The Avignon Decree (1326)
The several Papal declarations against Freemasons are well known. The Bull issued by Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) in 1738, condemning the Liberi Muratori, (the Freemasons), for “just and reasonable causes”, and Benedict XIV (1675-1740)’s Bull, confirming in 1751 the decision taken by his predecessor, are religious documents often referred to in the course of Masonic History.
Less known and consequently less discussed is the order issued in June 1326 (some 400 years earlier) by a Council held in Avignon, at the request of John XXII (1244-1334), a native of Cahors (France) (1). The importance of this document is that it places an earlier date on the formal policy of the Roman Catholic Church related to Masons’ membership of guilds and associations.
The context - When the Papal Bull text concerning “the radical suppression of societies, leagues and conjurations, referred to as brotherhoods”, by the bishops assembled at the abbey of Saint Ruf, was adopted and enforced, Pope John XXII, then 82 years old, was himself engaged in activities primarily temporal.
From his former episcopal palace he established a number of programs to enlarge the Papal States, by building multiple castles and fortresses on his lands and states, organizing their administration, while imposing a rigorous reorganization of religious orders and Bishops – reforms so unpopular he was, on different occasions, subjected to threats of poisoning and dismissal.
The document - It seems ultimately that the Avignon Decree of 1326 had no other purpose than to establish papal primacy over both Christian and secular communities. It should be noted that four years previously, John XXII’s predecessor – in the Holy See of Avignon – Pope Clement V (1264-1314), had dissolved the Order of the Temple (The Knights Templar) at the request of King Philippe IV le Bel (1268-1314).
A reading of World History indicates that the Conciliar Decree did not have a major impact on the social life of its time. In the early 1300s, Europe was enriched with new religious buildings: the construction of the cathedrals of Rouen, Tours, Liege, Strasbourg, and Paris, were far from being completed while the Lodges (building sites) of the cathedrals in Carcassonne, Narbonne, Dijon and Albi, had only recently been opened; which means, in short, that the corporate groups of Masons considerably multiplied, with charges but with privileges too.
Modern transcription from Latin.
Anno Christi MCCCXXVI
On the radical suppression of societies, leagues and conspiracies,
designated under the name of brotherhoods.
Item (2), In some districts of our provinces, there are people, mostly noblemen, sometimes commoners, organizing leagues, societies, conspiracies that are forbidden by the ecclesiastic law as well as by the civil law; under the name of brotherhoods.
They gather once a year at places where their secret assemblies and meetings are being held; having entered the room, they take an obligation according to which they must support each other against everybody except their Masters [and] assist, advise and help each other in any situation.
Sometimes, having put on a uniformed costume and using tokens and distinctive signs, they elect one of theirs as leader; to whom they swear complete obedience: therefore justice is suffering as a result [and] murder and robbery follow. [There is] no peace nor security anymore; the innocent and the poor are being oppressed; churches and church people, being of course considered by those persons as their enemies, must suffer as individuals and in their belongings. In the fields of laws and courts, there are all kinds of iniquities and prejudices.
We do intend to set ourselves immediately against such awkward enterprises and ill-natured attempts, to carry on effective remedies and protect our congregation against sin, according to our sacerdotal functions, by virtue of the authority of the actual council; and we do pronounce the nullity, the dissolution and the disintegration of all assemblies, alliances, societies and conspiracies termed as fraternities and brotherhoods, founded by clericals or seculars, regardless of the grade dignity, state or condition they may belong to and we also declare null and void the covenants, conventions, [and] ordainings concluded between them.
We resolve that the oaths to be taken by the aforesaid persons are prohibited, valueless, [and] that nobody may feel bound to observe them. Under our guarantee, we do absolve them. However, they shall get a salutary punishment from their confessors, for those imprudent and rash oaths.
By virtue of the aforesaid authority, we forbid them, under the penalty of excommunication (by our will, to be entailed on the offenders ipso facto, after the present decree has been published in their parish church on two consecutive Sundays), we forbid them that on the occasion of the aforesaid assemblies, meetings, gatherings and taking of oaths they thereafter deal with such practices, organize such brotherhoods, subject themselves to that kind of obediences, help and support each other mutually, wear costumes signifying what is from now on a forbidden activity and between them style themselves brothers, priors or abbots of the said society.
Furthermore, that they, within ten days from said publication, shall each ask his own confessor (as far as this is possible to him) to unbind them from the aforesaid oaths and that each declare in public that he will no longer belong in the future to such associations. We forbid that kind of conspiracies, leagues, conventions, even if they do not style themselves brotherhoods. Besides, we pronounce their dissolution and nullity de facto, as they are being practised, and we place those who partake under the sentence of excommunication, a sentence that should not be cancelled, unless by the provincial council, except at the article of death.
However, we have no intention to suppress by this declaration the brotherhoods founded to the glory of God, of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the other Saints in the support of the poor, such brotherhoods having no covenants, nor oaths of this kind.
1. - Pope John XXII (1244-1334) was born in Cahors (a city of the province of Quercy, in the south-western part of France) as Jacques Dueze, from a rich trade family. He was elected Pope in 1316, having been Bishop of Frejus (1300), Avignon (1310) and cardinal bishop in Porto (1313). He was the second of the nine Popes and antipopes who established the Holy See in Avignon, France.
2. - Item: Likewise.