ASK FATHER: Parish records and confidentiality

From a reader…


Is there any church law which prevents sacramental records from being made public? I have seen church records used for online family trees that show living family members illegitimacy.

Interesting question.

The law says that parishes must keep sacramental records, for obvious reasons. They must be kept up to date, with accurate information. The law says that they are to be carefully preserved (can. 535§1). I think that in that “carefully preserved” we should include “confidential”. Most dioceses now have policies, particular law even, about allowing outside parties to view sacramental registers, especially Mormons, etc., doing genealogical research. Mormons want to “baptize” your ancestors, etc. Hey! They get planets! But we don’t cooperate with those things.

Look, I know the Latin/Italian scene.   This applies to the older records in US parishes, too.

Parish records used to have indications of, say, whether a person received the Last Sacraments. They might include, back in the say, that a child who was baptized was actually left at the convent door and was therefore named “Esposito… es-POS-ee-tow”, that is, “exposed”. There might be an indication in short hand about “unknown mother… Mater Ignota” which came into Italian as “mignotta”, now a derogatory word for a woman assumed to be of loose morals. Other words could be added to records for abandoned (or, mercifully left in the care of others rather than killed, etc.). These words became last names of families passed down. For example, there are the Italian names of “Trovato… found”, “degli’Innocenti or Innocenti… innocents”, even “Amato… beloved” is a euphemism that became a common family name. So, “De Santis… from the saints” or “De Angelis… from the angels”, “Adeodato… given by God”. So too, if you find a really odd name, such as “Tulipano… tulip”, that might be a made up name.

While some might not like the idea, at the core, someone chose life, not death.

Anyone with such a name should pray for the soul of the, probably, woman who set the family name in motion in that city or village long ago.

Sacramental registers had all sorts of information in them that people might not want to be known.

I suppose today any number of parish records might show a lot of technical “pater ignotus” records.  But back in the day, and in some circles, that means a great deal.

Of course, these days, if records are kept digitally, they should be protected.  For my part, I would have a machine that was NOT connected to the internet in any way.  Furthermore, it would be important never to destroy physical registers that had been digitalized: they could be preserved, perhaps in the diocesan chancery archive, as in the case of parishes that are closed.

Sacramental records concern sacred matters.  They aren’t public, as when you apply for a marriage license (yes, marriage is a PUBLIC matter, which is why issues of scandal come in when those applying apply with the same address or members of the same sex do their scandalous thing) from the state or a building permit to add that new man cave or storage shed for the gear.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. majuscule says:

    The parish records up to around 1910 are available online for the very Catholic area where one set of my great grandparents are from. The government of the place has made them available at no charge. I’ve learned to read the foreign language and the handwriting well enough to help with indexing the documents to make searching easier for genealogists. Indexing is basically taking the names and dates and image number on the website and putting them in a searchable database.

    I was indexing the deaths in the village of my great grandmother for The 1870s. The cause of death was rarely stated. But I t it was usually noted if they had received last rites and most of them had. One of the priests had beautiful clear handwriting. As I worked I thanked this man and had the feeling he must have been an excellent priest.

    Imagine my sadness when I came across the record of his death. He had been baptizing and marrying and anointing people up until a few days before he died and his handwriting had remained strong. ?He was 73 years old and had been born in a nearby village.

    I have had several Masses said for him at my church. Genealogists can be thankful that the church has been so careful with the church records.

  2. adriennep says:

    I don’t know about my local parish or diocese policies, but if it were not for Catholic records here and especially in Europe and England, there would be no genealogy records for us to do. It is the Catholic Church that has kept the thread of our lives (long before the “public” governmental bodies had any concern for your information). Yet — keeping parish records confidential in general seems to be part of the concern and care we have to take about abuse reporting. I am not too confident about any general parish’s ability to keep these databases clean and up-to-date.

    I certainly am painfully aware of what happens when doing online genealogy research last month, when I found that one of my Mormon paternal relatives had “baptized” my deceased mother and “sealed to spouse” my two maternal grandparents back in 1993. No one told me–I had to find this out on Ancestry after finding DNA matches. So you can never be too careful.

  3. Geoffrey says:

    I have made great use of parish sacrament records, including those kept by the Mormons, in tracing my family history. I have come across a few “pai incognito” (Portuguese for “father unknown”), which is almost always a certain dead end in genealogy.

  4. The Egyptian says:

    Had to laugh, my mother and her dear friend a local historian/ genealogist were doing a parish history on our little country parish, there was an old safe that no one had opened in years, the combination long lost. Current Priest got an expert to open it, all the records were in German. Moms friend read German, she started to read and she laughed, ” oh that explains him. and her red hair. oh my oh my.” Father took the book and said, “lets just send this to the diocese archives and let sleeping dogs lye shall we”
    According to moms friend, there were way too many family secrets and scandals in those baptismal and marriage records and would never elaborate

  5. Bthompson says:

    It reminds me of the old joke about the secretary discreetely coming to the pastor and saying, “Father, I don’t want to cause a scandal or anything, but I think you need to do something about this Peter Ignatius fellow. He’s got a lot of kids, by several different women.”

    Father looked at the Baptism book and replied, “That’s Pater Ignotus.”

  6. Charivari Rob says:

    Those sacraments which should be confidential are already ones about which records are not kept (confession) or instances of the others which for some grave reason require temporary secrecy therefore a sealed record. I believe Father Z has written in the past about one or two examples.

    Other than that… While personal details are (should be) largely private, being a disciple is not.

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