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Ryan Di CorpoNovember 17, 2023
"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara" (1862) by the 19th century German Jewish painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara" (1862) by the 19th century German Jewish painter Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Completely unknown to him, 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara had a secret. The boy was born in 1851 to Jewish merchants in Bologna and fell ill shortly after birth. According to the family’s Catholic servant, Anna Morisi, Edgardo was in danger of death. Concerned for his salvation and following the practice of her era, Morisi allegedly baptized Edgardo into the Catholic faith without the knowledge or consent of his parents.

She told no one, of course, until it became necessary—or perhaps convenient. Did she inform papal authorities in the hopes of receiving a reward from the Vatican? That is historically unclear. But once the story of little Edgardo became known to the Dominican friar Pier Gaetano Feletti, who represented the Roman Inquisition in Bologna, Morisi confessed to baptizing the infant.

“Rapito” is a compelling and often infuriating tale of church power that will likely never be shown at the Vatican.

The church responded according to the practice of the time. On the night of June 23, 1858, papal police arrived at the Mortara residence, informed the child’s parents they had been victims of a “betrayal” and forcibly removed Edgardo from his home. As far as the Vatican was concerned, Edgardo was a Catholic, and allowing a Catholic child to be raised by non-Christian parents put Edgardo in grave danger of losing his salvation. So against the pleas of his parents, Edgardo was whisked away to the Vatican, sparking a series of events that would lead to international outrage and major political consequences.

“I think [the kidnapping] played a role in the fall of the Papal States,” said the Pulitzer-Prize winning anthropologist David I. Kertzer in an interview with America.

The shocking kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and its aftermath are the subject of the new Italian-language picture “Rapito,” from the veteran director Marco Bellocchio. (The film had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival in October; a U.S. release date has not yet been set.) Staged with the grandeur of an Italian opera, in which Fabio Massimo Capograsso’s spirited score is a character in itself, “Rapito” is a compelling and often infuriating tale of church power that will likely never be shown at the Vatican.


Edgardo is kidnapped (the film’s Italian title) from his family early in the picture. The child is then raised and educated by Catholic nuns who tell Edgardo that Pope Pius IX—known as Pio Nono in Italy—is the “king of the Christians.” Wandering around his new home, Edgardo stops and inquires about a crucifix. “Is he sleeping?” the boy asks. “No, he is dead,” a nun responds. “He was killed by the Jews.” (This statement, by the way, is theologically inaccurate.)

In the film, the Mortara family is given an ultimatum: Convert to Catholicism, be baptized and your son will be returned. However, there is no evidence to suggest that church authorities were ever truly intent on returning the boy home to his family, Catholic or not. Edgardo himself oscillates between wanting to return home (and to his Jewish roots) and professing an absolute fealty to the pope. Edgardo is ordained a Catholic priest at age 21, and he remains a clergyman until his death in 1940. While his Jewish mother is dying, Father Mortara finally returns home—and offers to baptize her.

The Mortara family is given an ultimatum: Convert to Catholicism, be baptized and your son will be returned.

While the film is focused on Edgardo’s kidnapping, that story is nearly overshadowed by its disturbing but memorable depiction of Pius IX (played by Paolo Pierobon). Pio Nono is portrayed as a nakedly cruel, ambitious sovereign with an expectation of subservience. In one scene, he threatens to send a group of Jewish rabbis, already living in the Roman ghetto, “back to [their] hole.”

Is “Rapito” anti-Catholic? I don’t think so. Is it anti-papal? Maybe. Is it a condemnation of Pio Nono and church corruption? Definitely. But the story is true, so we cannot reject the film as anti-Catholic propaganda. It may be tempting to dismiss the Mortara kidnapping as a single odious episode in an often embattled papacy, but this would be dishonest and ahistorical. The Mortara case is but one incident in the longstanding church practice of forcibly baptizing Jewish children and the Vatican-sanctioned removal of Jewish children from their families.

‘Non possumus’

In 2000, when St. John Paul II (controversially) beatified Pius IX, the church historian John O’Malley, S.J., noted that the Mortara kidnapping was “almost forgotten” until the 1996 publication of Dr. Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. Dr. Kertzer said that the church viewed baptized children being raised by non-Catholic parents as being in danger of apostasy. And in the Papal States, where the Vatican operated its own police force, these situations resulted in the kidnapping of children from their homes. The political consequences were severe.

The Mortara kidnapping was “almost forgotten” until the 1996 publication of David Kertzer’s book.

Dr. Kertzer explained that after the revolutions of 1848, which saw the brief establishment of a Roman republic while Pius IX escaped to the south, French forces captured Rome and restored the pope to power. For the next several years, Pius IX ruled with the protection of the French emperor, Napoleon III. But after the Mortara kidnapping, Napoleon sent his ambassador to Rome to express his displeasure about the incident. “Non possumus” (“We cannot”) replied the pope amid intense international pressure to return Edgardo home.

Within months, said Kertzer, Napoleon met with the Count of Cavour, who later became the first prime minister of Italy, and agreed to eventually help overthrow the Papal States. In September 1870, more than a decade after the kidnapping, the Royal Italian Army attacked and captured Rome, severely diminishing the temporal power of the church and prompting five decades of strained relations with the Italian state, in which pontiffs were “prisoners of the Vatican.”

In an interview with America, Elèna Mortara, a descendant of Edgardo Mortara, called the case “an international scandal shared by a large part of the liberal Catholic world.” Dr. Mortara is a professor of English and American literature at the University of Rome and the author of Writing for Justice: Victor Séjour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipations. Her great-grandmother was Edgardo Mortara’s sister. Referring to Edgardo as “our uncle, the priest,” Dr. Mortara noted that her family, both in the 19th century and in modern times, did not remain silent about the kidnapping.

“The family was able to make its cry of rebellion heard outside the Papal States,” she said in a phone call. “They were able to write letters, not only to the community in Rome, but in Turin and other parts of Europe and the United States. They made the case known outside the Jewish communities as well.”

Nearly 150 years after the events, in 2000, she organized protests against the beatification of Pius IX and publicized the family’s opposition in an Italian magazine. “The Mortara case revealed to the world the inhumanity of the laws in the Papal States, and the conditions of oppression in which the Jewish minority was kept in those states,” Dr. Mortara said. “The memory of what happened has remained alive in our family.”

For the Jewish people, this history still echoes into the 21st century.

Still, viewers of the Bellocchio film might ask, “Why tell this story now, or at all? Aren’t these kinds of forced baptisms ancient history?” But for the Jewish people, this history still echoes into the 21st century.

In his 1747 papal bull “Postremo Mense,” Pope Benedict XIV made known his agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas that Jewish children could not be baptized against their parents’ will—except under certain circumstances. While Benedict intended to restrict the practice of forced baptisms, these exceptions allowed them to continue. And as some Jewish households employed Christian maids, this law allowed servants to unilaterally decide if a child ought to be baptized.

“In the Mortara affair, you see this conflict between rights and the power of the church,” said Matthew A. Tapie, the director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University in Florida.Aquinas argued in favor of the parents’ rights over the child, opposing efforts to remove children. But by the 1700s, Aquinas had become “increasingly irrelevant,” explains Tapie. The Vatican emphasized the conversion of Jews to Christianity and exercised control over the Jewish ghetto in Rome.

An open wound

The 1983 Code of Canon Law forbids baptizing children without parental permission. But Canon 868 states: “An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.”

This current law, Dr. Tapie notes, continues the exceptions set forth by Benedict XIV. Elèna Mortara argues that the canon should be abolished altogether. Tapie describes the long history of forced baptisms as “an open wound” for the Jewish people. “There’s an engagement with history that’s needed on the Catholic side of this difficult era,” he said.

The Second Vatican Council included the declaration “Nostra Aetate,” urging “mutual understanding and respect” between Christians and Jews and noting the important role of the Jewish people in salvation history. “In her rejection of every persecution against man,” reads the declaration, the church “decries hatred, persecutions [and] displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Bellocchio has made an often enraging film, a historical drama all the more difficult for Catholic viewers—and that may be the point. For the secular viewer, “Rapito” may be no more than an appalling story from the 19th century. But for the Catholic viewer, it demands attention.

More: Film / Judaism / Vatican

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