Freemasonry claims traditions that go back to ancient times, but its modern form and meaning reside in such principles as religious tolerance, social equality, philanthropy, and the belief in a powerful Grand Architect of the universe. In the Iberian colonies in the eighteenth century, records of the Inquisition show that several individuals charged with practicing Freemasonry were tried and punished, but Masonic lodges with a primarily Creole composition and purpose did not make a formal appearance until the early nineteenth century.
Masonic societies are secret, primarily in terms of rites of initiation, ceremonies, and forms of identification and salutation. Since the nineteenth century, those in Latin America have been the most public of secret societies. They have been involved in many of the central issues affecting the region; their leaders have been publicly known as Freemasons; and they have made their views known through numerous publications. Probably the major significance of Latin American Freemasonry is the role the lodges played during Independence and their position with respect to church-state relations.
The origins of masonic orders having a specific Latin American orientation remain unclear, but Francisco de Miranda is widely believed to have played a role in their creation during his stay in Europe in the 1790s and the early years of the nineteenth century. The most significant lodge for the process of independence, the Lautaro lodge, first established in Cádiz, was carried to Buenos Aires in 1812 and then to Mendoza and Santiago. Such prominent creoles as Simón Bolívar, Andrés Bello, Vicente Rocafuerte, José de San Martín, Mariano Moreno, and Bernardo O'Higgins were initiated into this network of lodges. Although some may have been genuine believers in some Masonic rites, Independence leaders utilized the lodges primarily as vehicles for the struggle against Spain. Fifty-three such lodges were created between 1809 and 1828 in the Andean countries alone. In Brazil, Masons were a decisive force in the achievement of independence in 1822. Dom Pedro himself was initiated in the Comércio e Artes lodge and became grand master of the Brazilian Grand Orient. Throughout the region, the composition of the lodges reveals a membership of merchants, lawyers, army officers, some artisans, and even members of the clergy.
Independence resulted in the decline of Freemasonry, but only temporarily. The major issue that allowed Freemasonry to flourish was the increasingly acrimonious struggle between church and state. Although Freemasonry welcomed Catholics, the lodges opposed the papacy at a time when the Latin American church sought to strengthen its ties with the Vatican. The very participation of Catholics in Masonic lodges—and the participation of Freemasons in Catholic associations—became a matter of contention. In Brazil, a serious crisis developed in the early 1870s, when the government imprisoned the bishops who upheld papal bulls anathematizing Freemasonry. At issue was the authority of the government to exercise patronage over the church. Freemasonry became the focus of attention in a struggle that eventually led to the separation of church and state in 1890.
Probably under the influence of the increasingly anti-Catholic stands of Freemasons influenced by the so-called Scottish rite, Latin American Freemasonry developed into a liberal, anticlerical force that fought for modernization and secularization, and paid preferential attention to education. In Argentina, such prominent Freemasons as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Bartolomé Mitre worked first for the unification of the country and then concentrated on secularization of society and the advancement of lay education. In Mexico, Porfirio Díaz, himself a high-ranking Freemason, utilized the lodges as a vehicle to obtain the backing of business groups and the middle class for the advancement of his modernizing schemes. Mexican Freemasonry had been sharply divided in the 1820s, when the two main branches of Freemasonry, the Yorquinos and the Escoceses, engaged in a bitter struggle over federalism and the expulsion of the Spaniards. By the late nineteenth century, consensus over Díaz's policy of industrialization and foreign investment had muted somewhat the tensions between the rites, but they exploded again during the revolution, when Freemasons became divided over the refusal of President Woodrow Wilson of the United States to recognize Victoriano Huerta.
During the twentieth century, such prominent leaders as Arturo Alessandri Palma, Lázaro Cárdenas, and Hipólito Yrigoyen were Freemasons. The institutionalization of political parties, however, during the century overshadowed the political influence of Freemasonry. Separation of church and state in most Latin American countries deprived Freemasons of a major issue, although echoes of the struggle continued to be heard in Argentina in the 1950s. The lodges continued to serve as vehicles for the transmission of Masonic traditions, but played a diminished social and political role.
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