Why Some Catholics Defend the Kidnapping of a Jewish Boy

It’s not about the Church’s relationship with Jews. It’s about the culture war inside the Church.

“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” is a painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.
“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” is a painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.

One summer evening in 1858, the police showed up at the home of a Jewish family in Bologna, Italy, and took their six-year-old child. Authorities had discovered that the child, Edgardo Mortara, had been secretly baptized when he was a baby. Edgardo had fallen gravely ill and his Catholic nanny baptized him for fear that he would die a Jew and be locked out of heaven. But Edgardo survived—and, in the eyes of the Church, he was now a Catholic. Papal law mandated that all Catholic children must receive a Catholic education, and so he was separated from his Jewish family, with Pope Pius IX personally overseeing his religious education.

The “Mortara case” spurred a wave of protests, with activists and intellectuals from Europe and the U.S. petitioning Pius IX to return the child to his parents. The pope refused. Edgardo eventually became a priest, and in 1940 he died in a Belgian monastery. The Vatican never apologized for his kidnapping specifically. But in 2000, John Paul II issued an apology for the persecution of Jews. Today, the dominant Catholic attitude toward the Mortara case is one of regret: “It’s not one of the episodes that the Church is very proud of,” Massimo Faggioli, a Church historian at Villanova University, told me.

Now, however, conservative voices are defending Pius IX’s decision to abduct a Jewish boy. In the latest issue of First Things, a right-leaning Catholic magazine, the Dominican priest and theologian Romanus Cessario wrote a review of Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara, which recently appeared in English translation. In the book, author Vittorio Messori, an Italian Church historian, goes through Mortara’s personal archive and defends the abduction. Likewise, Cessario calls the law upon which Pius IX acted “not unreasonable” and casts Edgardo’s kidnapping in a positive light: “Divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life.”

Cessario’s essay spurred strong reactions within the Catholic world. Michael Sean Winters, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, called it “morally repugnant” and “intellectually deplorable.” Catholic intellectual Robert George called it “an embarrassment.” Meanwhile, the Mortara family is upset that some people have the chutzpah to defend the abduction today: “It really hurt, when we heard some are still defending Pius IX,” Eléna Mortara, the great-granddaughter of Edgardo’s older sister, told me. She said that Edgardo’s kidnapping has always been an open wound for the family, “something we still discuss at every Passover,” even if it sometimes provokes dark humor: “We had this inside joke about being the only Jewish family with a priest uncle.”

The Mortara case has, in recent memory, been a source of tension between Catholics and Jews. When the process of beatifying Pius IX began 18 years ago, the Italian Jewish community protested. The descendants of the Mortara family wrote an open letter to John Paul II, asking him not to make the man who’d kidnapped their relative into a candidate for sainthood who would be publicly venerated. Pius was beatified anyway. Today, however, Steven Spielberg is making a film about the Mortara case, and Eléna Mortara says that defending the kidnapping has become “a very marginal position.”

So what’s driving some conservative intellectuals, like Cessario and Messori, to defend it? Anti-Semitism does not appear to be their motivation. “I hold Jewish people and the Jewish faith in high regard,” Messori told me. “It’s where Christianity came from.”

Rather than being about Catholics’ attitudes toward Jews, the debate about the Mortara case today is more about a war raging inside the Catholic Church. Since the Second Vatican Council, which addressed the Church’s relationship to the modern world, the Church has progressively changed its posture toward secular morality, a process that has accelerated under Pope Francis. This change has led to discontent in the most traditionalist sectors of the Church.

“There is a backlash. It has been going on for 30 years, but now that we have a progressive pope, it’s getting stronger,” Faggioli, the historian, told me. The defenses of the Mortara kidnapping are part of what he described as “a full-fledged culture war” inside the Church: “They’re saying that what the Vatican has done in the past 30 years is wrong, and we should go back to Pius IX’s days, when the only thing that counted was the law of the Church.” Defending the Mortara abduction now, he added, is a “way to attack, indirectly, the direction that the Church has taken.” Other progressive Catholics have expressed a similar interpretation in recent days.

It’s worth noting, however, that when some traditionalists defend the fact that their Church kidnapped a Jewish boy, they’re not just waxing nostalgic about the good old days when an almighty pope could do as he pleased. They’re making a larger theological argument—about divine doctrine trumping human morality, and about religion taking precedence over civil rights.

Both Cessario and Messori are quite explicit about this. “Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” Cessario writes. It’s a rhetorical question. In his book, Messori makes a similar point, encouraging a return to a Katholischeweltanschauung, or Catholic worldview, in which the salvation of the soul is deemed more important than other concerns.

In their eyes, that’s what the Mortara case comes down to. Yes, taking a little boy from his parents is horrible. Yes, it goes against all our moral intuitions as human beings. But Pius IX was answering to a higher moral authority, one rooted in Catholic doctrine. And that doctrine obliged him to save Edgardo’s soul. It was, Messori said, a painful decision: “Pius was aware of the drama that he was inflicting, but he had no choice.”

Not every traditionalist subscribes to the view that kidnapping a baptized Jewish boy is commendable. Many cringe at the idea; for instance, Catholic traditionalist scholar Joseph Shaw insisted that the Mortara kidnapping is “one of the most indefensible actions by any pope of modern times.” Traditionalism is a wide galaxy of conservative Catholics that encompasses those who would go so far as to repeal Vatican II as well as those who simply wish that Francis were a bit more cautious. But the Mortara case highlights a belief that is dear to many of them: Revealed doctrine must be upheld even when it conflicts with what some would call “universal human values.”

As Francis softens the Church’s stance on homosexuality, remarriage after divorce, and other issues, some traditionalists are discomfited by an approach they describe as anthropocentrism—putting secularly-derived human values, as opposed to transcendent values, first. They see the Church as dramatically changing its position, from demanding that human beings adapt to its teaching, to adapting its teaching to human values.

“There’s always a tension between Catholic and secular morality,” Dan Hitchens, a deputy editor at the Catholic Herald, told me. Many Catholics, he said, “are increasingly skeptical about the ideal of a neutral, secular authority. Partly this is because of recent experience.” He cited, as an example, a new Canadian government decision stipulating that “to receive certain kinds of government funding, churches have to sign up to respect ‘individual human rights.’ But as of last month, these rights turn out to include abortion.”

The notion that there’s an intrinsic tension between religious morality and secular morality has historically convinced some European nations that keeping organized religion out of the public realm is a prerequisite for democracy. This is visible not only in France’s laïcité, a strict flavor of secularism, but also in Italy’s recent history. When the modern Italian state was born, only three years after the Mortara case, Italian nationalists openly opposed the Vatican and clashed with papal troops. Pius IX reacted by forbidding practicing Catholics from voting in the country’s elections. The voting ban, however, was revoked in 1919. Although some understand Church ethics to be immutable, in practice, that hasn’t been the case. Throughout its history, the Church has always tried to strike a balance between its moral system and the dominant moral systems of the time.

The Church and its followers are still trying, as the recent Mortara flare-up shows. Even those who slam the defenders of the kidnapping admit that there’s a non-trivial theological issue at the core of the debate. The Mortara case “raises important issues,” Hitchens told me, “but I’m not sure it raises them in the best context.” Conservative Christian thinker Rod Dreher, who called Cessario’s argument “grotesque,” nevertheless writes: “Theologically the Mortara case is a challenging question, because Christians really do believe that baptism is a permanent thing. We really do believe that Christianity is objectively true. Plus, modern people have to be very careful about judging the acts of people from much earlier ages by our standards today.”

It seems that in their desire to attack Francis’s approach, traditionalists are weaponizing an old narrative that, however objectionable, does contain a genuine theological issue that intellectually honest Catholics cannot easily dismiss. Perhaps it’s only by reckoning with this issue on the level of theology that they’ll be able to finally defuse the weapon.