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ROTARY, FREEMASONRY AND THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

ROTARY, FREEMASONRY AND THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
This badge was found by our historian colleague, Dr.  Wolfgang Ziegler and triggered off a search for its origin which has not yet been resolved.   The central part of what is otherwise a normal Rotary lapel badge, seems to show the symbols of Freemasonry, the set square and compasses, while the letter ‘G’ in the centre is also an indication of the Scottish Rite of Masonry. We know that many of the early Rotarians were Masons and  that, according to C.R. Hewitt in ‘Towards My Neighbour’, some Rotary clubs recruited exclusively from Freemasons until the practice was banned in the 1920s.  To date, no precise details of these links have been found in the archives of either body.

Many such details are not clear when we look back at things that have come into existence many years ago. A lot of research is required to unearth the meaning behind many things. The fear of the unknown is one that spares none and many hesitate and fear the worst when they are not sure about what they are associated with.  A trader goes through this feeling very regularly as he does not know what will happen to the market and this anxiety may cause him to take wrong decisions. Automated software like The Brit Method, prevents such mistakes.

The relationship was a matter of some discussion and in February 1923, an article in ‘The Rotary Wheel’  sought to allay fears among Rotarians who might think that their membership of the one could cause problems in the other.

However, many people who did not know much about these organisations, thought that Rotary was a form of Masonry.  This eventually led to a much more serious problem when the Catholic Church, which had long been an antagonist of Masonry, classed Rotary as a similar organisation.

Also see the Ziegler Collection G.K. Chesterton who was often a vocal critic of Rotary, was a Catholic convert. and his adherence to the sectarian line may have coloured his views.

The problems seem to have started in Spain about 1928 when  the Bishops of  Almeria, Leon,  Orense, Palencia and Tuy  laid charges that  Rotary is  “nothing else but a new satanic  organisation with the same background and teachings of masonry” and that “according to documents and reliable sources, Rotary is a suspected organisation, and should be considered as execrable and perverse”. The Church also criticised and condemned Rotary for showing  a concept of life and of service without reference to church teaching.  Indeed, it seems that  they believed it a secret society with quasi-religious overtones as many in the Church thought was the case with Freemasonry.  For whatever reason, the Vatican took up the reins and  in 1929 issued a decree that “it is not expedient” for Catholic priests to participate in Rotary either as members or guests. This decree and its implications were worrying to the many Catholics in Rotary not the least the then President Tom Sutton who was himself a Catholic, and former Chancellor Germany Wilhelm Cuno, a member in Hamburg. Critical and at times disparaging articles regularly appeared in Catholic newspapers, especially in the  ‘Civilta Cattolica’ in Italy, and Tom Sutton went off to Rome to try to convince the Papal authorities that Rotary was not Masonic, and that it was a movement which was not in conflict with any Catholic teaching.

Sutton’s attempts to convince the Secretary of State in the Vatican, Cardinal Gaspari, were fruitless and the anti-Rotary articles continued to be published.  An even more virulent article later appeared in Paris in ‘La France Catholique’ making allegations about both Paul Harris and the links between Rotary and Freemasonry, which were later reprinted in the Baltic paper ‘Rytas’.

The factual errors could be, and promptly were shown to be false, and by 1933  there was a mood swing in the Vatican, perhaps partly occasioned by the number of prominent and influential Catholics throughout the world who were joining Rotary.  Priests were now allowed to use their discretion about attending or even joining Rotary.   Nevertheless, one of the results of the Church’s attitude was the slow development of Rotary in some predominantly Catholic countries such as Ireland.  

This uneasy peace continued until 1951 when another Vatican decree warned priests that they should not join Rotary and that “the faithful should be aware of seditious and suspected organisations”.  

By then, however, the world had changed and the decree caused an immediate angry response, among others from the then Catholic President of RI, Arthur Laqueux, and from the Rotarian Catholic Bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who publicly declared  the decree “quite incomprehensible”.

Fairly soon, the Vatican began to retract. The official newspaper ‘Osservatore Romano’ wrote “In some nations, because of a prevalent Masonic influx, the action of Rotary Clubs has conflicted with the activity and the needs of the Church.  It must be said, however, that such has not been the case in other nations where the attitude of Rotary has shown itself in practice tolerant and benevolent towards religious interests.”By the end of the decade, the Catholic Truth Society was able to declare that “Rotary is neither secret nor seditious”.  It was nevertheless still regarded as a “society banned under pain of sin only”  and not of “sin and excommunication”.  Gradually there was a thaw in relations between the Church and Rotary. In 1970 Pope Pius VI addressed Rotarians in Italy, and in 1979 Pope John Paul II spoke to the International Convention in Rome, praising some of Rotary’s humanitarian programmes at a  special audience in the Vatican.  Later he accepted a Paul Harris Fellowship and a World Understanding and Peace Award from Rotary, while Catholic priests throughout the world were taking positions of authority, even serving as District Governors.

As Alvarez points out, it was not only Rotary that was condemned during the 1930s and 1940s.  The Lions Clubs and even the YMCA incurred the wrath of the Vatican. In fact, the condemnation of the Y.M.C.A. was even earlier in 1920 when it was described as “White Masonry”, on the grounds that “such organisation, while showing special concern for the youth, corrupted their faith, teaching them a conception of life dispensing with the Church and all religious teachings. The Y.M.C.A. is contributing to the decay of the youth’s faith, by affirming that its purpose  is to show them a conception of life without churches or religious confession”.