Kidnapped by the Vatican?: The Unpublished
Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara. By
Vittori Messori, Ignatius Press, 2017.
Edgardo Mortara case is often used as a truncheon to strike the moral
legitimacy of the Catholic Church. A
young boy from a Jewish family had been baptized without his parents’
knowledge, and after a great deal of controversy, Pope Pius IX decided that the
Church had a duty to raise the child and assure his Catholic upbringing. The case generated a vast amount of
anti-Church sentiment, and is widely credited with being an instigating factor
in the general dissolution of the Papal States.
the introduction to Kidnapped by the
Vatican, the case is succinctly outlined:
“The circumstances of the case are
straightforward. At the time of the
incident, the Mortara family resided in Bologna, within the Papal States that
were under the rule of Pope Pius IX.
Contrary to the law at the time, the Jewish family employed a Catholic
nursemaid, who surreptitiously baptized the infant Edgardo when he was at the
point of death. The infant unexpectedly
recovered; later, when the circumstances became known, the Mortara family was
informed that since Edgardo was now a baptized Catholic, they would have to
give him a Catholic education, as the law in the Papal States required for all
Catholic children. Pressured by
anticlerical forces, the parents steadfastly refused, requiring the pope to
remove the child from his family in order to provide that Catholic education.
If one rejects the objective truth
of the Catholic faith, then the Catholic confessional state, represented by
Pope Pius IX as ruler of the Papal States, had no right to “impose its beliefs”
and remove a surreptitiously baptized child from the care of his Jewish parents
in order to assure him a Christian education.
If, however, one accepts the teachings of the Church about the effects of
the sacraments and the conditions for eternal salvation, might one not conclude
that the pope had not only the right, but also the duty, to do as he did? Should the pope have put greater weight on
the considerations in favor of the parents, or on the eternal salvation of the
Christian child’s soul? Whichever
decision he made, one day he would have to answer for it before God.”
notes that “The Church has always forbidden the Baptism of Jewish children
without their parents’ consent.” Since
the infant Edgardo was baptized by his Catholic nursemaid when he was thought
to be dying, Edgardo was therefore licitly a member of the Church. Messori does an excellent job explaining,
comparing, and contrasting the different worldviews at play here, from the
parents who wanted their son, to the government forces that sought to discredit
the Church, to the clergy who concluded that they had a moral duty to make sure
that all children brought into the Church received a proper religious
opening to the book stresses that there were deep religious, theological,
political, and emotional forces at work in the Mortara case.
“Why was the Mortara case such a cause
célèbre in the second half of the nineteenth century, and why did it remain so
controversial that it was the primary objection to the recent beatification of
Pope Pius IX, almost a century and a half later? The case sits at the crossroads of the
greatest social transformation of modern times: from a fundamentally religious
view of the world to a fundamentally materialistic one. Those two views can lead to diametrically
opposed conclusions about the Mortara case.
Promoting the welfare of its
citizens has always been seen as a legitimate concern of the state, perhaps the
primary one. Throughout the United
States and Europe today, the state is considered to have the right even to
remove a child from his parents to protect the child’s physical and emotional
well-being; this has been done in situations in which the child was deprived of
proper medical care, left unattended in a parked car, allowed to play unwatched
in a public park, or even subjected to secondhand smoke. Although people differ on the merits of
particular cases, by and large we accept the principle that at some point the
welfare of the child justifies the state’s intervening and overriding the
parents’ right to care for the child– but only temporal, not eternal, welfare
is usually considered.
But what if the teaching of the
Catholic Church is true? What if, once
created, the human person lives for all eternity, and the nature of that
eternity– whether perfect bliss or unending misery– is dependent on the
sacraments and on the person’s moral formation?
Then should not the same principle that gives the state the right to
intervene for the physical welfare of the child five the state the right,
perhaps even the duty, to intervene for the eternal welfare of the child as
This book has been
published for multiple reasons. Not only
does it seek to provide the Church’s side of the story, it contains an almost
never-before seen document: Mortara’s own memoirs and account of his life and
his relationship with Pope Pius IX. This
autobiography has been sitting in an archive for decades, and Mortara’s
perspective is overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the Pope and the Church, and
Mortara is absolutely devoted to his vocation as a priest.
first half of the book is Messori’s account of the case, along with details
about how the story was told (and sometimes distorted) in the press and in
academia (though amazingly, no one else who has written about the case seems to
be aware of Mortara’s memoirs), and how the case has been fictionalized in
As a priest, Mortara
“I am a Catholic on principle and by
conviction, ready to respond to attacks and to defend even at the cost of my
blood this Church you are battling.
I tell you that your words deeply
offend my honor and my conscience and oblige me to protest publicly.
I am intimately convinced, by the
whole life of my august Protector and Father, that the Servant of God Pius IX
was a saint. And it is my conviction
that one day he will be elevated, as he deserves, to the glory of the altars.”
This book is bound to
provoke controversy. In most of the
accounts of the case, the Church’s actions are seen as being utterly wrong, and
authors and pundits make no bones about their disapproval. Yet as Messori briefly alludes to but does
not go into much detail, governments around the world have been doing similar
things for comparable reasons, and many are still doing so. (Messori’s comment about the U.S. being
particularly hypocritical on certain matters is based on a valid criticism, but
Messori is complaining about the mote in the United States’ eye while ignoring
the plank in Europe’s (and other continents’) eye.) Indeed, multiple European countries are
debating if the state should take away children because the government deems
their parents’ religious beliefs excessive, or because the parents want to
homeschool, or even because the children may be overweight– some activists are
arguing that such children need to be wrenched from their parents and placed on
a state-sponsored diet and exercise regime.
Governments all over the world have split up families in order to raise
children in the style they deem best, but many of these cases have been largely
relegated down the memory hole. Many of
the confiscated children have not wound up as happy and well-adjusted as
“For Mortara, telling how things
really had happened was also, and perhaps most importantly, a duty of justice
toward Pius IX, who had been attacked, vilified, and threatened because of the
“abduction of the Jewish child” and who instead deserved a hymn of thanks,
affection, and gratitude. The pope
himself had told him many times, his voice breaking with emotion: “You have
been for me the son of Providence, but also the son of tears.”
Throughout his memoirs,
Mortara expresses the deepest possible affection for his family, but also for
Pius IX, and his Catholic faith is very deep
Kidnapped by the Vatican? was
published with the realization that many events of the Mortara case will
re-enter the public consciousness soon.
Steven Spielberg is planning to make a movie about the case, and the
Weinstein Company is also working on its own film version of the story. A historian who has written about the case
has recently won a Pulitzer Prize for another book critical of the Church, a
popular historian has insisted that Mortara was sexually abused by top Vatican
officials, and Marvel Comics recently released a wholly fictional storyline
where Mortara became a priest but made it his life’s mission to bring down the
Church from the inside.
reading Mortara’s memoirs, it seems like these other interpretations of the
case are largely divorced from reality.
If the Mortara case is rediscovered today, Kidnapped by the Vatican? may become a central part of the
historical re-evaluation of these events.