Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Glimpse at Spanish Freemasonry Today

The history of Spanish Freemasonry has been marked by long periods of persecution. Throughout much of the period of Spanish colonial expansion in the Americas, Freemasonry was a prohibited institution. Again, during the Franco period, Freemasonry was severely persecuted. Spanish Freemasonry, in spite of these hardships and a great deal of institutional fragmentation is growing dramatically. Although many different obediences and rites have to coexist within the nation, they manage to turn this into a strength rather than a weakness by coexisting amacably. That is a lesson Freemasons in the US would do well to learn.

On May 9, four Iberian Masonic obediences are creating a communal space for Freemasonry. They seek, above all, one thing - that people know their reality, which bears little resemblance to the negative legends often told of them.

"Power? Does Spanish Masonry today have power? What are you talking about? Freemasonry has no official authority, if that is what you mean. Fortunately. That is not our purpose. We do not seek power." Javier Otaola, Master Mason, lawyer, writer, philosopher, a former Grand Master of the Gran Logia Simbólica Española (GLSE), says seriously. He knows that directly contradicts what many people, even the majority of Spanish society, think about Freemasonry. He also realizes that changing perceptions takes a great deal of time. Otaola, undoubtedly one of the most influential Masons of Spain, is clear on this point - Freemasonry neither has nor seeks what most think of as power.

What is the condition of Freemasonry in Spain? Since Americans love numbers (I've never understood why, since most of us don't seem to understand what they tell us), here are the basic stats: There are about 4,000 Masons in Spain, although growth has been spectacular in recent months, spread over nearly two hundred lodges which, in turn, are grouped in 13 different Grand Lodges and Orients, some very small. Since the restoration of democracy 30 years ago, there has been only one Spanish minister who was openly a Mason: the Canary socialist Jerónimo Saavedra, now mayor of Las Palmas. There are undoubtedly others, but nothing is clear because today many Spanish Masons scrupulously maintain secrecy about their status. In the US, France and Belgium, being a member of the Masons is something that many people put into their resumé quite naturally, because many people understand that someone who has joined the Masonic fraternity is a reliable person, a citizen who is possessed of certain ethical values.

In Spain, many Master Masons (some hold even higher positions within the fraternity) are silent for different reasons. Not a few, because they view Freemasonry as a way of inner perfection, something strictly private and not appropriate to inform anyone about. But others are aware that to their friends, their coworkers, and even to their families, they would look different if they were known to be Masons.

Between 1939 and 1975, about 16,000 Spanish citizens were executed, charged with the crime of Freemasonry. In Salamanca files are preserved concerning more than 80,000 people who suffered repression, enprisonment, exile, loss of work, simply for being accused of being Freemasons. The tremendous thing is that when Franco died, there were still more than 6,000 Masons in Spain.

"It was actually the only thing that went right under Franco,'according to Nieves Bayo, soon to be the Grand Mistress of the GLSE. "Today in Spain, it is not surprising that one might be a communist, feminist, nationalist, gay, or anything else. But Masons are still stigmatized. Now, I think that it is time to stop using Franco as an excuse to explain the situation. That man's been dead 34 years. We should focus more on our own mistakes. And secondly, I think the fault of ... let's call it the bad name which still attaches to Spanish Freemasonry is not so much due to Franco who is long dead, and the Church, which is not. Spain remained Catholic, Apostolic and Roman. The hierarchy of the Church pursued modern Freemasonry almost from the moment it was established three centuries ago. Why? It is very simple. Because this hierarchy does not support a group of people who accept all religions, seeking ethical improvement of man without having to obey the church, not to enforce or support dogmas, defend freedom of conscience and free thought, which is not created in possession of the truth ... There's the matter, much more than Franco."

Yves Bannel, Chancellor of the Gran Orient Iberico (GOI), argues that the role of Freemasonry in Spain is primarily ethical; "We are here to reflect on the changes in our society which is in crisis due to the decline of humanistic values. That should be our teacher: to defend the actions of the people according to ethical criteria."

4,000 Spanish Masons are probably more divided than in any other country in the world. When a citizen, after a difficult process of interviews and tests lasting about a year, manages to be initiated as a Freemason, he or she is integrated into a lodge as an apprentice. That is part of a lodge or Grand Lodge obedience, and this determines your rite - the ritual you follow. There are many rites. The best known are the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite and the Modern French, but there are many more. This means that in the same obedience, headed by a single Grand Master, almost always coexist lodges practicing different rites in their work. That is never a problem. The difficulty begins when a newly made Mason, or a citizen who wants to become a Mason, he realizes that the different Lodges (in Spain there are thirteen with a measure of importance) are competing with each other. There are two major groups. On one side are regular Masons, those of the GLE, the most numerous, related to the United Grand Lodge of England, who believe in a revealed God and the immortality of the soul, something that surprises a lot of people who think that all Masons are atheists and anti-religious. Few people know that religious believers represent more than two thirds of Masons in the world. And a further disadvantage - the regulars do not accept women in their lodges.

The others, the Masons of liberal French tradition, they may believe or not what they call the Great Architect of the Universe (a concept that everyone can interpret as they want). Atheists are admitted as well as women. The difference is no light matter: it is, for many Masons, a fundamental ethical premise to implement the ideal of equality.

Unlike in the US, where for too long there has been no real alternative to UGLE style masonry, regulars recognize that it is an open debate, because mixed masonry has been an active tradition from the early eighteenth century. Some liberals still do not admit women, such as the Grand Orient of France (GODF) but even they could change their attitude soon. Many are now convinced that Anderson had written "person" and not "man". Bayo Nieves is very clear; "When I go into the lodge, I do not notice if there are men or women. There are people, human beings are brothers as well as sisters. We are in the twenty-first century, not the eighteenth." There are even women-only Lodges, such as the Women's Grand Lodge of Spain, chaired by Presmanes Rosa Elvira; "We believe that there is much thought and action unique to women. And Masonry is, I think, a great place to explore it."

Many "liberal adogmatic" obediences in Spain, such as the Grand Lodge of France and the Droit Humain, that in Spain today is presided over by Manuel Lopez, do not always get along perfectly, but all say the same thing: "Above the differences, however important, we are all Masons." There is much debate, but it tends to be more civil than in the US, even though some might prefer to have less competition. Competition is seldom a bad thing.

Joseph Carter (Gran Logia Española) voices a point of view with which many agree, "Why would there be any advantage in unification? We would lose the freedom of choice. Besides, there are many different understandings of Freemasonry. It's not a monolith nor a religion."

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