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.