradition but a protagonist on world stage. He is a model of how a Catholic should be, and not merely to other believers."

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