It has taken me six months to cool down sufficiently to do this post. And I almost lost it again when I saw the remarks of Bishop Dermot Clifford of Cashel and Emly in last Monday's Irish Times (18/8/08).
The gist of the story is that certain Roman Catholic Bishops in Ireland have been systematically denying people direct access to parish records of baptisms and marriages despite these records being included in the microfilm collection in the National Library of Ireland.
To be fair, most Bishops have given direct access to their original records, both through the National Library and in parish offices. This allows direct consultation of the records even where they have not been filmed. Most parish offices are very cooperative in this regard.
There are, however, three bishops listed as limiting access to the filmed originals in the National Library and Clifford was the most obdurate of these. To get access it was necessary to get clearance from the relevant palace. Clifford's palace informed callers that the bishop never gave permission for direct access and that it was always necessary to approach them through the diocesan heritage office.
This office operates on computerised versions of the originals and charges a whack for what is in effect pushing a button.
I do not object to people providing a service and charging for it. It is a very useful facility for those who are not in a position to consult the originals or who are happy to have the records pre-sorted for them. My objection is to the bishop denying parallel access to the original records. As every researcher knows, there are always transcription errors in populating databases. So there is no substitute for consulting the original. Also new lines of search can suggest themselves from details spotted on the originals (eg sponsors, locations, name variations etc.).
We are told that these records are not public records and that the information in them has been entrusted to the church by the subjects concerned.
Am I hallucinating when I seem to recall clergy reading people off the altar for inadequate contributions to various collections.
No question of confidentiality there when it came to screwing money out of the faithful.
And these same people would already have been charged a whack by the church for access to the sacraments, the records of which are now yielding a further flow of income in perpetuity. I'm not sure whether this would best be described as a cash cow or a golden goose. A golden calf more likely.
I am also old enough to remember the original introduction of "planned giving" in the Dublin diocese when the church attempted to have its cake and eat it by "pawning" church furniture, from the high altar to the cruets, to top up its coffers.
It is interesting that the bishop has quoted the judgement of Diarmaid against St. Colmcille in the case of the copying of the bible. Some of St. Colmcille's arguments are extremely relevant today and in reading up the case I was struck by the extent of the uisce faoi thalamh involved. Nothing, it appears, is as it seems.
The National Library has now opened access to these filmed originals in the face of objections from the bishops concerned. It has taken a stand which is in the interest of the people of Ireland and against the mean money grubbing stance of a small minority of the RC hierarchy.
These registers are clearly quasi-public records. This emerges quite clearly if they are set in the context of their day and of the dominant position of the church over its flock.
Indeed, the roles of church and state were so entwined that the church insisted that its marriage ceremony served also as a civil one and the parish simply notified the state that the marriage had taken place. No only that, but the reading or posting of the banns in church was accepted by the state authorities in place of the usual notices in the national press required in the case of purely "registry office" marriages.
And as far as letters of freedom were concerned, these simply proved you had not already been married in a church and that a church wedding could take place. However, I'll bet many of these ceremonies were notified as civil marriages without regard to whether any civil ceremony had already taken place.
Until fairly recently, church marriage certificates were accepted as evidence of civil married status by the authorities (eg for state or occupational pension schemes).
Some priests carried this symbiosis to the point of "near-perjury". I know of a case (in 1950) where a couple got married in a Protestant church. The vicar duly notified the civil authorities and the marriage was registered by the state. Six months later, and probably due to ecclesiastical and/or family pressure, the couple married again, this time in a Catholic church. The priest duly notified the state which recorded the new marriage. In the second case, the bride and groom are described as spinster and bachelor respectively, which, respectfully, they were not, at least in the eyes of the state.
So this church (sorry, a few members of its hierarchy, in this particular case) is claiming to be a private institution, and this in relation to periods when they were anything but. (We can save the discussion on education and property and salaries for another day, or go check out Bock below.)
While I'm at it, the originals of some of the parish registers around the country are so badly kept that, had they been acknowledged as public records, those who kept them should have stood trial for malicious damage to public property. Some of the ledger pages look like the parish priest had regularly eaten his lunch off them.
I don't know the content of the legal advice that has given the National Library the confidence to do what they have done. All I can say is I hope they hold their nerve and, if the church wants to go to court, may they get the judgement of Colmcille over that of the pagan MacDe.
I was going to title this post "God Bless the National Library", and would have meant it, but I couldn't resist the temptation of the insult I eventually settled on.
If you still have steam coming out your ears you might enjoy some further ruminations at Brother Bock's Asylum for Refugees from the Pulpit.
I really can't decide whether to laugh, or cry, or just keep banging my head off the nearest stone wall.
It has been drawn to my attention that the Bishops' latest excuse for whatever restrictions they are putting on access to parish records is to avoid the posthumous conversion of the dead to Mormonism.
The Vatican has apparently put the Bishops on notice that their deceased flock are not to be hijacked in this manner and the only way to avoid this is to make sure that parish records (from whatever era) do no fall into the hands of these evil evangelising Mormons.
What a load of theological crap and self serving rubbish.
My initial reaction to this Bishop's defence (as my chess friends might describe it) was that any bishop that believed this heretical rubbish should be immediately sacked by the Vatican. Imagine my horror to find that it was actually the Vatican itself that was circulating this nonsense.
If the Roman Catholic Church believes, which it appears to, that the Mormons can posthumously hijack its flock in this way, it should just fold up its tent and go home. This is ceding theological supremacy to the Mormons, in whose church there should not, strictly speaking, be even salvation.
How low will the RC church stoop to protect its income stream?
That we could bring back Jesus Christ himself and eject these traders from the Temple.
This article in the Irish Times of 28/8/08 sets out the background. I agree wholeheartedly with every word written by its author, as you will have gathered by this stage.
[Note: This piece was written in 2008 and it is now 2013, at least. Some of the links no longer work due to the unprofessional revamping of the websites at which they were directed, or in the case of newspapers, going behind a paywall as well. Apologies - not my fault.]