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CaptureApart from his rejection of wigs and the incident with the kite, the key and the lightning bolt, I’m afraid I have never been impressed or attracted to Benjamin Franklin. There was too much of the old-world rationalist and deist in the new-world inventor and sage. Despite his accomplishments, there was something as dull about the man as his po-faced portrait staring from the hundred-dollar bill. Franklin was utilitarian and unitarian, practical and puritanical, materialistic, mechanical, efficient, economical, sensible, and sincere… and dull.

Like most Freemasons, Franklin had a spiritual blind spot. There was nothing wild and mystical in his life. Passion and romance in religion were alien to him. His creed was one of common sense, mild-mannered good works and human virtue. As such it was not only blind. It was bland.

I came across a quotation of his the other day which sums it up. He wrote, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” It is the sort of sophomoric bromide one expects from rationalist,  and it doesn’t stand up to even the mildest of objections.

It is understandable, however. Ever since the nominalists suggested that material things had no connection with the unseen world and were no more than what you call them, a divide had been growing between the physical and the metaphysical realms. The Protestant Revolution confirmed the break, and the Enlightenment hammered it home with the French and American Revolutions.

If there was a divide between the spiritual and the physical realm, then preachers could have nothing to say about science, and scientists had no concern with religion. Science and reason dealt with this world and religion with the world to come, and that was that.

Consequently, the Protestant religion became either an abstract debate about theology or a subjective, emotional experience. In other words, you could be a bookish Bible nerd or a hellfire, “come to Jesus!” weepin’-and-wailin’ preacher. Neither had much to do with the material realm, and neither had much use for science and reason. Thus Benjamin Franklin’s conclusion that to “see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”

Fideists and fundamentalists distrust the man of reason as much as he distrusts the man of religion. Therefore, even today many Protestants take an intentionally anti-intellectual stance, agreeing with the rationalists that faith and reason are incompatible. Blind Benjamin Franklin is father to them all.

Standing in contrast to this impasse is the Catholic religion which has always contended that faith is reasonable and reason requires faith, or as Pope St. John Paul II put it, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

The fact of the matter is that true religious enquiry is actually very similar to rational, scientific enquiry. The method of scientific enquiry involves more than simply conducting experiments. Making scientific discoveries involves a process which involves not only proof gathered from experimentation, but also a reliance on data that is only probable, an acceptance of tradition mixed with informed theorizing, creative guesswork and sparks of enlightened intuition.

True religious discovery relies on a similar process. In both science and religion the first step is to observe the real world and draw conclusions from one’s observations in order to construct a meaningful analysis of reality.

This process is assisted in the individual enquirer (be he scientific or religious) by what might be called “tradition.” In other words, we use the observations and conclusions of those who have lived before us to inform our analysis and to enable us to build up a credible and cohesive analysis of the world we observe. Neither the religious or the scientific explorer starts from scratch. Others have been here before us. They have drawn maps, published memoirs, left records and given instructions for the journey.

Scientists do their work on the basis of an ever growing body of scientific knowledge which they take as proven–even if much of that “scientific knowledge” has only been established through theorizing, intuition, guesswork and probabilities. So it is with the religious enquirer. He relies on the findings and experiences of those who have explored the realm of religion for thousands of years in many different cultures and human experiences. Just as scientists specialize in many different disciplines, so the phenomenon of religion has been explored not just by monks and nuns, but by psychologists, sociologists, theologians, anthropologists, artists, poets, mystics, madmen and children.

From that foundation of personal observation and reliance on tradition the scientific enquirer proposes a theory to explore and discover further. So does the religious enquirer. Both devise a theory to meet the facts and answer a question that has arisen. The enquirer then tests the theory with experimentation–gathering data and experiences and processing them through intuition, reasoning and further reliance on tradition. Should the experiment fail, he uses the error to refine the theory and continue his exploration until he finds a satisfactory answer.

This is precisely what the informed and intellectually engaged religious enquirer does. He has certain experiences which are analyzed and filtered through tradition and he goes on to explore further, analyze experience, test reality, reject what is false and affirm what is true, and as he continues his exploration and experimentation he uses a combination of personal experience, tradition, reason and intuition to analyze and construct a working hypothesis.

Then, for both the scientist and the religious explorer there comes a step which we can call “faith.” The homework is done, the data is collected. The experience is analyzed, the tradition is accepted, the guesswork is completed, and the theory has been tested as thoroughly as possible. The scientist or the religious enquirer then changes his actions based on the new belief which he has come to accept based on this process.

Of course there are individuals–both scientific and religious–who do not go through this arduous process. They don’t think things through. They live the unexamined life. They accept the tradition blindly. They are lazy. They make emotional instead of rational judgements. Both scientific and religious enquirers therefore will come up with faulty conclusions, untenable positions, prejudiced positions and shallow choices.

Benjamin Franklin was blind to the possibility that religion could be reasonable because the Puritans who raised him would have taught him that human beings were totally depraved and can therefore learn nothing of God through their human reason.

He is justifiably one of America’s founding fathers because the majority of modern Americans today believe the same and are therefore, sadly, similarly blind.

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13 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Ballesty, Benjamin Franklin is far more admirable than the Rev. Mr. Longenecker gives him credit for. He faults Franklin for not articulating a Catholic metaphysics, a Catholic anthropology, or a larger Catholic world view — for not being, well, Catholic.

    But Franklin’s strengths were as a businessman, a practical politician, an organizer of civil society, and a diplomat. His work on electricity was groundbreaking, but his other scientific endeavors were more on the level of inspired tinkering (although some of his tinkering, was, in fact, inspired). He was not a theologian, not a philosopher, not an anthropologist, and (most certainly) not a Catholic.

    He is justifiably held out as one of the Founders of the United States because of his organization of institutions of civil society in his adopted Philadelphia, his advocacy on behalf of his clients as agent for both Pennsylvania and Massachusetts before the King and Parliament, his advocacy of independence when he realized that reconciliation between Crown and colonies was no longer possible, his participation in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, and his role in securing the assistance of France in securing that independence. His views on the relationship between faith and reason, or between religion and science, have no bearing on those very real accomplishments, or, in all probability, on the reasons why Franklin continues to hold a place in the American imagination.

    Neither the Autobiography nor Poor Richard’s Almanac rank among Franklin’s most important accomplishments. They would, by themselves, earn Franklin at best a footnote in history. Before you resort to either, let me suggest any of the following fairly recent biographies: “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin,” by Gordon Wood (2004); “The First American: the Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin,” by H.W. Brands (2002); “Benjamin Franklin, An American Life,” by Walter Isaacson (2003); and “Benjamin Franklin,” by Edmund Morgan (2002). Any of these books can provide some insight why Franklin was, is, and should be considered an American archetype.

    Interestingly, some of the most famous criticism of Franklin (or at least the image of Franklin as it was manifested in his own time) came from another sort of American icon, Mark Twain. But he did not fault Franklin for being insufficiently Catholic. Twain had other objections.

  2. Father Longenecker: When it was deemed appropriate to appoint a bishop for the new republic after its founding, the Holy See sent a representative to learn the U.S. government’s wishes through the American minister in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin replied that this was none of the government’s business, and that the Church could appoint whomever it liked — a response that caused astonishment along the Tiber, where the pope, in those days, had a free right of appointing bishops in, at best, 20 percent of the world’s dioceses. Franklin maintained good relations with Rome and supported John Carroll, the Apostolic Administrator in the colonies, (cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton – the only Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence) ) for Bishop of the first Catholic diocese in the United States.

    It is true that Franklin displayed elements of anti-Catholicism throughout his life. But he had enlisted the f John Carroll, to accompany him to Quebec in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the Canadian Catholics to enlist in the Revolution. Franklin’s respect for the Catholic Church as an institution made him a logical diplomatic choice for ambassador to the French Court As John Adams said of Franklin: “The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker.” Later, Bishop John Carroll, whose family were the premier Catholics in the new nation and also Freemasons, refused to publish any papal condemnations of Freemasonry in 1794, saying “I do not pretend that these decrees are accepted generally by the Churches or have full authority in these dioceses.”

  3. Franklin frequented masonic lodges in London and Paris.
    He also engaged in Satanism in London’s Hellfire drinking and sex club.

  4. For Ted Gale, Ben Franklin, as you know, was an ardent freemason and friend of Voltaire. He never said a word condemning the murderous outrage of the French Revolution, killing of a good King and Queen, as well as hundreds of Catholics religious and lay. NOT ONE WORD. He was very anti-catholic. Concerning Our Lord and Savior he proudly offered this condescending tribute to His Maker, the Son of God a month before he died: As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure

  5. Mr Russell, thank you for your comment and further information. This indicates to me that that Franklin was happy to use Catholic influence for his own purposes and his acceptance by all the different groups indicates to me exactly the sort of chameleon like behavior I have come to associate with committed Freemasons.

  6. Kelso wrote:

    “He never said a word condemning the murderous outrage of the French Revolution, killing of a good King and Queen, as well as hundreds of Catholics religious and lay. NOT ONE WORD.”

    Franklin died in April, 1790. It would have been a little difficult for him to say much about the murderous outrages of the French Revolution. Although the storming of the Bastille took place on July 14, 1789 (arguably marking the start of the French Revolution), the monarchy itself was not abolished until after a brief attempt to have France function as a constitutional monarchy, and the establishment of the First Republic in September, 1792. Louis XVI was executed in January, 1793. Marie Antoinette was killed in October of that year. The Reign of Terror – the worst of the slaughter, took place between September, 1793 and the following year.

    I think it would be a mistake to say that he was anti-Catholic. He may have been anti-clerical, which is not exactly the same thing.

    Franklin was a Freemason, as were George Washington, John Dickinson, and several others who participated in the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitutional Convention. Under these circumstances, I think it would be a stretch to say that membership in Freemasonry would or should disqualify one from consideration as one of the key founders of the United States.

    Similarly, his doubts regarding the divinity of Jesus were certainly shared by Jefferson, and probably by John Adams (at least during some times in his life). I do not claim that all of the framers were deists or Unitarians—that is clearly not the case. But it is also equally clear that a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity was an acceptable strain within the mainstream of thought that underlined the American Revolution.

    Now, it is perfectly reasonable for someone such as Fr. Longenecker, as a Catholic, to criticize Franklin for not adhering to Catholic beliefs. But it seems somewhat ahistorical to imply (as he does in the final paragraph of the original post) that this undermines the justification for including him among the leading figures of the founding of the United States, unless, of course, one wants to criticize the assumptions underlying the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And, although there may be reasons from the Catholic perspective to criticize those assumptions, it appears to me that such course would be hard to reconcile with an American conservatism.

  7. JMJ God Uses us (Mankind as He Wills, weather we unite our will with his or not) God used Mr. Franklin to do his will but Mr. Franklin was Free to live as he willed. So much Evil in the world because we Will to live according to our will. I don’t know if Mr. Franklin repented at the hour of his death (I have my doubts but they are my doubts) God have Mercy on Mr. Franklin and the souls suffering in purgatory and All of God’s Creation. Respectfully with Love, Joseph J. Pippet, N. Cape May, N.J.

  8. Mr. Russell’s comment that the Carroll family were Freemasons seems to me, from what I’ve read, to be false, or at least exaggerating, drawing in a whole family when maybe only 1 or 2 were Freemasons. Anybody have more knowledge on this?

  9. Having read through the comments so far I can see that my own objections to to your essay have been handily outlined. All but one.
    Dull, Father Longenecker? Benj. Franklin dull? In general he is felt by most to be a delightful read after more than 200 years, full of wit and satire, whether the reader be atheist or Christian. Most deist writings ARE dull. But not Voltaire, not Thomas Paine, and not Franklin. Arguments become dull over time after they have been well answered. After that point presentation still makes reading worth while if your interest is in the history of ideas. All three of these men are worth the price of their principal works.

  10. Thank you for the correction Mr. Gale. I must have been confusing Franklin with Jefferson or some other figure. Nevertheless, Franklin was good friends with Voltaire and other radicals with whom he associated while in France. Masonry claims Daniel Carroll as a member. He was the richest man in the colonies. Strange, when all 13 were anti-Catholic, including Maryland. His cousin Charles took his brother John Carroll (then a priest) to Canada with Franklin to ask the French to help with the War. Strange request when the Church was being persecuted in the colonies at the same time, especially in neighboring Maine. The bishop of Quebec forbade Carroll from saying Mass in his diocese and excommunicated him. As far as I remember reading, Daniel Carroll led the Lodge in Maryland. You can look it up. As Bishop John Carroll wrote to Rome asking the Vatican to keep out of American Church affairs. He was an advocate for vernacular Mass and national bishops electing their own local bishops without papal interference.

  11. The founding fathers were far from being anything the establishment suggest and the US has never been friendly to the Church. The founding of the US was not holy and immaculate as I hear people suggest. Why do the majority of Mexicans look native and the majority of the US do not? The difference is assimilation (Catholic Spain)and anihilation (Protesting Europe). Please read “Blood Drenched Altars” by Fr Francis Clement Kelly and let us pray and do penance for our past and present sins.

  12. I am not impressed by Franklin either. Once I learned he left his wife and family to go live in Europe for a while and even kept another ” family” while there, I lost all respect I had for him.

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