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RITES NOT WRONGS: `MASON' PREATE SAFE
A LOCAL PASTOR BREAKS RANKS WITH THE DIOCESE OF SCRANTON TO SHELTER A PUBLIC
OFFICIAL FACING TROUBLE WITH HIS CHURCH

By MARITA LOWMAN; Times Leader Staff Writer

Monday, October 04, 1993     Page:

WILKES-BARRE -- Attorney General Ernie Preate is saved.
    Monsignor Kevin O'Neill, pastor of St. Therese's Catholic Church in Shavertown, says he'll give Preate the sacrament of Holy Communion.
    This, despite the fact Preate, a Roman Catholic and the state's chief enforcer of secular laws, has broken Catholic Church law by joining the Masons.
    And, despite the fact the Scranton Catholic Diocesan Office has termed Preate's error "a serious sin" that banishes him from the communion line at Mass unless he rejects his Mason membership.
    Like most Catholics, Preate hadn't heard about the fine-print anti-Mason law until a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter popped a quiz on him on a Harrisburg sidewalk. The quiz came hours before 1,000 Masons from across the state were to converge on Harrisburg for Preate's induction ceremony last week.
    Whether Preate consulted with his parish priest in Scranton before the ceremony hasn't been determined.
    But reports of his third-degree Mason status became this week's public bone of contention.
    The Masons are dismayed.
    The Catholics are divided.
    Catholic Masons, and there are more than 1,000 of them in the Wilkes-Barre area, are either terrified of being excommunicated by the church -- and by their families -- or outraged by the controversy.
    For his part, Preate, the master of courtroom drama and argument, has taken a vow of silence. All he says publicly is that his religion is personal and he's "trying to live a better life as a human being."
    For Monsignor O'Neill's part, he knows he could be banished to Alaska, or remoter parts, for publicly saying that in his book, Preate is OK. At least, OK enough to receive the sacraments.
    In his sermon last Sunday, Monsignor O'Neill told parishioners that Catholics "don't always practice what they preach."
    "The church preaches love and forgiveness and then condemns a Catholic who joins the Masons," he said in an interview Thursday. "I think it's unfortunate the way this issue has been dealt with. Is it fair? Is it just? Has the attorney general joined something that really conducts anti-Catholic activities? No."
    The "anti-Catholic" stuff is at the root of the whole mess.
    Back in medieval times, Protestants miffed at the Catholic Church's rise to power conducted anti-Catholic escapades in Europe. The Church responded with church dogma prohibiting Catholics from joining Masonic Lodges or any other organizations that spewed anti-Catholic sentiment.
    But 20th century Masonry in the U.S. holds just one religious principle -- members must believe in God. Worship can be based on the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish faith or any other faith.
    Contrary to what the Vatican's Congregation for Doctrine and Faith said in its 1983 policy statement, Masons do not worship the devil. Nor can they worship animals, statues or anything else, other than God. So say local and state officials of Masonic Lodges.
    Theirs is a fraternity, comparable to the Elks, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Loyal Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Columbus.
    Granted, the Masons show up at meetings and parades decked in tasseled hats called fezzes and caps called chapeaus. But the Knights wear funny hats, too.
    Both groups keep their meeting lingo secret -- sort of like the secret conversations between Catholics and priests in the confessional.
    Neither the Knights nor the Masons admit women, but they have women's auxiliaries.
    Both groups march in the annual St. Patrick's Day parades.
    The biggest difference between the Knights and the Masons seems to be that Knights must be Catholics. And Knights recruit. Masons don't.
    Both groups contribute to charity.
    The 180,000 Masons in Pennsylvania comprise one of the state's largest charitable organizations. Masonic charities range from nursing homes to centers for needy children, drug and alcohol prevention and treatment programs for youths, schizophrenia treatment and research programs, eye care, crippled children's hospitals and centers for burn victims.
    Levels of Masonry range from the third-degree Masons, such as Preate, to the Shriners.
    State Sen. Charles Lemmond of Dallas and federal appeals court Judge Max Rosenn of Kingston are 33rd degree Masons, the highest degree given only to members with a demonstrated history of upstanding citizenship and community service.
    Lemmond, a church-going Methodist who's been a Mason since 1956, considers it an honor.
    "Masonry is a fraternity," he says. "We share a brotherhood of man. All the lodges have Catholic, Protestant and Jewish members, but no one is asked his religion before he joins. He's only asked whether he believes in a supreme being. There are lessons discussed at our meetings, but not lessons that attempt to impose a particular religion on anyone. They're lessons about life's challenges and lessons that hopefully will help us be better people."
    By becoming a Mason, Preate has joined a long line of esteemed citizens. George Washington was a Mason. So was Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Walt Disney. Bill Clinton was a member of DeMolay, the Masons' youth group for boys 14-to-21 years of age.
    State Rep. George Hasay, a Republican from Shickshinny, is a Mason and a Catholic. Some Luzerne County elected officials, law enforcement officers and prominent businessmen are, too.
    A former past president of a Masonic Lodge in Wilkes-Barre was a Catholic and a member of the Knights of Columbus. Oops.
    Richard Disque, a Dallas funeral director and master of nine Masonic lodges in Luzerne County, says at least 30 percent of this area's Masons are Catholics.
    Scranton Catholic Diocesan Bishop James Timlin may not know about it. Apparently, neither does the bishop's assistant, Monsignor Neil Van Loon, who said last Friday that Preate committed "a serious sin" and would be denied communion if he kept his membership in the Masons.
    As Masons don't ask members which religion they ascribe to, Catholic Church officials generally don't ask members whether they're Masons.
    Like most Catholic Masons, Preate would have been in the clear if his membership hadn't hit newsprint.
    Actually, it appears he's in the clear anyway. Many priests who administer the Catholic Church's sacraments don't regard Masonry as "a serious sin." It's the kind of sin, like birth control and divorce, that gets winked at.
    "Masons are good people," says Monsignor Joseph Rauscher, pastor of St. Nicholas' Catholic Church in Wilkes-Barre. "Men join the Masons for charity, not religion. There's a history and background to the issue which can't be removed, but we need to look at it in the context of what being a Mason means today."
    Monsignor Rauscher didn't say he'd give Preate or other Catholic Masons communion. "Publicly," he said, "I'd have to follow the diocesan's position."
    Monsignor O'Neill says Catholic bishops worldwide disagree about the Vatican's policy.
    "It's primarily a European position that Masons are anti-Catholic. A committee headed by a cardinal from Germany put the anti-Mason language in the Congregation for Doctrine and Faith's policy in 1983. But it's not in the revised Canon Law," he said. "There may be alleged anti-Catholic or anti-government activity on the part of Masons in some European countries, but it's not the case in the United States so the policy should not apply here."
    Practically speaking, it may not.
    Leslie Loomis, master of a Masonic Lodge in Wilkes-Barre, says a Catholic diocese in Connecticut honored a Catholic man who was a Knight and a Mason, and printed the man's affiliations and civic contributions in its diocesan newspaper.
    Even the Vatican seems confused. According to a national news story a few months ago, Vatican sources said Catholics are free to join the Masons in the U.S., Britain and most other countries except Italy and France.
    If Masonic groups conduct anti-Catholic or anti-government activities in other countries, they would not be recognized as authentic Masons, said Disque.
    "Hopefully," Monsignor O'Neill said, "the controversy will lead to a clarification of the issue for the Masons and the Church."
    Monsignor O'Neill already has clarified the issue for Preate.
    The attorney general has been saved. He can come to Luzerne County, be a Mason and receive holy communion too.
    TIMES LEADER FILE PHOTO
    Bishop James Timlin heads the Diocese of Scranton, which has warned Attorney General Ernie Preate he cannot belong to the Masons
    TIMES LEADER FILE PHOTO
    Ernie Preate was surprised to learn of the ban on joining the Masons
    Analysis
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