Masonic Proficiency: Is the Catechism Truly Making Masons Proficient?  

Time to read: 9 min | 24 February, 2021 | Kevin Homan

This article may not be palatable to all Masons, in fact it’s crafted to spur thoughtful discourse, and discussion among the Brethren, and I sincerely hope it does. I hope everyone reads this in its entirety with an open mind. We are an organization that values our history and tradition, and those values can make it difficult for us to evaluate how we do things and ask the question "is this working?" I want to be clear; I am not anti-Catechism; I went through the Catechism to become a Master Mason. But recently I’ve been asking myself the question, “does the Masonic Catechism make us proficient Masons”? I ask this because, one of the many questions we’re asked by potential petitioners, and non-Masons alike is “what does Freemasonry do?” to which we instinctively reply “we take good men, and we make them better”. A deceased Mason from my area expounds upon this even further;

“What is Freemasonry? We’re a group of men who meet on the Level, act upon the Square, and walk uprightly in life. We take good men and make them better by the teachings of Masonry, and work towards brotherly love, relief and truth.”

I’ve actually always appreciated this quote, and the Mason who was fond of saying it lived it each and every day of his life. Unfortunately, however, the making good men better line is just that, a slick tag-line in our efforts to get new Masons to join our Lodges. If you were to ask 90% of the Masons in this country how we make good men better, they’d either have no answer for you, or they’d tell you “it’s in our ritual”, which is nothing but a non-answer. How many Masons who teach the ritual and Catechism understand the meaning behind its various parts? More importantly, for those that do, how many of them effectively teach those lessons to their student(s)?

As a quick aside, the Catechism isn’t our only advancement method in Freemasonry. We also have our Alternate Rapid Advancement Program, or ARAP in which Brethren who may not have the time or ability to memorize the catechism can be advanced. Of course, we also have the one-day conferrals in which Brethren go through all three Degrees in one day and have to prove a similar alternative advancement knowledge to their Lodge after the fact. When you couple these, with requirements like having to request Catechism extensions if a Brother has not returned his Catechism after six months; it begins to look less like a program to prove Masonic proficiency, and more like a program simply to make new member. So, with that in mind, this article will dive into the history of the Masonic Catechism, and ask a potentially hard question; is it still needed? If so, is it relevant to making new Masons today? If not, what do we adopt in its place?

Historically in Freemasonry, learning a Catechism for each Degree (at least in the Blue Lodge) is how a Brother has advanced from Degree to Degree. After being Initiated as an Entered Apprentice, a Candidate will be paired with another Brother who will teach him this Catechism. This Catechism is simply a series of questions and answers that covers everything a Brother went through in each Degree. The Brother learns this Catechism with his mentor/coach and at some point, returns it (a fancy Masonic way of saying presents it in front of the Lodge) to prove his proficiency. As an organization, we pride ourselves on this “mouth to ear” format. Some Grand Jurisdictions even have unfounded rumors of there existing only one physical copy of the Ritual which is stored in a safe at the Grand Lodge building, and only available to the members of their Committee on Work.

At its core though, the Catechism really is about the ritual of the Lodge, which isn’t to say it doesn’t have a place within Freemasonry, it does. If you plan on being a Worshipful Master, or being able to confer one of our Degrees you absolutely need to know it. But is simple rote memorization of these events truly proving your proficiency? ? Or is it just a drive to push men through our doors and into the chairs of the Lodge? These days, MANY Grand Jurisdictions offer up ritual ciphers to their membership, if the emphasis is TRULY on proving your proficiency, and taking the ritual to heart, why are these necessary? We also frequently talk about the relationship between student and coach, mentee and mentor. To be clear, these relationships ARE important, but the question we need to ask ourselves is what are we expecting our Candidates to get out of these relationships? Proficiency? Or is it about spending time with another Brother and establishing that relationship? I would argue that by and large, we’re focusing more on the latter, rather than the former. Bro Chuck Dunning identifies this perfectly in my opinion;

“At the very least, it provided opportunities for us to meet and sit with more experienced and knowledgeable brothers in the Craft. In most cases, these opportunities included taking time to learn more about each other, and even to bond as men with shared values and intentions. In somewhat fewer cases that I know of, these sessions involved discussions about the historical content and meaning of the questions and answers. In the rarest cases, teachers have actually challenged their students to think deeply about the symbolic and philosophical dimensions of the catechism, its allegorical allusions to the work of Masonry that we identify when we answer why we became Masons and what we came to do.”

You can probably get the hints I’m dropping that a Catechism coach or mentor should be able to provide the latter two options to their Candidate/mentee. Unfortunately, it’s all too often just the former. So why all this emphasis on the Catechism? One word, tradition. As Brother Chris Hodapp identifies in his best-selling book ‘Freemasonry for Dummies’;

“By learning these questions and answers, he becomes a link in the long chain of millions of men who have passed the ritual down through the centuries, connecting him to the earliest Masons of antiquity.”

We also as an organization pride ourselves on the idea that we don’t allow “innovations” in Freemasonry. Which is a fancy word of saying we’re resistant to change, except when we’re not. The Master Mason Degree is after all an innovation to Freemasonry. If your answer as to why you do something involves history, tradition and/or the phrase "it's how we've always done it", that probably means you don't really have a good reason. The most successful organizations of the World didn’t and don’t rest on their laurels, why should we? They’re constantly reevaluating themselves, and the market around them and ensuring they’re still relevant to the World around them.

Although they’ve since been overshadowed and sold off much of the company recently, one of the most famous of these transformations and remaining relevant was Nokia. Nokia was founded in 1865 as a paper mill. Throughout the 20th century they produced a wide range of goods; rubber, electronics, telecommunications, etc. Whatever they had to do to meet the demand of the time. In 1992 they made their first mobile phone, and many of us who came of age in the late 90’s and early 2000’s quite likely carried around one of their iconic phones in our pockets.

We talk quite often about how our numbers are dwindling, and Masonry is slowly dying. Part of our problem is, men are realizing that our “make good men better” line is just that, and they leave when they don’t get what they’re looking for. We can't expect men to stick with us, if we have nothing to offer them, and by and large we don't have anything to offer them. We focus too often on members that pass away instead of those members that join, then quickly leave after they realize we don't offer what they're looking for. Freemasonry grew out of the Enlightenment Era, and once was a progressive organization that sought to unite men of all faiths and improve the World around us. These days we're more a supper club looking to maintain the status quo and it generally doesn't take men very long after they've been Raised that we sold them a false bill of goods. We have all the tools in place for us to make men better, we just need to make use of them.

So, is the Masonic Catechism the answer to making Masons proficient? No I don’t think it is. At least not as we currently work it. As our one-day and alternative programs prove, a Mason can still learn the Ritual to run a Lodge, or confer the Degree work without completing our Catechisms just fine. We also need to drop the pretense that the answer to making men good is in the Ritual and our Catechism, it simply isn’t. That’s not to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned within our Ritual, there absolutely is. However, when you look at our Catechism, compared to the Ritual of our Degrees, the Catechism in many cases ignores some of the most beautiful symbolism of those Degrees. If the Catechism TRULY were about making a Mason proficient, these things would be included. I’m talking about things like our prayer work, the symbols discussed in our Masonic lectures, and other seemingly innocuous parts of our Ritual. Some of the most beautiful lessons of our Ritual is just simply ignored by our Catechisms. For an organization that prides itself on teaching through alegory, it is simply unacceptable that some of our most beautiful allegories get left out of our "proficiency" program.

Now, none of this isn’t to say that nobody is getting actual instruction during their Catechism work, because there are amazing mentor’s and Catechism coaches out there. But the vast majority of those who go through the Catechisms are just going through the motions to become a Mason and missing out on some amazing truths. To paraphrase Bro Dan Hrinko;

“Remember when you master of your lodge. You were charged to dispense wise and important Truths. Are you doing that? Are we doing that? If not— this isn’t Freemasonry.”

Where do we go from here? Well, first we admit that our Catechism…actually, all of our proficiency methods are not doing the job. We are simply not making proficient Masons. Too many Masons can be overheard saying, "we're not Rotary, we're not the Moose", etc. Fact of the matter is, we're really no different. If we want to offer something those organizations don't (and they are fine organizations), then that is why we need to start making proficient Masons. Otherwise we're just another service organization. A shift in ideology from members at all costs, to members of quality needs to be made. Grand Lodges then need to start adequately funding their Committees on Education, because the sad answer is currently they are not. Mentors Manuals need serious updates, or wholesale replacement because in just about every case what is available is garbage and we're not giving our mentors the materials they need to do their jobs.

On the topic of mentors, Blue Lodge’s need to set a standard for their mentors and hold them to it. The current standard is, just assign anybody who can recite the Ritural to be a mentor, but doing that means the Candidate misses out on a whole lot. There is more than just knowing word for word our Catechisms and Ritual. As I quoted above from Bro Dunning, our mentor's should be able to teach our Candidates about the historical lessons and truth's our Ritual is based on, and challenge them to perceive the Ritual, and our World rit large in different ways. Teaching and learning by allegory isn't easy, but when its done right, MAN does it make a world of difference!

Finally, we as Brethren need to always remember our journey doesn’t end at our Raising to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason. I will reiterate, there IS beautiful symbology in our ritual, symbology that unfortunately our current proficiency methods either gloss, or skip over entirely. Research our prayers (I highly suggest Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible with Commentary), our symbology everything. Don’t ever stop seeking meaning from our ritual. If we’re going to tell men we use our ritual to make ourselves better men, we had better damn well mean it, because currently we don’t. I truly believe Masonry can be the organization it claims it WANTS to be, but its on all of us as Masons to get there. It’s on us as Masons to live and act as such, to improve and better ourselves, and ensure our Lodges and Grand Lodges are living up to those promises as well. It won’t be an easy path to follow, but our future as an organization depends upon it.

As usual, thank you for reading. These thoughts are my own, and in no way represent the official thoughts and statements of my employer, my automotive and Masonic membership affiliations.