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. ((Qtd. in Peterson and Ricks, “Baptism for the Dead, Secrecy,” Offenders for a Word.))
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. ((Between Heaven and Earth, DVD, 2002, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.))
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)
According to the Catholic church, baptism with an acceptable form and the right intent does not have be administered by a Catholic to be valid. Part of the explanation of their opinion that LDS baptism is invalid is that the reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in our baptism does not mean what it superficially seems to mean, because our understanding of the trinity is too different. They also consider that our intent in performing baptism is wrong because we we don’t think of baptism as including the remission of original sin, we don’t think that baptism was first instituted when Christ lived on the earth, and we don’t think that baptism is always permanent. Instead, we think that former members of the LDS church need to be rebaptized.
Interesting link. It’s insightful to see to what extent the apostasy has had an influence. According to this article, a Catholic baptism is valid:
1. Regardless of the personal sanctity of the officiator, even if a heretic (the definition of which loses its meaning in this treatment)
2. Regardless of their belonging to the Catholic Church or not
These two points alone abolish the need for an authorized priesthood whatsoever, for practically anyone is allowed to baptize. It also abolishes any sort of righteousness on the part of the priesthood holder in order to officiate in such sacred ordinances, ordinances in which the officiator is said to be Christ himself. There is a reason that Christ, and many others, sought out John, specifically, to be baptized. It was because of John’s priesthood and his personal purity, not just good intentions or a right frame of mind.
Again, the issue of the nature of God comes up. This phrase is misinformed:
Any Mormon that I know would say that diety consists of three persons which make up one Godhead, so I’m not sure where these received their interpretations. And yes, these “three persons” are all gods. What else would they be? For they form the Godhead.
While this treatise on the invalidity of the LDS baptism could be analyzed at length for its numerous errors, disagreement with early Christian history and practice, and misunderstanding of LDS theology, the subject of this post is on the rite of baptism for the dead. Not only does the Catholic Church believe LDS baptisms are invalid, but are taking an active role in promoting the prevention of such baptisms. Seems like a far cry from “dialogue and good will,” where “there can be progress in reciprocal understanding and mutual respect.” Somehow this LDS rite goes beyond being heretical to Catholic officials, it becomes downright injurious, something to be “blocked,” and “prevented” at all costs. It would be interesting to know why they believe the vicarious offering of baptism for the dead is so harmful.
Is the concern for the welfare of dead Catholics or living ones who may be exposed to Biblical doctrine not currently practiced in the Catholic church? To whom is the practice “detrimental”?
Maybe they think our baptisms for the dead may have some kind of effect beyond the grave for some of their Catholic dead. A holy war for souls beyond the veil.
For some reason I don’t believe that they think the baptisms are affecting those on the other side, unless it is a true case of sour grapes and cognitive dissonance. I think they think the rite is detrimental to people living today, although how and why, I’m not sure.
Having corresponded with a few Catholics (of the priestly persuasion) on this subject, I think that I better understand their position on this:
1. This injunction will basically only apply to the wholesale copying/microfiche-making of parish records in bulk. Bishop Wester of SLC has already explained that relatives researching their own ancestors will still be allowed access to/copies of pertinent records.
2. To allow the copying of parish records in a broad way (when the parish is aware these records will be used in proxy temple ordinances) would constitute (in the Catholic view) material participation in what they believe a false rite. This, when done with understanding, constitutes a mortal sin.
3. The records are quite simply the property of the Catholic Church and are theirs to do with as they please, in spite of the many indignant and accusatory comments that are floating around online (present company excluded, thankfully).
I have read many LDS responses on this issue and there have not been many that added to the level of understanding on this issue. In fact, I feel more confident in my suspicion that we Mormons are less than experienced at being ecumenical. After all, if we’re right, we’re right; so it’s my way or the highway baby. (This is at a grassroots level; the Church representatives from HQ do a much better job at this.)
I actually think that this move may yield positive results. The Church, as far as I am aware, has generally counseled that genealogical research ought to deal with one’s own ancestors. I think that this will prevent overzealous, well-meaning souls from doing things like sealing Pope Pius XII to “Mrs. Pope Pius XII” (which has actually happened). Due to the sheer volume of names, it is a difficult system to police, so this new Catholic ruling, while inconvenient, may very well help keep our own members anxiously engaged in the right directions.
Thank you Latter-day Guy for the clarifications. I hope what you say is true. This would certainly ameliorate my view of their action. We don’t open up our church records for whole-sale copying either. But I would hope that if I was researching my own ancestors that I might find out who they are, regardless of my intent. I definitely agree that members of the Church should be doing genealogical research on their own family lines and not looking up information on celebrities, role models, popes, presidents, etc. That is not the purpose of the temple work in the first place. It is to seal our own families together.
Great post, Latter-day Guy. I understand the accessory-to-a-sin feeling. We would probably feel the same way under different circumstances.
A Jewish friend told me that she didn’t want her deceased family to be considered Mormon because we performed a temple baptism. From my perspective, I want to say, “If you believe there is no authority on the LDS church, then this should be a non-issue for you; only a waste of time and water for Mormons.” That is looking at the issue from my perspective in which only a priesthood called as Aaron may act for God, and everything else is without effect. Where others don’t have that same view of God’s order (or is it Order?) of priesthood, a rite that they consider erronous may still be troubling. For example, I find it interesting that the Catholic church recognizes baptisms performed in other Christian churches–with exceptions.
The feeling of kinship and family ties that draws some to withold records from practices they feel are apostate does shed an interesting light on the value of family ties. What did Malichi say about Elijah?
The tact I use when discussing it is that it DOES NOT make them Mormon in and of itself. All it ever does is provide the dead the chance to accept the baptism for themselves. If in their current state they decide not to accept it, then for all intents and purposes, no baptism was performed, except in the ledgers of the church acknowledging that it doesn’t need to be done again for that person.
As wrong as I feel they are in doing so, I agree that it is their records to do with as they please. If a person doesn’t get baptized by proxy b/c of the withholding of records…they won’t be denied blessings. That’s beyond our control.
why do you say that “valid baptisms are permanent”, in reference to LDS baptism, when the LDS Church practices rebaptism, usually for those that are excommunicated?
Because for those that are excommunicated, it is as if they were never baptized. If they join the LDS Church again, they must be baptized again, as a first baptism, not as a rebaptism.
Thank you for the quick response. I guess I just don’t see how this statement: “We both believe that valid baptisms are permanent, and don’t need to be repeated. So on this we agree.” agrees with “Because for those that are excommunicated, it is as if they were never baptized.”. For Catholics, valid baptism is permanent in that no matter what one does, including excommunication, they still have the valid baptism, as it is not erased (baptism causes a real, permanent change in the soul). So I’m just a little confused as to how a LDS baptism is considered permanent, if it can be erased (as in, excommunication causes the person to be as “if they were never baptized”.
We have different views about baptism and excommunication which I think causes the confusion. We believe that baptism is a requirement to enter into the celestial kingdom of God. It is a required ordinance of the gospel. It is also a gift that comes because of the grace of Christ. But we also believe that one can forfeit the right to that gift by certain transgressions. We don’t believe that once a person is baptized, that they are permanently guaranteed a place in the celestial kingdom. We believe that the blessings of eternity will be granted through our enduring faithfulness, life-long repentance, and obedience to the commandments, not through one-time acts or conversions. Baptism is the gate which starts us on the path to eternal life, but one can exit the gate as voluntarily as they entered. When a member commits very grievous sins, they can be excommunicated from the LDS Church, which also forfeits their place in the kingdom of God, unless they repent of their sins and return to the fold. If they do repent, they are baptized afresh, they enter the gate, and their journey begins once more. Thus we don’t believe in a “rebaptism” per se, but a first baptism, a baptism which enters them into the straight and narrow way which leads to eternal life.
Thank you again for explaining your beliefs. I guess it does stem from our differing views on baptism and excommunication. I think that for me, the LDS view on the “permanence” of baptism is more of a conditional permanence, where the effects of the baptism are permanent as long as one follows the LDS faith and commandments. The Catholic viewpoint is not that one is “permanently” given a “spot” in Heaven, but that the effects of baptism are permanent, and can never be taken away, no matter what one does, since that real change in the soul can never be undone. So, if one is excommunicated and would like to come back to full communion with the Catholic Church, they would repent, and make a profession of Faith, with no need to be baptized anew. This is related to the lay phrase “once a Catholic, always a Catholic”.
Thank you again for your views, and I’ll continue to read your very interesting website.
Thank you for explaining the Catholic view.
One detail that I didn’t mention is that we also believe that baptism is the method by which someone becomes a member of the LDS Church. When a member is excommunicated, they are no longer a member, and so to become a member again they must be baptized.
Thanks for your kind words.
I think it is interesting that the prophet’s response is to announce intentions to build a Temple in Rome. From what I see on the internet, that Temple is moving towards groundbreaking.