Up Front and Personal

Was This a Case of Papal Overreach?

by Father John Cush

The release of Vittorio Messori’s book, “Kidnapped by the Vatican?: The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara” has brought to light an important event in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century.

Back when the Papal States were a large part of the country that would be united as Italy in the 1870s, a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, was quite ill. His nanny, a Roman Catholic, took the sick child, without the permission of his parents, to be baptized. Eventually the young child recovered. It was a law in the Papal States, where his Jewish family lived, that all baptized children must receive a Christian education.

Local Catholic religious leaders attempted to convince Edgardo’s parents to raise the baptized boy as a Catholic to no avail, and to let Edgardo attend a Catholic school. At the order of Blessed Pope Pius IX, the boy was taken from his family in Bologna and sent to a Catholic boarding school in Rome.

As it turned out, Edgardo loved his Catholic education and even responded to the call he felt to be ordained a Catholic priest. In his own memoirs, he thanks Pope Pius IX for the gift of being raised in the faith.

The Mortara Case became an international scandal. Newspapers reported on this “kidnapping” and both Jewish religious leaders and politicians tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the Holy Father, Pius IX, to reverse his decision. This event was one of the factors in the Papal States’ dissolvement and is one of the factors that is holding up the canonization of Pope Pius IX. Steven Spielberg is releasing a film version soon of these events, as told in David Kertzer’s book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.”

A recent book review of “Kidnapped by the Vatican?” by noted theologian, Dominican Friar Father Romanus Cessario has caused quite a controversy. Father Cessario argues theologically that the Mortara’s removal from his parents was necessary, both theologically and canonically.

R.R. Reno, in his rebuttal to Father Cessario, writes: “The Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church.”

What do you think? Should a baptized Catholic child whose parents refuse to raise him or her in the Catholic faith be forced to do so? What does this historical event mean for us today? What does it say about Catholic-Jewish relations? What does it say about the Church and civil power? Please write in and let us know your thoughts.

The last word is left to Father Mortara himself: “There will come a day, yes, and it is not far away, in which, once they have stopped listening to the calumnies and the ‘Crucifige’ of the dregs of humanity, posterity will accept the poor arguments of the Mortara child so as to tie them into scented garlands of immortal flowers that will adorn and decorate the altar on which the Catholic world will greet, with enthusiastic acclamation, Pius IX, the Saint.”

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One thought on “Was This a Case of Papal Overreach?

  1. It is important to remember the standards of the times in which Father Mortara lived.In 19th century Europe the division between church and state was not at all prevalent. In the standards of those times it would have been more accepted to force a child into baptism to take the help of the church and then take that same child away from the parents to be raised by the church.
    IN modern society, such an action would have been completely deplorable. As Christians we are taught to evangelize, not to kidnap in the name of Christ.