The Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church. Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of baptism, forcibly separating a child from his parents is a grievous act. And even if one can construct a theoretical rationale for doing so, as Romanus Cessario does, it was wildly imprudent of Pius IX to take Edgardo from his parents, given the scandal it brought upon the Catholic Church, a scandal that continues to this day. The doleful events of the twentieth century make this incident all the more repugnant. Less than one hundred years later, Jewish children were torn from the arms of their parents and murdered in the Holocaust.
Needless to say, therefore, I did not publish Romanus Cessario’s review of Edgardo Mortara’s memoir in order to rehabilitate Pius IX. Nor did I want to encourage Catholics to kidnap Jewish children who had been baptized in secret. Were such a result remotely likely in 2018, I would have killed the review with prejudice. My purpose in bringing this episode forward was to confront us with the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees.
That force is not always happy, at least as we count happiness in our finite, mortal frame. It drove Pius to his ill-considered decision. But even when we avoid his errors, we must face the implacable truth that God’s covenant with us establishes realities that we cannot redirect or reshape as we wish.
My wife is Jewish. When I got married, I knew that my children would be Jewish. This was so not because my wife wanted them to be, and not because I had decided it was OK, but because God had made a covenant with the people of Israel.
I love my wife and my children. I am not resentful that they are Jewish. My wife’s religious practice as a Jew has enriched my Christian faith. But things have not been entirely happy. When my children were growing up, I felt an emptiness going to church alone. When my daughter was three, she tallied up the family. “Mommy is Jewish, I’m Jewish, and Jesse” (her younger brother) “is Jewish.” Then she looked at me, and with the wisdom of a child saw and tried to fix this damaged state of affairs. “Oh, but don’t worry, Daddy, Toby” (our dog) “is an Episcopalian,” as I then was.
Had Rabbinic officials arrived at our doorstep with the local gendarme to remove my wife and children from my household on the grounds that I was incapable of supporting them in their Jewish faith, I would have been outraged. That never happened, of course, and it offends against the dignity of the family as a natural institution that it happened in Bologna one hundred and fifty years ago. Nevertheless, I have felt the truth of Jesus’s warning that the ways of the Lord can set father against son. In a certain sense, God kidnapped my children.
This does not mean that church authorities (or anyone else) can do the same. I certainly don’t desire a return to an era in which the Catholic Church had the police at her disposal. Although it does not say so directly, Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Freedom implies that the Church should not have recourse to the coercive power of the state to enforce her theological principles.
Cessario, however, wants to challenge me. I must not imagine complacently that my natural moral sentiments and the modern liberal principles I endorse will always happily correspond with the demands that flow from “the reality of the Lord’s things.”
I felt that collision some years ago. An acquaintance was married to a Jewish man. She had been raised Catholic, and converted before the wedding. They went on to have a large family. He became more observant. She followed suit. Their family was a pillar of the Orthodox synagogue. She called one day, wanting to come over to talk. I was a bit surprised. She was not a close friend. It seemed awkward. But I said, “OK.”
She said she was having doubts about the course of her life. She was thinking more and more about Jesus. She knew that I was a Christian writer, which is why she came to me, hoping that I could help her. She implored me, “What should I do?” I hesitated in the face of this terrible question. Eventually I answered, “Oh, Anne, you have to be careful and remember what this might mean for your husband and children.” She looked at me with sadness in her eyes.
Cessario’s analysis of Edgardo Mortara’s fate did not evoke in me memories of the dreadful history of Christian persecution of Jews. I was thinking about Anne—and my counsel to her. Had I betrayed the Lord by commending the natural good of the family over the truths of my own faith?
The “things of the Lord” ennoble us, true, but often only after an agonizing process of conformity to his purposes, which are not our own. I fear I have too often evaded that conformity, sometimes because of my loyalties to secular pieties—diversity, pluralism, and personal choice, among others. This evasion was the target of Cessario’s review.
From its very beginning, First Things has been a venture in which Jews and Christians have worked together. We have not downplayed our differences. Ours is an ecumenism of dogmatic affirmations arrayed against a secular world that wants faith to be subjective, private, and innocuous.
This does not mean indifference to the concerns of the other. Had I told the story of Mortara, I would have emphasized the fatal role secular power can play when put into the hands of ecclesiastical authorities. As John Paul II put it, the Church proposes; she never imposes. And I hope I would have given proper regard to the anguish of memory that weighs upon my Jewish friends.
Cessario proceeded otherwise. He emphasized the powerful logic of a Catholic belief in sacramental efficacy. He makes suspect moves. His defense of the theological cogency of Pius IX’s actions relies on the assumption that baptism creates a duty for the Church to educate a child, a duty that overrides the rights of parents. (Given this premise, one wonders why Pius did not remove children from nominally Catholic parents who failed to catechize their children. Was Edgardo targeted because he was Jewish, not simply because he was baptized?)
That said, Cessario, a priest, is perhaps more perceptive that I am about our spiritual challenges. Today, Catholicism is not tempted to take up the sword and restore the temporal powers Pius IX possessed. Instead, we are riven by debates about divorce, remarriage, and communion. This week, a German archbishop opined that perhaps it is time for the Church to discuss the possibility of blessing gay relationships. And Catholic parents are more concerned about getting their children into elite universities than ensuring sound instruction in the faith. These and other erosions of the faith suggest a crisis of confidence in God’s irrevocable deeds and our call to honor them with all our hearts, minds, and souls—a crisis that, Cessario warns, will be exacerbated by a too-facile reading of this terrible episode.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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