The Mortara Affair, Redux
Bologna, 1857: A six-year old is taken from his Jewish family to be raised a Catholic. Why are we still talking about this case? An archbishop responds.
In its February issue, First Things published a review by Father Romanus Cessario of Vittorio Messori’s Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara (Ignatius Press). For anyone unaware of the Mortara case, its toxicity has left a stain on Jewish–Catholic relations for more than 150 years.
I regard First Things as the finest religious journal in North America, and easily among the best in the world. Its editor, R. R. Reno, is a man whose talent, judgment, and friendship I greatly esteem. And the excellence of Father Cessario’s reputation and scholarship as a Catholic theologian is beyond question. But none of these things, unfortunately, eases the troubling nature of the review.
Briefly put, Edgardo was the son of the Jewish merchant Salomone Mortara and his wife, Marianna. Living in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, the Mortaras employed a Catholic housekeeper, Anna Morisi. When Edgardo fell ill as an infant the housekeeper secretly—and obviously against the will of his parents—baptized Edgardo. In 1857, when Edgardo was six years old, this matter became known. Civil authorities seized the boy based on Church law requiring baptized children to be raised Catholic.
Although the Mortara family tried vigorously to recover their child, and Pope Pius IX was fiercely criticized at the time for the Church’s actions, Edgardo was raised as a Catholic. Pius took him on as a personal ward; he later became a priest. And he steadfastly and gratefully defended his own abduction until his death—making the case even more painfully complicated.
Bitterness over the matter has never disappeared. And the Cessario review—not just its content, which seemed oddly insensitive and indulgent about the whole ugly affair, but also the fact that the review appeared at all—has left many Jews angry and anxious, and many Catholics baffled at the imprudence of revisiting an old wound. The Church has worked hard for more than 60 years to heal such wounds and repent of past intolerance toward the Jewish community. This did damage to an already difficult effort.
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Others have pointed out the doublethink involved in Catholic efforts to justify or “contextualize” the abduction of Mortara, while at the same time condemning the Islamic abduction and forced conversion of Christian children. But I’ve been asked for my own thoughts on the matter as a Catholic bishop, and I’ll offer them in the words and experiences of three friends—one Catholic, two Jewish.
My Catholic friend is a wife, mother, and veteran educator, and she is active in her local parish and Catholic social work. Like her husband, she’s knowledgeable and committed in her faith. For her, as with any serious Catholic, baptism is a profoundly important moment: It’s a purification from original sin, the doorway to a new life in God, and an entry into the Christian community. Eternity, in a very real sense, hangs on it.
Thus, an unbaptized grandchild creates a unique kind of suffering for a grandparent. My friend has two such grandchildren—the daughters of her eldest son who left the Church as an adult. I asked her once if she’d ever been tempted to baptize the girls behind her son’s back. She said that she never would and never could. I asked her why. “Because it would be robbery,” was her answer. In a loving family, she said, no one from the outside—not even a grandmother with the purest intentions—has the right to interfere with the authority of the parents and the bond of love between parents and child. Doing so is a betrayal; in effect, it’s an act of violence against the parents. This rings true on a basic human level. God is not served by stealing the rights of others.
My two Jewish friends—one a young male scholar, the other a prominent woman community leader—read the Cessario review as completely deaf to Jewish concerns. The review was written, said one of them, “as if, had the blind Jews been able to see the invisible mark [of baptism], then they would have understood the taking of the child.” Worse, the Cessario article sounded “like it was blaming the Jewish parents for breaking a sensible Christian regulation”—Christians like Anna Morisi were banned by local law from working in Jewish households—“and bringing the whole thing down upon themselves.”
In the end, to quote Rabbi Ari Lamm’s recent Facebook post, the review “sanitizes a real life child abduction into some metaphor for divine providence. No amount of mysticism will change that. What is so stunning about this piece . . . is the way it treats the Jews like some vaguely interesting MacGuffin in the larger drama of baptism’s deeper meaning.”
On the same day I finished my own reading of the review in question, one of my friends handed me an article on blood libel images that still reportedly remain in some Polish Catholic churches, despite repeated Church repudiations of the blood libel myth. The medieval blood libel legend—the idea that Jews ritually used the blood of Christian children—is among the most persistent and toxic lies in the history of Jewish–Christian relations. The past weighs heavily on the present, which makes the nature of our future attitudes and actions so vitally important.
One of the truths Catholics have recovered since the Second Vatican Council—or too often, still need to learn and remember—is that Christianity makes no sense outside its roots in God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Judaism is the root from which our own faith grows. Being cognizant of that reality, and respecting it in everything we say and write and do, is the only way bitter actions in the past might one day be redeemed.