‘Contrary to Natural Justice’: The Return of the Edgardo Mortara Kidnapping

The Truth between Us #10 — On June 24, 1858, papal police arrived at the home of a Jewish family in Bologna to take their 6-year-old son, Edgardo Mortara, and permanently hand him over to the custody of the Catholic Church. The Vatican, which ruled over the Papal States on the Italian peninsula at the time, had learned that the Mortara family’s Catholic maid had secretly baptized the child when he fell gravely ill as an infant. This made him a Catholic in the eyes of the Church, and the Pope, Pius IX, argued that he was required to raise him as one. The case spread around the world, fanning both anti-Semitism among supporters of the Vatican and anti-Catholic sentiment among American Protestants.

Despite years of effort, Salomone and Marianna Mortara never regained custody of their son.

This difficult episode is newly relevant. The prominent conservative Catholic journal, First Things, recently published a piece by a Dominican priest seeming to justify or excuse the Church for taking a Jewish child from his parents after he had been secretly baptized by the family’s Catholic nanny. Reaction from Jewish publications and many conservative Catholic writers was fast and furious, labeling the article an “abomination” and “grotesque.”

As we always do in The Truth Between Us, Dr. Murray Watson and I address the uncomfortable questions this case raises head-on, as we seek to better understand the episode and explore its implications for contemporary Christian-Jewish and Catholic-Jewish relations.

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Lazar Berman: Murray, I’d like to challenge both of us this time and delve right into an episode that continues to be perplexing, painful, and controversial more than 150 years after it took place.

I am referring to the baptism and subsequent — I would say kidnapping — of Italian Jewish child Edgardo Mortara by the Catholic Church, with the eventual direct involvement of the pope himself, Pius IX.

First, can you give us some background on the incident?

Murray Watson: In June of 1858, Vatican police officers arrived at the home of Salomone and Marianna Mortara, a Jewish couple who lived in Bologna. The officers told the parents that, according to information they had received, their son, Edgardo (6 years old at the time) had been secretly baptized by the family’s Catholic maid, during a life-threatening illness when he was very young. Although the baptism had been conducted without the parents’ knowledge or consent, the prevailing Catholic thinking at the time was that the welfare of the child’s eternal soul (as a Christian) outweighed the natural rights of the parents; a Christian child could not be left to be raised by an “unbelieving” Jewish family. With the authorization of Church authorities, they took young Edgardo away from his family, and he was eventually raised in the Vatican, as a sort of “adopted son” of Pope Pius IX.

Years of strenuous efforts by Edgardo’s family to overturn the decision (including appeals to courts and Catholic rulers across Europe) were unsuccessful, and Edgardo eventually became a Catholic priest at the age of 21. As an adult, Father Mortara had some limited contact with his birth family, and there was a certain degree of reconciliation within the family. Edgardo Mortara died in 1940.

Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”, painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (public domain)

Berman: For Jews (and, I assume, many Catholics), this is nothing more than a state forcibly taking a child from his parents. To put the question bluntly—how could the Catholic Church see this as the correct, divinely ordained path?

Watson: To understand the thinking that undergirded these events, it’s important to grasp how Catholics (and most Christians) viewed Judaism at that time. Jews were viewed extremely negatively by most Christians—as “deicides” (God-killers) and (in the eyes of some) agents of the devil who worked tirelessly to undermine and oppose the Christian faith. Judaism was seen as a religion that had been superseded or replaced by Christianity, with no ongoing spiritual value or purpose; Jews were seen as stubbornly refusing to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.

Christianity was presented as the “triumphant” religion of truth, contrasted with a defeated, anemic and outdated Judaism. From a Christian perspective at the time, the maid had done Edgardo an immense favor by baptizing him: she had led him out of the darkness of Jewish unbelief into the light of spiritual truth, and had given him the promise of immortality as a baptized child of God.

Traditional Catholic belief affirmed that “Outside of the Church, there is no salvation”; the maid, therefore, had “saved” Edgardo from the prospect of hell, and there could therefore be no comparison between the claims of the Church and the claims of his Jewish family. What Christianity offered was infinitely greater than what Edgardo’s human family could offer him … or at least that was the argument made at the time.

An earlier pope, Benedict XIV, had essentially reaffirmed that position in an official document back in 1747. In cases like this, the pope said, “it cannot be said that the [claims] of Jews and Christians are equal, nor that of the father and the son, since the father is temporarily [enduring] a light damage, which is to his patria potestas [his authority as head of the family], whereas for the son the damage is extremely grave: [it is] eternal damnation, to the danger of which he would remain exposed if he should return to live among the infidels or under the care of his parents.”

Father Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother (centre) and another man, perhaps a brother of Edgardo. (public domain)

Berman: The author, Romanus Cessario O.P., argues that because the Edgardo was baptized, the Catholic authorities did the right thing—and God’s will—by taking the boy to be educated as a Catholic.

“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… 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.”

Can you explain the power and significance of baptism, and why its effects could be seen as so far-reaching?

Watson: To Christians, the act of being validly baptized signifies a dramatic, permanent and irreversible change in a person’s spiritual status in the eyes of God; baptism is said to “mark” a human soul indelibly, as belonging to Christ, and it is understood to confer many spiritual benefits and advantages—primarily, the forgiveness of all prior sins, and the “original sin” that many Christians believe to have corrupted human nature after the sin of Adam and Eve. In the Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 5, Jesus says that only those who have been baptized by water and the Holy Spirit will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. Because of this, Catholicism has tended to err on the side of baptism, allowing anyone (even non-Christians!) to baptize in an emergency, so that no one would be unnecessarily excluded from all of those blessings.

Today, Catholic theologians generally have a much broader understanding of salvation, and affirm that non-Christians also have access to the possibility of salvation, by various means. But the centrality of baptism in Catholic teaching means that, especially in the past, Catholic have sometimes gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that a non-Christian is baptized, if possible—because they firmly believed that this was the only way of ensuring that that person would share in the happiness of spending eternity with God. It was considered the greatest gift that could be offered to a non-Christian.

Berman: So why was the Pope wrong in this episode? Did he really have any choice according to Canon Law?

Watson: Part of the challenge here is that we are looking back on this episode in the light of what we know today—our knowledge of the Shoah, our modern sensitivity to human rights, and our respect for the religious conscience of others. But in the early 19th century, the situation in European Christianity was very different. One of the convictions (which Pope Pius IX expressed in some of his writings) was that “error has no rights”. In light of the Christian understanding of baptism (and its general disdain for Judaism at the time), one could argue that there is a certain logic to what was done to Edgardo Mortara.

Pope Pius IX (public domain)

In a certain sense, we could say that the Pope was a victim of the theological understandings, and Church teachings, of that time; we assume that he acted as he did because of sincere convictions—although today many of us would argue that those convictions were misguided, unbalanced or incomplete.

However, it is important to note that there were already some weighty Catholic theological opinions that ran counter to the Church’s actions here, including the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that “it would be contrary to natural justice for [the child] to he taken away from the care of the parents or have any arrangements made for him against their wishes. As soon, however, as [the child] begins to have the use of freewill, … then he may be brought to the faith, not by compulsion but by persuasion; he can even consent to the faith and be baptized, but not before [the child] enjoys the use of reason [and can make his own decision]”.

Aquinas argued that, since under-aged children are an “extension” of their parents, forcing baptism on a child against the parents’ wishes was wrong and invalid—and could, in fact, lead the child to eventually apostasize (leave the faith) because their primary attachment was to their (non-Christian) family of origin. So there were other theological opinions and options at the time that could have been legitimately drawn upon, if Church officials had chosen to do so.

Berman: How is this incident remembered in Catholic circles? Is it well-known?

Watson: Honestly, most Catholics have probably never heard of the Mortara case, and would be unaware of the whole story. Rome’s Jewish community, however, has never forgotten the story, and it has been discussed on numerous occasions over the last 30 or 40 years in Jewish-Christian dialogue groups and organizations. It came to greater prominence in the 1990s, when the late Pope John Paul II proposed beatifying Pope Pius IX (declaring him to be “blessed,” the final stage before formal sainthood). The historian David Kertzer had recently published a book called The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which brought the story to a broader audience than ever before. Pius’s beatification was already controversial for other reasons (including some of his more hardline theological views, and his re-establishment of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome in 1850), and both Jewish and Catholic groups publicly argued against advancing Pius on the path to sainthood.

In the end, Pope Pius IX was declared “blessed” by Pope John Paul II in September 2000, together with the mid-20th-century reforming Pope John XXIII, who had taken significant steps to improve the Jewish-Christian relationship, and was widely regarded as a friend of the Jews.

The story has come back into prominence recently with the news that Steven Spielberg is making a feature movie about the Mortara story—and then, in the last couple of weeks, the article you mentioned (by Father Cessario) sparked considerable controversy and debate, and has raised the question of how this story can be squared with the contemporary Church’s emphasis on respect for, and friendship with, the Jewish people.

Berman: What was the impact of this article on Catholic-Jewish relations, in your opinion?

Watson: I certainly haven’t seen all of the reactions to it, but even fairly conservative Catholic authors seem to have been upset by Cessario’s apparent effort to rationalize, or even justify, the Mortara affair within the framework of traditional Catholic theology. It has re-opened the discussion between Jews and Catholics, with some Jewish publications asking if Cessario’s article proves that “a leopard can’t change its stripes”—that the Catholic Church of “the bad old days” still lurks under the veneer of public warmth and respect that Catholics have shown in recent decades.

Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church (Central City, Kentucky) — stained glass, St. Thomas Aquinas, detail (photo credit: Nheyob CC BY-SA 4.0)

However, the vehement reaction by many Catholic commentators to Cessario’s article demonstrates (to me, at least) that his views are relatively marginal in Catholic thinking, and are not reflective of mainstream Jewish-Catholic relations. Today, there is a substantial body of decades of Catholic teaching at the highest levels that roots a relationship of Jewish-Christian friendship, esteem and collaboration firmly in Catholicism. I don’t believe that articles like Cessario’s will be able to shake that relationship; in fact, it may have the paradoxical effect of strengthening Jewish-Christian ties, because it is forcing some Catholics to step up and address these questions in an unambiguous way. Especially in the lead-up to the upcoming Spielberg movie, it seems to me that this is an important and healthy discussion for us to be having, to strengthen and clarify our relationships overall.

Berman: First Things editor R.R. Reno, married to a Jew and father to Jewish children, called the episode a “grievous act” after the article came out. He wrote that he did not publish article in order to rehabilitate Pius IX, or to encourage Catholics to kidnapped baptized Jewish children. His purpose, he said, “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.”

What is your reaction to this explanation for the publication of the article? Did Reno do a service by forcing a new reckoning with a still-open wound, or is he misinterpreting God’s covenant as understood by Catholicism?

Watson: To me, the Mortara case really isn’t about “the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees” (which sounds as if these events were somehow pre-ordained, and could not have happened in any other way). What this discussion makes clear is that what happened was NOT simply a case of Fate irresistibly working itself out, such that it was inevitable. It was, in fact, the result of human beings acting on the basis of a certain interpretation of their religious beliefs.

Even at the time, however, there were other legitimate theological interpretations that could have been taken into consideration (but were not). The Roman Jewish community compiled a 50-page Latin document for Church authorities at the time, outlining some of these alternative theological opinions, but they were not accepted. What happened to Edgardo Mortara was a sad consequence of a certain Christian way of viewing Jews … of seeing them as radically inferior and largely unimportant, as a people whose identity and rights would always be subordinate to a Christian worldview. Looking back on that episode is both saddening and hopeful: it reminds us of how far the Jewish-Catholic relationship has come in those 150 years, but it also reminds us that we can never take that progress for granted.

We must continue to take it seriously, to work at it with patience and dedication, and to ensure that contemporary teachings about the Jewish-Christian relationship penetrate the minds and hearts of both peoples, to ensure that our future looks very different from our past.

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In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.