Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Kidnapped by the Vatican?: The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara.  By Vittori Messori, Ignatius Press, 2017.

 The 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.

 In 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.”

 Messori 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 education.

 The 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 well?”

 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. 

 The 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 popular culture.

 As a priest, Mortara once wrote:

 “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 Mortara.

 “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.

 After 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.

–Chris Chan