Freemasonry involves a fraternity which is secret in so far as those admitted take an oath never to divulge its particular rituals and practices, although its membership and meeting places are not secret. Freemasons, who also take an oath to help one another, include politicians, businessmen and military officers and are often some of the most powerful and prominent men in any one country. Although freemasonry claims to be based on the fundamentals of religion and admits all faiths, it has been denounced and continues to be denounced by organized religion for practising occult rites, for its secrecy and for its power.
By virtue of their secrecy, lodge activities lend themselves to covert, concerted political action. Under certain conditions Masons may originate, or be manipulated into originating, politically dissenting and provocative activities tending towards the destabilization of governments.
Freemasonry began as an organization of operative masons in England in mediaeval times. By the 18th century it had developed into a speculative brotherhood. The Grand Lodge connecting all others was founded in 1717. Within half a century of its foundation, freemasonry had spread to Europe, America and Asia.
Freemasonry has had a long association with politics. Its lodges provided meeting place for Masonic men of affairs – tradesmen, bankers, lawyers, politicians – where the issues of the day could be discussed and debated. In such lodges, activists of the American and the French Revolutions met. The Vatican condemned Freemasonry first in 1738 and later in 1917, asserting that any member would be excommunicated. It was condemned by the Greek Orthodox church in 1933 as a system reminiscent of heathen mystery religions. In Rome in 1981, the P-2 Masonic Lodge which was declared illegal and considered to be a conspiracy against the government; its members were politicians, businessmen and military officers. Freemasonry has had offspring, such as the Bavarian Illuminati who were suppressed in 1785 for plotting revolution, and possibly the Rosicrucians who are now considered to have had a role in the Reformation.
Official Masonic liturgy says anyone who discloses their secrets or membership shall have their tongue ripped out.
There are over 9,000 lodges in all parts of the world; most are under the jurisdiction of the United Grand Lodge of England, and some are under either the Grand Lodge of Ireland or the Grand Lodge of Scotland. In most Commonwealth countries, local Lodges are under the jurisdiction of independent Grand Lodges. There are also 50 autonomous Grand Lodges in the USA, all recognized by the Grand Lodge of England, as well as 5 in Central America and Mexico, 11 in South America, 2 in the West Indies, and 1 in Israel. In Europe there are recognized Grand Lodges in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, France, Greece, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland. Considerable media attention has been devoted to the connections of the P2 Masonic Lodge in Italy with various political corruption scandals, and to the infiltration of the police force in the UK by masons. In 1994 the 359,000 masons in England and Wales were advised to avoid contact with their counterparts in Italy and Greece, because of allegations of corruption, mafia links and political statements made in breach of their Masonic rules.
In 1993 the UK government indicated in official staff guidelines that conflicts of interest could arise in the case of personnel involved in freemasonry. The guidelines require civil servants to report such associations to their superior. There has been considerable concern over the infiltration of the UK police force and the judiciary by masons and the the possible perversion of justice in consequence.
It was reported in 1997 that, in the UK, two out of the 39 Appeal Court Judges and one out of the 96 High Court Judges were Freemasons. As many as 16 of the 64 judges on the North East Circuit were Freemasons. A sample of magistrates found that 11 out of 107 asked were members.