Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

De-Baptism and the Records of the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 31, 2012

It’s a short story with big consequences: A French diocese appeals order to remove baptismal record. A similar case occurred in Spain regarding membership records kept by Opus Dei. There are four reasons for the Church to categorically refuse such demands.

1. History: The records we create of our own lives are ours to save or destroy. If I wish to burn my diary, I am entitled to do so. But how other individuals and organizations make note of their interaction with us is not ours to control. Such records may have personal significance (I can only guess at the number of diaries which, in a feminine hand, include my name embellished with hearts and flowers) or they may be necessary to the proper functioning of an organization (no, I’m sorry, cannot pretend that you never made a donation to our work).

All these things taken together are part of the historical record, and an accurate historical record is important for a great many reasons, both large and small, not the least of which is reverence for truth. To force others to alter what, in effect, are their personal and institutional memories to satisfy our own desire to adopt a different view of ourselves is not only unreasonable; it is a dishonest flight from reality.

2. Equity: The idea of a court attempting to force a person or organization to expunge legitimate operational records is ludicrous. Can we imagine the State being willing to do the same? “I demand that you expunge the record of my traffic violations from 1993 through 1996, I insist that the record of my service in the Vietnam War be eradicated, and my employment record with the White House in 1973 must be destroyed—oh, and my tax returns for 2007 as well.” Yeah, right.

We correctly recognize the right of the State to maintain records of its interactions with individual persons—in fact, if we have any sense at all, we demand it. But why should the State be unique in this regard? What qualifies the State to decide that it may keep records but other organizations may not? By what right does a court insist that the volunteer fire department, the Lions Club or a local school rewrite its own history at the behest of some person who no longer believes in education, social service or fire? In making such demands, the State arrogates a superior status to itself that, in this respect, it simply does not have.

3. Authority: That the State should attempt to exercise control over ecclesiastical records is especially objectionable. Even if one argued that the State ought to exercise a protective control over the voluntarily-created records of its citizens with other organizations, the Church is not just another organization. With respect to her own purposes, the Church is not subordinate to the public civil order.

Civil government is not the only entity which exercises legitimate authority over human affairs. The Catholic Church also enjoys a legitimate authority over the matters which are proper to herself, namely spiritual and moral matters, and membership in the Mystical Body of Christ. Her authority in her own sphere is at least equal to that of the public authority in temporal affairs. It is difficult to find an apt analogy, but for the State to claim to tell the Church that she must destroy sacramental records is akin to a wife telling a husband, on the occasion of a divorce, that he must destroy all his records of their children—as if it is possible to pretend that these children are no longer his.

4. And the Impossibility of De-Baptism: Finally, just as rewriting history does not change the reality of what occurred, neither does the destruction of a baptismal record undo a baptism. Some people, in a new-found hatred of the Church, might like to think that it does. The modern secular State, in exalting its own totalitarian power, might wish to assist in propagating such a myth. But spiritual reality is the province of neither the individual nor the State, and it certainly does not depend on the existence of records.

Only the Church can bind and loose in heaven what she does on earth. Her records are important as notations of the realities she herself creates or destroys. But they are notations only. They are not the realities themselves. What the State binds and looses has no ultimate reality, and does not last beyond this present life. The Church alone polices eternity. In the last analysis, that is why the State has no authority over the acts—or the records—of the Catholic Church.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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