Catholics, Mormons, and Genealogy

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

Papal Aide: Holy Father there is exciting news. Some of it’s good but some of it’s bad.
Pope:Okay, give me the good news first.
Aide: The Savior has returned to Earth! He’s on the telephone asking for you!
Pope: What could possibly be the bad news then?
Aide: He’s calling from Salt Lake City!

As such ecumenical matters sometimes go, relations between Catholics and Mormons have been relatively without rancor over the past several decades. Despite deep doctrinal rifts, the relationships between individual Catholics and Mormons have been free of the personal hostility which characterizes relationships between certain other denominations. In fact, the Bishop of Salt Lake City has said that Catholics and Mormons work together and get along fine in the Mormons’capital city.

But the facial peace between Catholics and Mormons has been strained by issues related to genealogy. It is well-known that the LDS church has some of the greatest genealogical information in the world in both quantity and quality. They obtain those records by going out all over the world and collecting or copying the original records. What is less well known is the doctrinal motivation for collecting ancestral records. Not being a member of the LDS church I’m hesitant to characterize their purposes other than to say that I am informed that it has to do with so-called re-baptism of non-LDS ancestors. That is the least what the Vatican knew in 2008, when the Holy Father instructed Catholic parishes not to cooperate with Mormon records seekers.

This issue had been brewing for quite a while. In 1995, Mormons and Jews reached an agreement that the LDS church would no longer “re-baptize” or “seal” Holocaust survivors that some LDS members had characterized as their ancestors. In 2001, Pope John Paul II approved a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which stated that baptism in the LDS church cannot be held to be a valid Christian baptism. The statement went on to say that because of differences between the Catholic and Mormon understandings of the Trinity, “one cannot even consider this doctrine to be a heresy arising from a false understanding of Christian doctrine.” L’Osservatore Romano, a newspaper which frequently reflects inside thinking at the Vatican said the ruling “changes the past practice of not contesting the validity of [Mormon] baptism.”  The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time was Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Nothing much seems to have happened on this issue between 2001 and 2008. But then in January 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter which expressed “grave reservations” about the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism. A few months later, Pope Benedict XVI approved an order that each bishop should not “cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  Cooperation includes allowing Mormon genealogists to have access to Catholic parish records. Ironically, just 10 days after this order was approved, Pope Benedict embarked on a visit to the United States during which two Mormons participated in a papal ecumenical service. According to the Catholic news service this was the first time any member of the LDS church participated in such a service.

This is a difficult issue for a Catholic genealogist to write about.  Somewhat surprisingly, both the Vatican and the Mormon hierarchy seemed to downplay the impact of the letter on general relations between the two churches.  Father James Massa, an official of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Catholic News Service that while the order had the potential to disrupt relationships between the two churches, the Catholic Church was embarking on a new friendship with the LDS church. At about the same time a spokesman for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City said that he had not seen the order and thus could not comment on it. He went on to say “We don’t have an issue with the fact that the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize our baptisms, because we don’t recognize theirs.”  It’s a difference of belief.”

Other Catholic and LDS spokespersons further emphasized that the ban on allowing parish records to be given to LDS genealogists was not a major rift between the two denominations. The Catholic vicar general of the Diocese of Salt Lake City said that Catholics and Mormons enjoyed a long-standing mutually beneficial relationship. He said that the order concerning parish records was nothing new, because the Salt Lake diocese long had refused to give parish records to anyone “not authorized to have them.”  This policy was much broader than Mormon genealogists.

So how should Catholic genealogists react to the church’s official ban on giving Mormon genealogists access to parish records?

Here are some things to consider: first of all, the Mormons do have the greatest collection genealogical records in the world. Additionally they have been an incubator for new advanced archival technologies.  They allow free access to most of their records and have been known to create digital archives of Catholic parish records for the parish to keep.

I recall on my visit to the parish of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois in 2007, that the priest had labored alone and with great difficulty to get the parish records organized in a computer database. And before the completion of the project is computer crashed and the data was lost. Today, the records of St. Joseph parish in Prairie du Rocher  are available free of charge as part of the set of records of the diocese of Belleville, Illinois on the LDS-run site FamilySearch.org.

Here are some other things to consider: the ban is directed to bishops and clergy, not to individual Catholics. So Catholic genealogists who cooperate with Mormon genealogists will not need the “Get out of Hell Free” cards available from my colleague Sheri Fenley.

Despite the ban, FamilySearch.org  seems to add new Catholic parish records every week. Curiously most of those seem to come from outside the United States.

Perhaps the LDS spokesman quoted above was on the right track. Why should we as Catholics care that the Mormons believe in something that we don’t believe in? It is, as he said, a matter of belief.

One objection to the use of records by LDS genealogists has been the complaint that some of the Mormon records are inaccurate.  Mormon leaders say that there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies primarily in the IGI. They say that they have taken steps to weed out inaccurate information in the IGI. Finally, the ban on cooperation relates only to the LDS church. No doubt there are many many other faiths with severe doctrinal differences with the Roman Catholic Church, who are not banned from examining parish records. And we’re not going to change their belief system by refusing to cooperate on genealogical records.

One of the ironies here is that the Catholic Church once had the biggest collection of genealogical records in the world. They weren’t centralized  like the LDS records are. But for many centuries, the only place that genealogical records were kept was in the local church.  After the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant churches alike continued to be the main repositories of genealogical records. Civil involvement in matters of birth, marriage and death is a relatively new phenomenon.

Because Catholic records aren’t centralized, there was an opportunity for cooperation that could have led to greater accessibility of Catholic records to historians, genealogists and the general public.

In 2008 I wrote:

“The LDS Church has been more than generous in sharing their extremely costly research endeavors with the world at little or no cost. I would hope that my church, had it been in their shoes, would be as magnanimous. In fact, what the Mormons have done is downright Christian. . .

” . . .  Catholics and our faith are actually strengthened in a way by knowing and understanding our past and appreciating our ancestors. Curiously, we have the Mormons to thank for that.” See Catholics, Mormons at Odds Over Genealogical Records?  at GeneaBlogie.

That’s still my thinking on the matter.  What do you think?

OFF
Craig

2 Responses to “Catholics, Mormons, and Genealogy”

  • Craig says:

    I love your comments . . . but that too is for another day!

  • Sheri Fenley says:

    Craig Dahling!

    I seem to have an overabundance of “Get Out of Hell Free” cards lately. What’s this world coming to? People are behaving themselves? Oh the horror of it all.

    Great post but it is yet another reminder to me of why I struggle with my faith in the Catholic Church. If his Holiness would just work with me on the issues of birth control and dinosaurs then I wouldn’t be a regular in the confessional box. But that discussion is for another day.


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