According to various news outlets the Catholic Church has ordered its dioceses to not allow Mormons access to parish registers any more. For decades, our Church has copied and preserved millions of pages of parish registers around the world, as part of the injunction to seek out ancestors and perform ordinances in their behalf. There are probably still millions of pages out there, uncopied.
As Mormons we will probably react in disbelief: what would it harm present-day Catholics if Mormons seek out their Catholic ancestors? Millions of Mormons indeed have Catholic ancestors. So do I. The temple work performed is viewed as an act of love and respect, feeding a holy bond with spirits beyond the grave. Besides, in our faith those ordinances have no value unless the deceased accepts them. Catholics who believe in the continuation of personal life beyond the grave and who have confidence in the religious steadfastness of their ancestors, what would they have to worry?
Other reactions from our side will point at the value of this immense informative work, with the vast network of freely accessible Genealogy centers around the world, for the tens of thousands of non-Mormon genealogists who can profit from this unique endeavor. Our efforts, which the Church heavily finances, also guarantee the preservation of masses of documents that are vulnerable to decay, fire, floods. Others may point at the cooperation our Church has established with Catholic organizations like Caritas Catholica and the substantial help Mormons are giving to Catholics in humanitarian work. Is this the way to work together in mutual respect?
It is unclear what prompted the Vatican to give its order. Complaints from Catholics that some of their ancestors were being baptized “Mormon” on the basis of information belonging to the Catholic Church? A calculated offensive to force to some kind of negotiations? Or just some narrow-mindedness from one or the other Vatican official? We can of course easily answer with arguments why our work should not worry them. The fact is that it does bother some. If they view Mormonism as a dreadful sect, or if they feel the religious identity of their ancestors is being tampered with, I think we must try to understand their concerns if they are genuine. We should also concede that the free extraction program goes beyond temple work only for known ancestors of living Mormons. We have already restricted this for people in Jewish ancestry.
From a Catholic doctrinal point of view, the matter seems somewhat ironical. On June 5, 2001, the Vatican Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that baptism conferred by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not valid. Signed by the prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now the present pope. For the Catholic Church, a Mormon baptism is invalid, for the living or the dead. Why should they bother?
But for Mormons, the matter has deep value. Parish records, at some point the only traces to distant forebears, belong to humanity, to each of us, not only to a diocese.