Secret Societies, Church Policy on

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Since the early 18th century, secret societies have existed in the United States. Their membership and influence reached a peak in the late 19th century, probably as a result of the social and economic insecurity of the period and the attraction of their mysterious rituals. Many U.S. Catholics gave their allegiance to secret societies that had originated in Ireland because of English oppression; others became involved in those of Continental and English origin, i.e., Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and United Workmen. The last group, deist in their philosophical outlook, emphasized fraternal benevolence and maintained insurance systems that provided a measure of economic security not easily available elsewhere. Although their spokesmen insisted that the societies' teachings were moral rather than religious, the organizations developed cults of their own. The extent of Catholic membership among them cannot be ascertained, but it was sufficient throughout the century to occasion anxiety among the bishops, who objected particularly to the oath-bound secrecy of these associations, the blind obedience exacted from their members, and their tendency to undermine revealed religion by emphasizing a purely natural morality as the one requirement for human perfection.

In condemnation of secret societies, Pope Clement XII issued In Eminenti, in 1738; Benedict XIV, Providas, in 1751; Pius VII, Ecclesiam, in 1821; and Leo XII, Graviora, in 1825. These bulls named as reasons for censure the oath-bound secrecy of the societies and their conspiracies against Church and State. U.S. bishops found it difficult to decide whether the bans applied to groups, such as the Odd Fellows and Sons of Temperance, that, although secret, were not conspiratorial. The fact that 19th-century labor unions had to be secret if they were to survive further complicated the issue. Naturally the secrecy of the groups made it difficult for the bishops to gain information about them or to be sure of the accuracy of such information as they could obtain.

From 1794 when John Carroll first mentioned the matter until 1895 when it was finally settled, there was recurrent controversy that was intensified after 1880 because of the alarming growth of these groups. Seventyeight fraternal societies had been established in the United States by 1880, and 124 new ones had developed by 1890. Five years later, 136 additional groups had emerged, while in the next six years 230 more established themselves. By the end of the century their combined rosters carried about 6,000,000 names. Large cities contained more lodges than churches, and these centers of growth for secret societies were also centers of Catholic population.

Decisive action on the part of individual bishops was restrained by a decree of the second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866), which declared: "We do not wish that anyone in these Provinces, in any ecclesiastical dignity, whatever, should from now on condemn by name any society, unless it certainly and beyond all doubt is clearly one of those comprehended in the Pontifical Constitutions, insofar as they were interpreted by the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition."

This directive effectively prevented the condemnation of individual societies for a generation. At the third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), the fathers agreed that condemnation of any society should be reserved to a committee consisting of all the archbishops. Should they fail to reach unanimity in any given case, the matter would go to the Holy See for decision. The most significant aspect of this policy was that even the nonsubversive secret societies, so numerous in the United States, could be condemned if the archbishops reached unanimity. Debate was focused largely on the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a large, influential society whose rosters included many practicing Catholics, and which was suspect in ecclesiastical circles because of its reputed ties with the subversive Clan-na-gael and Board of Erin fraternities, and with the Molly Maguires, Pennsylvania coal miners who protested the inhuman conditions of their employment with acts of violence.

Meanwhile, the question of the Knights of Labor arose when Cardinal Elzear Taschereau of Quebec condemned the union as a secret society. In 1886 at a meeting in Philadelphia ten out of 12 U.S. archbishops voted against any condemnation of the Knights (see knights of labor). At their meeting in 1892 the archbishops considered the Odd Fellows, Sons of Temperance, and Knights of Pythias, and, failing to reach unanimity, referred the matter to the Holy See. In 1894 the Holy Office notified the U.S. hierarchy through Abp. Francesco Satolli, the apostolic delegate, that the faithful should be kept from these orders. However, Leo XIII left the execution of the decree to the prudence of the archbishops. As the condemnation was finally interpreted, Catholic members of these societies could keep passive membership for the purpose of protecting their insurance payments, should this be necessary.

Bibliography: f. macdonald, The Catholic Church and the Secret Societies in the United States, ed. t. j. macmahon (U.S. Catholic Historical Society 22; New York 1946). h. j. browne, The Catholic Church and the Knights of Labor (Catholic University of American Studies in American Church History 38; Washington 1949).

[j. bland]

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