Catholic Church & Fraternities

The Miami archbishop is flanked by two members of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order.
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When many people think of fraternities, they envision the rambunctious, yet harmless, students in any number of Hollywood comedies. Historically, the Catholic Church has not shared this light-hearted view of fraternal orders. From the Freemasons in medieval Europe to anti-Catholic college fraternities in the modern era, the religion has faced challenges with these somewhat secret societies. Catholics have responded by forming their own social clubs.

1 Vatican Policy

The Vatican has always maintained a stance forbidding participation in secret societies. These groups, because of their secrecy, have rituals that prevent the church from verifying whether the intentions are in harmony with the Christian message. Since the 18th century, the Catholic leadership has vehemently prohibited involvement in groups with secret oaths.

2 Freemasons

Catholic Canon Law prevents members from joining the Freemasons. The Freemasons formed in 12th century England as an organization of artisans who shared secrets of their trades only among other members. Over time, the groups became a challenge to the political dominance of the Vatican by often questioning the church's doctrines. Eventually, in 1738, Pope Clement ordered the excommunication, or permanent removal, of any Catholic involved in Freemasonry. This order received subsequent support in the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law, published in 1917 and 1983, which prohibited participation in Freemasonry. Canon 2335 labels Freemasonry a dangerous secret society armed with the goal of destroying the Catholic Church and legitimate governments.

3 College Fraternities and Sororities

There is a history of discrimination against Catholics by mainstream college fraternities and sororities. As late as the 1960s, some college fraternal chapters set quotas for the maximum number of Catholic members. As a result, some Catholic college students formed chapters of Catholic-serving Greek organizations. One such group, Phi Kappa Theta, formed in 1924 at the University of Nebraska. Long dormant after closing during the Great Depression, the fraternity reactivated in 2005 when campus chaplain the Rev. Robert Matya witnessed a need, in his opinion, for a social organization that would serve as a proper example of Christian virtues.

4 The Knights

To remedy the exclusion by some organizations and to provide social groups with a Catholic-friendly agenda, Catholics created their own fraternal orders. The Knights of Columbus founded in Connecticut in 1882 during a time of heightened anti-Catholic immigrant sentiment. The Knights of Columbus served the dual purposes of providing Catholic men with a social outlet, while also proving, by naming the group after Christopher Columbus, that the immigrants were proud of their new country. Similarly, African-American Catholics, then unable to join the Knights of Columbus because of racial segregation laws, founded the Knights of Peter Claver in 1909, as a group for like-minded Christian men.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.