George Washington and Catholics

America has been blessed by God in many ways but I suspect no blessing has been greater than His granting us George Washington to lead us in our struggle for independence and to be our first President.  Catholics have perhaps more reason than other Americans to keep the memory of Washington alive in our hearts.  In a time of strong prejudice against Catholics in many parts of the colonies he was free from religious bigotry as he demonstrated on November 5, 1775 when he banned the anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes celebrations.

“As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope – He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”

Order in Quarters, November 5, 1775

– George Washington

This stand against anti-Catholicism was not unusual for Washington.  Throughout his life Washington had Catholic friends, including John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the US.  He would sometimes attend Mass, as he did during the Constitutional Convention when he led a delegation of the Convention to attend Mass in Philadelphia as he had attended Protestant churches in that town during the Covention.  This sent a powerful signal that under the Constitution Catholics would be just as good Americans as Protestant Americans.

Washington underlined this point in response to a letter from prominent Catholics, including Charles and John Carroll, congratulating him on being elected President:

“[March 15], 1790


While I now receive with much satisfaction your congratulations on my being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station in my country; I cannot but duly notice your politeness in offering an apology for the unavoidable delay. As that delay has given you an opportunity of realizing, instead of anticipating, the benefits of the general government, you will do me the justice to believe, that your testimony of the increase of the public prosperity, enhances the pleasure which I should otherwise have experienced from your affectionate address.

I feel that my conduct, in war and in peace, has met with more general approbation than could reasonably have been expected and I find myself disposed to consider that fortunate circumstance, in a great degree, resulting from the able support and extraordinary candor of my fellow-citizens of all denominations.

The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavor to justify the favorable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

G. Washington”

Pope Leo XIII recalled the attitude of Washington towards Catholics in his encyclical Longinqua:

“Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.”

On November 5, the anniversary of Washington dealing a death blow to an anti-Catholic celebration in this country, Catholics have good reason to echo the words of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, in his funeral eulogy of Washington in Congress on December 26, 1799:  “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

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  1. President Washington is by far my favorite president. I know that he was a mason and consequently has been a figure of esteam for masons I have met in the past. So with what was written above and what I researched myself – I still get confused as to how he could have been so pro-catholic and be a mason… anyone have input on this?

  2. In spite of those historians who happen to believe that Washington’s primary reason for this ‘politically-correct’ move then was purely for pragmatic reasons and not actually due to any genuine consideration for Catholics in general, I personally happen to admire Washington nonetheless for his wisdom and exceptional leadership.

  3. Masons in this country have to be distinguished from Masons in Europe. Masons in the US have largely been free of the anti-clericalism that infested European Masons. In the time of Washington in America, Masonic lodges provided an opportunity for men to get together to eat, drink, engage in boisterous good humored conversation and participate in “secret” rituals. In short to be boys again with the addition of alcohol. Masons would often help fund good works in the community such as relief of the local poor, etc. I doubt if Washington took belonging to the Masons much more seriously than most people today view belonging to the Rotarians, the Lions, etc.

  4. Nope e. I am stating that they were more like modern Rotarians, with announced meetings and known meeting places. The only thing “secret” about the Masons was their ritual flapdoodle.

  5. “Very interesting — had no idea about this. I linked over at Inside Catholic; thanks for sharing!”

    Thank you Margaret!

  6. Freemasonry is not anti-Catholic. Catholicism is anti-Masonic. Freemasonry welcomes men of any religion. Freemasonry stands for abosolute freedom of conscience, and encourages members to honor their commitments to their own religion. Freemasonry is spiritual, not religious.

    There is a difference for some members of the Freemasons from social clubs like the Rotary or Lions. Freemasonry o ffers a potential opportunity to study spirituality differently than most do. Many members take advantage of this, many do not.

    All of this said, there is no central authority that defines what Freemasonry is or believes: it is what the individual Mason, Lodge and Grand Lodge make of it. There is no set Credo.

    There is no contradiction between Pres. Washington praising Catholicism and being a Mason. There is no big surprise about Pres. Washington having respect for the Roman Catholic Church. Among British upper classes, the reformation was still being debated, and American gentry were part of that debate.

  7. “There is no contradiction between Pres. Washington praising Catholicism and being a Mason. There is no big surprise about Pres. Washington having respect for the Roman Catholic Church. Among British upper classes, the reformation was still being debated, and American gentry were part of that debate.”

    Very interesting. Would you kindly provide references that would corroborate this?

    “Freemasonry is not anti-Catholic. Catholicism is anti-Masonic. Freemasonry welcomes men of any religion. Freemasonry stands for abosolute freedom of conscience, and encourages members to honor their commitments to their own religion. Freemasonry is spiritual, not religious.”

    If true, this would make some sort of sense out of why Mozart himself was a mason (at least, some claim he was).

  8. Steve,

    Masonry is anti-Christian in many ways–as it violates and encourages man to take part in rituals that go against what Christianity teaches–e.g. blood oaths.

    It is forbidden in Catholicism for good reason.

    – Freemasonry teaches about a resurrection to an afterlife whether or not the Mason accepts Jesus Christ.

    – Freemasonry believes that all religions lead to one God

    – Masons do not pray in Jesus’ name.

    The primary reason for the Church’s opposition to Freemasonry is that Freemasonry promotes indifferentism. Indifferentism is the heretical belief that all religions are equally legitimate paths to God. Freemasonry promotes indifferentism in many ways, such as by inviting all religious writings to take an equal place on the Masonic altar with the Sacred Scriptures, and promoting a common religious worship through esoteric ritual. The other reason why Masonry is incompatible with the Christian faith concerns Masonry’s requirement that its members swear oaths of self-donation to the organization and its principles under symbolic, blood-curdling penalties of self-mutilation and death.

  9. It is silly to say Freemasonry welcomes men of all religions, when it encourages beliefs and for men to take oaths against and in violation of the practice of their religion.

    I think particularly of the masonic belief that there is a knowable Truth (the knowledge that is God) that can be achieved solely through man’s reason.

  10. Buffalo Bill converted to Catholicism on his death bed and asked for a Catholic funeral. The Masons in Denver stole his body over the protests of his wife and had a great public parade and a completely non-Catholic funeral. This was reported in the papers in Denver at the time. I have always thought of this when trying to evaluate Washington’s connection with the Masons. If I wouldn’t trust what they said about Buffalo Bill why would I trust them on Washington.

  11. Freemasonry is undoubtedly anti-Catholic. The Popes have repeatedly emphasized the incompatibility of Masonry with the Catholic faith (Paul outlines a few very clearly above). Additionally, there are numerous writings and actions that attest to its anti-Catholic nature.

    While it is true that the men at the local lodge may not know or realize this, it does not change the history regarding Masonry and what it stands for.

  12. In 1776, the Continental Congress asked Carroll, his cousin Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, and Benjamin Franklin to travel to Quebec and attempt to persuade the French Canadian population to join the revolution. Although the group was unsuccessful, it made Carroll well known to the government of the new republic. Carroll was in fact excommunicated by the local Quebec bishop, Jean-Olivier Briand.[4]

    If we were to assert that under no circumstances had a Mason been found willing to take arms against a bad government, we should only be declaring that, in trying moments, when duty, in the masonic sense, to state means antagonism to the Government, they had failed in the highest and most sacred duty of a citizen. Rebellion in some cases is a sacred duty, and none, but a bigot or a fool, will say, that our countrymen were in the wrong, when they took arms against King James II. Loyalty to freedom in a case of this kind overrides all other considerations, and when to rebel means to be free or to perish, it would be idle to urge that a man must remember obligations which were never intended to rob him of his status of a human being and a citizen. [201]


    The Kadosh (thirtieth degree), trampling on the papal tiara and the royal crown, is destined to wreak a just vengeance on these “high criminals” for the murder of Molay [128] and “as the apostle of truth and the rights of man” [129] to deliver mankind “from the bondage of Despotism and the thraldom of spiritual Tyranny”. [130] “In most rituals of this degree everything breathes vengeance” against religious and political “Despotism”. [131]

    One of his fondest wishes, however, came to naught: the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy. In 1787 he wrote “Can there be anything more preposterous than an unknown tongue; and in this country either for want of books or inability to read, the great part of our congregations must be utterly ignorant of the meaning and sense of the publick office of the Church. It may have been prudent, for aught I know, to impose a compliance in this matter with the insulting and reproachful demands of the first reformers; but to continue the practice of the Latin liturgy in the present state of things must be owing either to chimerical fears of innovation or to indolence and inattention in the first pastors of the national Churches in not joining to solicit or indeed ordain this necessary alteration.”[13]

    John Carroll was not consecrated bishop until August 15, 1790. While it would be more than a hundred years before Leo XIII condemned Americanism as a heresy, Bishop Carroll already seemed to desire “the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world” (Leo’s words in Testem Benevolentiae ). Carroll agitated for a vernacular liturgy, bishops elected by their people (no “foreign” appointments from Rome), and a pope with little practical authority over the Church. He also crossed the Bishop of Quebec, the saintly Bishop Briand, by escorting Benjamin Franklin there on an anti-English embassy that failed. (Recall that our Puritan forefathers had seriously offended the Catholic Québécois by declaring England’s toleration of the Faith there to be an “intolerable act”!) Perhaps most damning of Carroll’s integrity as an ecclesiastic is this fact, related in the New Catholic Encyclopedia , Volume 6: “The papal condemnations of Freemasonry were not promulgated in the American colonies by Bishop John Carroll. In fact his brother Daniel was an active Mason and a practicing Catholic. Bishop Carroll wrote to a layman in 1794 regarding the lodge question: ‘I do not pretend that these decrees (against Freemasonry) are received generally by the Church, or have full authority in this diocese.’” Thus was established, early on, the American tradition of ignoring Roman decrees.,+or+have+full+authority+in+this+diocese%22&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&ie=UTF-8
    Your Eminence, when Father John Carroll, who was to become the first American bishop and the first Bishop and later Archbishop of Baltimore, accompanied John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to Québec to ask that the Canadians join in the American Revolution, the then Bishop Briand of Québec forbade his priests to have anything to do with the visitors and he actually excommunicated John Carroll. Bishop Briand had his reasons, in that the British had guaranteed the Catholics of Québec freedom of religion, a freedom which was not guaranteed at that time in the original thirteen rebellious colonies, where Catholics were often discriminated against. Bishop Briand saw no reason for Canadians to join the American colonies against the British, and he was very annoyed that a Catholic priest should be among those seeking to encourage Canadians to risk their religious liberty in what he considered to be a dubious cause. So he excommunicated Father Carroll – and there is no record of which I know that such an excommunication has ever been lifted.

    These articles are why I am not enamored of Washington or our first bishop. John Carroll was rightfully excommunicated. What right does a priest have to solicit aid for a political revolution? His first duty is the salvation of souls. Especially without first speaking with the bishop of the diocese. Free Masonry is duplicitous and from careful reading (which is necessary when reading anything written by influential Masons) it seems that Washington only opposed the celebrations since the French Catholics may be offended may refuse aid. Masonry is indifferent to all religions so the attendance of varying churches is more indicative of indifference- not necessarily favor. Neither did the Continental Congress ever repay the French government the loans it made. Not only that but they shared in the general delight when the monarchy in France (their former allies) fell. It is unfortunate since the French king was a better man and more honest. Not only that but our government congratulated the new Russian government when the Czar was deposed (also a former ally). He was a much better man than Wilson. Not all the monarchs were the tyrants we have been told they were in public schools. Not all the presidents were as virtuous as we have been led to believe. Our country has been heavily influenced by Masons from the beginning. Even many of our clergy. Read history. All practicing and high ranking Masons were not what they seemed. There are three words that come to my mind that applies to Free Masonry and those sufficiently initiated. Perfidious, evil and duplicitous. No doubt I will be heckled.- after all it does sound sort of incredible until you study it. However, save your breathe and read the sources at length and do some serious/ impartial research. Then see if you can find a copy of “Catholicism in New England” By the Rev Arthur J Riley. It may be hard as it is a dissertation for his degree in the 1930s but it is written well and is a treasure trove of documentation about a part of our history that most don’t know about. Best regards.

  13. Robert, in regard to your comment:

    1. The excommunication imposed against Carroll by the Quebec Bishop was clearly done for purely political purposes as the Bishop was a supporter of the British and had no impact on the standing of Carroll with the Church. It was a misuse of the authority granted to the Bishop.

    2. Considering the fact that Leo XIII noted John Carroll had been set up as first Bishop in the US by “apostolic authority” I doubt if he shared the same animus you feel against John Carroll.

    3. Anti-masony tends to quickly fall into tin foil hat territory. The Church had good reason to oppose free masonry in Europe, but too often this worthy effort is seized upon by paranoid conspiracy mongers.

  14. Actually if you would read the rest of the New Advent article and the sources you would see you are clearly wrong. I used no sources that were particularly conspiritorial and do not normal countenance such views. Unfortunately after a review of the facts there is no other answer. Carroll denied the authority of the Vatican in his diocese- that is clearly different from asking for a pastoral concession. Mason have historically been conspiritorial and never have disavowed their connection with the Latin Orient. They merely discountance their methods if you read closely.

    No the excommunication was done because he sought to enlist the Canadians in a foreign war that was not necessary. There was danger to life and limb of the members of his flock without suffiecient cause. Carroll came in like a wolf- over the walls and used his status as a priest to try to persuade the Canadians to join. He never deigned to approach the Bishop of Quebec first. Hence it was more of a pastoral than political issue for the bishop. He was a vagus in doing so.

    Most likely the Vatican felt the selection could have been worse. If you read you will note that there was sufficient concern on the part of the American clergy not to offend the protestants, etc in this country. If the Vatican appointed someone it was strongly possible the American government would have objected. as a matter of fact they sought information from the government as to whatwas acceptable. If you had read you would have noticed that he was elected and confirmed by the Vatican- not appointed as was normal procedure. It was obvious to the pope that if he objected that the American clergy were not steadfastly loyal to Rome and that Catholics in this country would have been persecuted even more in this country. There was no other real option.

    Please trouble yourself to read all the sources. I know it is inconvenient but you claim the arguments are inadequate but have countered none of them. Instead you have merely presented personal opinions which you honestly admit are such when you say “I do not think”, etc. I respect you honesty as such. However you have implied I am a nut and have not deigned to offer a different interpetation or refutation of those articles. Please trouble yourself to do so. It is only intellectually honest as I am certain you will concede.Thank you.

  15. Robert in regard to the excommunication you merely support what I was saying. A Bishop has no right to excommunicate anyone because they take a differing position on a political issue unrelated to the Church and that is precisely what the Bishop of Quebec did.

    The Vatican had no problem approving Carroll as Bishop. I have found nothing in the historical record indicating otherwise. The Vatican approved the procedure of the election of the Bishop by the clergy prior to the election being held.

  16. Whispers in the Loggia had composed an entry that pays fitting tribute to the great man who was the Father of American Catholicism:

    In the Beginning….

    His legacy plugged by no less than The Pope Himself — who recalled him with “admiration and gratitude” in addressing his many heirs last week — the father of American Catholicism, John Carroll of Baltimore, took center stage in a major lecture given Tuesday night in the cathedral he envisioned, but never saw completed: Charmopolis’ Basilica of the Assumption.

    Held to commemorate both the bicentennial of Carroll’s elevation as the nation’s first archbishop and the impending reception of the pallium by his 14th successor, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, on-deck for the talk was one of the bench’s handful of historian-prelates, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee.

    Held to commemorate both the bicentennial of Carroll’s elevation as the nation’s first archbishop and the impending reception of the pallium by his 14th successor, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, on-deck for the talk was one of the bench’s handful of historian-prelates, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee.

    (To think: 25,000 Catholics in thirteen colonies at The Founding… 22 priests… not a lot of money… and a whole lot of misunderstanding and discrimination… and you think we had it bad?)

    On a related note, Carroll was also the launch-pad of O’Brien’s homily at Baltimore’s bicentennial liturgy earlier this month.

    Bishop Carroll took possession of his See in December, 1790 and his inaugural sermon makes clear his state of mind. Of his appointment he said, “I have always dreaded it.” And given the immense challenge that faced him it is easy to see why. “Everything had to be raised from its foundation,” he said with scant resources at hand and a Catholic people among the poorest in the city and countryside. He specified the challenge in his sermon: canonical structures, schools, native clergy, a newly-founded seminary, schools and the evangelization of her near and distant flock.

    His goal, he said, was “to have nothing in view but God and your salvation.” He went on to say, “My heart sinks almost under the impression of terror which comes upon it. In God alone can I find any consolation…He will not abandon me…Pray, dear brethren, pray incessantly (for me.).”

    Pray, they must have. And no, God did not abandon him.

    As founding bishop, this premier missionary and persevering evangelizer of our new nation truly laid the foundation of Catholicism in America . He convinced Rome and some skeptics at home of the compatibility of Catholicism and a free democracy. A friend and confidant of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and a supporter of many civil causes and institutions, what Washington is to our country, John Carroll is to the Church in our country. In his 25 years of shepherding, the Catholic population of the expansive Church of Baltimore doubled as did our number of native priests. He founded three colleges and two seminaries and strongly promoted the foundation of many religious orders, receiving the vows of the now St. Elizabeth Seton. He would go on to encourage and support the establishment of both the first distinctly American community of religious women and of the first Catholic school in our land…

  17. As I recall, the Vatican approving locally selected bishops (rather than centralling appointing bishops) was more common in the 18th century than it is now. And if one goes back a few centuries more, it was in fact the norm.

  18. There are, however, some intriguing hints — and at the very least Washington (known to offer up his suffering and to have a woman “say the beads” for him) was far more spiritual than most of our history teachers taught

    Most tantalizing was a report in volume 4, number 12 of an old nineteenth-century veterans publication known as the National Tribune. Now known as Stars and Stripes, the publication quoted a man named Anthony Sherman as describing a vision that allegedly occurred in 1777.

    It was said that as the chilly wind murmured through leafless trees, Washington, who was known to wander alone praying, spent nearly the entire afternoon in his quarters, allowing no interruptions. “When he came out, I noticed that his face was a shade paler than usual, and there seemed to be something on his mind of more than ordinary importance,” claimed Sherman, who reputedly fought alongside Washington.

    Returning just after dusk, he dispatched an orderly to the quarters of the officer who was presently in attendance. After a preliminary conversation of about half an hour, Washington, gazing upon his companion with that strange look of dignity which he alone could command, said to the latter: “I do not know whether it is owing to the anxiety of my mind, or what, but this afternoon as I was sitting at this table engaged in preparing a dispatch, something seemed to disturb me. Looking up, I beheld standing opposite me a singularly beautiful female. So astonished was I, for I had given strict order not to be disturbed, that it was some moments before I found language to inquire into the cause of her presence. A second, third, and even a fourth time did I repeat my question, but received no answer from my mysterious visitor except a slight raising of her eyes. By this time I felt strange sensations spreading through me. I would have risen but the riveted gaze of the being before me rendered volition impossible. I assayed once more to address her, but my tongue had become useless. Even thought itself had become paralyzed. A new influence, mysterious, potent, irresistible, took possession of me. All I could do was to gaze steadily, vacantly at my unknown visitant.”

  19. Read the CDF document, Quaesitum est (1983) on Freemasonry. It’s clear enough. No one is condemning the wonderful work the local lodges do. What I’ve been reading in the above personal opinions seems similar to what I’ve read from those who know exactly what Vatican II says, even though they haven’t read the documents nor the commentaries written by those who were there.

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