Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Catholics and Mormons and Genealogy

Most of you know a recent Vatican letter singled out and prohibiting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereinafter, "the Salt Lake Church") from accessing parish records of the Roman Catholic Church (hereinafter, "the Roman Church"). I've had several thoughts on the subject that I wish to share.

  • As a long-time lover of puns, I couldn't help but smile when I read that the Vatican regarded the Salt Lake Church* practice of proxy-baptisms for the dead with "grave reservations" (emphasis added).

  • The official policy of the Salt Lake Church is that members seek proxy ordinances ("temple work") only for their own ancestors. Yet some members have done temple work for famous historical figures, including Catholic popes and saints. If these wayward members had followed the instructions of their leaders, I doubt the Catholic response would have been so severe. They have done a grave disservice to us all.

  • According to some reports, temple work for popes has included marriages ("sealings") for known, lifelong celibates! I am embarrassed and aghast at such bald-faced disregard for the truth. To all you, my friends of other faiths, may I assure you that neither dishonesty nor disobedience is condoned by the Salt Lake Church or its faithful.

  • It is my understanding that this is not a new Catholic policy, nor is it specific to the Salt Lake Church (despite the Church being singled out in this letter) and that the Salt Lake Church has always been denied access in most parishes. As an increasing number of parishes have liberalized access policies, we should not be surprised that the Vatican has found it necessary to reiterate a long-standing policy.

  • We have to remember that these are records of the holy sacraments of the Roman Church, that the Salt Lake Church does not recognize the efficacy of Catholic sacraments and, in fact, will re-do their own versions of the sacraments ("ordinances") of baptism, confirmation, Holy Orders (ordination to the priesthood), the second sacrament of healing (anointing with consecrated oil) and marriage. Little wonder that the Roman Church should take steps to prevent this.

  • The Salt Lake Church itself restricts access of its own ordinance records to its own members. On, a person must register as a member of the Salt Lake Church or the website excludes the ordinance records that are part of the International Genealogy Index (IGI). New FamilySearch will not be released to the general public until the ability to hide ordinance data is added to the program.

  • Thank you, my Catholic blogger friends, for your kind, sensitive, supportive responses.

    Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak writes, "As a Catholic myself, this really disappoints me... Now, Catholics around the world will have a tougher time of tracing their roots." She explains that the Salt Lake Church's practices don't bother her because she doesn't believe in the Mormon faith and notes that the Salt Lake Church itself believes the ordinances are of no effect to anyone that doesn't accept them.

    Craig Manson of the GeneaBlogie writes, "As both of my regular readers know, I am a Catholic... 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."

    I have to echo his final thought on the subject: "All being said, this is a most unfortunate turn of events for all. When it comes to genealogy, we all need each other."

  • In an interview broadcast on KSL-TV tonight, the Most Reverend John C. Wester, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said that the Vatican letter was not aimed at individual family inquiries.

    "If an individual wants to approach a parish and say, 'My grandfather, my great-grandfather was baptized here and I'd like to have a record,' then the priest or deacon or the staff person will happily look it up and fill out a copy of a form, the baptismal record, and give it to them," he said.

    Let's hope this interpretation is universal across the Roman Church.

  • I hope the two churches can reach some acceptable solution. If nothing else, I hope the Roman Church acts to make copies of all its local records for safe keeping. Too many records in the world are perishing.

  • Thinking about the sacredness of church records reminds me of a story I heard from BYU professor and Spanish genealogy expert, George R. Ryskamp. During a research trip to Spain his group found an area in which none of the parishes had extant records save one. Upon inquiry they learned the story of a parish priest caught in the middle of a Spanish civil war. Roving military factions laid waste the parish churches and records of any parish pledging allegiance to another faction. In this bloody commotion one priest gathered up all his records and hid them, burying them in the ground. When an enemy militia came to burn the church, the records were nowhere to be found. The priest suffered death rather than disclosing the location of the records.

If Catholics and Mormons* can all feel the sacred character of these priceless records and the people they represent, surely we can find a way to protect them from perishing, and sensitively unseal their contents in a fashion that can turn the hearts of children to their fathers and reveal the hearts of the fathers to their children, lest all our genealogical fervor be wasted.

* The style guide of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instructs editors not to use "Mormon Church" or "LDS Church." The term "Mormons" is an acceptable term for Church members. For abbreviated references, the style guide encourages use of "the Church" or "the Church of Jesus Christ." As Ben pointed out in his comment, the former is ambiguous in this article. The latter is hardly an abbreviation. I can't think of any terms that are not prejudicial to one church or the other. Consequently, I've updated this article to identify the two Churches by their headquarters. My apology to any that find this compromise offensive.


  1. What a gentle perspective on this issue. Thanks for your post.

    One suggestion: Catholic and Anglican readers are as used to seeing "the Church" used to abbreviate their own churches as LDS readers are. This makes your fourth, fifth, and sixth points extremely confusing for a Catholic reader without careful mental rephrasing.

  2. Great post. You made some points that I not only didn't consider, but wasn't even aware of. I blogged about it on my blog. (The G Files). While I think that this letter is somewhat reactionary and not very well thought out, I appreciate how you describe some of the behavior of some LDS members that may have contributed to the misunderstanding. I think it is important that both churches come together to discuss their positions and find some common ground. Keep up the good work.

  3. Great post thanks for really thinking about this one.

    I have travelled to Spain with George Ryskamp and have heard that touching story in person and near the location it happened. The Catholic Church has done all of us involved in genealogy a great service by first creating these records and second sharing them with us. While they have now decided to no longer share in a structured way at least we can still have direct access when needed for a particular family.

    The Catholic records are oftentimes the only surviving documentation available and some of the records, marriage in particular, are very well put together and very helpful in research. I hope we don't do something else to have them cut us off completely.


  4. The only thing wrong with this post is that its version of events is totally inaccurate. The Catholic Church did NOT prohibit "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church) and its members from accessing Catholic parish records."

    It sent a letter to its own clergy directing them not to give their parish records to the LDS for filming and digitizing. See:

    That, of course, doesn't mean that those records won't be preserved, as you imply. The Catholic Church is fully capable of preserving its own records, if it so chooses. It has, after all, preserved a huge chunk of Renaissance art for all of the world's edification and enjoyment. It has a huge archives at the Vatican with historical treasures that are accessible to any scholar.

    Why was the LDS church singled out in the letter? Simple-- They're the only church trying to copy all the RCC's records.

  5. The real question is WILL the Catholic Church really spend the time, effort and money to preserve these priceless records. Some of them are very old. The Mormons are willing to do this for free. If we don't believe the Mormon Church is true, who cares what they do or don't do? If the Mormons are allowed to continue preserving these records, it will be a blessing to everyone, especially the Catholic Church. Does anyone believe that a ritual performed for the dead by someone else is effectual unless it really where the work of God? Let the Mormons do this work and we will all benefit.

  6. Late comment:

    As a Catholic, I have to say that I appreciate your attitude.

    A Mormon friend of mine just told me she's learned that she's descended from Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France) I told her that I hope and trust you guys have him properly and duly baptized. Not that I believe you guys are right (forsooth! Sacajewa a Jew, and Abraham on Planet Korlob?? Or whatever have you? Oh, no!) But that if, in the most comic of apocalypses, you guys are proven right, then please, go on baptizing away. (I mean, in lieu of your mass conversion back to the One Holy and Apostolic Church, I mean..)

    Make sure you get around to baptizing me, too. I'll get a kick out of it when I'm suffering for my sins in Purgatory.

    Pax & Bonum +

  7. Dear friends,

    Since the purpose of this article is to promote mutual understanding between two churches, I have taken the belated step of updating the article to correct several problems identified by readers.

    As is my practice in other articles, this article used "the Church" as the shortened form of the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That term is prejudicial in this article (and down right confusing), so I've created neutral terms, identifying each church by the location of its headquarters. In other articles, I continue my usual terminology.

    I have changed the "version of the events" in the first paragraph to reflect the CNS article suggested by Anonymous. (While I've never met him, I love his poetry.) And I've tried to remove any inference that the Catholic Church is not capable of safeguarding its own records.

    In the months since the letter, relations between the two churches have been cordial and cooperative, for which I am very grateful.

    -- The Insider


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