Jules Gomes
Dr. Jules Gomes (B.A., B.D., M.Th., Ph.D.) is a biblical scholar and a journalist based in Rome.

No Apology for Papal Abduction of Jewish Children

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1862). This representation departs significantly from the historical record of how Mortara was taken – no clergy were present, for example. The painting is out of copyright.
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1862). This representation departs significantly from the historical record of how Mortara was taken – no clergy were present, for example. The painting is out of copyright (wikimedia).

Catholics go ballistic when Boko Haram militants kidnap Christian children in Nigeria and force them to convert to Islam. The Vatican expresses its “strongest condemnation” for such actions.

So why do Catholic apologists make excuses for popes who sent armed police to kidnap Jewish children in the mid-1800s because a Catholic had baptized them clandestinely without parental consent? And why does the Vatican continue to justify historic papal atrocities?

Why is it that, as with many other cases of righting historical wrongs, it was secular and not Catholic forces that put an end to the abduction of Jewish children by generations of popes?

Now, a film based on the archival research of secular historians is recreating Pope Pius IX’s kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy who was secretly baptized by the family’s maid when he was an infant because she thought he was dying.

Italian film director Marco Bellocchio’s movie Rapito (Kidnapped), which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival, was released on April 25 in British cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.

The Traumatic Tale of ‘Kidnapped’

Bellocchio zooms in on the chilling scene of papal paramilitary police knocking on the door of Momolo and Marianna Mortara in Bologna on the night of June 23, 1858, while the Jewish mother is caring for her seven children.

Marshal Pietro Lucidi and Brigadier Giuseppe Agostini enter the house and inform the parents that the Inquisitor has ordered them to seize six-year-old Edgardo, who is now a Catholic.

Bonajuto Sanguinetti, the Mortara’s 71-year-old neighbor, describes what he witnessed: “I saw a distraught mother, bathed in tears, and a father who was tearing out his hair while the children were down on their knees begging the policemen for mercy.”

Brainwashed into Catholicism

Elèna Mortara, a historian and Edgardo’s great-great-grandniece, contends that he was “brainwashed” by his captors in the House of the Catechumens, the Holy See’s indoctrination center in Rome for potential Jewish converts.

Mortara became a priest, but his abduction proved to be political suicide for Pius IX. The kidnapping became a cause celebre, drawing government protests from France, England, and the United States. It spurred the overthrow of the Papal States by Italian nationalists.

“I paid dearly for your ransom. Your case set off a worldwide storm against me and the apostolic See,” Pius IX would write to Mortara in 1867 as his theocracy was falling apart.

Catholics remember Pius IX as the pope who convened Vatican I and promulgated the hotly contested dogmas of papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception. Jews remember him as the pope who locked them in ghettos, even persuading Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany to abrogate his new constitution, “otherwise it will open the way to requests for other civil rights for the Jews and for other non-Catholics.”

In an 1871 speech, the pontiff said of the Jews: “Of these dogs, there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places.”

Mortara’s Kidnapping the Norm, not the Exception

Catholic apologists who twist themselves into pretzels in repeated attempts to defend Pius IX conceal the fact that the kidnapping which sparked exhibitions, books, and movies (Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating film on Mortara is next) was the norm, not the exception.

David Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews narrates the chilling story of Maddalena Pacifici, from the diocese of Tivoli, who visited Rome’s ghetto to do some shopping. There she met Rachel, a Jewish mother holding her three-month-old daughter, Rosa.

Rachel complained that her baby was always sick. While the Jewish mother went to get the goods that her Catholic client had requested, Maddalena scooped water from the gutter and baptized the baby. Unsure if a baptism with gutter water was valid, she re-baptized the child at a nearby fountain.

When she revealed what she had done to her confessor, he told her to report the baptism to the parish priest. The matter reached Pope Pius VII. On January 10, 1816, the Holy Office ruled that Rosa’s baptism was valid. She was now the property of the Catholic Church.

The Inquisition did not even spare dead children. In Tuscany in January 1820, a Catholic midwife secretly baptized the newborn daughter of Abraham Castiglione. When the infant died days later, the local priest insisted that she be buried in the church cemetery.

Under pressure from the Jewish community of Livorno, the child’s body was returned to the father. Six months later, a church court ruled against Castiglione. The baby’s corpse was dug up from the Jewish cemetery and reburied in the Catholic cemetery.

Kerzter writes:

In the three and a half years from the middle of 1814 through 1818, Church authorities sent the police into the Roman ghetto on twenty-two different occasions, always at night, to extract Jews by force and take them to the House of the Catechumens. In that brief period alone, the police took seventeen married women, three fiancées, and twenty-seven children. The night hours were a time of fear for Rome’s Jews.

Italian Bishops’ Media Commends ‘Kidnapped’

Refreshingly, the Italian Episcopal Conference newspaper Avvenire, in an unusually candid review, has acknowledged that Bellocchio’s movie is “unsettling” and “rightly disturbing” with “no polemical aspect in the presentation” but “only the desire for clarity and truth.”

Contrast this with the work of Vittorio Messori, a Catholic journalist-apologist whose 2005 book was rereleased in English by Ignatius Press in 2017 under the title Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara. Messori spins the trauma into the propagandist narrative of a six-year-old child who is overjoyed to be snatched from his parents so he can be brought up as a Catholic. Kertzer, as a historian, exposes Messori’s version of the Mortara memoirs as heavily doctored.

The Associated Press reached a similar conclusion after undertaking a comparative study of Messori’s work. He originally wrote the book in Spanish, which was later translated to Italian and finally English.

The AP report “found that anti-Semitic comments contained in the original Spanish had been removed from the Messori translation, including a reference to Mortara having ‘always professed an inexpressible horror’ toward Jews.”

Will Pope Francis Apologize?

Unfortunately, the Holy See, even under ultra-liberal Pope Francis, has never apologized for the papal kidnappings of scores of Jewish children. On the contrary, Pope John Paul II beatified Pius IX in 2000, putting the antisemitic pontiff on the path to sainthood.

Ironies abound in the Mortara affair. In 1859, a year after the abduction, Pius IX lost most of his territory. In 1860, Fr. Pier Gaetano Feletti, the inquisitor responsible for the kidnapping, was arrested and tried. In 1870, Rome fell to the forces fighting for Italy’s Unification.

Edgardo Mortara died in Belgium in March 1940. Two months later, German soldiers marched into Belgium and began rounding up all those tainted with Jewish blood.

His baptism may have delivered Mortara from limbo had he died an infant, but it would not have saved him from the gas chambers had he lived to be arrested by the Nazis. For according to Hitler’s Nuremberg Race Laws, even baptism could not erase race.

Cardinal John Henry Newman famously said: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Catholics reflecting on centuries of systemic antisemitism, endorsed by the popes, need to be reminded that to be deep in history is to cease to be a triumphalist and supremacist Catholic.

Originally published in The Stream and reprinted with permission. 

About the Author
Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in the Hebrew Bible from the University of Cambridge. Currently a journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral. He was a volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces during Operation Cast Lead and was stationed at the Kerem Shalom army base near the Gaza border.
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