Monday, May 19, 2008

An irksome issue, indeed

An article in today's Salt Lake Tribune, by Peggy Fletcher Stack, entitled Keeping LDS from Catholic records irks genealogists, is certainly keeping the recent letter from the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome to dioceses in the local spotlight. Without a doubt, there are competing interests. However, there is no small amount of disingenuousness on the part of many Latter-day Saints who, for decades, have sought out such records for the religious purpose of performing baptisms, temple endowments, and temple marriages (i.e., sealings) on behalf of the dead by proxy.

In fact, after receiving their own endowment and being sealed to their own spouse, whenever Latter-day Saints perform what they call "temple work," they are performing these rituals by proxy for people who are dead and, according to LDS belief, languishing in spirit prison, waiting for these acts to be performed on their behalf. The LDS do not believe that these proxy rituals are ipso facto efficacious, they believe that having a mortal human being baptized, endowed, and sealed on their behalf merely gives the non-LDS dead the opportunity to accept or reject what the LDS see as the true gospel. Were it not for this set of beliefs, the LDS Church would make no effort to collect and maintain such records.

I also happen to know that many in Rome, including several cardinals, are not happy about very heavy LDS proselytizing in and around the Vatican in recent years, especially in St. Peter's square, as well as the leaving of LDS literature in churches around the Eternal City. To wit: Catholics here in Salt Lake City do not hand out copies of Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, or a great tract written by the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, himself a convert from Methodism, addressing LDS belief in the so-called Great Apostasy- Bishop Duane G. Hunt's The Unbroken Chain, at the entrance to Temple Square, or on Temple Square itself. Neither do we deposit copies of Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in wardhouses throughout Salt Lake City, or any city for that matter. We refrain both out of respect for their precincts, but more out of an ability to distinguish between evanglelizing and proselytizing, the latter we reject as being incompatible with our faith (see 1 Peter 3,15- see also my previous post the Church is holy and imperishable ).

I like very much what Msgr. Fitzgerald, our Vicar General, has to say in this most recent article, where, in his refreshingly straight-forward manner, he gets beyond all the disingenuousness and ambiguity:

"The problem is not about making historical records available for research. The problem is with baptism for the dead. I wouldn't want my mom and dad who were lifelong Catholics to be baptized LDS. I don't think it works, but I still think it's disrespectful." He goes on to point out that the Diocese of Salt Lake City has not allowed the LDS Church access to its records for years because, in the words or Msgr. Fitzgerald "Here we are very much aware of the baptism issue."

I also agree with Mr. Kyle Betit, a close friend and a long-time colleague, that "We have a certain responsibility to preserve people's heritage." He asks, "If you are not going to let Mormons microfilm your records, who are you going to get to microfilm them?" This is a good question. However, it is one that is answered by the massive effort, currently underway, to digitize sacramental records here in our diocese and in many dioceses throughout the world. So, there is no need to allow a third-party to microfilm, or in any other way digitally copy these vital records. It merely becomes a question, addressed by both Msgr. Fitzgerald and Bishop Wester, about who has the right to access sacramental records. As both men have said, direct descendants certainly have the right of access to sacramental records. So, folks interested in their heritage, who have ancestors who were baptized, confirmed, ordained, and/or married in this diocese, can be secure in the knowledge that their heritage is being preserved. Besides, I very much doubt that the LDS Church makes their membership records available to third parties, or the public in general, nor should they be expected to. To their credit, the LDS Church refused to comment on the matter, saying that it is an issue internal to the Catholic Church.


  1. That is interesting. But, as I understand it, being denied the official records is not a serious problem in most cases. Other records exist that can provide the minimum information needed to identify people, their spouses and children. Dates of ordinances the Catholic Church perform are nice to have but not essential. In fact, all that is needed in many cases is just the relationship of the dead person to the living relative or even another dead relative. Approximate birth and death dates, while not the preferred way, can be allowed. Mormons accept that in a great many cases, the minimums are all that can be had.

    Professional genealogists, on the other hand, have different standards for proof of kinship from LDS Church requirements as I understand it. Of course the more complete and accurate the information is the better. But given the LDS Church believes that during Christ’s millennial reign the heavens will be opened and the names of the dead and all their associated data will directly available from heavenly sources, if not the dead themselves. One source suggested that all the people baptized on earth, both while living and vicariously performed, would likely be the missionary vanguard sent to preach to the dead and assist in vicarious baptisms during the millennial reign. As I understand it, baptism, Celestial marriage and sealing of families must be performed on earth. Even if the dead were available in the millennium, not being resurrected with a physical body yet, such emersion baptism can’t be performed anyway. The dead need someone with a physical body to perform this ordinance on their behalf.

    The conundrum in all this is who really has the final say in who gets the ordinances and who doesn’t. Mormons believe that 95 years following the person’s birth, assuming he is dead, his relatives can perform these ordinances. Of course Catholics and others all believe their version of religion is the only correct one and the others are usurpers. So no matter what the motives or reasoning, replacing anything the Catholic Church did is offensive if not sacrilegious. Not all agree of course, but enough do to have an impact on Vatican policy. It will be interesting to see how all this shakes out. Will there be some irreparable rift between the LDS Church and their supposed brethren? Methinks there will be sparks, but my money is on the Mormons.

  2. I appreciate your comments. However, professional genealogists will not be frustrated. They will be able to contact churches, as they do now and do research. As I mentioned, in many Catholic dioceses throughout the world a massive effort is being made to digitally transfer sacramental records into digital databases. Since they are professionals, they will be able to figure this out. Because of the reasons they collect the data and the purposes to which they put it, I have it on good authority that the LDS-stored and available records are often not all that great a resource for the professional genealogist.

    So, while I am interested in preserving peoples' heritage, I am not the least interested in assisting the LDS Church in its vicarious work for the dead. This is a complex problem, not a simple one, as your last paragraph seems to indicate. Therefore, let's be careful about reducing it. It is important for Latter-day Saints to take the sensibilities of others, who do not share their beliefs, into consideration when such questions arise. I would think they would be eager not to have a repeat of the public outcry when it was discovered that they were performing baptisms and other rituals in their temple on behalf of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis for no reason other than being Jewish.

    Instead of focusing on winning, let’s work toward mutual respect and understanding. After all, as Catholics, the sacraments are the heart of our faith. The importance of Baptism in Catholic theology would be difficult to exaggerate. So, it stands to reason that we are offended when others re-baptize our dead. It only adds insult to injury to ask for our help in doing it, regardless of the fact that we do not believe vicarious LDS temple rituals performed by proxy after death have any validity whatsoever. Let the dead rest in peace. You are free to agree or to disagree with us; all we ask for is respect, just as we try to respect the beliefs of others.

  3. I think it's important to understand just how much easier the LDS Church makes it to do genealogical work - for everyone.

    The LDS Church has the single largest and most comprehensive genealogical database in the entire world. Genealogists worldwide acknowledge this. The value of having all the data together in a single accessible database cannot be underestimated. A Catholic parish may digitize it's records, but without being integrated into a larger established network, it's STILL hard to hunt down each rogue parish, comply with their procedures, and get the information you want.

    Is the Catholic Church planning on standardizing parish records in a searchable, accessible, online, worldwide database? With standardized rules of seeking out the data?

    If not, the LDS Church remains one of the single most indispensable genealogical resource for family historians of all denominations or ideologies.

    The net effect of the Catholic Church's decision is to make the information less accessible to ALL - not just Mormons. I don't think you really understand just how much this impedes genealogical work for all denominations or non-denominations.

    Neither will it do to say that parish records contain no information you cannot find elsewhere.

    This is simply untrue in many cases. For centuries, the Catholic Church played the role of sole torchbearer for societal heritage and records. Many European towns have no non-Catholic records, at all, for long stretches of their history. In many cases, the parish records are the ONLY records in existence. Any genealogist with relevant experience can tell you this.

    The fact is, for big swaths of history, you guys are the only game in town.

    Finally, the LDS Church does make its membership records of deceased Mormons freely available to anyone. Records of LIVING members are kept confidential for privacy reasons. There's nothing wrong with that, and there is no Mormon call for the records of living Catholics either. So this point is really beside the point.

    I used to live in a small Wyoming town with a sizeable Mormon presence. Our main Church meetinghouse for the region, had a special room full of computers linked to the LDS genealogical database in Salt Lake. It was opened to the public on a regular basis each week and staffed with volunteer members to assist people.

    Open to anyone. Mormon or not. And it was advertised as such.

    Our membership records are not secret. They are freely available to you or anyone else who wants to look at them. Neither do I know any Mormons who would care in the least if you wanted to take those records and declare them Catholics.

  4. Thanks, Seth. I appreciate your perspective. I would just make three quick points:

    1) There is simply no reason for the Catholic Church to have a world-wide searchable database of sacramental records. All such efforts will remain local, that is, diocesan. Dioceses are, ecclesiologically-speaking, Churches and not merely a sub-set of the Church.
    2) This builds from the first- a little more effort to see things from the perspective of the other (i.e., understanding sacramental theology, particularly as it pertains to Baptism and Catholic understanding of Church) would go a long way to building good will.
    3) As regards geneology, even now, the LDS Church is not the only game in town. As technology improves and becomes less expensive, it will easier for all institutions build databases of records. So, there will be many more sources available to people interested in doing this research to accomplish their goals.