The problem seems to have started in Spain in 1928 when a bishop laid charges that Rotary was nothing but a new Satanic organization. The church also criticized and condemned Rotary for showing a concept of life of service without reference to church teaching. Indeed, it seems that the church believed it was a secret society with quasi-religious overtones. For whatever reason, the Vatican took up the reins and in 1929 it issued a decree that “it is not expedient” for Catholic priest to participate in Rotary either as members or guest. This decree and its application was worrisome to many Catholics in Rotary not the least of which was then RI President Tom Sutton who was himself a Catholic.
Critical and at times disparaging articles regularly appeared in Catholic newspapers. Sutton’s attempts to convince the Secretary of State at the Vatican were fruitless and the anti-Rotary articles continued to be published.
The factual errors were shown to be false and by 1933 there was a mood swing in the Vatican. Priests were now allowed to use their discretion about attending or even joining Rotary. Nevertheless, one of the results of the church attitude was a slow development of Rotary in predominantly Catholic countries such as Ireland.
The uneasy peace continued until 1951 when yet another Vatican decree warned Priests that they should not join Rotary and that the faithful should be aware of seditious and suspected organizations.
But the world was changing and the decree caused an immediate angry response among others, from the then-Catholic and RI President Arthur Laqueux, and even from the Rotarian, Catholic Bishop of Fort Wayne Indiana who publicly declared the decree “quite incomprehensible.”
Fairly soon, the Vatican begin to react and by the end of the decade, the Catholic Truth Society was able to declare that Rotary is neither secret nor seditious. Gradually there was a thaw in the relationship between the church and Rotary. In 1970 Pope Pius VI addressed Rotarians in Italy and in 1979 Pope John Paul II spoke at the Rotary International convention in Rome praising many of Rotary’s humanitarian programs. Later, Pope John Paul II accepted a Paul Harris Fellowship and a World Understanding and Peace award from Rotary.
Finally, before becoming Pope Francis, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio accepted an honorary membership in the Rotary Club of Buenos Aires.