The Vatican kidnapped a Jewish boy in 1858. Why are we still talking about it?

Pope Pius IX took Mortara into his personal care, but the family, of course, was torn by anger and grief. Pope Pius IX took Mortara into his personal care, but the family, of course, was torn by anger and grief.

The details are as dramatic as any Victorian novel. In the summer of 1858, the Mortaras, a Jewish family living in Bologna, Italy, received horrifying news: Years earlier, when their young son had been a baby and seriously ill, a Catholic servant girl, in fear for his eternal salvation, had baptized him herself. Now her account had come to light, and since both civil and canon law required that a Christian child be given a Christian education, the boy was to be removed from his parents’ home.

Pope Pius IX, having ratified this action, took the boy into his personal care as an indication that he would be well cared for, but the family, of course, was torn by anger and grief. In Italy and around the world, the case horrified those who heard of it. David Kertzer, the author of a book describing the entire affair in detail (The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara), argues, in fact, that resulting backlash played a decisive role in the dissolution of the papal states. We cannot be surprised, then, that when Romanus Cessario, O.P., reviewed the book and offered an apologia for Pio Nono’s actions in a recent issue of First Things, sparks flew.

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Pius’ actions served as painful reminder of the many kinds of hostilities that Jews have suffered in Christian cultures.

One of the most ambitious critiques of the review comes from Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, who, writing in Commonweal, sees the fault in Father Cessario’s fanatical preservation of the past. In this obsession with “continuity,” Cessario is a representative of a much larger faction within the church, Faggoli argues. Clinging to the past and rejecting the Second Vatican Council, these traditionalists have revealed “ignorance of the intellectual roots of our historic understanding of Catholic theology and the magisterium.” The cure, writes Faggioli, is a healthy appreciation of the “discontinuity” present in the church’s ongoing tradition. Faggioli hints at the material issues he takes to be central in the Mortara case—the understanding of the Jewish people and of religious freedom—but he does not substantively engage them.

In this case, a desire to repudiate Cessario’s position quickly is understandable. Certainly, those who know the impact it could have on the Jewish community and on Jewish-Christian relations are inclined to do just that. I take Cessario’s argument to be both deeply damaging and misguided. Rejection, though, cannot take the form of dismissal. Indeed, substantive engagement with the material issues is the very thing we need most.

In the Mortara case, a number of central theological questions come into play.

Of course it is true that “continuity” and “discontinuity”—at least in some sense—are both present in church teaching, but until we begin the nuanced and difficult work of sorting out precisely what we mean by each of those terms, and until we work through specific issues with care and attention (including attention precisely to those who disagree with us), crucial opportunities are lost.

In the Mortara case, a number of central theological questions come into play. First, as Nathaniel Peters rightly points out, the case can be addressed in terms of the relationship between nature and grace. St. Thomas Aquinas’s dictum that grace does not destroy but rather perfects nature implies that the natural bond between parent and child must not be destroyed, even for the highest good. Indeed, Aquinas himself saw this particular application of the principle, arguing that baptisms of Jewish children against the wishes of their parents are unjust and even (as Peters notes) that, in connection with baptism, “...it would be contrary to natural justice, if a child, before coming to the use of reason, were to be taken away from its parents’ custody, or anything done to it against its parents’ wish” (Summa Theologiae II-II, 10, 12).

In this light, we might say we could have wished for more “continuity” on the part of Pius IX, some six centuries after Aquinas penned those words. In his review, Cessario actually notes this question, seeing support for the pope’s actions in Christ’s own claim that he had come to “turn a man against his father.” Even if we rightly refuse Cessario’s application of this teaching, his insistence that we unapologetically honor “the things of the Lord” deserves our attention.

An increasingly secularized society entails more and more people whose closest family members do not share their faith. Whether it is a grandparent discerning how and whether to press for a grandchild’s baptism, or one of my undergraduate students whose parents indicate that tuition funds will disappear if she pursues a major in theology, the negotiation of these difficult matters is something we ourselves will face more and more often.

The question of the precise nature of the church’s relationship to the state demands our attention.

Second, the Mortara case raises pressing questions of church and state. Writing in The Public Discourse, Robert T. Miller argues that the church’s use of a secular police force is actually the crux of this case. Given the claim made in the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” of the Second Vatican Council that, indeed, secular power cannot be used to coerce in matters of religion, this is generally uncontroversial. But there remainsmuch to consider. If the Mortara case marked the church’s failure to meet the standards of modern liberalism, today the increasing secularization of a neoliberal state—and what some see as failure of liberalism itself—raise these questions in a new way. Cessario is clear that this, too, is a point he intends to raise. The original Mortara case may have put Jews and Christians at odds; but in our world, he insists, “Jews and Christians alike pledge a higher loyalty that they honor in ways that seem incomprehensible to the world,” and, at the present moment, “it is secularist denial of those higher loyalties that threatens both synagogue and Church.”

Some will argue that the threat to religion is overestimated, or even that invocation of religious freedom is used cynically by some. But even if we could convince ourselves that Vatican II had solved the question of the church’s relationship to the modern world, the situation continues to evolve. The question of the precise nature of the church’s relationship to the state and to the power it wields is a complex one that demands our attention.

Finally, most painful and most complex is the “question of the Jews.” Pius IX, of course, did not tear Edgardo Mortara away from his family because they were Jews per se, but because they were not Christians. His actions, though, served as painful reminder of all the many kinds of hostilities that Jews have suffered in predominantly Christian cultures. The question is not simply about the actions of Pius IX, but, more important, whether Catholics today behave toward Jews in a manner consistent with the belief that, as the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (“Nostra Aetate”) insists, the Jewish people remain in unbroken covenant with God.

But what does that mean, exactly? How does this insistence relate to the Christian affirmation of Christ as the unique and universal savior of the world? “Nostra Aetate” and “Dominus Iesus”—which reasserts those long-held Christological claims—are, after all, documents of one and the same church. A real and renewed conversation on these ongoing questions is something the church owes to the Jews and to itself.

On these matters, Catholics will disagree. We may disagree sharply, and even disagree sharply withwhole groups of fellow Catholics whom we believe to be fundamentally wrongheaded. The next step after disagreement, however, must be real conversation. It is actually our only way forward.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Julian Irias
3 weeks ago

Cessario's "application" of Mt 10:35 is egregious for its audacity in tearing a proof-text utterly out of context. This sort of argument acts as a conversation stopper, whether taken as disingenuous or (more charitably?) as sincere.

Vincent Gaglione
3 weeks ago

To describe in any way the Mortara affair as some sort of moral and religious conundrum in order to justify or even give credence to what occurred takes absurdity to a new level. It all makes for some fascinating obscure arguments and explanations but it’s like reading a cheap novel for its prurient stimulations.

Sandi Sinor
3 weeks ago

That was my first thought on reading this post. There is no moral conundrum involved, no complicated theology.

Kidnapping a child from his parents was a terrible sin. Period. It's hard to believe that some people, even today, are trying to justify it through abstract theological "reasoning".

David Cruz-Uribe, OFS
3 weeks ago

"Pius IX, of course, did not tear Edgardo Mortara away from his family because they were Jews per se, but because they were not Christians."

I think on this one point the author is mistaken, and guilty of the same sort of ahistorical reading of the past that Fr. Cessario is committing. It is precisely because the Mortara's were Jews that they were treated as they were. The laws of the Papal States we specifically targeted against the Other in the form of Jews. That other non-Christians would have been caught up in them is true, but does not detract from their origin in European anti-Semitism.

Andrew Wolfe
2 weeks 6 days ago

Disagree. The claim this would only have happened to a child of Jews, rather than of Hindus or Muslims, is completely unsupported.

Genevieve Burns
2 weeks 5 days ago

Bingo. Jews will attempt anything to smear people with the overused and tired “anti-semite” label. Sorry Jews, but the (honest) goyim know!

Reyanna Rice
2 weeks 5 days ago

Pardon me, but your anti-semitism is showing. I suspect you would be delighted if the words “ perfidious Jews” were returned to the Good Friday liturgy. Btw...I am not Jewish but I do not think biogotry should go unchallenged.

Genevieve Burns
2 weeks 5 days ago

Your attempts at slurring me ridiculously using the very overused term is what I was talking about! Lol. Please focus your rage on anti-Catholicism in the future as it’s not productive for interfaith relations. I suspect you would be delighted to think that only Catholics err? Please try and have a balanced view in the future. Thanks!!

Sandi Sinor
2 weeks 4 days ago

You may be right, Mr. Wolfe - perhaps that pope would have been willing to kidnap the child of ANYONE he did not want raised in a non-Catholic family - Jewish, Muslim, Christian or other. But the kidnapping was a sin. One does not need to be immersed in the Summa to know this. It was wrong. No advanced degree in Theology needed to understand this.

The discussion about the theology of baptism is totally irrelevant to the reality that the pope kidnapped someone's child and refused to return him.

It would have been better to discuss the theology of baptism without reference to this kidnapping - a horrible chapter in the church's history.

Jim Spangler
3 weeks ago

This article does not go far enough by stopping at the Jews. What about the millions of native Indians in the Americas and in Africa, and in Asia! It is like Christianity is the only religion that can be accepted. Many of these people were leading good lives that they knew until the Christians came about and said our way is the only way. This approach is still very much alive today as it was then. Who gave them the right other than greed and insensitive attitudes.

Genevieve Burns
2 weeks 5 days ago

Cannibslism, scalping, murderous raids, stealing & raping women, and don’t forget the top one: Human sacrifice and chopped off heads!

Oh, such peaceful civilizations! Ask yourself why good Christians in the wagon trains used the word “Savage”.

Have you read what the 5 Jesuit martyrs were subjected to?

Your anti-white racist “guilt” is everything wrong with the false teachings of American liberalism based on hate of the West and white peoples.

Jim Spangler
3 weeks ago

This article does not go far enough by stopping at the Jews. What about the millions of native Indians in the Americas and in Africa, and in Asia! It is like Christianity is the only religion that can be accepted. Many of these people were leading good lives that they knew until the Christians came about and said our way is the only way. This approach is still very much alive today as it was then. Who gave them the right other than greed and insensitive attitudes.

Andrew Wolfe
2 weeks 6 days ago

Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. Vatican II made clear that He brings in many who don't know His Name, but there is only one name by which we are saved. Christianity is not just the only religion that can be accepted, it's the only one with the complete fulness of Truth and Revelation. And please don't forget that in Central and South America, many religions practiced ritual human sacrifice, as did the Norse pagans and others in Europe. They adopted the Gospel with joy because unlike every other religion, Jesus alone brings the Good News freeing us from the bonds of sin, and forgiving all of us from our just condemnation by the Law.

Robert Lewis
2 weeks 4 days ago

When the Jesuits and the Franciscans began to evangelize the Amerindians of Mesoamerica, they SALUTED the self-sacrificial ethos of the Mayans, Mexica and other Nahauatel-speaking tribes of Central and South America, because they recognized that many--very many--of those sacrificed were willing and even eager to die, as a means of placating their gods, and ensuring the survival of their fellow man, in terms of ensuring and furthering nature's reproductive cycles. The missionaries offered to those tribes the "human sacrifice" of Jesus, reproduced in the mass--the literal "Real Presence" of Jesus Christ as the sacrificial victim--as a sufficiency, to replace the human sacrifice of captives and many willing and eager warriors (who often RACED up the steps of the teocallis, to accept the "honor" of being sacrificed), in place of their previous religious rituals. Without the "Real Presence" of Catholicism, and its very efficient substitution for what the Amerindians were doing, the conversion of the Native tribes would have been much more difficult. Unlike you, the brilliant and scholarly Catholic priests and monks were able to distinguish what was noble and altruist in the Amerindians' religion from the dross, and this has been characteristic of the sophisticated and compassionate ministers of the Roman Catholic Church throughout history,until the post-modern phase of the religion became dominated by Fundamentalists and ultramontane idolators of the papal monarchy such as yourself.

Nicholas Mangieri
2 weeks 6 days ago

I think the fundamental question is; can a sacrament be valid if it is bestowed without the permission or even the knowledge of the recipient?

Richard Bell
2 weeks 6 days ago

See below; I think we agree.

Holly Taylor Coolman
2 weeks 6 days ago

Hi Nicholas, Thank you for this question. As far back as the New Testament description of "entire households" (including infants) being baptized, the Church has allowed the possibility that an infant can be baptized without permission or even knowledge. (This practice exists in the present day not only among Catholics and the Orthodox, but among Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, and others).

Richard Bell
2 weeks 6 days ago

“In the Mortara case, a number of central theological questions come into play. First, as Nathaniel Peters rightly points out, the case can be addressed in terms of the relationship between nature and grace.”
This is the only "theological" question that the author takes up here. Alas! There is at least one other central theological question deserving attention: does baptism have a quasi-magical effect? If it does not – and nothing in scripture, but only metaphysics of Aquinas, entails that imposition of baptism has an effect on the person baptized – then there is no theological justification for what the Church did to infant Mortara.

Holly Taylor Coolman
2 weeks 6 days ago

Hi Richard, Thank you for this comment / question (which, as you note, is also connected to the comment above). It seems to me that the central question is what you mean by "quasi-magical"? I disagree completely that Holy Scripture nowhere indicates that baptism has an effect on the person baptized. We might consider Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-11, Colossians 2:12, and I Peter 3:21, among other passages. In these, we glimpse and long tradition affirming that baptism does, in fact, confer a lasting, ontological change, a tradition now considered settled teaching in the Catholic Church.

Richard Bell
2 weeks 6 days ago

Dear Holly,
A quasi-magical rite is one that is supposed to be sufficient for some change in creation. Pio Nano seemed to have believed that what the nanny Anna Morisi did – sprinkling water on the infant Edgardo and uttering some words, I assume – changed the boy.
Regardless of what St Paul or St Peter had in mind, be it baptism of repentance or baptism of the Holy Spirit, your scripture passages do not support what Pio Nano seemed to have believed. Context makes plain that St Paul and St Peter were addressing people who had professed change of their minds and hearts – had professed repentance and saving faith – before they participated in the rite of baptism. As for baptism of children specifically, which the Apostles approved, we do not know exactly what the Apostles thought about it.

Andrew Wolfe
2 weeks 6 days ago

Mr Bell, if you don't want to believe that the Sacraments effect change in the person receiving them, that's your right. But I choose to be a faithful Roman Catholic in following the words Christ inspired in the Bible, which in this case the Church interprets literally: "baptism, which saves you now." I have no idea on what basis you choose to interpret the Bible in a fashion so opposite from both its explicit wording and the constant Tradition of 2000 years, but it's wholly unconvincing.

Richard Bell
2 weeks ago

The Church is right to interpret the Bible literally, if it does not interpret snippets of text literally. St Peter anticipated misinterpretation of what he had written and so he immediately added "not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Peter made plain that baptism does not change the person who receives it from unsaved to saved (dirty to clean), but baptism saves because the person who receives it has repented (appealed to God for a good conscience) and believes in the atoning sacrifice and vindicating resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Andrew Wolfe
2 weeks 6 days ago

The reason we're still talking about it is because it's the most recent and sensationalistic papal malfeasance by which people can attack the Church, now that the obvious lie of "Hitler's Pope" has dissipated so completely.

Genevieve Burns
2 weeks 5 days ago

We’re talking about it because Inter-faith relations is always a one way street: Catholic concession to the Jewish perspective, but never vice-versa.

The “Inquisition” is another favorite!

Anyway, when are our Church leaders going to address the hate and vitriol directed against us for a change? Harvey Weinstein’s company has been pumping out anti-Catholic media for decades. He’s just one of thousands of people who attack us and malign Jesus. Academia is infested with haters too.

Genevieve Burns
2 weeks 5 days ago

We’re talking about it because Inter-faith relations is always a one way street: Catholic concession to the Jewish perspective, but never vice-versa.

The “Inquisition” is another favorite!

Anyway, when are our Church leaders going to address the hate and vitriol directed against us for a change? Harvey Weinstein’s company has been pumping out anti-Catholic media for decades. He’s just one of thousands of people who attack us and malign Jesus. Academia is infested with haters too.

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