By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The Catholic Church has described as "bizarre" the extensive microfilming of Irish census details and other civil records by the Mormons with a view to posthumously baptizing some of them into the Utah-based church.
The Mormons, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, teaches that its millions of members have a religious responsibility to trace their ancestors and allow them to hear the message of salvation by being baptized by proxy — albeit decades or centuries after they have died.
The church now has a massive genealogical database protected in a granite vault in the Wasatch Mountains just outside Salt Lake City, where it has its headquarters. It contains the names of over two billion dead people gathered from around the world.
The Mormons have committed huge resources to the project and have been researching and preserving genealogy for over a century, as it is a crucial tenet of their faith that family relationships last beyond the grave.
Annual reports, issued by the National Archives Office last week for 1997-98, showed the Mormons have been working with two cameras in its Bishop Street headquarters in Dublin microfilming the 1911 census returns.
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During the two years, the Mormons microfilmed the 1911 census for Counties Cork, Donegal, Down, Dublin, Fermanagh, Waterford, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow and they are now nearly finished the whole country, according to the Archive director, Dr. David Craig.
Microfilming the 1901 census had previously been completed and, under the terms of a deal with the Mormon’s Genealogical Society of Utah, the archive is supplied with one copy of every microfilm free of charge.
Craig said the advantage to the archive was huge and he has no ethical concerns about providing access to the American church.
"Most of our microfilming of our holdings has been done by the Mormons," he said. "They do it free and their arrangements for preserving them are probably the best in the world.
"We have responsibility for Church of Ireland records, but we wouldn’t permit the Mormons to film them or any other ecclesiastical records unless the church in question had agreed. The Mormons have done a lot of microfilming of Church of England parish registers.
"I can see why people might have reservations about it, but either you believe the doctrine or you don’t. If you don’t believe in it, how can you regard as anything other than someone wasting their time? If you don’t believe in it, then you must regard as a baptism that serves no purpose."
Not all the names gathered by the Mormons are automatically baptized or "sealed" immediately. The dead converts initially are ancestors or more obscure relatives who are traced by current members of the faithful as their relatives.
Raymond Fagan, the Mormon’s Dublin Stake president, said the religion has no intention of being offensive to anyone by gathering details for converting the dead.
"The records are public and available for anyone," he said. "I understand that some people might find it objectionable, but we regard it as affording people the great opportunity of availing of it."
Asked if it was acceptable to baptize people who had died as members of other faiths and now had no free will in the matter, Fagan said: "Of course the dead have free will. Death is not the end. People pass on into the spirit world and, if there is a world to come, people do have free choice.
"If there is something that needs to be done in this life and people who have passed on can’t do it for themselves, we do it for them. They can choose to avail of it or not. If we didn’t do it, they wouldn’t have the choice.
"We go to great lengths to establish if it is an ancestor. If it is someone who is not related to us or we don’t have great detail on, normally we would wait until over 100 years from when they passed on."
He said the genealogical data was available for anyone to avail of free of charge via the Internet at www.familysearch.org or at their family history centers in Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Limerick. Some of the 400 million names on the website date back to 1500.
A Catholic Church spokesman described the afterlife baptisms as "bizarre" and said they would not regard them as having any legitimacy.
"This is the first I heard of this," the spokesman said. "In the mainstream Christian tradition, baptism is a sacrament of initiation for the living that is only administered once. The notion of baptizing dead people would get no recognition whatsoever from the Catholic church or other Christian churches."
"While I respect their beliefs, our attitude would be that you make your choice when you are alive and when you are dead, you live on in a completely different sense. Baptism after you are dead would have no effect whatsoever as far as we are concerned."
Microfilming of Catholic church parish baptismal records held by the National Library are currently being updated, but director Mr. Brendan O’Donoghue said it is doing the work itself.