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Have you ever wondered what this centuries-old secret society is all about? Keep reading and you’ll find out who these men are and what they did for us in the past, that allows us to enjoy our liberties in the present.
A month ago the sequel for ‘The Da Vinci Code’, one of the best-selling novels of all time, was published. And even though its writer, Dan Brown, kept a tight lid on what the plot, it became quickly known that the book would deal with Freemasonry and its little known role in the creation of the United States.
Such coverage has led to a renewed interest in the ancient brotherhood as people wonder what exactly is Freemasonry. Is it a religion? Is it a gentlemen’s club? Is it, as conspiracy theorists believe, a shadow government?
A Little History
Officially established in 1717 in London, Freemasonry has been a topic of interest for people around the world looking for spiritual development. Since its creation, the order has been a philosophical, fraternal and charitable organisation, composed of free thinkers looking to become better men who can make a contribution to society.
For years we’ve heard that many historic figures from different disciplines, people who have had an active role in the shaping of modern western civilisation, have been freemasons. From George Washington to Beethoven, from Napoleon to Voltaire, many scientists, philosophers, writers and politicians have joined the brotherhood in pursue of three basic ideals: liberty, equality and fraternity (in French, “Libertè, egalitè, fraternitè”), the motto of the French Revolution in 1789.
Coincidence? Not really, considering they were involved in the revolution and advocated strongly for its success. And of course, Freemasonry is no stranger to Argentina, as the society has been present here for more than 150 years and has in many ways helped shape its history. Many of the Argentine forefathers, including Jose de San Martín, Manuel Belgrano and Domingo F. Sarmiento were freemasons, as well as many Argentine presidents. There are currently 130 active Masonic lodges in Argentina, 60 of them in the city of Buenos Aires alone, and if you do a little research, you’ll find their symbology present on many buildings, monuments and even in cemeteries.
Orlando Ruben Sconza is an historian, sociologist and professor at the University of Buenos Aires and he explains why freemasons have always been present in this country’s history. “There was an intellectual element that had a strong presence in countries like France, the United States, Spain or the South American region,” he says. “This secular movement helped shape the creation of a national state which was in violent collision with the Catholic Church because it was taking away the Vatican’s power by creating the Public Records or the Equal Education Law.”
According to Sconza, Argentina was a special case for several reasons, mainly because of many Spanish and Italian freemasons who migrated here. Apparently, Italian Freemasonry was extremely democratic, which allowed anyone to become a member, even the poor; something unthinkable in England at the time. The Spanish Civil War was also a reason why many Masons decided to move to Argentina, since General Francisco Franco, much like Hitler or Mussolini, considered Freemasonry illegal and whenever a member was identified, he would be executed without trial.
Angel Jorge Clavero is the current Grand Master of the Argentine Lodge, and has been a freemason for 26 years. “Our institution advocates strongly for the values being pursued since the years of the French Revolution. We shape men and teach them how to think for themselves through symbology, in hopes that they will become better members of our society. If they become better citizens, the quality of our country’s political reality improves…something that we may be needing right now,” he says.
“During the 60s and 70s, few people would join us because of the political and social problems the country was going through,” he admits. “But in the 90s the young community started coming back, and since then we have been working strongly to keep admitting younger members.”
In order to do so, they have created special university lodges for college students who want to know about Freemasonry, and they have lowered the admitting age from 21 to 18. “Many young men study a liberal career for six years, and when they graduate, only a few of them know what Freemasonry really is. They don’t teach that in their class, even though it was instrumental in the shaping of Argentina.”
And he’s right, especially when it comes to education. In 1884, Ley 1420, which promoted secular and mandatory schooling, was promoted by freemasons and passed by Argentina’s Congress. They were also behind the university reform of 1918, through which they achieved a modernisation of Argentine universities and allowed all citizens to pursue a higher level of education.
In the last couple of decades, the Argentine Grand Lodge has regularly held a series of meetings called ‘Tenidas Blancas’ with the purpose of making an approach on the community and allowing non-masons to catch a glimpse of how they work. “Because of our discreet nature we cannot just go into the street and start recruiting members, or advertise lodges on the classified ads, so the Tenidas are a great way to attract new brothers,” Clavero says.
They have also opened up to the media, appearing regularly on talk shows, documentaries and the news, which, according to Clavero, has improved public opinion and attracted new people – even foreigners living in Argentina have decided to become masons here. “We have nothing to hide,” he says. “On the contrary, we’ve got much to teach. We are always working for progress so there’s no reason to avoid the media.”
Ever since its creation, Freemasonry has had strong opposition from various organisations, extreme religious factions and fascist governments who accuse it of conspiracy, Satanism, being anti-religion or secretly serving a bigger purpose, such as controlling world events, politics or global economy. And even though there is not an official anti-masonic movement, throughout history the brotherhood has had to face serious accusations and persecution from people around the world who have tried to bring it down. Like the short-lived American Anti-Masonic Party, which in the 1830s ran presidential candidates and opposed US president Andrew Jackson for being a notorious mason.
Totalitarian regimes have also tried to eliminate freemasons. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy treated masons as a source of opposition since their liberal ideology was in direct collision with their fascist governments. In Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, he stated that masons had “succumbed to the Jews” and their “Jewish conspiracy” was one of the reasons Germany had lost the First World War. In 1935, he went on to dismember all German Masonic lodges, accusing them of conspiring to create a “World Republic”. As a result, Freemasonic concentration camps were created and inmates were considered political prisoners. And even though the exact amount of victims is unknown, it is estimated that thousands of members died during World War II. After that, the Soviet Union and Communist nations also persecuted the organization during the Cold War years for being liberal.
Some very conservative religious groups also tend to go against masons because of their discreet character, although most of them express their opinions in anonymity through weblogs or online forums. They like to accuse the fraternity of being a satanic organisation that brainwashes their members into becoming atheists.
In Argentina, a local blog named ‘Ciudadanos Alerta’, features an article signed by a conservative man named Juan Pampero who accuses famed historian Felipe Pigna of basing some of his research on freemasonry books, but at the same time downplaying that fact so that no one will think of it as “Satan’s synagogue or a cursed, dark sect”. Of course all these accusations are completely based on speculation and not a single one of them is based on fact.
Even some Islamic factions argue that masons promote the interests of the Jewish people around the world and one of their purposes is to rebuild the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. In 1980, Saddam Hussein changed the Iraqi laws and declared freemasonry a felony, since “it promoted Zionist principles” and also the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas has accused the organisation of being part of a “Zionist plot to control the world”.
Currently the most outspoken opponents to freemasonry are also conspiracy theorists, who, due to its discreet nature, accuse the organisation of trying to create a New World Order in which nations disappear and all humans become slaves of a totalitarian regime. There’s even a Facebook group called the “Anti-Masonic League”, which accuses freemasonry of “spreading communist ideals” ever since the French Revolution, a movement the group creator calls “the single most infamous event in modern history”, while claiming the society must be stopped “before it chokes the life out of all the world’s cultural traditions”.
However, Freemasonry is not without its controversies, particularly when it comes to its relationship with the Church. The Vatican and freemasons have a complicated history. Since the organisation accepted members from any religion (they were only expected to believe in a supreme being), in 1738, Pope Clement XII declared Freemasonry teachings to be “in direct conflict with the Church doctrine” and warned that whoever joined them would be excommunicated. However that didn’t stop many individuals from becoming members, and even though nowadays the Vatican’s official position remains the same, there really is no intention of persecution from their side.
“I am a Catholic man, baptised and married by the Catholic Church and that has never been a problem for me,” Clavero says. “So if the Vatican still upholds their excommunication it’s an issue they have to deal with by themselves. It’s not something on our conscience. Still, even though in the past there have been serious problems between the two of us (mostly because of personal grudges), our relations have improved significantly.”
Sconza’s point of view is that it’s also a matter of tradition. “It’s very hard for a religious organisation largely based on ancient customs to change the way it thinks, but the truth is that both sides clash only when there’s political interests at stake. Aside from that, if you’re a Catholic and a mason and you mention that to a priest, I’m certain he won’t mind at all.”
And even though today relations have certainly improved, this struggle is still part of a popular urban legend in Buenos Aires: if you were to enter the metropolitan cathedral, located on Plaza de Mayo, inside you would find Jose de San Martín’s tomb, open for tourists and visitors who want to enter the room and pay their respects. Now, if you look closely, you’ll realise that the vault has been built as an annex on the side of the building’s nave and outside the limits of the church, which has led to think by many that since San Martín was a mason, he was not allowed to be buried on holy ground. Of course the true explanation is that this was an architectural issue since the cathedral had been built many years before, but people always prefer the most attractive version and stick to the idea that the Vatican denied him a proper burial.
Another strange coincidence is the fact that Washington D.C., a city designed and built by Freemasons and full of Masonic symbology, and Buenos Aires, share so many architectural similarities, such as a white obelisk (that happens to be in plain sight from both the White House and the Casa Rosada), or two diagonal streets coming out of both houses (the diagonals being the representation of the Masonic symbols, the square or the compass).
The official story says the city grid was designed after the city of Paris and has no relation with the designing of Washington. So if there really is a hidden symbology, that’s for the conspiracy theorists to decide.
Aside from any architectural coincidence, the fact is that Freemasonry has had a starring role in Argentine history and has pushed for equality and freedom in many ways, most of them very little known by the general population.
If all these elements, essential to the shaping of the country, were to be taken by Dan Brown and translated into a mystery novel, it is safe to say that he’d have a bestseller on his hands, and before you know it, Tom Hanks would be seen in movie theatres running around Recoleta Cemetery, looking for clues to unravel some centuries-old conspiracy.
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