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The Edgardo Mortara Case

Pius IX's kidnapping and forced conversion of a Jewish child was no act of charity
Pope Pius IX, self-appointed “father” of Edgardo Mortara (Marzolino/Shutterstock)

I am, frankly, shocked to read an essay defending the Vatican’s 1858 kidnapping of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara from his parents — but here it is, in First Things, from the pen of Father Romanus Cessario, a Dominican priest and theologian.

The Edgardo Mortara case shocks the modern conscience. The Mortaras were a Jewish family living in Bologna, which was then a city of the Papal States. When the baby Edgardo fell ill, and was thought to be near death, the family’s Catholic housekeeper secretly baptized him. He recovered. Five years later, when the boy was six years old, the Church learned that Edgardo was a baptized Catholic … and sent a Dominican priest, the local inquisitor, to investigate. Result: carabinieri took the child from his mother and father’s home, and delivered him to the Church.

Edgardo Mortara was raised as a ward of Pope Pius IX. The civil law in the Papal States, as well as canon law, required Catholic children to be given a Catholic upbringing. Pius IX said that his hands were tied in the matter. Father Cessario writes:

The requirement that all legitimately baptized children receive a Catholic education was not arbitrary. Since baptism causes birth into new life in Christ, children require instruction about this form of new life. Furthermore, although the Italian Risorgimento had begun, the diplomatic world in 1858 still recognized Pius IX as both pope and prince in Bologna. While the pontiff displayed his human feelings by making Edgardo his ward, Pio Nono nonetheless felt duty-bound to uphold the civil law. This law was not unreasonable, moreover. Even today, the Code of Canon Law, can. 794 §1, assigns to the Church the task of educating Catholics.

As the Catechism puts it, “Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ.” This mark is invisible, and one thus may certainly understand why the Jewish community of the time interpreted Edgardo’s relocation as an act of unjust religious and political hegemony. Their nineteenth-century Gentile sympathizers, who took the Church’s action as an affront to religious liberty, deserve less sympathy. In fact, the Mortara case exacerbated anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, giving the dying Know-Nothing party a few more years of influence. And prejudiced manipulation of the Mortara case has not disappeared. Steven Spielberg is currently preparing a film adaptation of David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. In order to forestall wrong and unwarranted interpretations, which may include allusions to child abuse, Catholics and other people of good will must acquire a right understanding of baptism and its effects.

The argument is based on the teaching that baptism causes an irrevocable ontological change in the person who receives it. More:

Baptism opens the door to a new way of life. The Catechism calls it “the way of Christ.” A baptized Christian is called to set out on a supernatural life of faith, hope, and charity, or what the Catechism twice refers to as the “theological” life, which includes religious instruction and access to the means of grace, notably the Eucharist. As the Catechism says, “Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens . . . incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism.” These articles of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing that his parents could not. The Church offered to enroll Edgardo in a Catholic boarding school in Bologna, but his parents refused.

Prior to the arrival of the papal gendarme at his parents’ home, Edgardo Mortara was an anonymous Catholic. In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life. Edgardo received instruction about the gift baptism imparted to him.

Those lines are shocking. The Church “offered” to compel a Jewish child baptized without his consent or the consent or knowledge of his parents to receive a Catholic education against the will of his parents? Some offer. And God “kindly arranged” for this child to be taken from his Jewish parents and raised by the Church?

This is monstrous. They stole a child from his mother and father! And here, in the 21st century, a priest defends it, saying it was for the child’s own good. Fr. Cessario continues:

Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith? We should be grateful if that question does not become pressing, but we cannot assume it will not. Christians who are tempted to side with the enlightened critics of Pio Nono should examine how much they themselves prize the gifts of supernatural grace that ennoble human nature.

What is that supposed to mean? The Pope kidnapped a child from his parents. What would Fr. Cessario and those who agree with him say to radical Muslims today who kidnap non-Muslim children, compel them to say the shahada (profession of faith — the Muslim equivalent of baptism), then refuse to return them to their parents because they cannot let a Muslim child be raised by infidels? The jihadist argument is that this is just, and better for the souls of the children.

Note that one goal of this essay, according to the author, is to instruct Catholics “and other people of good will” on what baptism means, so they won’t be misled by an upcoming Hollywood movie, and think that what Pius IX (“Pio Nono”) did to that family was wrong. Really? The author even says (see above) that anti-Catholic bigots made a big to-do over the Mortara case — as if that were any kind of defense of the Vatican’s actions. Cardinal Law also tried the same kind of argument to neutralize the Catholic laity’s anger over the Church’s indefensible actions in the child abuse scandals.

In fairness, I can’t for the life of me understand why Hollywood is still so eager to stick it to the Catholic Church, which is pretty much flat on its back today, while giving the deeds of extreme adherents of the world’s truly dangerous, truly illiberal, truly militant contemporary religion a pass. It’s a weird kind of death wish. Pio Nono and the world he represented is dead and gone. Nevertheless … it really happened. All the theological syllogisms in the world cannot cover the moral crime committed by the Pope against that powerless Jewish family.

The kind of argument that Father Cessario makes in this essay may make emotional sense to men who have never fathered a child. Nevertheless, it is grotesque. We are talking a lot on the Right these days about the failures of liberalism, but even Catholic scholar Patrick Deneen, in his excellent new book Why Liberalism Failed, writes that

the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to “return” to a preliberal age must be eschewed. We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures. There can be no going back, only forward.

For all liberalism’s serious faults — which I regularly catalog in this space — one of its great achievements was to separate Church from State, so that men like Pius IX and his clergy could no longer do things like what they did to the Mortara family. As a very conservative Christian, I say that that’s a liberal achievement worth defending.

Compare Pio Nono’s actions to that of a parish priest who would later become Pope John Paul II:

The personal story of an American Jewish man who as a child during the Holocaust was hidden by a Polish Catholic couple demonstrates a respect for Judaism by the young priest who became Pope John Paul II.

In an account of the saving of little Shachne Hiller, recorded in “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” (Avon Books, NY, 1982), Hiller, renamed Stanley Berger, told author/editor Yaffa Eliach that in 1946 a newly ordained priest named Karol Wojtyla refused to baptize him a Catholic despite a request by the woman who had cared for him as her own.

Berger told Eliach that through a letter from the woman in Poland who had saved him, he learned that she, Mrs. Yachowitch, had approached “a newly ordained parish priest who had a reputation for being wise and trustworthy” to convert him “as a true Christian and devout Catholic” after she knew for certain that his parents had died in the crematoria. The priest refused after asking what was the wish of the boys’ parents in entrusting him to their Christian friends. Yachowitch acknowledged that his parents, in face of their almost certain death, requested that their son be raised as a Jew, to which Father Wojtyla replied that “it would be unfair to baptize the child while there was still hope that the relatives of the child might take him.”

It must be acknowledged that Edgardo Mortara, who would become a Catholic priest in adulthood, wrote a memoir in which he expressed gratitude to Pius IX for doing what he did. That fact should not be suppressed. On the other hand, what do you expect from a man who was raised from an early age as a ward of the papacy? One of the Christian boys snatched by Ottoman soldiers, forcibly converted to Islam, and raised at the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul to be one of his janissaries would likely have written a testimony as an adult thanking the Sultan for giving him the opportunity to be brought up in the True Faith.

Theologically the Mortara case is a challenging question, because Christians really do believe that baptism is a permanent thing. We really do believe that Christianity is objectively true. Plus, modern people have to be very careful about judging the acts of people from much earlier ages by our standards today. That said, at best, what happened was a tragedy. By my reading, the First Things author would have Catholics “and people of good will” think it was an unambiguous blessing for Edgardo Mortara. The coldness of Fr. Cessario, writing in the 21st century, euphemizing the kidnapping and what amounts to the forced conversion of a Jewish child as “divine Providence kindly [arranging] for his being introduced into a regular Christian life” — well, it’s breathtaking.

UPDATE: From Gabriel Rossman, a convert from Judaism to Catholicism, who is incensed by the essay:


“Papal State dhimmis.”

UPDATE.2: Karl Keating comments:

When I read your post, Rod, I thought you meant that Fr. Cessario had written a regular essay, but it’s a book review–of a book that I’ve read and you haven’t, apparently. I suggest you do so. In fact, you should have read it before writing your overheated post.

“Kidnapped by the Vatican” was published by Ignatius Press last year. The subtitle is “The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara.”

The 75-page introduction is by Vittori Messori, an Italian journalist who has written or edited many books. The best known in English were his interviews with John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” and with Joseph Ratzinger, “The Ratzinger Report.”

The foreword to the book is by Roy Schoeman, author of “Salvation is From the Jews” and a convert to Catholicism from Judaism. He is well known and well respected in Catholic circles.

The back-cover endorsements are by James V. Schall, S.J., who taught at Georgetown; Mitch Pacwa, S.J., who has a show on EWTN; and Fr. George Rutler, who has written more than a dozen books. These are all responsible and respected men. If you had had the book in your hands, the presence of their names would have made you suspect that the book might not be the wild thing you make it out to be.

Messori’s long introduction I found to be generous, understanding of the parties and of the times, and alert to present-day and nineteenth-century appearances and concerns. He does a great job explaining the political and cultural situation of the time.

The heart of the book is Mortara’s memoir. You dismiss it out of hand, suggesting that he was brainwashed. That’s not the impression someone reading the memoir would get. Mortara comes across as a well-educated and truly saintly priest and as a thoughtful recounter of what happened to him. There isn’t anything in his version of the story that could lead one to think he persisted as a Catholic, or became a priest, involuntarily or under any sort of undue influence.

I know it’s hard for a present-day person to believe, but Mortara repeatedly expresses his gratitude for what happened to him, even though it meant sorrow for his parents and himself. You may not think such an attitude is possible, but you shouldn’t judge until you’ve read his account.

Well, like I said, Karl, I don’t fault Mortara. I have no reason to believe that he was dishonest in stating his gratitude. My point is simply that this is what one would expect from a priest who had been raised in his circumstances. Whether or not Father Mortara was grateful for what happened to him, or was bitter about it, has no bearing, it seems to me, on whether or not it was morally right. Anyway, I don’t take a position on the book (which, as you say, I have not read), but the legalistic position advocated by Fr. Cessario in this review: that Holy Mother Church and Pius IX did Edgardo Mortara a favor by taking him from his Jewish family’s home and fostering him, because of a rash act the family maid did in a moment of fear for the child’s life. I still think Fr. Cessario’s position is wrong, but why couldn’t he at least acknowledge the immense tragic aspect of this case?

UPDATE.3: On Facebook, Princeton’s Robert George (a rather prominent conservative Catholic, in case you don’t know) comments:

The taking of the child by force from his parents and family was an abomination and defending it is an embarrassment. The gross, unspeakable injustice of such an action (and of its predicate, namely, baptizing a child against the will of its parents) was well understood by the early and medieval church and was affirmed and explained by Aquinas. Christians, including popes, can commit, and sometimes have committed, profoundly unChristian acts–and can, and have, committed them in the name of Christianity. This, shamefully, was such a case.

UPDATE.4: Catholics eager to defend the Church in the Mortara case would do well to think about what it will be like to raise children under this secular religion rising in dominance: liberalism. Readers of this blog are all too familiar with the claims transgender activists make about trans children, and the moral obligation their parents have to let them be their “real” selves. Do not for a moment think that we will never face the day when the State attempts to seize supposedly transgendered children from their parents (Catholic or otherwise) because those parents refuse to let the child “be who ze is.”



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