Centuries-old Catholic concerns about Freemasonry are keen again, thanks to the recent hit movie "National Treasure"(Walt Disney Pictures) and the impending release of "The Solomon Key" [ed. note: renamed "The Lost Symbol"] -- a new novel from the author of "The Da Vinci Code," Dan Brown.

Both entertainments feature the Masonic mystique and celebrate the prominence of Masons in early American history. While the public is absorbing a favorable image of Masonry from such cultural products, Catholics wonder anew why the Church has long condemned "the Craft," as its adherents sometimes call it.

Freemasonry likes to present itself as "an ancient Order dedicated to the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God." Some of the "brethren"may even believe this, depending on which room of the Masonic edifice they inhabit.

The Craft originated in the British Isles, and 95 percent of the world's 4 million or so Freemasons hold to its Anglo-American expressions (Blue Lodge, York Rite and Scottish Rite). Prince Hall Lodges, for black men, aren't generally recognized by American Masons. The Shriners are among many organizations allied with Masonry.

The Craft

Freemasons pretend to preserve ancient secrets handed down from the builders of Solomon's Temple and pagan mystery cults via the medieval Knights Templar. Some have even tried to claim Adam, Noah and St. John the Evangelist as Brother Masons. They offer "light" unobtainable elsewhere that will perfect the initiate and improve society. Their foremost modern commentator, Henry Wilson Coil, describes Freemasonry as "a system of morality and social ethics, a primitive religion and a philosophy of life."

But the real origins of the Craft - as Masonic historians now admit - lie in Renaissance esotericism, injected into the guild traditions that had been developed by medieval stoneworkers. Inspired by interest in the symbolic possibilities of architecture, "nonoperatives"(men who weren't actually stonemasons by profession) began to enter workmen's lodges in Scotland around 1600. The lodges themselves had just been turned into permanent organizations by the king's chief builder, a Catholic named William Schaw.

Lodges of "nonoperative" or "speculative" Freemasons appeared in England by the 1640s, attracting gentry and intellectuals of varying religions to the Craft. In 1717, four London lodges united as the Grand Lodge of England, which issued constitutions in 1723 and became the "Mother Lodge" of all "regular" Masons. Spreading throughout the world, the Craft reached the European continent by 1721 and America by 1730.

God's presence

The Lodge had initially appealed as a place for men of different faiths to socialize and speculate in peace. But avoiding sectarian disputes inevitably pushed Freemasonry toward Deism. (Deism is a rationalist system of religion developed in England during this period that affirmed the existence of a creator and moral obligations but denied the reality of miracles or divine revelation.)

In Masonic teaching, a seldom-mentioned God was merely the Great Architect of the universe, reachable by reason alone. All religions were equivalent. Belief in a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul was all that was required of 18th-century "regular"Freemasons.

English and Northern European Freemasonry retained at least these vague beliefs and functioned as a lowest-common-denominator religion. These Masons also remained staunch supporters of the social establishment and enjoyed royal patronage.

American roots

In colonial America, more loyalists than patriots were Masons. But Masonry did enroll some of the Founding Fathers, among them George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, James Madison and even Daniel Carroll, one of only two Catholics at the Constitutional Convention, who served as a U.S. congressman from Michigan. (He is not to be confused with his cousin, Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, who became a U.S. senator from Maryland.)

We may find it puzzling that Daniel Carroll's brother John, our first American bishop (archbishop of Baltimore), did not object to the Lodge until long after the Revolution. But we should keep in mind that even though papal bulls were issued during his lifetime condemning the Masons, these had not been promulgated in the United Statesand many other countries.

Church and the Lodge

No pope has ever been a Mason. The Catholic Church has warily monitored Freemasonry from the time it penetrated Europe. In 1738, Pope Clement XII condemned the Craft for its dependence on mere natural virtue while ignoring Christ's unique role as Savior. He also denounced the rash oaths it demanded of members to protect trivial Lodge secrets.

Catholics who joined the Masons were excommunicated, with reconciliation reserved to the pope. This decree had little effect, however, because it wasn't published in every land, nor was it always taken seriously where it was published. Eight subsequent popes would have to repeat the message, most forcefully Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Humanum Genus (On Freemasonry).

Denouncing the Lodge as "a deceitful and crafty enemy," Pope Leo declared, "Let no man think that he may for any reason whatsoever join the Masonic sect, if he values his Catholic name and his eternal salvation as he ought to value them." The 1917 Code of Canon Law included these stern prohibitions.

After the Second Vatican Council, however, the long hostility between Lodge and Church seemed to be easing. A reinterpretation of the anti-Masonic canons in 1974 led some Catholics to think that only Masonic groups actively plotting against the Church were forbidden to them.

Even so, some Freemasons had actually been plotting against the Vatican through its bank. In 1981, two of the pope's top financial advisers - known all along as Masons - were unmasked as members of a secret Lodge called Propaganda Due that was plotting a fascist takeover of Italy. Both men later died mysteriously. The Vaticanlost $240,000 with the collapse of its bank.

Changing views

Rome's softer view of Masonry was abruptly reversed in 1981 just before the financial scandal broke. Although the current Code of Canon Law issued in 1983 fails to mention the Craft by name, in the same year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith firmly reiterated the original ban:

"The Church's negative position on Masonic associations therefore remains unaltered since their principles have always been regarded as irreconcilable with the Church's doctrine."

U.S. bishops reported the same conclusion in 1985: One cannot be both a Catholic and a Freemason.

A number of Christians from other traditions agree in their condemnation of Freemasonry, including many Lutherans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists and Orthodox believers of the Holy Synod of Greece. Even the Mormons, whose rituals show Masonic influence, condemn the Craft.

In truth, the Church and Lodge can never be reconciled. Freemasonry teaches a rival religion of naturalism, regardless of whether it plots, persecutes, blasphemes, engages in philanthropy or behaves politely.

Though professing to tolerate all religions as equal, Masonry claims to offer wisdom superior to any of them. It promises a gnostic brand of salvation through secret knowledge guarded by blood-curdling oaths. Its Great Architect of the universe is not our Triune Christian God.

Sandra Miesel writes from Indiana.