Catholics, Genealogy and Baptism for the Dead

There was an interesting show today on Radio West. (The MP3 should be up later today) It was on last month’s reaction by the Vatican regarding baptism for the dead. As you may know the Vatican sent a letter to all dioceses telling them to not give parish records to the Church for genealogy. That was primarily over the baptism for the dead.

What really surprised me as I listened to the show was just how upset many people were with vicarious ordinances. I’d never have called people being that concerned. I could understand Jews upset about holocaust records entering the Church’s genealogical records and leading to baptisms. But it seems to me that is a much different situation.

It seems to me that the last guest of Doug Fabrizio made the best point. I think a lot of people don’t understand that at best the practice is preparatory. That is you aren’t really baptizing them as Mormons. Rather you’re performing a baptism such that if they ever decide to become Mormon in the next life the opportunity of baptism is available. That’s a crucial difference but one I suspect most don’t quite see.

Anyway, listen to the podcast as it was quite interesting. The interview with Kathleen Flake was probably my favorite part.

I should note that it’s interesting that Peggy Fletcher Stack has many genealogists suggesting that this will cause many problems and perhaps mainly affect Catholic attempts at genealogy.

The Vatican’s recent ban on Mormon microfilming and digitizing of Catholic parish records out of concern they will be used for the LDS practice of baptizing the dead may have a wide-ranging and chilling effect on the whole family history enterprise, some professional genealogists say.

“It’s going to close off a great many countries and even Catholic dioceses in America whose records haven’t been microfilmed,” says Jim Petty, past president of Utah’s chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists. “This makes it difficult for genealogists of any religion.”


But Kathy Kirkpatrick, another past president of Utah’s professional genealogist association, says the irony is that the prohibition will be felt most by Catholics who want to pursue their family history back beyond civil records.

“Most parishes can’t or don’t answer letters because they are understaffed and their highest priority is the living (as it should be),” Kirkpatrick, a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker) said in an e-mail. “Most folks don’t have the resources to visit a parish in person (or send an agent) and sometimes even a personal visit doesn’t get access to the records if the priest is busy and can’t delegate supervision to another or if the priest isn’t agreeable to family research (for whatever reason).”

My sense is that it’ll have correspondingly less effect on Mormons. That’s because most of the records are already digitized and those that aren’t are more contemporary records that individuals could fairly easily access anyway.

For other takes check out this Ancestry Magazine article. (Yeah, it’s from 1995 but the points are relevant) Also check out this T&S post by Wilfried on the issue.

8 thoughts on “Catholics, Genealogy and Baptism for the Dead

  1. Great post, Clark.

    My wife and I attended a family history class in my parent’s ward and tried out the new Family Search–very slick–I recommend trying it!

    With my wife being a convert from Catholicism, she will likely face some issues when attempting to do her genealogy. In fact, none of her family records were available in Family Search.

  2. I got baptized when I was 35, and I spent plenty of time around anti-Mormons before I was baptized. There are some complaints that people have about the Church that I can understand, but I just don’t get this whole issue of not wanting to release genealogy information to the Church. Presumably if you are Catholic or Jewish you don’t believe the Church is true. So in your mind anything a Mormon does has no affect whatsoever. So, who cares what Mormons do among themselves regarding dead people?

    I have heard all of the possible answers, but I still don’t get it. Clark, I think you are correct that it boils down to a lack of understanding regarding how we believe the process actually works in the spirit world. But some of the opposition to our family history work strikes me as just plain weird.

  3. I think the showed towards the end explained that to a degree. (Although I think the misunderstanding is still pretty key) It’s largely about the immediate family of the deceased and the perception of how they would feel of the family member joining Mormonism.

    It still doesn’t ultimately make sense but then a lot of issues people react emotionally to don’t.

    Brian, I think she can still get the records. She should just make sure not to say she is Mormon. I believe the Vatican letter was more about genealogical missionaries who just come down and scan in all records for processing back in SLC.

  4. I guess families get upset now when a living member joins the Church. Apparently is those that passed on should do so, it is just as emotional. They need to take it up with the relative and not the church, though.

  5. Speaking of NFS, can anyone access it today? I can’t from either browser (IE and FireFox) and am wondering whether it’s a general crash or something’s wrong with my computer.

    I am very fortunate in that a number of relatives of mine love talking about family history. They don’t know why I’m interested or soliciting this information, but they like to provide it anyway.

    Unfortunately, we (South Asians of Muslim origins) don’t really keep many records, so going back is extremely difficult.

  6. Not that I want to hijack this thread, but I discovered something really cool yesterday: the FamilySearch Indexing Project. I believe there’s a stake calling to index records, but for this, anyone can join, member or non-member, called or not. You sign up, download a program, download “batches”, transfer the info into fields in the program, ask the program to check it, and then submit. Easy! I started last night and have already done 160 names.

    Sometimes deciphering handwriting can be a chore, but otherwise it’s a blast. Very interesting. And more importantly, this helps the Church’s family history record keeping and releasing process, helping people do their family history.

    All one needs is a computer with internet access (one needs internet access only to download and submit a batch; one doesn’t have to be online the entire time one is working on a batch).

    As you can tell, I’m really excited. For more info, please go to:

    Or read this blog entry:

  7. I had one debate where a guy was telling me the LDS have no right to get all huffy about the Catholics denying access when the LDS Church is similarly restrictive about its own documents.

    It took me a while of arguing, but I eventually realized he was under the impression that the LDS deny other faiths access to our own genealogical records. Which we don’t, of course.

    Just reminded me that it pays to establish what assumptions people are operating under in their objections.

  8. Perhaps we ought to announce we are baptizing all the dead popes. That ought to create some controversy, since the Catholic Church seems to believe it has some deleterious effect on their future.

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