­The Challenges that Freemasonry faces (A.M.A. Gonçalves)

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The openness of the modern society, the demand for transparency and accountability in every institution, the proximity of media, and the awareness of citizens pose enormous challenges to contemporary freemasonry. In Anglophone countries the history of Freemasonry combines with the history of local communities, as Freemasons are active citizens involved in the social causes of those communities and in structures of assistance to those in need. In the Latin world Freemasonry has been slowly adapting to an environment where the Order is no more persecuted – as during the 1930’s under fascist and extreme rights regimes – where its role was seen with mistrust by  being allegedly involved with projects of power, traffic of influence and privilege that are incompatible with a free and rule of law society. Freemasonry is not such a type of organization although people think the opposite. The power that people attribute to the Craft is limited or even nonexistent. There are a few heads of state or monarchs that are freemasons or are willing to be publicly associated with the Craft. In modern parliaments there are MPs who are Freemasons but their activity is not coordinated to encourage some sort of ‘masonic’ articulation of the political agenda. They respond lawfully to the directives of their Party chiefs rather than thinking of the interests of Freemasonry as a social actor.

Some Crafts are better than others in facing this challenge. Some aim to ignore this appetite for transparency and openness to the outside world. Others are taking the convenient approach to let its activities be known without putting in danger the design of secrecy that the organization has ritually and its by-laws. We have been providing, in some constituencies, guided visits to Masonic temples, lectures and debates held in these temples and open to the public. Rarely have we seen Freemasonry leaders approaching the press and explaining their views about the problems of society and the challenges that it poses to everybody. It is, of course, a question of personal approach but also of social culture and tradition. Somehow, the French are more used to this sort of posture, considering the French practice of free speech, political mobilization and participation, fighting for the values that are enshrined in the motto “ Liberté, Fraternité, Equalité’ and that form the identity of the ‘république’. In Iberian countries that move is still being assessed with major calculation, although some initiatives promoted by the Grand Orient of Spain/Grand Lodge of Spain go in that direction. Portugal is still looking for the convenient approach. A good start was the proclamation of all Portuguese masonic organization repudiating the terrorist attacks in Paris against the journalists and cartoonists of the Charlie Hebdo.  It was a landmark in the history of the Portuguese Craft.

Asian Craft has, for some reason, been absent from these developments. One possible reason for this is due to the kind of Masonic organization existing underground, still related to European Grand Lodges, and favouring less a national organization of Masonic Lodges. The exceptions to this are the Grand Lodge of Japan, the Grand Lodge of the Philippines, the Grand Lodge of India and the Grand Lodge of China (Taiwan). Most of them were created to react to necessities of local masonic organizations rather than aiming towards a positioning in the international structure of Freemasonry. For reasons of culture, some of them are less open to an active participation in the debate of the problems of their societies, than others. Indian freemasonry is an exception which is rooted in its active participation in the movement that led India to political independence from the British rule. But this is an on-going process that may isolate those Crafts that miss the step in the changes that Freemasonry as a whole is passing through. The aging of Brothers and Lodges poses an enormous challenge to the continuity of Masonic activity both in Asia as indeed in the rest of the world and invites us to look at the Masonic role in the 21st century with another vision and boldness.