The Mortara Affair, Redux

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 The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara (Ignatius Press).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.

Black and white archival photo of a man in priest's robes standing next to a woman, seated, and a second man, standing.
Father Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother (center) and another man, perhaps a brother of Edgardo.

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.

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.


  1. S. Birnbaum

    I appreciate Archbishop Chaput's very positive contribution to this discussion, yet I strain to discover a direct articulation of his personal views. Rather than quoting from his three friends, I would have preferred a clear, public statement of the prelate's own opinion, grounded in doctrine as well as eccumenicalism, that categorically rejected the reactionary views of Fr. Cessario, and the decision of First Things to publish the review in the first place.

    1. Peter Borregard

      It's not only that Archbishop Chaput doesn't articulate his personal views. He brings his Catholic friend to say that such a baptism "would be robbery" but he is silent as to what he thinks the Church must do once such a "robbery" has occurred.

      So I ask myself: The Pope considered Edgardo Mortara's baptism to be efficacious, and that this created a new reality.

      Does Archbishop Chaput disagree? Can he?

      He writes "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." "Others point out," what does he think? His silence in the matter makes me wonder if to him it's "doublethink" at all.

      Perhaps he is certain that there is a qualitative difference in theology and spiritual reality between the forced conversion of a Catholic child to a non-Christian religion and the "robbery" baptism of a Jewish child. Perhaps he feels that to publicly state this truth would offend his Jewish friends; he just wishes that Father Cessario had not gone public with it.

  2. Bob S

    These are deeply unfair comments to Archbishop Chaput.

    He wrote explicitly that "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."

    He could not have made more clear what he meant by "my own thoughts" and that he views the case as one of robbery, and the review as blaming the victim and sanitizing the abduction. To condemn him for endorsing and adopting as his own the views eloquently spoken by his colleagues, is unfair.

    1. Peter Borregard

      Has Catholic doctrine changed to permit a baptized child to be raised by Jews? I'm aware that following the Holocaust, the Church directed that Jewish children baptized by the Catholics who had saved them from death should be returned to their families – presuming any had survived. Was that action sui generis owing to the circumstances? There are persistent reports extending through several papacies that many Jewish orphans were kept away from the Jewish people and raised as Catholic.

      It's clear that Archbishop Chaput does see a baptism such as Edgardo Mortara's as accomplished by "robbery." It's less clear what he considers the theological reality of a child baptised in this way to be.

      The law of the Papal States forbade a Catholic child to be raised by a member of another faith. Pius IX was quite clear: Edgardo Mortara's baptism was valid. That is why he resisted the international pressure to return the boy to his family, and as near as I have been able to determine, the law in the Papal States was consonant with Catholic doctrine in this matter.

      If Catholic doctrine today is different, I believe that Archbishop Chaput would have said so. I do not doubt his good intentions or his desire not to offend. But in the absence of an explicit statement or a sequence of statements that construct a logical chain that cannot be construed otherwise, my questions stand.

      1. Bob S

        Fair enough I suppose -- my post was directed to the comment that one must "strain to discover" Archbishop Chaput's views, a comment that you appeared to endorse.

        I have less interest than you as to his opinions on the "theological reality" of a child born Jewish who is baptized against the will of his/her parents. It is enough that he likens such an act to a robbery -- an immoral and criminal act -- and one under which "God is not served."

        1. Peter Borregard

          I still think that "God is not served" says nothing about the validity of such a baptism from the Church's vantage point, and nothing about what the Church's own legal system says of any actions that must be taken or must not be taken if such a baptism is valid. The parallel to kidnapping and forced conversions under Sharia is obvious, it's just that the two legal/theological systems make mutually exclusive claims. But unless those systems forcibly impose themselves on Jews, we don't have a dog in that fight.

          My main interest is less in what the Church sees as theological reality than in its conduct. I am appreciative that the Popes will make no more Father Pio Edgardo Mortaras who seek to convert their own families away from Judaism. But Archbishop Chaput's careful language makes me think that this is not a change in fundamental teaching but a pragmatic decision that the time is not ripe to implement those teachings.

      2. Mike M

        To clarify Catholic Doctrine on some matters that you might be confusing: without delving into every technicality, Catholic Doctrine claims that a child who is baptized against the will of his parents is still validly baptized and that the theological consequences of that hold. Illicit baptisms retain their sacramental validity (I.e. they work, even if they’re forbidden). Whatever the opinions of a given cleric may have been, or whatever the laws or ecclesial policies in certain times and places might have judged, it never was and is not now Catholic Doctrine that a baptized child can not be raised by Jewish or any other parents.

        A certain case was made for such kidnappings based on Catholic teaching. Catholics believe that the Church (in the broad sense of the Catholic people) owe baptized people some instruction on the Gospel message and some guidance on how to lead a Christian life so that they have at least a chance of living out their baptism if they choose. This was used by some as a justification for kidnappings like Mortara’s. But, the conclusions that some people draw from Doctrine are not doctrines themselves. The authority of parents is also part of Catholic Doctrine, as is the teaching that it is forbidden to violate natural law regardless of the ends pursued. So, while you’re correct that the laws of Bologna were enacted with the understanding that they were consistent with Catholic Doctrine, that was a rather selective application at the time, and Doctrine didn’t have to change exactly to make the rather straightforward case against it that kidnapping is not allowed.

  3. hirsch.judy

    This is what Vittorio Messori writes: "No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above. Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions—the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son. One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim."

    Archbishop Chaput, and the Catholic Church in general, fail to address their doctrine which states that Christ "came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son." Their Christ repeatedly demanded his followers to abandon their non-Christian family. Edgardo Mortara is merely one victim of this doctrine. I wonder if Archbishop Chaput is wiling to address this issue.

  4. n.luedecke

    The Archbishop hides important things, for instance, Pope John Paul II being aware of the Mortara burden and against many objections, he adhered to the legal permission for Catholics to baptize children in danger of death against their parentsʼ will and the underlying doctrine for this permission.
    For further information cf.

  5. PRoe

    First, let's note the descriptive words Archbishop Chaput uses throughout his piece: toxic, stain, troubling, insensitive, ugly, wound, damage, betrayal, violence -- I think the archbishop's own views are pretty obvious. And notice at the end of the article he writes, "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." He clearly sees the need for the "bitter actions" of the past to be redeemed.

    Baptism, no matter how many theological arguments you may put up about efficacy and new reality and rendering a higher honor to God, is not magic. Baptism must be considered within the context of intentionality and community. Morisi, and the Vatican regrettably, treated it like magic, as though her actions, well intentioned though they may have been, would magically "save" the soul of the child if he died. This kind of superstitious, and erroneous, theology can be understood, given that Morisi was probably under-educated. The child's parents would not have consented, which would have been their right. The child was not of the age of consent. There was no intention nor assent nor will to baptize, except for Morisi doing it without the parents' consent. She was wrong. One can't ignore this fact.

    Judy Hirsch, the scripture you reference does not pertain in this instance. The scripture was meant to say that father and son would be at odds due to disagreement about the teachings and life of Jesus. There was no such disagreement here. A woman came between parents and child, and sundered their God-given bond. She was the illicit sword.

    And let us remember that the question of baptism prior to being of the age of consent has been a point of disagreement itself over the centuries.

  6. n.luedecke

    The Archbishop hides important things, for instance, Pope John Paul II being aware of the Mortara burden and against many objections, he adhered to the legal permission for Catholics to baptize children in danger of death against their parentsʼ will and the underlying doctrine of this permission.
    For further information cf.:

    Norbert Lüdecke, Bonn (Germany)

  7. yakatmatt

    As Catholic scholar Kevin Madigan shows in his brilliant and well-sourced essay in Commonweal, in fact there is ample evidence that Mortara was traumatized and suffered lifelong health effects.
    The idea that a five-year-old child "wanted" to be taken from his mother and father in order to be raised Christian is not worth even addressing.

    1. yakatmatt

      From Madigan's essay: "Messori also minimizes the extent to which Edgardo, because of the trauma of being taken from his family at an early age, later suffered from physical and psychological ills, including depression and other neuroses. The data here are so clear that these omissions cannot reasonably be attributed to casual mistakes; they give every appearance of being, rather, intentional sleight-of-hand alterations, intended to vindicate the pope and minimize the afflictions with which Edgardo’s childhood ordeal plagued him for the entirety of his adult life."

  8. nightmarcher26

    Archbishop Chaput does not give us his own views, precisely. He expresses sorrow for the pain inflicted on the Mortara family, but this is not the same as rebuking the Church of Pius IX. This extraordinary case lies on the fault line of a great controversy in the Church: religious liberty. To rebuke the actions of Pius IX is to call into question the Church's long-standing teaching on religious liberty and assert discontinuity between the pre- and post-Conciliar Church. You can read more about this controversy here:

    Archbishop Chaput is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't: rebuking the actions of Pius IX raises theological questions that fundamentally undermine the Catholic Church's self-understanding, and soberly supporting the actions of Pius IX horrifies (among others) our Jewish friends with whom we would like warm relations. What is the orthodox Catholic to do?

    I think one can express ache over the severing of the poor family and also recognize the historical context that clarifies it. The Papal States did not have a secular, liberal government. The Papal States recognized Catholicism as the one true religion, and this figured into its considerations of the public welfare. As such, citizens were regarded as not only having a natural good, but a supernatural good as well. When the natural good of a child is in jeopardy, it is just for the State to intervene in that child's life if the parents cannot see to the child's welfare. Now, in a society and State that recognizes not only the natural good, but also the supernatural good, of individuals, the same logic applies. I must emphasize that this was an extraordinary case and not at all the norm intended by the law at the time; the law would undoubtedly be changes as prudence demands if these extraordinary cases persisted.

    Of course, this is difficult for modern individuals in liberal, secular societies to sympathize with, but that is to be expected - they neither believe in any supernatural good nor in the right of the State to figure such a good into its considerations of public welfare. But this is an anachronism, and to hold this against the Papal States, however, is to simply beg the question and accuse them of not being a secular, liberal State. Well, it wasn't a secular, liberal State.

    I highly recommend this comment to the above article of Archbishop Chaput:

    Personally, I feel the anguish. I truly believe in harmonious relations (and vigorous, friendly ecumenical dialogue) with non-Catholics, especially Jews, and I know that no historical contextualization can overcome the emotions. I also believe, though, in being honest, here. And in this time of confusion in the Church, I worry that Church leaders, in the rush to empathize with our friends will further that confusion.

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