By MARK BARNA The Gazette []


Its members are male, mostly conservative and many retired. They advocate living a moral life and doing charitable work.


So why would anyone label the Freemasons a cult?


Maybe it has to do with members' mystery-shrouded rituals that include secret passwords and initiations, their use of arcane symbols and their penchant for bestowing such exotic titles as "Entered Apprentice" upon its members.

Photo Jerilee Bennett The Gazette []


Senior warden Craig Sparks prepares for a July meeting of the Colorado Springs Masonic Lodge No. 76. The senior warden is the second in command of the lodge and sits at the end of the hall opposite the worshipful master, or leader of the lodge.


Maybe it's because of a historically rocky relationship with the Catholic church, which reinforced a prohibition against the faithful becoming Masons with this 1983 declaration from then-Cardinal John Ratzinger: "Catholics who join the Masons are in the state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion."


Whatever the reason, Masons simply want people to know that there is nothing nefarious going on, that they are not a cult or even a religious organization, and that most of their 2 million or so brethren worldwide are law-abiding people with conservative values who have given tens of thousands of dollars to charities over the years, particularly to optometry and speech pathology causes.


That's why Ernie Pyle of Colorado Springs joined 13 years ago.


"I wanted to be part of a fraternity that goes out and serves mankind through charity," said Pyle, secretary of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Colorado, based in Colorado Springs.


The rise of masonry

It is said that Freemasonry started with the building of King Solomon's Temple as recounted in the Old Testament. But most historians say it actually began in the late Middle Ages among itinerant stoneworkers building the great castles and cathedrals of Europe.


Medieval stoneworkers formed fraternal groups that included initiation rites, and as the building of the great stone structures of Europe waned, workers allowed nonmasons into their men's group.


In time, the organizations morphed into fraternities dedicated to teaching moral principles. Masons in the U.S. have included such movers and shakers as George Washington, Gerald Ford, Clark Gable, Benjamin Franklin, Harry Truman and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.


Yet those high-powered names weren't enough to keep membership steady. In 1960, there were about 4.1 million members in the U.S., according to the Masonic Service Association. By 2005, the number had dropped to about 1.6 million.


A former Mason, William Schnoebelen of Dubuque, Iowa, blames the decline, in part, on continued skepticism about the organization, and says the Freemasons are not what they claim to be.


The organization is based on ancient fertility cults, not stoneworkers' groups and spiritual knowledge, he says. A born-again Christian, he also says it's anti-Christian because it doesn't require belief in the God of the Bible, and demands that members swear oaths despite the Bible's proscription against such practices. "They have their own agenda, and their agenda is not friendly to Christianity," said Schnoebelen, author of "Masonry Beyond the Light," a book that's critical of the organization.


Pyle, however, disputes such claims. "It has helped me solidify my (Christian) faith," Pyle said.


Despite critics such as Schnoebelen, interest in the Masons has been on the rebound, thanks, in part, to Hollywood movies that include National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code and, most recently, "Angels & Demons," which touch on the hidden mysteries within Christianity that Masons and other esotericists explore.


"There has been an obvious bump to the point of being dramatic," said Brian L. Cotter, the most worshipful grand master of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Colorado.


"But it's also because people recognize that we can fulfill a need," he said. "The lessons we teach in the esoteric work are life lessons you can't learn anywhere else. They make people better, well-rounded individuals."


'Rites of passage'

The renewed interest is playing out in Colorado, which has 133 Masonic lodges and 10,500 members, up 2 percent over the past two years, Pyle said. Members' average age has dropped during the past decade from 73 to 67.


Colorado Springs has three lodges with a total of 698 members. Worldwide, there are more than 12,000 lodges. No overarching entity governs Masonry, so rituals and rules differ in European countries from lodge to lodge and, in America, from state to state.


The one thing they share are the three degrees of the secret initiation rites: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. The rites can sound bizarre to outsiders; for example, the Entered Apprentice rite in some lodges requires the initiate to wear a white gown, a blindfold and to have a cable tow (which resembles a hangman's noose) around his neck.


Pyle said Masonic initiation rites are best understood as symbolic rites of passage. "Think of (the Entered Apprentice rite) as a baptism or bar mitzvah," Pyle said.


While the initiations are veiled in secrecy, Masonic symbols are part of popular culture, incorporated in designs on the U.S. dollar bill (the pyramid and all-seeing eye) to famous paintings by Englishman William Blake of God holding a compass and square.


Indeed, the best-known symbols of masonry are the compass and square, or right angle, tools used by stonemasons that came to signify the limiting of human passions and living in a right relationship to moral law, respectively.


Masons say they join for the camaraderie and to deepen their understanding of social issues and spirituality. "You can talk to your family, your minister, but sometimes you need another perspective on things," said Jim Ross, a member of a CaƱon City lodge.


Becoming a Mason

The Masonic Center at 1150 Panorama Drive will have an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday that will include video showings and a Q & A with Masonic leaders. For more information, call Ernie Pyle at 471-9587 or 623-5344.


In America, a Grand Lodge oversees state lodges, and the Masonic Service Association of North America in Maryland periodically organizes conferences attended by state Grand Lodge leaders.


Lodges also typically include organizations for men and women, such as the Order of the Eastern Star. Belief in a "Supreme Being" is required, and most members are Christian, but they can belong to any faith.


Anyone can apply to be a member, but they must fill out a questionnaire, which includes questions about any felony convictions.


After several meetings with the applicant by Mason leaders, a lodge investigation committee decides on membership.


There is no formal background check.