Past and Honorary Grand Master, Grand Lodge of Austria
Grand High Priest of York Rite Austria
Member of Board of International Masonic Affairs
Very good afternoon – or good morning, in your country – Most Worshipful Brother Michael Kraus, and many thanks for being here to chat about Freemasonry.
It’s my pleasure.
I would like to introduce our audience to the Masonic life in Austria: how many Masons and Lodges are there, if there are Lodges in other languages, what appendant bodies you have in Austria and so on.
We have recently 81 Lodges in Austria and two new Lodges in preparation that could not be installed due to Corona. Presently we have approximately 3700 members in the Craft. It’s the first year ever since the Second World War that we’ve had a decline in membership, not because we do not have any applicants – we have many applicants, more than we can initiate – but due to Corona we did not have the possibility to have reception ceremonies, and very unfortunately we had quite a number of deaths also due to Corona. So Austrian Masonry is basically still on its growth path, a very moderate growth, never beyond 3%, but we had a very difficult year in 2020 and only a couple of weeks ago we carefully started physical gatherings. During Corona we had online meetings. Back to your question about appendant bodies: we now have, in ranking by size, York Rite – consisting of Chapter, Council and Commanderies – with more than 600 members; we have the Scottish Rite, the oldest appendant installation in Austria (the York Rite only started in 1974); we have one Lodge in the Holy Royal Arch and – probably a unique situation in the world – our English Holy Royal Arch Chapter is integrated in our American York Rite. They have access to meetings in the so‑called 7th Degree in York Rite and they have facilitated procedures of participation. So we have harmony on the Chapter world and we also have harmony among the Scottish Rite and York Rite. This was not always the case, we had sometimes a very competitive situation. Now, since 2016, we have mutual meetings at least once a year and we are in a very good relationship. Now we also have the Mark Masons, since 2007, we have the so‑called Rectified Scottish Rite (but only in part of Austria, very small). We have the Conclave and unoficially Shrine. And, as you might know, as is known, we have a small unit of irregular Grand Orient Lodges also, with mixed and also women Lodges. We have a very strict regulation: there is no permit for visitation, although it happens occasionaly. But there is also more or less a harmony even with the irregular institutions. As you certainly know, our very famous musem in Rosenau, the only European existing Lodge from the 18th century, is also open for irregular Lodges to have meetings there.
Do you have Lodges in other languages?
Yes, we have since many years a Hungarian Lodge, Helikon, which is a full‑permit Lodge. We have a French Lodge, Les Trois‑Canons, they work in French. We have an English Lodge, Sarastro, also in the English Ritual, also integrated in the Austrian Grand Lodge. But Ritual‑wise we only have one Austrian Ritual in the Craft. The French have the Old Scottish Ritual, and the English have the English ritual, as usually.
The English‑speaking Grand Lodges are losing membership. Is it the same situation in Austria (except this period with the pandemic)? What kind of politics do you have for retaining membership?
The main reason for this different development around the world primarily has to do with the position of Masonry in society. In the French and romance language countries (Latin America, Italy etc.) there is a tradition of viewing Masonry in an Enlightenment posture, a political posture in society. There is a big misunderstanding in interpreting the basic principles of the United Grand Lodge of England where it says “no politics or religion”. The meaning originally was that you should stay away from political issues in the day to day party political maneuvering, don’t get involved in day to day political controversies. But – and that, unfortunately, is misinterpreted by most English‑speaking lodges – you should not stay away from engagement, from interest in society. This engagement in society has always been one of the major tasks in Masonry in continental Europe, it still is in Latin America and in many new European countries in the Eastern hemisphere of Europe and it is also traditionally an aspect of Freemasonry in the very fast‑growing Lodges in Africa, because most of them have been founded under French influence, and France was always in the middle of social involvement. So, since the knowledge of Freemasonry by the public – in Europe, at least – is quite large, with interest in society, we do not have problems in gathering or acquiring new members. The situation in the world is such that many people believe that parties, unions, other institutions even, religions have failed to answer questions of society and they are looking for new means of togetherness, of engagement in society and, obviously, Freemasonry is one of them. This has been neglected or not recognized in the English‑speaking world, in the United States, in the United Kingdom – they concentrate on tradition, on history, on ritual, making it very difficult for young candidates to become members working there, because the rituals are so complicated and you have to do everything by heart that many just shy away because they are not able and willing to put that burden upon themselves. Just for the reason of fostering history is not enough! If you don’t give young people a content that has to do with their every day life, they’re not interested.
Absolutely. What are the relations of the Austrian Freemasonry with the authority of the state? I remember many years ago you told me that you were contacted by your presidency for the constitution. I wanted to underline this aspect, it’s fantastic in my opinion.
That was a very special situation. Aside from that, there is still a lot of skepticism and controversy and animosity against Freemasonry in Austria. Yes, there is. Why? Because it is unknown – and people don’t really develop a lot of interest in that – Austria and Freemasonry are not anymore in a direct conflict with Rome, with the Roman‑Catholic Church. But they were, and Freemasonry was forbidden in Austria, and obviously it has the reputation of being a possible root of political manuevers behind the scenes. And, very important, since Austria is not doing any PR to rectify this picture, normal people – but not the educated people – think that Masonry is something against society. Now, the educated people, people who know history, people who know that there are so many important personalities in Austrian Masonry, they know that Masonry has contributed to the existence, peacemaking and European thought in Austria. This is the reason why the former president agreed that Freemasonry be invited to a platform which had the aim of restructuring our constitution and improving our constitution. We were invited to participate. The former president, Mr. Fischer, his deputy and many other people in the Parliament appreciated the fact that Masonry is strong and vivid in Austria and wanted to have Austria participate in a constitutional reform movement. But, very important, we did not participate. We declined the invitation. Why? Because it was public and, since we avoid publicity, since we avoid public relation, for a number of reasons, we preferred not to be in the window, on the stage. I explained it at the time to the president, he understood, he regretted it but said he understood that a movement like Freemasonry wants to be catalytic and not exposed to animosities and that it was better if we did not enter such a public platform. The fact that we consider ourselves not secret, but very private and we do not disclose memberships obviously also works as a mechanism to create curiosity. If you have a secret, if you don’t talk about it, many people are interested just to find out what is the secret behind it! So there is a certain and very strong mechanism of recruiting people out of this very strict policy of being private, of not being public, of considering ourselves a “secret society” (and I underline the quotations marks).
Does the Austrian Freemasonry have relations with the Church, officially?
We have a tradition in the past. Since 1968, following Pope John the XXIII, who installed a unit that would deal with movements outside the Church, our Austrian cardinal, König, approached Masonry and for ten years worked intensively in rectifying the picture and the historical content of the controversies between Freemasonry and the Church. As a result of that, the Roman Law, the Church Law, was changed, and the excommunication, the prohibition to participate in the Sacraments was abolished. We have to admit that this change in the Law was not followed consequently by the administration after Pope John XXIII. Why? Because there was a very conservative cardinal – Ratzinger, afterwards he became Pope himself – who did not want Freemasonry to be reintegrated in society as a non‑antireligious institution. He issued a paper claiming that, although if you are a Mason you are not automatically excommunicated and you are not automatically prohibited to participate in the Sacraments, you live in severe sin. I had the opportunity when I was Grand Master to have a public conversation with one of the very close confidants of the Pope and to have him explain what it means to be “in sin” against the Roman‑Catholic Church. He explained that if there is an alliance against the Church led by the Masons, then you are in sin. If you are not in a controversy or conspiracy against the Church, you do not have to be excluded from participating in religious Roman‑Catholic institutions. So this situation was clarified as well. We have priests among our members, we had an Austrian priest who was very close to the Pope in Rome until very recently and at present Cardinal Schönborn, our Austrian cardinal, is close to Masonry for a very personal reason – his father was a Mason. Even though he is not interested to make it publicly known, he has a constructive, positive, and not hostile attitude. If we have candidates who don’t know if they would have a problem – being Catholic – with becoming a Mason, we advise them to talk to their bishop. If he is an educated bishop, he will know that there are no obstacles anymore preventing Roman‑Catholics from becoming Masons.
Thank you. From your international Masonic experience, have you noticed differences Eastern and Western European Freemasonry, or between South and North America? What kind of Freemasonry do you think is closer to what Freemasonry should be?
If we understand the original mandate of Freemasonry from when it was founded more than 300 years ago, to strengthen the movement of Enlightenment… Enlightenment is not a creation of Freemasonry, but Masonry is a child of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment means you should make knowledge available to the people. It is a social impact that was the driving force of Freemasonry. If you understand Masonry as something like that, something that is a control mechanism for dictatorship, a control mechanism for unethical behavior, and if it is a control mechanism of creating a society among various beliefs, various religions etc., Masonry does not only have a historic function – we believe that Freemasonry has a very important function in today’s development. It is very, extremely, unfortunate that the Masonic movements in the English‑speaking world are so much involved in history and not in present society. This is the reason why they are losing membership. Now, there are countries where this task of Masonry is well understood. The newly installed Masonic institutions in the Eastern part of Europe have understood that. When I was Grand Master and I was part of the Sinaia Conference etc., as you very well know, Claudiu, we had the strongest interest and impetus to make Masonry a united movement in that spirit. It came from the East and it also comes, obviously, from Latin America and from the southern part of Europe. The problem that we have in Masonry is that we worship the independence of the single opinions. Every Lodge is independent, every Obedience in every country is independent and wants to be independent, and we have failed to create mechanisms to distill the common thought of Enlightenment onto an upper level because Obediences are always afraid that this could infringe on their independence. And this is a complete nonsense. Just like the United Nations is not an institution that has power on various state governments, but rather is a platform of common values, Masonry could be a platform of not only common values, but common tasks for the present and the future. We have failed to create mechanisms that are able to handle that properly.
Do you think that nowadays the world needs Freemasonry like in the past?
Yes, absolutely, even more. If we look at developments just in the very recent past, the pandemic shows us that cross‑border unity and ethical values and discipline is something so important that whatever institution is able to go across borders and create understanding for values is needed. Talking to you, Claudiu, as a journalist you know the problems journalism has in being something professionally valuable. Anybody who thinks he can say something says without heart, without having to fear any consequences. There are so many tasks today that would make it important for Masonry to have a role in them that I personally hope we might be able to reinstall some sort of mechanism that creates more understanding of the true task, of the truth of Enlightenment and Masonry worldwide.
So Freemasonry is not eroded.
No, not at all, not at all, it is misinterpreted by many, and primarily by the ones that are strong in numbers and strong in history. I have many friends in the United States and the United Kingdom and I try to explain that to them when they come to Europe and visit our Lodge work and say “Oh, God, we didn’t know that Freemasonry could be like this!” And what do they do instead? They think Masonry is charity.
And Masonry is NOT charity. Charity is a quality of a matter of fact. Everybody has to be charitable. But charity is not a Masonic program. If you think that Masonry is only charity, then you get in conflict with all sorts of service institutions that are much better in raising money than Masonry and you get into a very powerful competition against institutions that are completely different than ours, just because of the misunderstanding that Masonry is charity. Masonry is not charity. A Mason has to be charitable, but Masonry is not a charitable organization.
The public perception of Freemasonry has changed over time. What has led to this variation? A good public perception results, in my opinion, in an increase in the number of members.
It is very different from country to country. You cannot proclaim one single recipe for that. As I explained before, in the Austrian situation, the more we refrain from being publicly observed, the more interest we create. Obviously, we have a subtle, if you like, public relation. The book that I published in 2007 was extremely successful, since it was a BOOK, not something virtual, it was something physical, written, that cannot be changed. It was read and became a good source of information for Freemasonry and it brought us a great number of new candidates. I know that in countries that never had the problem of a controversy between state and Masonry, like in the United States for instance, or even in the United Kingdom, a good and positive relation creates membership. But the problem is that the product is wrong. If the Americans do public relations for the existing Freemasonry in the United States, then people say: “Ok. Now what? I have to go into an association that deals with the 18th century? What is the task of Freemasonry today?” They don’t talk about that, and if they don’t talk about that, if they only say “Well, we take good men and we make them better” – yes, obviously, but that’s not enough to attract people! Who will say “I’m not a good man”, who will say “I’m a good man and want to be better”? Everybody wants to be looked upon as a good man, to be better, and you don’t need an association that claims to do that, because they’re not credible with just that claim. So I think that many countries have managed to install, to have a good relationship with their Obediences, with their state Obediences, among them for instance Poland, even in Italy – in Italy there’s always been a big problem because of the past with Garibaldi, who was actually trying to kill the Pope, so there are historic MORTGAGES of that. But to the extent that people understand that Masonry is not something against human beings and against the state it is not very difficult to install good relationships. But the more we try to force that, the more dangerous it becomes. A subtle way of doing awareness and public relation is better than advertising in newspapers, like they do in the United States, or sometimes even, unfortunately, in Germany. That’s the wrong way.
What is the most difficult problem facing Freemasonry nowadays?
Masonry is not a homogenous institution, it’s different in every country. The problem for the future of Masonry, as I said before, primarily has to do with the fact that we have not been able to combine information on the true value of Masonry around the world within the Masonic world. We have not managed to use electronic information tools to create more understanding of the true values of Masonry. We are stuck in the 19th century, both in our attitudes and information mechanisms among ourselves. So Masonry has failed to install communication that would make it possible for us to identify the true and modern values of Masonry. There have been attempts here and there to be more modern, to be more communicative within the organization. The Appendant Bodies are doing that much better because they are better organized internationally, but in the Craft world – and this hits Masonry in its numbers – we have failed to install the right mechanisms do deal with the problems of society. It is the lack of structures, not the lack of gaining power over Obediences, no – the lack of being able to create platforms.
How did the Freemasonry in Austria surpass the pandemic? What lessons should be learned from the pandemic period?
The pandemic experience had definite benefits. Number one, we have been experimenting with virtual meetings and we have understood that virtual meetings can be an addition to Masonic liaisons. They cannot be a substitute – this is also something that we have learned. You cannot do ritual work in a virtual environment. It does not make sense, it does not work and you should not attempt to substitute physical meetings in virtual circumstances. But we have learned to deal with the content of Masonry, with subjects that deal with society, and this you can do virtually, this you can do in meetings and you can have more participants than you could have if you have to take part physically. I have the experience of an initiative – an American initiative. Please forgive my critical attitude towards American Masonry. There’s a Lodge – and there are many exceptions, not the majority, but there are exceptions –, but there is a Lodge in New York, the John Philip Sousa Lodge, that was created as an international platform. It was created as a virtual Lodge to tie up with other Lodges from around the world. My Blue Lodge in Vienna, takes part in it and it is an extremely fulfilling experience to have exchanges on Zoom with Americans in New York and explain to them the difference between Masonry around the world. And the big benefit of Masonry wherever it is and whatever continent it has is – it is a Brotherhood. You are able and willing to listen to your Brethren abroad. You are not arrogant. There is no arrogance. There is a very fraternal attitude. The fraternal attitude is the quintessence of Freemasonry and that makes you optimistic to hope that this fraternal attitude would make it possible to put away the defficiencies that we have. So there were certain things happening in the pandemic situation that will have an effect for the future in the next years. The pandemic had its virtues, had its benefits.
How do you see the future of Freemasonry?
I’m not very optimistic.
Because having been in official Masonry for such a long time and since I have no career ambitions anymore I can say it very frankly. The problem is that many members, most of the members have very strong personalities. They are not people who are soft and willing to learn and to accept things – no, they come with their own mindset and they have a very strong character and as soon as they gain power they use it to fulfil their own personal interests and forget about our common interest in Masonry. So the selection of high‑ranking people in Masonry is driven by people who forget that the fraternal attitude means that you have to put away with your own personal subjective interests. Unfortunately. If you had more people at the top with less strong personalities, you might have a better chance to create common platforms, to make things happen. As soon as the important, powerful Mason is at the top, he is unable and unwilling to deal with the others.
We know a lot of examples.
It is a very general remark, I do it on purpose. Obviously, you know, Claudiu, and I know there are many, many exceptions and many high Officialis that I esteem very highly and greatly, but they have not been able to change the play unfortunately.
Correct. Finally, my dear Most Worshipful Brother, let us know you CV, both Masonic and profane. I know you are a member of the Board of International Masonic Affairs. I don’t know what this is. Explain it to me and through me to the other people, please. I didn’t find any materials on the internet. The Board is not… I cannot say “secretive”, but it is not on the radar.
Yes, I can explain that. Now, coming back to your question, I’ll make my profane CV short. I was born in Salzburg, as a child I moved to Vienna, I studied business and I became a banker, I worked in the United States for the Chase Manhattan Bank. I have served in the international banking industry for some years, in the United States, in Germany and in Austria, and then I became partner in a private investment banking company in Austria, called Donau Finanz, which I still am. I’m a private entrepreneur in a small investment bank, I don’t want to talk about that because banks have a very bad reputation these days. I have to do with real estate and other things and I have a very international attitude. I was very happy to have a lot of experience and also business experience in your beautiful country, Romania – a very positive experience, by the way. I’m married, I have three children. My son is in the art industry, my eldest daughter has followed me in my business career, and our middle daughter is a physician. So my family is in a very good shape and very happy. My wife is in the hotel industry, she was the president of the European Hotel Association, she is the president of the Hotel Association in Austria, so we have a lot to do with tourism. Obviously, due to the pandemic situation her hotel interests have been very much hampered and affected, but we are optimistic and since I’ve had the chance to acquire a property here in Italy a few years ago, in one of the most beautiful spots in the world, in Tuscany, I’m very happy, so I cannot complain. My profane personal life is in good balance and ok. I was initiated in Masonry in 1979 in Vienna, Austria. I was in Lodge Zukunft in the beginning. I was Worshipful Master a number of years and then I entered the Board of General Purposes and became a Grand Master in 2002 until 2008. After I served in the Craft, as I was a member of the York Rite in Austria, in 2017 I was offered the position of Deputy General Grand High Priest of the Chapter Masonry in Europe and Africa. This is part of York Rite, an American organization, and in this organization I still have a number of functions. I’m no longer Deputy General Grand High Priest but I serve in a number of international committees, and the beauty and the benefit of the American York Rite is that it is really, truly, internationally organized. The Board of International Masonic Affairs, called BIMA, is an installation in the York Rite in the United States, in the General Grand Chapter, in the Chapter world of the United States. It consists of only eight members and it is an advisory committee to the highest officer of the International Grand Chapter of the General Grand High Priest. They do not have an executive function, they advise him on Masonic political issues around the world. The York Rite institution is an international platform that gives its members a lot of freedom but it is vertically organized and if you want to be a member in the International Organization of York Rite you have to adhere to a number of common policies and to get a Charter. If you do not adhere to the policies, then you might lose your Charter. So there is a certain influence on the quality of work in the Appendant Bodies that’s the same in the Scottish Rite, and since York Rite has become quite strong and it’s quite strong internationally in Europe and it’s growing in Africa and in other countries I’m very happy to be able to still contribute to the international scene by being a member of the Board of International Masonic Affairs.
Now I know. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you again for being with us today from Italy. Splendid!