Sacramental records

Question: Do I have access to Catholic parish vital records, such as births, marriages and deaths? Recently, the Vatican banned Mormons from using such information. As an amateur genealogical enthusiast, I wonder if this extends to non-Mormons. Or may I continue to learn more about my Catholic forefathers in the United States, Canada and France through parish records?

— Ben Nicks, Shawnee, Kan. 

Answer: The matter of access to Catholic sacramental records is somewhat unclear. I consulted both a professional genealogist (who is Catholic) and the vice chancellor of my own diocese about your question, and they both pointed out that the sacramental records of the Church are private records. Thus they belong to the local bishop, and the question of who may have access to them is up to him. 

However, the matter of access varies from country to country. In some countries, Church and state were historically intertwined, and it fell to the Church to maintain records that were regarded as belonging to all. In some countries the sacramental records are kept in public state archives. 

There seems to be a spectrum of practice regarding access to sacramental records. On the one end is caution about access. This was the position promoted by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy in May 2008, when it instructed Catholic bishops around the world not to allow Mormons access to baptismal records, because Mormons often use these records for the purpose of “baptism for the dead” — that is, baptizing all those on whom records are available into the Mormon church. 

At the other end of the spectrum, open access to the sacramental records is allowed to any individual who requests access to them or to professional genealogical societies, who microfilm these records and make them public. The Genealogical Society of Utah, associated with the Mormon church, has microfilmed millions of baptismal records from numerous countries throughout the world (including the United States) and makes the data available to the public through the Internet. They have the most extensive collection of sacramental records in the world. 

I do not know where the matter will in practice go in the future. We live in a technologically sophisticated world in which there is unprecedented interest in record keeping. Sooner or later, all Catholic sacramental records will need to be microfilmed if they are to be preserved. Keeping them private or segregated will be difficult, and, eventually, genealogical societies and agencies will end up sharing information. 

Favorite author 

Question: Do you have a favorite Catholic author, and what books would you recommend by him? 

— Name and address withheld 

Answer: I have many favorite authors. However, English Cardinal John Henry Newman is probably at the top of the list. If I were sent to a deserted island with one book (besides the Bible), it would be his “Parochial and Plain Sermons” (Ignatius Press, $59.95). Given while Newman was still an Anglican, this collection is probably the best representation of his theology and spirituality, but the sermons often demand careful reading. A more accessible volume is by A.N. Wilson’s “John Henry Newman: Prayers, Poems and Meditations” (SPCK Publishing, $19.95). 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.