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Kidnapped by the Vatican? 
The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara

by vittorio messori
ignatius, 190 pages, $17.95

At nightfall on Wednesday, June 23, 1858, a knock came on the door of Salomone and Marianna Mortara, Jewish residents of Bologna. Only the wife was at home with the children. It was the papal police force. “Your son Edgardo has been baptized,” announced Marshal Lucidi, “and I have been ordered to take him with me.”

A few years earlier, the Mortaras had left the duchy of Modena, then under the rule of the House of Austria-Este, and moved to Bologna, the second-largest city of the Papal States. There they joined a community of some two hundred Jewish people, mostly merchants, who had carved out a comfortable living for their families in that fat, erudite, and reddish city. Though the walls of the Jewish ghettos had come down by that time, certain regulations still separated Christians and Jews. One of these forbade Christians from being employed in Jewish households, precisely in order to prevent situations like the one in which the family now found itself. The Mortaras had ignored this regulation. When their infant son, Edgardo, fell ill and was judged to be beyond recovery by both doctors and parents, he was secretly baptized by his Catholic nanny, Anna Morisi.

On the night before Edgardo’s removal, his male relatives assembled and were admitted to see the Dominican inquisitor, Pier Gaetano Feletti, who lived in the convent of San Domenico, where St. Dominic himself was buried. As one chronicler recounts, the priest, a government official of the Papal States, explained calmly that because Edgardo had been secretly baptized five years earlier, he was a Catholic and could not be raised in a Jewish household. “Don’t worry,” Fr. Feletti said, “little Edgardo would be under the protection of the pope himself.” Edgardo was six years old.

Thus commenced the series of events that brought the opprobrium of the world upon Pius IX. “For him I was the child of tears,” Mortara would later write, “and he loved me like a mother who prefers the son who has made her suffer the most.” As Bertram Wallace Korn recounts in The American Reaction to the Mortara Case, 1858–1859 (1957), the outcry was particularly loud in America. The New York Herald described the Mortara affair as one of “colossal dimensions,” whereas the Times published more than twenty articles on the topic in the month of December 1858. Newspapers in Milwaukee, Baltimore, and elsewhere expressed similar support for the demand that the United States intervene in the affairs of an independent state.

Pope Pius IX, who had been elected in 1846, was not deterred by the negative reactions. In fact, he repeatedly replied to those who, in the face of the public brouhaha, urged him to return the Mortara child, “Non possumus”—that is, “We cannot.” Piety, not stubbornness, explains this response. Those involved in the removal of Edgardo Mortara were certainly conscious of the human pathos, but the human element was not the only one to be considered. Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing. Today’s Code of Canon Law, can. 868 §2, still affirms that “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.”

The requirement that all legitimately baptized children receive a Catholic education was not arbitrary. Since baptism causes birth into new life in Christ, children require instruction about this form of new life. Furthermore, although the Italian Risorgimento had begun, the diplomatic world in 1858 still recognized Pius IX as both pope and prince in Bologna. While the pontiff displayed his human feelings by making Edgardo his ward, Pio Nono nonetheless felt duty-bound to uphold the civil law. This law was not unreasonable, moreover. Even today, the Code of Canon Law, can. 794 §1, assigns to the Church the task of educating Catholics.

As the Catechism puts it, “Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ.” This mark is invisible, and one thus may certainly understand why the Jewish community of the time interpreted Edgardo’s relocation as an act of unjust religious and political hegemony. Their nineteenth-century Gentile sympathizers, who took the Church’s action as an affront to religious liberty, deserve less sympathy. In fact, the Mortara case exacerbated anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, giving the dying Know-Nothing party a few more years of influence. And prejudiced manipulation of the Mortara case has not disappeared. Steven Spielberg is currently preparing a film adaptation of David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. In order to forestall wrong and unwarranted interpretations, which may include allusions to child abuse, Catholics and other people of good will must acquire a right understanding of baptism and its effects.

Augustine’s startling anti-Donatist teaching about the power of baptism expresses the heart of the matter: If someone who receives baptism sins, he nonetheless remains configured to Christ by his baptism. As Aquinas remarks, baptism configures a person to Christ, leaving something permanent in the one baptized. Augustine compares this to the mark of a branding iron on a beast. This mark is indelible, which explains why one does not repeat a valid baptism. Even if the baptism does not bear fruit, it remains valid. Validity—the truth of the sacrament, veritas sacramenti—underscores the fact that human sin cannot nullify divine creative power.

The Church has defined as an article of faith the existence of this invisible “sacramental character” imparted by baptism. The Council of Florence, the Council of Trent, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent refer to it, as does today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church. This teaching bears the mark of Aquinas’s theology. In the third part of his Summa Theologiae, question sixty-three, Aquinas examines the sacramental character according to a familiar pattern. He asks questions such as: Does it exist? Indeed, the character stands as a given of divine faith. What is it? Aquinas describes the nature of a character as a certain spiritual power ordered to those things that pertain to divine worship. Whose is it? Since Christ is the cause of character, it belongs to him. Where is it? Character resides in the powers or capacities of the rational soul. What kind is it? Aquinas names its essential property, indelibility.

Admittedly, Catholic theologians quibble over the specifics. In 1932, Moureau used up eleven columns in his Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique article on “Sacramental Character” to describe their various opinions. Colman O’Neill, however, summarized the gist of Catholic theology when he wrote some fifty years later in his Sacramental Realism: “The character is, in fact, the seal of the risen Christ, imparted by the Spirit, which gives those who receive it a gift that falls within the logic of the Incarnation, the possibility of joining with Christ in his sacramental worship.” The metaphor of seal points not to a spiritual cosmetic on the soul but to the affixing of new life. In his remarks on the Summa question mentioned above, Cardinal Cajetan elaborates on the comparison between a soldier marked for military duty and a Christian duty-bound to follow Christ. In the 1850s, the pope and his theologians firmly possessed this classical teaching on the character of baptism.

Baptism opens the door to a new way of life. The Catechism calls it “the way of Christ.” A baptized Christian is called to set out on a supernatural life of faith, hope, and charity, or what the Catechism twice refers to as the “theological” life, which includes religious instruction and access to the means of grace, notably the Eucharist. As the Catechism says, “Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens . . . incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism.” These articles of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing that his parents could not. The Church offered to enroll Edgardo in a Catholic boarding school in Bologna, but his parents refused.

Prior to the arrival of the papal gendarme at his parents’ home, Edgardo Mortara was an anonymous Catholic. In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life. Edgardo received instruction about the gift baptism imparted to him. What happens, however, to those baptized Catholics who never receive a Catholic rearing? Even more dramatically, what happens to those who are baptized but remain ignorant of the fact? Except for the solicitude of Blessed Pope Pius IX, the Mortara child may never have learned of his baptism. The answer to these questions requires that one make a fundamental assertion about the indomitableness of the divine initiative. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). The anonymous Catholic does not slip back into a non-baptized state. Christ has sealed, consecrated, and configured even the anonymous Catholic. These Catholics then enjoy the same ontological status as do other baptized persons.

The sacramental character that Edgardo Mortara received when he was baptized by Anna Morisi flourished. Pius IX continued to exercise ward and watch over Mortara, who was eventually ordained a priest as a Canon Regular of the Lateran. While serving in the apostolate in Spain, Fr. Pio Maria, as he became known, composed in Castilian a memoir that gives a firsthand account of his entrance into the Church of Christ. For a variety of reasons, the manuscript remained in the Canons’ archives after Fr. Mortara’s death at an advanced age in 1940. Vittorio Messori edited the text in Italian, and it was published in 2005. Now, Ignatius Press has made this invaluable document available in English.

Mortara wrote in the third person. He prays for the eternal salvation of Anna Morisi, whom he considered “his mother in the supernatural order.” He refutes the arguments of those who used his case to bludgeon the Church. He notes the unfortunate circumstances that international notoriety brought upon his natural father, Salomone Mortara. He expresses grief at the loss of his widowed natural mother, who, despite reports to the contrary, died a daughter of Israel. But above all, he thanks Pope Pius IX, who had passed away ten years before. Pio Nono remains “his guardian angel, his Father and Protector, to whom, after God, he owes everything.” Mortara’s dearest hope was that Pius would be raised to the altars:

There will come a day, yes, and it is not far away, in which, once they have stopped listening to the calumnies and the “Crucifige” of the dregs of humanity, posterity will accept the poor arguments of the Mortara child so as to tie them into scented garlands of immortal flowers that will adorn and decorate the altar on which the Catholic world will greet, with enthusiastic acclamation, PIUS IX, THE SAINT.

St. John Paul II declared Pope Pius IX a blessed in 2000, but his cause has languished since, stalled perhaps by those who claim to speak for Mortara but ignore his own words.

The civic leaders who used the Mortara affair for political purposes were motivated neither by a passionate commitment to religious liberty nor by a burning desire to protect children from autocratic abuse. As Messori points out in his introduction, as late as 1878, many European powers, including Great Britain, tried to shore up crumbling Turkish potentates. These Islamic authorities were wont forcibly to castrate Christian boys for service in harems and government posts, once they had been introduced to strict forms of Islam. The same people who called Pius’s legal removal of the Mortara child a kidnapping later tried to kidnap him from his seminary in Rome, a plot that required Mortara to flee to the Tyrol.

While the Mortara case pitted Christian against Jew, it also exemplified something they share. Jews and Christians alike pledge a higher loyalty that they honor in ways that seem incomprehensible to the world. It is a secularist denial of those higher loyalties that threatens both synagogue and Church. Some overlooked facts help illustrate this point. As the case unfolded, the chief rabbi of Rome, Sabatino Scazzocchio, wrote a private letter praising “the benign and charitable nature” of Pius while lamenting the interference of the secular press. When Rome’s Jews were invited to join Garibaldi’s campaign against Pope Pius, they declined.

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.

Pius’s simple words—non possumus—were first used in the early fourth century when Diocletian ordered the destruction of Christian Scriptures and churches and forbade Christian liturgies. A group of forty-nine Christians in the African city of Abitinae were found to have disobeyed this command by meeting for the Eucharist in the house of a man named Emeritus. When asked why they had disobeyed the emperor’s command, Emeritus said, “Sine dominico non possumus”—“We cannot live without this thing of the Lord.” Because they had given to God what was God’s, Caesar killed them. Down through the ages and under many different circumstances, Christians have confounded the world by insisting on the reality of the Lord’s things.

Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith? We should be grateful if that question does not become pressing, but we cannot assume it will not. Christians who are tempted to side with the enlightened critics of Pio Nono should examine how much they themselves prize the gifts of supernatural grace that ennoble human nature.

Romanus Cessario, O.P., is professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary, Boston.

Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our April 2018 issue.

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