QUAERITUR: Catholics and “secret societies”… and group blogs of anonymous bloggers

From a reader:

In your recent post, the examination of conscience listed a question about secret societies. I am theology teacher in a diocese where we have many unfaithful priests in positions of influence. A group of lay people, most with theology degrees (myself included), have decided to form a network of orthodox Catholics within the diocese, to keep a blog and produce podcasts on good, orthodox theology. We intend to invite local Catholics to join our group and we intend for this group to spread the faith in union with the bishop. However, because a lot of our members would be in a delicate position if certain elements in the diocese found out what we’re planning, we are currently keeping our group a private, secret one, even though once we find our place, we intend to become more open and visible. Again, we are not in any remote sense a schismatic group, nor are we opposing the authority of our bishop, we’re just trying to keep our network of orthodox catechists under the radar. Is this what the Church intended to condemn when she condemned secret societies? Should this group be disbanded? Are there canonical penalties?

No, this is not what the examen meant by “secret societies”.  In the context of that examen “secret societies” refers mainly to Masonic groups and their spin-offs, the Carbonari, Odd-Fellows, and perhaps once upon a time some collegiate societies, such as Greek groups.  I don’t know much about the Greek groups, frankly, but I believe in times past some had certain aspects that conformed to the description of “secret societies”.

For more and a a description, check the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which would explain “secret societies” in the sense intended in that particular examen.

Here is a definition which is still useful for an examination of conscience concerning groups to which Catholics may belong:

“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.”

Even is some societies have openly benevolent aims, other aspects may make them off-limits for Catholics.

In any event, I don’t think that a group of people forming a group blog to support Catholic teaching and support legitimate ecclesiastical authority would fall into the old definition.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. “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…”

    I take it that “conspiring against the state” means, in essence, anarchists, and would not apply to efforts to undermine or overthrow, say, a Communist regime or totalitarian invaders or their puppets.

  2. One thing many bloggers do is to post under pseudonyms. Generally this is done to protect privacy and often bloggers also name people with pseudonyms as well.

    I think this is an entirely legitimate practice. And one that you might consider adopting for your blog. If everyone that posts, posts under a username (which is really a pseudonym) then is it a society at all? Or just a convention for writing?

    Keep Stitching,

  3. buffaloknit says:

    This was a great question! I have actually wondered this myself: do certain types of online, anonymous behavior = secret society membership? Thank you for clarifying this, Fr. Z! The internet presents new modes for some very old sins.

    I’d like to briefly mention one detail about college fraternities an sororities: to my knowledge, all modern Greek letter societies (as they are sometimes called in the United states) that is, residential fraternities and sororities, absolutely meet criteria 2 & 3(a sorority member lost the initiation book-and I enjoyed reading it as an undergraduate). I’m not sure why, Fr. Z. says ‘once upon a time’ these were not allowed. Honorary Greek letter societies (as they are called in the United States) which do not have a ‘residential’ component, do have initiation rites but they tend not to be ‘secret’ and do exist at Catholic Universities (as I have been told by people who have gone to Catholic universities!)

    Everyone reading this blog probably knows enough not to rush a fraternity or sorority at college, for a basket of other, much more obvious reasons.

    I’d like to quickly add that I and a few others at Purdue University started Purdue’s chapter of Eta Sigma Phi, the honorary society for undergrads studying Latin and Ancient Greek! A great organization with many scholarship opportunities! ????????û??? ??ì ????????û???.

  4. Titus says:

    Of the criteria listed re: secrete societies, #2 is of course the key, (#3 being principally merely a manifestation of #2), and #4 is purely descriptive (plenty of perfectly legitimate organizations have intricate rituals: most readers here probably attended an ancient ceremony yesterday). #1 is principally a historical observation: your local Masons probably have never conspired to do anything more sinister than roast hotdogs, although their European confreres of yesteryear certainly did.

    But really the key is whether the organization attempts to arrogate to itself duties and allegiances that properly belong elsewhere, oftentimes in furtherance of some false vision. For instance, Masonry teaches that the bond of Masonic brotherhood is more important, and the duties that one assumes as a Mason more compelling, than bonds and duties related to family, country, or God. Thus, Masons taught that the solutions to human problems are to be found in the purely immanent, secular terms of “brotherhood.” This is a false vision rooted in Gnosticism propped up by an erroneous taxonomy of duties and obligations. Such manifest errors by no means indicate that a Catholic need avoid any organization that maintains (non-profane) rituals or asks a reasonable degree of secrecy from its members, whether that organization be the Knights of Columbus or a social club.

    But many thanks to Father for the excerpt.

  5. Gail F says:

    I know nothing at all about fraternities and sororities, my parents having been opposed to both. But when I was an undergraduate in a very small college that sort of functioned as a sorority/fraternity (we had a strong group identity), one of the guys joined a fraternity and got tired of being made fun of for it (I didn’t say we had a very NICE group identity! Actually it was nice, but part of our “thing” was thinking of ourselves as different from the Greek system, which was huge on our campus). He told us that his fraternity taught him all sorts of secrets, “stuff you know nothing about!!!” That was the first time I had ever heard of anything like what I associate with Masonic groups being part of a mainstream college fraternity.

  6. Scott W. says:

    Fr. Z answered well and I’ll just add my no, a loose connection of like-minded Catholics seeking to counter the Leftist lay-cabals that infest most parish offices is not a secret society.

  7. lgreen515 says:

    If you are planning to have a blog, you may not be able to stay secret very long.

  8. James Joseph says:

    I read the “New Theological Movement” blog, which is run anonymously, if I am not mistaken, by a group of seminarians and priests. From what I understand they do so in order not bring themselves celebrity.

  9. dans0622 says:

    Canonically, the important point in any society–and membership/leadership in it–is not secrecy but whether or not it “plots against the Church.” Cf. c. 1374.

  10. Centristian says:

    I’ve often wondered whether or not the so-called “animal lodges” (the Moose, the Elks, &c) would be included in the Vatican’s prohibition against secret societies. They seem harmless enough.

    @James Joseph:

    “I read the ‘New Theological Movement’ blog, which is run anonymously, if I am not mistaken, by a group of seminarians and priests. From what I understand they do so in order not bring themselves celebrity.”

    I read it too, but the names, titles, and photos of the contributors (e.g.: Shawn Tribe, founder and editor) are all prominently displayed on the blog.

  11. Peggy R says:

    I was just talking to another mom about a longtime popular Catholic camp in Southern IL, Ondessonk. When I went there in the 19–‘s..okay at least 25 years ago…there were secret clubs with initiations for girls. That really turned me off. I only went once. It does remain a popular camp throughout the midwest.

  12. Centristian says:

    @James Joseph:

    My mistake. I was thinking of the “New Liturgical Movement” blog.

  13. helgothjb says:

    I take that to mean that the ‘vow’ of absolute abedience that the LC takes makes it therefore illicit?

  14. John Nolan says:

    This is of course why the Church condemned the Irish Republican Brotherhood (aka the Fenians) and threatened with excommunication all those who took the Fenian Oath.

  15. hugonis says:

    So are fraternities and sororities prohibited for Catholics today? I am a member of a fraternity, and many other members of my fraternity are Catholics, and the local permanent deacon is an honorary member. Our fraternity does have secret rituals and our founders were Methodists and Masons, but we do not do anything against the Church. In fact, through the deacon and our many Catholic members, we have a rather good relationship with the local church.

  16. Charivari Rob says:

    I agree that what Father’s correspondent intends does not qualify as the sort of “secret society” which the Church condemns.

    At the same time, I’m not sure what you intend to accomplish. Invite and teach those who already agree or are sympathetic to your views, and who will keep your secrets? Isn’t that trying to be the light of the world and keeping your light under a bushel at the same time?

  17. Anonymity is an honored tradition of the Church. For example, it used to be very common for all members of certain religious orders not to publish under their own names in order to maintain humility among members; and sometimes, even their fellow monks and nuns didn’t know the identity of the author in their midst. This is why you see plenty of orthodox devotional books by “A Sister of Notre Dame” or the like.

    Fr. Z already talked about the difference between secrecy and being a “secret society”. One assumes that no fraternities today would claim that their fraternity oaths were meant to keep members from revealing their ceremonies to police, university administrations, or their clergy; and certainly they wouldn’t go around killing their forsworn members in gruesome fashion.

    A real secret society would of course seriously threaten to kill the foresworn to keep their secrets, and would probably kill a few of the sworn if no foresworn presented themselves. Making members afraid to talk to authorities is the whole point of a secret society of the type forbidden by the Church.

  18. isnowhere says:

    Group of anonymous Catholic web loggers… yeah we dig it. http://anonisnowhere.blogspot.com/

    [“Bloggers”, not “loggers”… though I am conjuring the image. Ohhhhh… “web loggers”.]

  19. isnowhere says:

    I now have Monty Python’s Lumberjack song running through the mind…

    I never particularly cared for the word “blog”. I will use it on occasion, and I have no problem with others making use of it. When I can… I try to use the original term “web log” … and now find myself expanding out to “web loggers” and other such terms.

    I should probably get over it and join in with the rest of the web log-o-sphere. (The rest of the authors on the nowhere web log -blog- have no issues using the term.)

  20. abasham says:

    buffaloknit says that “to [his] knowledge, all modern Greek letter societies (as they are sometimes called in the United states)…absolutely meet criteria 2 & 3.”

    He also says that “everyone reading this blog probably knows enough not to rush a fraternity or sorority at college”

    So, it turns out that buffaloknit doesn’t mave much knowledge of social college fraternities at all, or much knowledge of how to act charitably.

    I have been a reader of this blog since before I entered college, and I also spent all four years of my college career involved with my Fraternity. It is a secret fraternity, we do have a ritual, and it in no way has compromized my ability to be a good, faithful Catholic. In fact, it helped me in many ways regarding my faith, as it did for some of my friends in the Fraternity. All of its founders were religious men, some even being (protestant) clergy. Its values are strongly religious and complement rather than distract from my Catholic identity.

    Furthermore, the values and practices of the Fraternity which are secular in nature benefitted me as well. I learned social skills, leadership, and conviction of purpose. The numbers back this up. While only 3% of the population throughout our Nation’s history have belonged to social college fraternities, their members include 48% of all U.S. presidents, 42% of U.S. senators, 40% of all U.S. supreme court justices, 30% of U.S. congress members, and 30% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. Furthermore, students who join a fraternity or sorority are more likely to return to college the following year than students who choose not to join, and Greek-affiliated alumni are more involved in civic organizations and contribute more financially to nonprofit organizations than non-Greek alumni.

    I understand that Greek life isn’t for everyone. And I understand that some people fall prey to a certain sterotype of fraternity or sorority behyavior. But the sort of negative things people think of happening in Greek life happen across the college campus, Greek Life or not. Personally, I would never have gotten as much out of my college career without my Fraternity, and it will continue to be an important part of my identity, along with my Catholic faith.

  21. Alice says:

    I was concerned about whether or not the professional sorority I joined in college was a forbidden secret society until I realized that several Catholic colleges had had chapters since before Vatican II and a religious sister wrote some of our songs. Several of my sisters were really good Catholic girls and most of us were openly religious (and this was a secular school).

  22. Inigo says:

    Witch would describe best a reiki group, or any kind of esotheric group witch has an oath of secresy, and operates with quasi religious ceremonies: religious sect or secret society? If it is a sect, then wouldn’t joining it be apostasy? What about those who think that you can be part of an esotheric sect and still be catholic? Heretics?
    What kind of penalty does someone get if belonging to such a group?

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