How fascism moved from left to right, and the Mafia’s enduring relationship with Freemasonry.
The historic relationship between the Mafia and Freemasonry is a fascinating one, for the role that its members have taken in world events. It’s a story that unfolds over centuries, crosses oceans, and takes many turns. But once I started asking the internet about connections between Freemasonry and the Mafia, it wasn’t long before I was neck deep in conspiracy theories about shadow governments run by corrupt pagan cultists in high places. What is true about the relations among Church, state, Mafia, and Freemasonry?
Some connections—like those between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry—are discredited. But sometimes true stories get lumped in with those that can’t possibly be true. The Mafia and Freemasonry, although both secret organizations, are not centrally governed, making the “New World Order” under their totalitarian rule, a dystopian fantasy, not a reasonable conclusion based on the facts. What has been true through much of their shared history in Italy, is that Freemasonry has been a shield behind which the elites in politics, business, and criminal enterprise meet in brotherhood and secrecy, allowing corruption to flourish.
Freemasonry today distinguishes work in stone—operative masonry—from the culture that developed through lodges, known as speculative masonry. The organization we know today as Freemasonry is believed by most historians to have evolved out of medieval guilds of master stonemasons. The term “freemason” originally referred to the advanced, operative masonry skill to shape decorative stone. From the late 17th century, lodges of speculative Freemasons—men who studied the principles of organized, operating freemasons, and applied their philosophies in other aspects of their lives—began to organize in Scotland and England. By the early 18th century, leadership of the Freemasons in the UK became the domain of the nobility. At the same time, American colonial leaders including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were active Freemasons.
Freemasonry is organized into independent Orients and Lodges, by geographical location. No group or individual rules over all Freemasons. Some bodies within Freemasonry do not recognize one another. Propaganda Due (P2), for example, was a Masonic lodge operating under the Grand Orient of Italy from 1945-1976, when its charter was withdrawn. It continued to operate covertly until 1981. The banking scandal of Michele Sindona was linked with P2.
Instead, members share bonds forged by a common authoritarian culture, and mutual recognition of rules and values. Salvatore Lupo says Freemasonry and the Mafia are similar, both by design and membership overlap. Both organizations share values of humility, a respect for the rules, and for the hierarchy. Like Freemasonry, the Mafia is made up of local organizations that are independently run, but share alliances and concerns with other families, or cosche.
Since before Freemasonry’s introduction to Sicily during the Napoleonic wars, the Catholic Church has considered Masonic membership a violation of Catholic values. As early as 1738, Pope Clement XII denounced Freemasonry, and membership remains grounds for excommunication. The Church argues that the fraternal organization teaches deism, a belief in a kind of Creator as Engineer of the Universe, which precludes such concepts as grace, in the Catholic sense of all help coming from G-d. Freemasonry requires its membership to believe in a creator, but does not further specify what relationship people should have with such an entity, making membership open, from the organization’s perspective, to a wide array of faiths. The Mafia, at least in legend, began as a mutual aid society. Masons, too, swear an oath of loyalty to help fellow members. But the Church calls for men to seek such help from G-d.
In Catholic countries, the Church competes with the state for power, particularly in periods of liberal rule, when the Church and its clergy tend to have their roles limited. The land seizures from the Church by the state, even in the Bourbon period, benefited the mafia, who were positioned to rig auctions, and had the capital to buy formerly Church-held land as it came onto the market. Liberal periods of rule after the Risorgimento also correlated with greater levels of political corruption. The lodge was where politicians, business leaders, and criminals, all at the highest levels in their fields, could meet on a level playing ground, under neutral auspices. During periods of state repression, Masons met publicly, but under other names, such as the “Centro Sociologico Italiano.”
Yet it was a vertical alignment of social classes, from high to low, that Salvatore Lupo argues made the Mafia possible in western Sicily. At the turn of the 19th century, Sicilians learned the principles of the French Revolution from Napoleon’s armies. An Italian sect of Freemasons known as the Carbonari, or “charcoal burners,” emerged, the name a reference to a now-illicit activity common among peasants, of burning wood to make charcoal in the baron’s woods. Sicily’s anti-Bourbon nobles flocked to the Carbonari and found themselves imprisoned for sedition.
Lupo writes, “According to a document dated 1818, the distinction between freemasonry and carboneria was the openness of the carboneria movement to the lower classes, to the ‘good craftsman, [to] the honest farmer,’ perhaps even to the ‘common riff-raff.'” In prison, the seditious barons shared their ideas with the men they met there, who spread the radical idea among other mafiosi. The Carbonari were singled out for excommunication by Pope Pius VII after they played a key role in the uprisings of 1820-21.
One of the Italian Carbonari, and a 33rd Degree Freemason, was Giuseppe Mazzini. By the 1830s, he had founded Young Italy, a secret movement organized around the principle of “Italian unification as a liberal republic.” Despite his use of the term “liberal,” by most analyses Mazzini’s politics are on the far right of the political spectrum. He called for “class collaboration,” a vertical alignment of social classes, to use Lupo’s phrase, that made Mazzini “an enemy of both communism and capitalism.” (Karl Marx, on more than one occasion, called Mazzini a reactionary old ass.)
Vincenzo Bentivegna of Corleone was influenced by Mazzini’s ideas, and began to spread his philosophy among other young people who were, like him, the children of Carbonari. The Marquis of Chiozi, Ferdinando Firmaturi, of the only noble family that lived in Corleone at this time, was converted by Vincenzo. Don Giuseppe Catinella, who would later represent the district in Palermo, was a Carbonaro. One of his close friends and advisors was Francesco Bentivegna, a cousin of Vincenzo’s, and an ardent Republican revolutionary.
However, the revolution of 1848 was not successful. The mafia, initially supporters, switched sides and were rewarded by the Bourbon king with lucrative government contracts. By 1856, the Bentivegna brothers, and the revolution they came to represent, had been betrayed, the brothers themselves imprisoned, or killed.
Another follower of Mazzini’s ideas, Giuseppe Garibaldi was inducted into Freemasonry in 1844, while in exile, and used his networks of Freemasons and socialists, among others, to gain support for Italian unification. Garibaldi conquered Sicily in 1860, but he no longer believed, as Mazzini wrote, that popular insurrection was the only way to unite Italy. Instead, Garibaldi handed the conquest of the Thousand to Piedmont, who he believed was the only force powerful enough to unite Italy against foreign rule. Francis Marion Crawford gives credit elsewhere. In his nonfictional account, Rulers of the South, he writes that “when the Mafia joined Garibaldi, the Bourbons fell.” (There is a third theory of Garibaldi’s success in Sicily, which credits the saints of Corleone.)
The term “fascism” was originally applied to organisations on the political Left. “Fasci” are bundles of sticks, like in the parable. Band together, like a bundle of sticks tied together, and no one can break you. The Fasci Siciliani was a peasant movement to organize labor, similar to the guilds of master tradesmen. The term was subverted to serve Mazzini’s far-right political agenda during World War I, when Benito Mussolini founded the Fascist party in Italy.
Bernardino Verro (my third cousin, three times removed) was an early labor organizer, and Corleone native. In the summer of 1893, he hosted a labor conference in Corleone. That was also the year Verro joined the Fratuzzi, the local mafia, to “give teeth” to his labor unions. Their relationship was strained from the start, with Verro’s organizing in direct opposition to the concerns of the nobility, which were protected by the Mafia. A year and a half after taking office as the first Socialist mayor of Corleone, Verro was killed, in November 1915. “Socialist carpenter” Carmelo lo Cascio (no known relation by blood, though he is by marriage) replaced him as mayor. Although there was a trial, there were no indictments for Verro’s murder.
Although the Mafia and the Fascists were both on the Right, politically, they were in opposition to one another. The Fascist regime in Italy was strongly opposed to the Mafia—authoritarians do not like competition—and nearly destroyed the organization during WWII. In the 1920s, hundreds fled Sicily to avoid arrest. Not only the Mafia, but Freemasonry was also suppressed. The latter became a dog whistle for the former. Angelo di Carlo, who is later called an architect of the Mafia in Sicily after WWII, went to New York during the purges of the Twenties. Shortly after his arrival, the Italian government accused him of the politically motivated murder of a Fascist in Palermo. Rather than call him a member of the Mafia, the Fascists call di Carlo an opponent of Fascism and “a member of the Masonic fraternity.” This is a strange set of accusations, unless you’re keeping track of political alliances.
When the Allies occupied Sicily during WWII, the Mafia regained power because they were the only ones who “had no compromising dalliances with the Fascist regime.” Di Carlo began his involvement in a decades-long money laundering conspiracy that was later discovered in an investigation of Vito Ciancimino, a Corleone native and mayor of Palermo, in the early 1970s. The Fascists were again in control of Italy at this time, planting bombs to frighten the public away from the liberal philosophies spreading on college campuses. The government called di Carlo, who died in prison awaiting trial in 1967, an anarchist and a deserter during WWI.
In recent years, the Italian government has voiced the opinion that Masonic affiliation continues to provide criminals with networking contacts in every field. In 2013, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith made some remarks in the Catholic Herald, about the mafia in masonic organizations, that serve the same caution when applied to the state, or even to the culture. “Italian masonry is strongly identified with big business and banking, and the powerful secretive elites that are supposed to be the ‘real’ government of the country,” Father Lucie-Smith writes. “Masonry is also seen as strongly anti-clerical; thus a masonic lobby in the Vatican would be opposed to virtually everything the Church stands for, and a real enemy within.”
Silvia Bentivegna. La Rivoluzione del 1848-49. Accessed http://www.bentivegnanellastoria.it/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=352:la-rivoluzione-del-1848-49&Itemid=250 21 July 2015.
Commissione Parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia e sulle altre associazioni criminali similari (CPA: Commissione Parlamentare Antimafia) Relazione sui Rapporti tra Mafia e Politica, Page 59, Roma, 1993.
Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith. “Most of us would laugh at the idea of a masonic mafia at work in the Vatican. I’m not sure that we should.” Catholic Herald. Published 30 July 2013. Accessed at http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2013/07/30/most-of-us-would-laugh-at-the-idea-of-a-masonic-mafia-at-work-in-the-vatican-im-not-sure-that-we-should/ on 8 March 2016.
“Man Arrested Here in Italian Murder.” 19 August 1927 New York Evening Post accessed at [fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html Fultonhistory.com] 26 February 2016.
Salvatore Lupo. History of the Mafia. Translated by Antony Shugaar. Columbia University Press, 2009.
Peter T. Schneider and Jane Schneider. Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo. University of California Press, 2003.
“Wealthy Italian Arrested Here As Slayer Of Fascist.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York, Friday, August 19, 1927 edition. Page 16. Accessed [http://www.fultonhistory.com online] 26 February 2016.