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