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 FamilySearch.org, 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.