Catholic-Mormon tension over LDS baptism of the dead
The issue of Mormon proxy baptisms has resurfaced with the news that the Vatican has written to Catholic dioceses around the world telling them not to provide parish records to the Genealogical Society of Utah. As the Catholic News Service reported last week, the letter calls proxy baptism using these records “detrimental” and says the Vatican did not want Catholic parishes “to cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. Mormons use genealogical data to find names of people to baptise posthumously, a practice the Roman Catholic Church rejects on theological grounds.
The LDS Church has not yet replied, but the comments section of the Church-owned Deseret News has erupted with hundreds of entries. Many are from Mormons who cannot understand why anyone would object to their baptism of the dead. Several criticise the Vatican for withholding the data, arguing it actually belongs to the general public. Other blogs have also been commenting for (mostly Mormon — see here, here, here, here, here) and against (mostly Catholic — see here, here, here, here, here). There are also critical comments from Mormons and ex-Mormons (see here, here, here).
Most of this commentary misses the point. There is no way either side is going to agree on proxy baptisms; different religions exist precisely because they disagree on fundamental issues. It is also futile to argue about religious freedom, because obviously both Churches have the right to practise their faith. The idea that one religion’s teachings give it a right to another religion’s data is also a non-starter.
The real issue is not theology, but privacy. The Vatican does not recognise Mormon baptisms anyway, so it has long ignored the proxy baptism issue. However thanks to the Internet, large numbers of names of saints, popes and average Catholics have been published in recent years on Mormon baptism lists that are available for all to see. Pontiffs have even been “sealed” in eternal Mormon marriage to fictitious wives despite the celibacy rule for Catholic clergy. Is publishing names for posthumous baptism on the Internet (in its International Genealogical Index – IGI) an invasion of privacy, especially when done without the permission of the living families of the people concerned?
This is not just an issue for Catholics, Jews asked similar questions in the 1990s, after finding Holocaust victims on the IGI. After strong Jewish protests, the Church agreed in 1995 to stop proxy baptising them, a step that seemed to indicate some recognition of a problem. However, names of Jews have continued to appear over the years, including that of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in 2006. According to Helen Radkey, a researcher who specialises on the IGI, “In 2008, the Church is still posthumously baptising Jewish Holocaust victims, against the terms of the agreement it signed with Jewish groups on May 3, 1995.”
We have tried asking about the privacy issue in the past but got no answer. The spokespeople at the LDS Church in Salt Lake City were invariably polite, helpfully provided detailed information about Mormon beliefs and said Mormons were “deeply saddened” to learn that some non-Mormons were offended by seeing co-religionists or deceased family members on the IGI. However, they did not address the key question about publishing this. When asked why they did not at least monitor the list, which includes many noted and notorious names, they said too many Mormons submitted too many names every year for proxy baptism for the Church to vet them all. Mormons were supposed to ask living family members before baptising anyone born in the past 95 years, but the records show this is often ignored.
The question here is not about the rights or wrongs of proxy baptism. That is an internal Mormon issue and, since they are performed secretly in temples that non-Mormons cannot enter, it can stay an internal Mormon issue. When the names of those proposed for baptism are published on the Internet for all to see (even if lists with all details of the baptisms are kept in genealogy centres only open to Mormons), is this still an internal affair or does it enter the public sphere?And if it does, what should the LDS Church do to respond to other faiths offended by this? The usual answers — that this is an important Morman practice, a gift to the dead, one that they can decline — have not convinced Jews or Catholics.
While trying to come up with a counter-example to illustrate this problem, I came across a post by Sharon Lindbloom on the Mormon Coffee blog (whose name alone shows it is not orthodox Mormon). She asked what the LDS Church would think if “a powerful and influential group” created a public database of prominent Mormons and “attached to each name is a letter of resignation from LDS Church membership, sent by proxy to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.” She concluded: “I suspect Latter-day Saints would be very upset over Mormon pioneer proxy resignations from the LDS Church. They may even believe it to be an injustice to the memories of their loved-ones…”