In a letter dated April 5th, and reported by the Catholic News Service on May 2nd, the Vatican issued an order to all Catholic dioceses throughout the world to not give genealogical information in parish registers to Latter-day Saints in an effort to “block posthumous rebaptisms” of LDS ancestors. The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had “grave reservations” about this LDS practice (no pun intended I’m sure), and labelled it “detrimental” and “erroneous.” Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, added that it was “unacceptable”:
As Catholics, we have to make very clear to them their practice of so-called rebaptism is unacceptable from the standpoint of Catholic truth.
Catholic World News reports that the Catholic church objects to this practice, again termed “rebaptism,” for two reasons:
- “because baptism is permanent, and cannot be repeated”
- “because the ‘baptism’ practiced by Mormons is invalid, since the faithful are not baptized ‘in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.'”
The reasons given from the CWN seem odd when the two denominations’ belief of baptism is understood. Mormons do not believe that baptism for the dead is a “rebaptism,” but a first baptism. Anyone who has been baptized by the authority of the priesthood within the LDS Church, whether alive or dead, has received their baptism and has no need to be rebaptized. Those who haven’t received this ordinance by the correct authority, whether living or dead, must have the opportunity to receive it. Any baptism by invalid authority makes the ordinance invalid. The Catholic position is the same in this regard towards the LDS. In 2001 the Vatican issued a ruling that a Mormon baptism is not a valid Christian baptism, thus requiring converts from Mormonism to Catholicism to receive a Catholic baptism. They would argue that the Catholic baptism of a Mormon convert is not a rebaptism, but a first valid Christian baptism. So on this point we both hold the same view; neither of us regard any of our own baptisms as “rebaptisms,” per se, but first valid baptisms. We both believe that valid baptisms are permanent, and don’t need to be repeated. So on this we agree.
On the second point, someone is simply not informed on the method of LDS baptisms:
Baptism is to be administered in the following manner unto all those who repent—
The person who is called of God and has authority from Jesus Christ to baptize, shall go down into the water with the person who has presented himself or herself for baptism, and shall say, calling him or her by name: Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Then shall he immerse him or her in the water, and come forth again out of the water. (D&C 20:72–74)
Since the reasons given by the CWN just don’t make much sense, we must return to the quotations of the letter from the Vatican which labelled the practice “detrimental,” “erroneous,” and by Father Massa, “unacceptable.” Not only did the Vatican label the practice a false practice, but took executive action to “ensure that such a detrimental practice is not permitted in [each dioceses’] territory,” and so as “not to cooperate with” the LDS Church.
It is interesting that the Catholic Church chose now to issue such a decree, given the fact that the LDS Church has been practicing baptism for the dead for well over a century and a half. Do they really believe that they can stop the LDS practice of baptism for the dead by issuing such an instruction? And what about other genealogists who are not LDS or Catholic? Will they be allowed information about their kindred dead from the Catholic Church, despite other profound theological differences they may have? Why single out the LDS Church now? In the same report from the CNS, Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald, vicar general of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, thought the instruction was strange also, considering existing policy:
We have a policy not to give out baptismal records to anyone unless they are entitled to have them. That isn’t just for the Church of the Latter-day Saints. That is for all groups.
Something seems to have stirred Catholic officials regarding LDS doctrine and practice and prompted them to issue this direction. The point seems to be a disagreement about correct Christian doctrine, but I’m unsure as to the Catholic position on why they belief our practice is incorrect. The precept of the absolute necessity of baptism is the same for both churches, the difference being that the LDS extend that necessity to the unbaptized dead who never had the opportunity during their mortal life. Father Massa has offered, “Profound theological differences are not an excuse for avoiding dialogue, but a reason for pursuing dialogue.” If that is the case, then let us pursue dialogue on the subject rather than issuing injunctions of noncooperation based on ignorance.
The question must be asked, if the Catholic Church considers a Mormon baptism invalid to start with, then how could the practice of baptism for the dead, which is done in the privacy of LDS temples, be detrimental? If they really believe the practice is invalid, wouldn’t it follow that they believe it to be a worthless exercise, null and void, empty, and ineffective for all parties involved? So who is it detrimental to? What harm do they perceive it is doing? Do they believe that the practice is not only invalid, but deleterious, how and why? I have to wonder if this is a case of sour grapes, for Catholics also believe in vicarious offerings for the dead:
The faithful on earth, through the communion of saints, can relieve the suffering of the souls in purgatory by prayer, fasting, and other good works, by indulgences, and by having Masses offered for them.1
In reference to the LDS practice of baptism for the dead, the late Krister Stendahl, a prominent Lutheran and scholar, said:
In a world where we finally have learned what I call the “holy envy”, it’s a beautiful thing; I could think of myself as taking part in such an act, extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That’s generous, that’s beautiful, and should not be ridiculed or spoken badly of.2
Is the practice of baptism for the dead “detrimental,” “erroneous,” “unacceptable,” “invalid,” and therefore un-Christian, as the Catholic Church seems to believe? Examination of early Christian history seems to show otherwise, beginning with Paul’s reference to the practice in the New Testament, citing baptism for the dead in support of the reality of the resurrection of the dead:
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? (1 Cor. 15:29)
The consensus of the latest scholarly exegeses on this particular scripture agree that Paul was holding up this practice of a group of Corinthians as an example of those who had a firm belief in a universal resurrection. It was on account of their faith in the resurrection of all the dead that they practiced vicarious baptism of dead for persons who were not baptized during life. Most scholars cannot find in Paul’s words any hint of disapproval or disdain for the practice. If it were a pagan or heretical practice, as some critics contend, Paul would not have used it as an example of exemplary faith, but would have condemned it. Clearly there was a group of believing Christians in Corinth that were practicing baptism for the dead, and an apostle praised their faith in Christ because of it.
(Continued in Part 2)Notes:
- Qtd. in Peterson and Ricks, “Baptism for the Dead, Secrecy,” Offenders for a Word. [↩]
- Between Heaven and Earth, DVD, 2002, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [↩]