PARIS (Reuters) - Pope Benedict was baptized at birth and will most likely be baptized again one year after his death, not by his Roman Catholic Church but by a Mormon he never met.
The Mormons, a U.S.-based denomination officially named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), encourage members to baptize the dead by proxy in the belief they are helping the deceased attain full access to heaven.
Church members are told to focus on their ancestors, a rite understandable in a relatively new denomination founded in 1830. But so many now perform the rituals for celebrities, heroes and perfect strangers that the practice has spun out of control.
Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Genghis Khan, Mao Zedong, King Herod, Al Capone and Mickey Mouse have all appeared for a short time in the International Genealogical Index for proxy baptisms, said Helen Radkey, a researcher specialized in the IGI.
"It seems that any kind of name at all may be submitted," said Radkey from Salt Lake City, where the Church is based. The IGI also accepts names for rites that "seal" spouses in eternal marriage or parents and children in eternal families.
This has outraged Jews and baffled Christians who see it as usurping the memory of their departed relatives. The Church says it cannot stem the tide of dead baptized in its own temples.
"The only way we could prevent it would be to undertake independent genealogical research on every name that came in, an utterly impossible task with the many tens of thousands of names that are submitted each year," Church spokeswoman Kim Farah said in an email responding to questions from Reuters.
So Benedict looks set to join his predecessor John Paul and a centuries-long list of popes Mormons have baptized -- despite the fact that he, back when he was the Vatican's top doctrinal authority, ruled that Mormon baptisms were not even Christian.
"There is no reason theologically why a former Pope or any other church leader shouldn't be offered the same opportunity given to the rest of mankind," Farah said.
JEWS, CATHOLICS, PROTESTANTS, MUSLIMS
The Catholics are not the only non-Mormons on the Church's International Genealogical Index (IGI), a list of those baptized or cleared for the rite in which a Mormon undergoes a full immersion baptism at a temple in the name of the dead person.
Jewish Holocaust victims, Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin and Mohammed ibn Abdel-Wahhab, founder of Saudi Arabia's stern version of Islam, have all popped up on the list.
A purged version of the IGI is on the Internet, at www.familysearch.org, a Web site run by the LDS church, but does not show which rites have been performed.
That data is reserved only for Mormons, who can consult it at one of the 3,400 Family History Centers worldwide where they go to enter names for these rites using special software. The rites are then performed at temples off-limits to non-Mormons.
Radkey, who has exposed non-Mormon entries on the IGI for over a decade, alerted U.S. Jewish groups last December that the famous Jewish Nazi-hinter Simon Wiesenthal had turned up on the IGI as a departed soul cleared for Mormon baptism.
Rabbi Marvin Heir, head of a Jewish human rights group in Los Angeles named after the deceased Austrian, called this "very offensive. Simon Wiesenthal dedicated his whole life to Jews. I don't think he needs help getting into heaven."
The Church pledged in 1995 not to list Holocaust victims and other Jews after many names were found on the IGI. It took Wiesenthal's name off its online list but critics like Radkey say internal lists still have large numbers of Jewish names.
POPES AND FICTIONAL WIVES
Pope John Paul II was baptized not once but four times in April 2006, in line with Mormon practice of waiting a year before starting these rites. He died on April 2, 2005.
His name was purged from the online IGI, so a normal search will not find them. But his four now-anonymous files are still in the database and three still show his parents' names.
Pope Pius XII was baptized three times and also "sealed" in eternal marriage to a fictional Mrs Eugenio Pacelli. Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of priests, was also "sealed" to a bogus wife. Catholic clergy do not marry.
Names are purged from the public IGI after being found and publicized. Pope John Paul I and Pope Paul VI were both baptized and were listed on the online IGI in December but removed after Reuters asked about them, Farah confirmed.
But earlier popes, going back at least to the Crusader Pope Urban II (1088-1099), are mostly still there. "They remove any names that could potentially cause criticism," Radkey said.
Father Thomas Weinandy, head of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, described proxy baptism as inappropriate.
"We don't know whether the person would want this or not," he told Reuters from Washington. "Catholics and other Christians feel they are already properly baptized. But it's harmless.
"As for the popes, I think most Catholics would find that somewhat inappropriate but also rather humorous. They're already in heaven! So it's redundant, even if it did work."
Mormons believe the early Christians strayed from the true faith and only the LDS Church returned to the right path. All those who lived before 1830 were thus unable to join the Church and have full access to all the glory of heaven.
To trace and baptize these people, it has built up the largest genealogical library in the world, the Family History Library at its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. This includes public lists of names collected around the world.
Clearly sensitive to questions about the practice, the LDS Church defends it as a central tenet of its faith. It argues the proxy baptism does no harm because the dead can reject it in the next life, a notion baffling to most Christians.
Farah said Mormons were "always deeply saddened to hear" that non-Mormons might be offended to find their ancestors' names had been harvested from public lists and baptized into a faith they did not follow during their lives.
Church rules say deceased who were born in the past 95 years should not be submitted for baptism without permission from their living relatives, but the IGI shows this is often ignored.
Farah said the LDS Church has tried to discourage abuse of the system. "We continue to look for ways to improve," she said.