Edgardo Mortara with his mother and brother
At nightfall on Wednesday, June 23, 1858, a knock came on the door of Salomone and Marianna Mortara, Jewish residents of Bologna. Only the wife was at home with the children. It was the papal police force. “Your son Edgardo has been baptized,” announced Marshal Lucidi, “and I have been ordered to take him with me.”
A few years earlier, the Mortaras had left the duchy of Modena, then under the rule of the House of Austria-Este, and moved to Bologna, the second-largest city of the Papal States. There they joined a community of some two hundred Jewish people, mostly merchants, who had carved out a comfortable living for their families in that fat, erudite, and reddish city. Though the walls of the Jewish ghettos had come down by that time, certain regulations still separated Christians and Jews. One of these forbade Christians from being employed in Jewish households, precisely in order to prevent situations like the one in which the family now found itself. The Mortaras had ignored this regulation. When their infant son, Edgardo, fell ill and was judged to be beyond recovery by both doctors and parents, he was secretly baptized by his Catholic nanny, Anna Morisi.
The most addictively fascinating controversy now percolating through the American Catholic Internet has to do with the fate of a Jewish-born child seized from his family nearly 150 years ago. Last week, First Things published a book review essay by the Dominican priest Romanus Cessario, arguing that Pope Pius IX had acted correctly in forcibly separating the Jewish-born six-year-old Edgardo Mortara away from his parents in 1858. A Catholic caretaker secretly baptized the infant Mortara when he was dying and thought to be beyond recovery. Mortara survived his illness, and five years later, Pius IX, who was the head of state in the Mortara family’s Bologna, ordered that the boy be taken from his parents and made the pope’s personal ward in order to ensure that the now-Catholic child could be brought up in accordance with his religion. Mortara eventually became a Catholic priest, and died in 1940.
I’m so weary of politics I welcome something, anything of substance to argue about and discuss. The hysterics at the reliably regressive Forward newspaper gave us this gem of a headline Catholic Magazine Justifies Kidnapping, Converting Jewish Baby. Although…
A lot of the opposition to Cessario, however, came from tradition-minded Christians. Joseph Shaw, a Catholic scholar and chairman of the Latin Mass Society, calls the Mortara case “one of the most indefensible actions by any Pope of modern times,” wryly observing that “the whole point of being Traditional Catholics is that we are not slaves of the daily thoughts and doings of Popes.” Cessario’s article also put a Catholic priest on record as defending the state-sanctioned separation of a halachically Jewish child from his own family, which was a source of queasiness for the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, a non-Catholic who is nevertheless the author of traditionalist manifesto The Benedict Option. “This is monstrous,” Dreher wrote. “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.”
Needless to say, therefore, I did not publish Romanus Cessario’s review of Edgardo Mortara’s memoir in order to rehabilitate Pius IX. Nor did I want to encourage Catholics to kidnap Jewish children who had been baptized in secret. Were such a result remotely likely in 2018, I would have killed the review with prejudice. My purpose in bringing this episode forward was to confront us with the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees.
That force is not always happy, at least as we count happiness in our finite, mortal frame. It drove Pius to his ill-considered decision. But even when we avoid his errors, we must face the implacable truth that God’s covenant with us establishes realities that we cannot redirect or reshape as we wish.
This does not mean indifference to the concerns of the other. Had I told the story of Mortara, I would have emphasized the fatal role secular power can play when put into the hands of ecclesiastical authorities. As John Paul II put it, the Church proposes; she never imposes. And I hope I would have given proper regard to the anguish of memory that weighs upon my Jewish friends.
Cessario proceeded otherwise. He emphasized the powerful logic of a Catholic belief in sacramental efficacy. He makes suspect moves. His defense of the theological cogency of Pius IX’s actions relies on the assumption that baptism creates a duty for the Church to educate a child, a duty that overrides the rights of parents. (Given this premise, one wonders why Pius did not remove children from nominally Catholic parents who failed to catechize their children. Was Edgardo targeted because he was Jewish, not simply because he was baptized?)
There is nothing like a good theological food fight.