Thursday, May 8, 2008

The letter

UPDATE: Bishop Wester's statement on the letter is now available over on The People of St. Mary Magdalene.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, I offer four quick points and a conclusion regarding the recent letter from the Congregation for the Clergy regarding the handling of sacramental records.

1) It is not entirely clear to which "erroneous practice" the Congregation is referring. Clarification on this point requires either a further statement from the Congregation or an interpretation by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. On my reading there are two possibilities: the reference is either to the LDS practice of baptizing the dead, which the Catholic Church rejects, or it refers to the the mishandling of sacramental records, granting access to records that are to be handled in accordance with the Code of Canon law and other legislative guidance handed down by the Holy See. To wit: journalists, even Catholic journalists, are not canonists.

2) The letter was sent without prior consultation with local bishops. In other words, it was a bolt out of the blue. This put our local Church in particular into a reactive mode, a defensive crouch.

3) The primary concern is the confidentiality of sacramental records. As Msgr. Fitzgerald, our vicar general has stated: "We have a policy not to give out baptismal records to anyone unless they are entitled to have them. That isn't just for the Church of the Latter-day Saints. That is for all groups." Msgr. Fitzgerald is quite rightly puzzled by why the LDS are singled out by the Congregation. There is one standard for the handling of sacramental records and it applies across-the-board. To wit: there is not one standard for the LDS Church and another for other interested parties.

4) Even the Catholic Church in the United States, which is far more technologically advanced than the Church in most of the rest of the world, has been slow to digitize our sacramental records. Here in our diocese we are still in the process of putting our past records into a database. Doing this makes the records easily searchable and retrievable. Still, this database is not publicly available as it does not change the long-standing policy of keeping these records confidential. I am quite certain that LDS Church's membership records are also kept confidential and made available only to those who, to quote Msgr. Fitzgerald, "are entitled to have them". This is as it should be. Of course, there is a canonical requirement to maintain what we all call a hard copy of these records. This will not change.

Conclusion: if people want to peruse Catholic sacramental records of past generations of their own family, they are and will continue to be permitted to do so. Now, two things regarding the LDS Church's massive effort to collect genealogical data:

Two more general observations:

1) It is no great secret that their primary motivation for so doing is religious. However, I believe that they have changed their practice and only do temple work for deceased persons whose families have submitted their names. It is also no great secret that the Catholic Church does not share their belief in baptism for the dead.
2) More than the religious motivation, the LDS Church provides a tremendous service in making the genealogical data they collect available to anyone who wants it for free. This is no small thing for historians, professional genealogists, even some engaged in genetic research, and for average people who want to research their ancestors and origins.

Summary and conclusion:

While we certainly have many points of disagreement with the Latter-day Saints, some quite fundamental, like the nature of God, we nonetheless strive to foster good relations and to make common cause whenever possible. For example, here in the Diocese of Salt Lake City we have a very fraternal relationship with our LDS friends and neighbors and some quite impressive institutional ties. These are not just important, they are necessary. I am quite certain that the last thing the Congregation intended to do was to erode any common ground we have established. Therefore, as Catholics, we should seek not only preserve, but to expand the territory we share. Of course, by seeking to do so we must be honest about our differences and steadfast in our own faith. We can do this because of our faith in the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Jesus Christ, who, as His disciples, we daily seek to follow.


  1. Very interesting situation. As an avid genealogist, I would add that while individual LDS members often contribute large databases, etc., for free, many of the information collections are also fee-based or sold as products (for those not using the LDS libraries). And some of the free stuff is of wildly varying quality. Not that this at all impacts how Catholics need to interact with LDS members with respect and the desire to act for the good on the common ground, as you state.

  2. Thanks, Marie. I appreciate your insight. I guess my main point is that the letter from the Congregation changes nothing, nor is it intended to, it was a reminder to handle records properly. The LDS connection, while obvious, did not need to be made explicit.

    I also desire to verify whether, in fact, the LDS practice is to only baptize, receive the endowment on behalf of, and get married by proxy for, members of their own families. I believe that this practice was adopted after Jewish protests about baptizing those who were murdered by the Nazis. I am not casting aspersions, I am just stating what my understanding is. Of course, it is subject to correction.


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