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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."
A letter from the Vatican called LDS baptisms for the dead a "detrimental practice" and directed each Catholic diocesan bishop "not to cooperate with the erroneous practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
"The problem is not about making historical records available for research," said Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. "The problem is with baptism for the dead. I wouldn't want my mom and dad who were lifelong Catholics to be baptized LDS. I don't think it works, but I still think it's disrespectful."
The Salt Lake diocese has not allowed the LDS Church to copy its records for years, Fitzgerald says. "Here we are very much aware of the baptism issue."
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)."
The LDS Church began seeking ancestral records in the 19th century as a way to baptize posthumously, by proxy, all who have died without an LDS baptism. Mormons believe it gives their deceased relatives an opportunity to accept the faith in an afterlife. These rituals are performed in LDS temples worldwide.
To this end, the church has microfilmed millions of birth, death, christening, marriage and other related information of deceased people, from archives and registers of churches and denominations, when access is permitted.
Beginning in the 1930s, the church stored these microfilms in a giant granite vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It now preserves 2.4 million microfilms and 2.4 million microfilms and nearly 1 million microfiche acquired over the decades. Its climate-controlled atmosphere protects the films from damage and destruction.
The Catholic Church records at the LDS Family History Library make up one of the largest collections the library has, says Kyle Betit, a Catholic researcher who runs Pro-Genealogists in Salt Lake City. "It includes the records of 20 to 30 U.S. dioceses and most of those in Europe, Mexico and South America."
It is unlikely that the dioceses that already contracted with the LDS library would ask the records to be removed, but the rest might be hesitant to go forward with any new microfilming, Betit says, adding that would be a shame.
In many countries, Catholic records are nearly synonymous with civil records.
"We have a certain responsibility to preserve people's heritage," Betit says. "If you are not going to let Mormons microfilm your records, who are you going to get to microfilm them?"
The LDS Church declined to comment on the situation, said spokesman Rob Howell, saying it was an "internal letter sent only within the Catholic Church."
Still, the problem for researchers is not going away anytime soon.
"At some point," Betit says, "Rome and Salt Lake City are going to have to communicate about this."
Baptism for the dead
Mormons baptize living people by immersion in a font of water in the places of their dead relatives. The proxy ritual, done exclusively in LDS temples, is meant to offer the deceased the option of salvation in the hereafter.
The LDS Church expects that members will only submit names for these baptism rituals from among their own ancestors, but that expectation has not always been followed. Some Jewish survivors of the Holocaust have objected to the practice of proxy by baptism and the church agreed to take their names off the list of baptisms to be performed.
The Catholic Church also objects to the practice, and recently told parishes not to release records to the LDS Church because those records form the basis of genealogical research from which names for baptism by proxy are drawn.