Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
A designation of which the exact meaning has varied at different times.
"By a secret society was formerly meant a society which was known to exist, but whose members and places of meetings were not publicly known. Today, we understand by a secret society, a society with secrets, having a ritual demanding an oath of allegiance and secrecy, prescribing ceremonies of a religious character, such as the use of the Bible, either by extracts therefrom, or by its being placed an altar within a lodge-room, by the use of prayers, of hymns, of religious signs and symbols, special funeral services, etc." (Rosen, "The Catholic Church and Secret Societies," p. 2). Raich gives a more elaborate description: "Secret societies are those organizations which completely conceal their rules, corporate activity, the names of their members, their signs, passwords and usages from outsiders or the 'profane.' As a rule, the members of these societies are bound to the strictest secrecy concerning all the business of the association by oath or promise or word of honour, and often under the threat of severe punishment in case of its violation. If such secret society has higher and lower degrees, the members of the higher degree must be equally careful to conceal their secrets from their brethren of a lower degree. In certain secret societies, the members are not allowed to know even the names of their highest officers. Secret societies were founded to promote certain ideal aims, to be obtained not by violent but by moral measures. By this, they are distinguished from conspiracies and secret plots which are formed to attain a particular object through violent means. Secret societies may be religious, scientific, political or social" (Kirchenlex., V, p. 519). Narrowing the definition still more to the technical meaning of secret societies (societates clandestinae) in ecclesiastical documents, Archbishop Katzer in a Pastoral (20 Jan., 1895) says: "The Catholic Church has declared that she considers those societies illicit and forbidden which (1) unite their members for the purpose of conspiring against the State or Church; (2) demand the observance of secrecy to such an extent that it must be maintained even before the rightful ecclesiastical authority; (3) exact an oath from their members or a promise of blind and absolute obedience; (4) make use of a ritual and ceremonies that constitute them sects."
Though secret societies, in the modern and technical sense, did not exist in antiquity, yet there were various organizations which boasted an esoteric doctrine known only to their members, and carefully concealed from the profane. Some date societies of this kind back to Pythagoras (582-507 B.C.). The Eleusinian Mysteries, the secret teachings of Egyptian and Druid hierarchies, the esoteric doctrines of the Magian and Mithraic worshippers furnished material for such secret organizations. In Christian times, such heresies as the Gnostic and Manichaean also claimed to possess a knowledge known only to the illuminated and not to be shared with the vulgar. Likewise, the enemies of the religious order of Knights Templars maintained that the brothers of the Temple, while externally professing Christianity, were in reality pagans who veiled their impiety under orthodox terms to which an entirely different meaning was given by the initiated. Originally, the various guilds of the Middle Ages were in no sense secret societies in the modern acceptation of the term, though some have supposed that symbolic Freemasonry was gradually developed in those organizations. The fantastic Rosicrucians are credited with something of the nature of a modern secret society, but the association, if such it was, can scarcely be said to have emerged into the clear light of history.
Secret societies in the true sense began with symbolic Freemasonry about the year 1717 in London (see MASONRY). This widespread oath-bound association soon became the exemplar or the parent of numerous other fraternities, nearly all of which have some connexion with Freemasonry, and in almost every instance were founded by Masons. Among these may be mentioned the Illuminati, the Carbonari, the Odd-Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Sons of Temperance and similar societies whose number is legion. Based on the same principles as the secret order to which they are affiliated are the women-auxiliary lodges, of which almost every secret society has at least one. These secret societies for women have also their rituals, their oaths, and their degrees. Institutions of learning are also infected with the glamour of secret organizations and the "Eleusis" of Chi Omega (Fayetteville, Ark.) of 1 June, 1900, states that there are twenty-four Greek letter societies with seven hundred and sixty-eight branches for male students, and eight similar societies with one hundred and twenty branches for female students, and a total membership of 142,456 in the higher institutions of learning in the United States.
The judgment of the Church on secret oath-bound associations has been made abundantly clear by papal documents. Freemasonry was condemned by Clement XII in a Constitution, dated 28 April, 1738. The pope insists on the objectionable character of societies that commit men of all or no religion to a system of mere natural righteousness, that seek their end by binding their votaries to secret pacts by strict oaths, often under penalties of the severest character, and that plot against the tranquillity of the State. Benedict XIV renewed the condemnation of his predecessor on 18 May, 1751. The Carbonari were declared a prohibited society by Pius VII in a Constitution dated 13 Sept., 1821, and he made it manifest that organizations similar to Freemasonry involve an equal condemnation. The Apostolic Constitution "Quo Graviora" of Leo XII (18 March, 1825) put together the acts and decrees of former pontiffs on the subject of secret societies and ratified and confirmed them. The dangerous character and tendencies of secret organizations among students did not escape the vigilance of the Holy See, and Pius VIII (24 May, 1829) raised his warning voice concerning those in colleges and academies, as his predecessor, Leo XII, had done in the matter of universities. The succeeding popes, Gregory XVI (15 Aug., 1832) and Pius IX (9 Nov., 1846; 20 Apr., 1849; 9 Dec., 1854; 8 Dec., 1864; 25 Sept., 1865), continued to warn the faithful against secret societies and to renew the ban of the Church on their designs and members. On 20 Apr., 1884, appeared the famous Encyclical of Leo XIII, "Humanum Genus." In it the pontiff says: "As soon as the constitution and spirit of the masonic sect were clearly discovered by manifest signs of its action, by cases investigated, by the publication of its laws and of its rites and commentaries, with the addition often of the personal testimony of those who were in the secret, the Apostolic See denounced the sect of the Freemasons and publicly declared its constitution as contrary to law and right, to be pernicious no less to Christendom than to the State; and it forbade anyone to enter the society, under the penalties which the Church is wont to inflict upon exceptionally guilty persons. The sectaries, indignant at this, thinking to elude or to weaken the force of these decrees, partly by contempt of them and partly by calumny, accused the Sovereign Pontiffs who had uttered them, either of exceeding the bounds of moderation or of decreeing what was not just. This was the manner in which they endeavoured to elude the authority and weight of the Apostolic Constitutions of Clement XII and Benedict XIV, as well as of Pius VIII and Pius IX. Yet in the very society itself there were found men who unwillingly acknowledged that the Roman Pontiffs had acted within their right, according to the Catholic doctrine and discipline. The pontiffs received the same assent, and in strong terms, from many princes and heads of governments, who made it their business either to delate the masonic society to the Holy See, or of their own accord by special enactments to brand it as pernicious, as for example in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Bavaria, Savoy and other parts of Italy. But, what is of the highest importance, the course of events has demonstrated the prudence of our predecessors." Leo XIII makes it clear that it is not only the society explicitly called Masonic that is objectionable: "There are several organized bodies which, though they differ in name, in ceremonial, in form and origin, are nevertheless so bound together by community of purpose and by the similarity of their main opinions as to make in fact one thing with the sect of the Freemasons, which is a kind of centre whence they all go forth and whither they all return. Now, these no longer show a desire to remain concealed; for they hold their meetings in the daylight and before the public eye, and publish their own newspaper organs; and yet, when thoroughly understood they are found still to retain the nature and the habits of secret societies." The pope is not unmindful of the professed benevolent aims of these societies: "They speak of their zeal for a more cultured refinement and of their love of the poor; and they declare their one wish to be the amelioration of the condition of the masses, and to share with the largest possible number all the benefits of civil life. Even were these purposes aimed at in real truth, yet they are by no means the whole of their object. Moreover, to be enrolled it is necessary that candidates promise and undertake to be thenceforward strictly obedient to their leaders and masters with the utmost submission and fidelity, and to be in readiness to do their bidding upon the slightest expression of their will." The pontiff then points out the dire consequences which result from the fact that these societies substitute Naturalism for the Church of Christ and inculcate, at the very least, indifferentism in matters of religion. Other papal utterances on secret societies are: "Ad Apostolici," 15 Oct., 1890; "Praeclara," 20 June, 1894; "Annum Ingressi," 18 Mar., 1902.
The extension of the decrees of the Apostolic See in regard to societies hitherto forbidden under censure is summed up in the well-known Constitution "Apostolicae Sedis" of Pius IX, where excommunication is pronounced against those "who give their names to the sect of the masons or Carbonari or any other sects of the same nature, which conspire against the Church or lawfully constituted Governments, either openly or covertly, as well as those who favor in any manner these sects or who do not denounce their leaders and chiefs." The condemned societies here described are associations formed to antagonize the Church or the lawful civil power. A society to be of the same kind as the Masonic, must also be a secret organization. It is of no consequence whether the society demand an oath to observe its secrets or not. It is plain also that public and avowed attacks on Church or State are quite compatible with a secret organization. It must not supposed, however, that only societies which fall directly under the formal censure of the Church are prohibited. The Congregation of the Holy Office issued an instruction on 10 May, 1884, in which it says: "That there maybe no possibility of error when there is a question of judging which of these pernicious societies fall under censure or mere prohibition, it is certain in the first place, that the Masonic and other sects of the same nature are excommunicated, whether they exact or do not exact an oath from their members to observe secrecy. Besides these, there are other prohibited societies, to be avoided under grave sin, and among which are especially to be noted those which under oath, communicate a secret to their members to be concealed from everybody else, and which demand absolute obedience to unknown leaders." To the secret societies condemned by name, the Congregation of the Holy Office, on 20 Aug., 1894, in a Decree addressed to the hierarchy of the United States, added the Odd-Fellows, the Sons of Temperance, and the Knights of Pythias.
The order of Odd-Fellows was formed in England in 1812 as a completed organization, though some lodges date back to 1745; and it was introduced into America in 1819. In the "Odd-Fellows' Improved Pocket Manual" the author writes: "Our institution has instinctively, as it were, copied after all secret associations of religious and moral character." The "North-West Odd-Fellow Review" (May, 1895) declares: "No home can be an ideal one unless the principles of our good and glorious Order are represented therein, and its teachings made the rule of life." In the "New Odd-Fellows' Manual" (N.Y., 1895) the author says: "The written as well as the unwritten secret work of the Order, I have sacredly kept unrevealed," though the book is dedicated "to all inquirers who desire to know what Odd-Fellowship really is." This book tells us "Odd-Fellowship was founded on great religious principles" (p. 348); "we use forms of worship" (p. 364); "Judaism, Christianity, Mohammedanism recognize the only living and true God" (p. 297). The Odd-Fellows have chaplains, altars, high-priests, ritual, order of worship, and funeral ceremonies.
The order of the Sons of Temperance was founded in New York in 1842 and introduced into England in 1846. The "Cyclopaedia of Fraternities" says (p. 409): "The Sons of Temperance took the lead in England in demonstrating the propriety and practicability of both men and women mingling in secret society lodges." That the object of this order and its kindred societies is not confined to temperance "is evidenced by its mode of initiation, the form of the obligation and the manner of religious worship" (Rosen, p. 162).
The order of the Knights of Pythias was founded in 1864 by prominent Freemasons (Cyclop. of Fraternities, p. 263). In number, its membership is second only to that of the Odd-Fellows. Rosen (The Catholic Church and Secret Societies) says: "The principal objectionable features, on account of which the Catholic Church has forbidden its members to join the Knights of Pythias, and demanded a withdrawal of those who joined it, are: First, the oath of secrecy by which the member binds himself to keep secret whatever concerns the doings of the Order, even from those in Church and State who have a right to know, under certain conditions, what their subjects are doing. Secondly, this oath binds the member to blind obedience, which is symbolized by a test. Such an obedience is against the law of man's nature, and against all divine and human law. Thirdly, Christ is not the teacher and model in the rule of life but the pagan Pythagoras and the pagans Damon, Pythias and Dionysius" (p. 160). The "Ritual for the subordinate Lodges of the Knights of Pythias" (Chicago, 1906) shows that this organization has oaths, degrees, prelates, and a ritual that contains religious worship.
The decree of the Holy Office concerning the Odd-Fellows, Sons of Temperance, and Knights of Pythias, though not declaring them to be condemned under censure, says: "The bishops must endeavour by all means to keep the faithful from joining all and each of the three aforesaid societies; and warn the faithful against them, and if, after proper monition, they still determine to be members of these societies, or do not effectually separate themselves from them, they are to be forbidden the reception of the sacraments. A decree of 18 Jan., 1896, allows a nominal membership in these three societies, if in the judgment of the Apostolic delegate, four conditions are fulfilled: that the society was entered in good faith, that there be no scandal, that grave temporal injury would result from withdrawal, and that there be no danger of perversion. The delegate, in granting a dispensation, usually requires a promise that the person will not attend any meetings or frequent the lodge-rooms, that the dues be sent in by mail or by a third party, and that in case of death the society will have nothing to do with the funeral.
In regard to female secret societies, the Apostolic delegation at Washington, 2 Aug., 1907, declared (Ans. no. 15,352-C): "If these societies are affiliated to societies already nominally condemned by the Church, they fall under the same condemnation, for they form, as it were, a branch of such societies. As regards other female secret societies which may not be affiliated with societies condemned expressly by the Church, the confessor must in cases of members belonging to such societies, apply the principles of moral theology which treat of secret societies in general." The document adds that members of female secret societies affiliated to the three societies condemned in 1894 will be dealt with by the Apostolic delegate in the same manner as male members when the necessary conditions are fulfilled.
The Third Council of Baltimore (no. 253) declares: "We see no reason why the prohibition of the Church against the Masonic and other secret societies should be extended to organizations of workingmen, which have no other object in view than mutual protection and aid for their members in the practice of their trades. Care must be taken, however, that nothing, be admitted under any pretext which favors condemned societies; or that the workingmen who belong to these organizations be induced, by the cunning arts of wicked men, to withhold, contrary to the laws of justice, the labor due from them, or in any other manner violate the rights of their employers. Those associations are entirely illicit, in which the members are so bound for mutual defense that danger of riots and murders is the outcome."
Finally, in regard to the condemnation of individual societies in the United States the council says (no. 255): "To avoid confusion of discipline which ensues, to the great scandal of the faithful and the detriment of ecclesiastical authority, when the same society is condemned in one diocese and tolerated in another, we desire that no society be condemned by name as falling under one of the classes [of forbidden societies] before the Ordinary has brought the matter before a commission which we now constitute for judging such cases, and which will consist of all the archbishops of these provinces. If it be not plain to all that a society is to be condemned, recourse must be had to the Holy See in order that a definite judgment be obtained and that uniform discipline may be preserved in these provinces".
STEVENS, The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities (New York, 1907); COOK, Revised Knights of Pythias Illustrated-Ritual for Subordinate Lodges of the Knights of Pythias Adopted by the Supreme Lodge (Chicago, 1906); IDEM, Revised Odd-Fellowship Illustrated The Complete Revised Ritual (Chicago, 1906); CARNAHAN, Pythian Knighthood (Cincinnati, 1888); F.J.L., The Order of the Knights of Pythias in the Light of God's Word (Lutheran Tract) (New Orleans, 1899); DALLMAN, Odd-Fellowship Weighed Wanting (Pittsburgh, 1906); GERBER, Der Odd-Fellow Orden. u. Das Decret vom 1894 (Berlin, 1896); MACDILL AND BLANCHARD, Secret Societies (Chicago, 1891); DALLMANN, Opinions on Secret Societies (Pittsburgh, 1906); H.C.S., Two Discourses Against Secret Oath-Bound Societies or Lodges (Columbus, O., s.d.); KELLOGG, College Secret Societies (Chicago, 1894); ROSEN, The Catholic Church and Secret Societies (Hollendale, Wis., 1902); IDEM, Reply to my Critics of the Cath. Church and Secret Societies (Dubuque, 1903). See also the extended bibliography appended to article MASONRY.
APA citation. (1912). Secret Societies. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14071b.htm
MLA citation. "Secret Societies." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14071b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by John Fobian. In memory of Catherine Gibson.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.