The abduction of a Jewish boy by the Catholic church that caused an international uproar

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
By David I. Kertzer
Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 350 pages

The Roman Catholic church has an extremely uncomplimentary history in regards to its relationship with the Jews. There’s a lengthy and sordid record of persecution, pogroms, forced baptisms, ghetto quarantines, and expulsions. Popes, prelates, and priests were not only aware of the intolerance, they were more often than not the instigators. Adolf Hitler credited the Catholic church with fomenting anti-Semitism throughout Europe, which culminated in his Final Solution:

“The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc, because it recognized the Jews for what they were …. I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the Church.” – Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933.

By the mid-19th-century, autocratic, monarchical governments in Europe were being overturned in favor of democratic republicanism. The Papal States on the Italian Peninsula represented one of the last vestiges of one-man-rule tyranny. In the midst of this revolution was an incident that became an international symbol of the struggle between the old rule versus the new.

In this excellent book, the author describes in detail the “Mortara Case.” In 1858, in the city of Bologna, which was part of the Papal States, information reached the office of the Roman Catholic Holy Inquisition that a six-year-old Jewish boy had been baptized as a baby by the family’s Catholic servant. Church law forbade that a “Christian” child could be raised by Jews. With permission from the Vatican, the inquisitor directed the civil magistrates to forcibly remove the boy from his family. The child, Edgardo Mortara, was immediately sent to Rome to be raised and indoctrinated into the Catholic religion by clerics. The abduction of Jewish children who had been secretly baptized was not uncommon.

Edgardo’s father strongly protested the kidnapping of his son. Such acts had been accepted as prerogatives of the Catholic majority in previous generations, but as Western Europe moved increasingly toward democracy, the affront became an unacceptable symbol of old rule. Jewish communities around the world were galvanized via their own newspapers. Ambassadors of many national governments lodged complaints with the “Holy See.” In the United States, Protestant pastors and journalists pointed to the Mortara Case as an example of the depravity of the papacy and Catholic system. Champions of Italian unification used the incident as a cause célèbre in the effort to relieve pope Pius IX of his significant territorial holdings (approx. 7000 sq. mi). Despite the mounting international outrage, Pius resisted returning Edgardo to his parents and actually took a personal role in raising the the boy (Edgardo eventually entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1873). When Italian military forces of the “Risorgimento” captured Rome in 1870, pope Pius IX reacted by excommunicating everyone who participated in or assisted the “rebellion.”

This is an excellent history of a very sordid affair. The author successfully juxtaposes the heartbreaking predicament of Edgardo’s parents and the father’s determined but unsuccessful efforts to rescue his son alongside the growing international pressure against the pope and his arbitrary religiosity. The author did his homework. The references to various records and testimonies are voluminous. Perhaps the only drawback to the book is the thirty-one pages devoted to the unrelated investigation and trial of Edgardo’s father on murder charges in 1871. The material detracts from the main topic, but it’s not a show-stopper.

This book was a finalist in the 1997 National Book Awards. Steven Spielberg is currently developing the story of the Mortara Case into a feature film.

Most contemporary Catholics would view the Mortara Case as an embarrassment and a product of “unenlightened, sectarian religiosity.” But how do today’s conservative Catholic apologists explain their church’s institutional anti-Semitism, which was advanced by allegedly Holy Spirit-guided popes and prelates and included the abduction of Edgardo Mortara from his parents that was personally upheld by the “Vicar of Christ”? They’ve shown they can shamelessly rationalize away every unflattering sensibility and event in their church’s past.

Postscript: In 1998, John Paul II became the first pope to issue an apology to Jews for all of the Catholic priests, prelates, and infallible popes of previous generations who promoted and supported anti-Jewish persecution. Click on the link below for a very recent story regarding pope Francis’ apologies for the anti-Semitism of popes and prelates in the past:

Catholics must continue seeking pardon for anti-Judaism, pope says
https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2019/01/16/catholics-must-continue-seeking-pardon-for-anti-judaism-pope-says/

20 thoughts on “The abduction of a Jewish boy by the Catholic church that caused an international uproar

  1. Yeah, the history of the Catholic church in regards to the Jews is abysmal. WW II was just another example. Sadly, today many use that to make a case of horrible things being done in the name of the Christian faith. Antisemitism is far from gone in today’s world, once again much of it is by those professing to be Christians. God is NOT done with Israel, and we cross that nation up at our own peril.

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    1. Thanks, Wally. Most Catholics aren’t even slightly aware of their church’s record regarding the Jews. It’s not the kind of history that the church wants to dwell on. The support of Jewish persecution by “infallible” popes is not easily explained.

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    1. Thanks, sister! The Catholic church had been underwriting anti-Semitism unchallenged for centuries, but the Jews in the West drew a line in the sand with this case and it became an international scandal. The parents were allowed to visit the child periodically, but always with priests and nuns present. The mother’s physical and mental health were seriously affected. I hope Spielberg is successful in turning this story into a film with a wide distribution.

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  2. I’ve never heard of Edgardo Mortara before. I am appalled. Romanism always manages to have another ugly chapter to it just when I thought I figured it out of how bad it is…thank you for this book review. I feel sorry for the boy’s father…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the good comments! I was very troubled myself by the injustice of the church’s (and pope’s) arbitrary position in this case while reading this book. But of course it was just one example of how wrong the church was in so many regards over the centuries in its attitudes and actions towards Jews. This has to be one of the best history books I’ve ever read. It was so well-researched that the detail was almost daunting. After about 20 pages I was ready to return the book to the library but I’m glad I persevered.

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      1. Its crazy to think this was not too long ago. It really shows how scary the Pope position can be. Catholics are now finding that out even themselves now with this current pope!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. RE: this was not too long ago.

        Yup, militant Catholicism persecuted non-Catholics (Protestants and Jews) via alliances with civil governments right up into the mid-20th century in many Western nations where Catholics made up the majority. Few are aware of that.

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      3. I wish people understood that more. Sadly for most people in the West history is their weakest subject along with Math…so its going to be hard for many to know these things happened and happened not too long ago

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      4. I’m guessing that most people are so ignorant of the Catholic church’s unflattering history that my posts would appear to them as Jack Chick-type conspiracy hysteria.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Yeah you got a point there but then when I see the publisher of the book you reviewed I realize I have read many books from that publisher as well and they have historical works published. Keep up the good work of reviewing books likes these!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Thanks! I’m grateful for books that examine Catholic history objectively. There’s enough unflattering truth in the church’s history without inventing outlandish conspiracy theories like Jack Chick did.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. By the way I’ve been generally behind reading blogs lately by a day or half a day. Yesterday took longer to get to this review since I was working on cutting branches from several trees, ministry, time with my family since its one of my kids birthday, etc. So that 70 degrees So Cal weather is something that leaves me spoiled to do things outside of the house in a time of the year that’s miserable for the rest of the country…

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  3. WOW! I’m glad I clicked into your review on this book! Thank you for reading and reviewing it. It is SO tragic, and unbelievably evil, that the Vatican got away with abducting, and then converting that young boy into a RC priest later on. I’ve never heard this story before, probably like so many others have not either. Curious – Did Edgardo ever meet his family later in life?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cassey, thanks for the good comments! In answer to your question, the church allowed Edgardo’s parents to visit him as he grew up, however, they lived 190 miles away. The meetings were all supervised so that there was no chance of the parents retrieving their son. Also, if the parents attempted to dissuade the child from following the Catholic religion, the visit would be ended.

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  4. Thank you for this book review! I had no knowledge of this history. I knew the Catholic Church was pivotal in promoting the anti-semitism of WWII but I never knew they took children out of their homes or forbade Jews to raise Christian children. This reminds me of when Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees for being hypocrites. He asked, “Why do you overstep the commandment of God because of your tradition?”… This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far removed from me. It is in vain that they keep worshipping me, for they teach commands of men as doctrines.” (Matthew 15:3,8,9). I have hope that God will soon remove the wicked from this earth so we can have peace (Psalms 37:10,11).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heather, thanks for the good comments. Yes, the evil of false (c)hristianity is eventually revealed by its fruit. Sorry it took so long to post your comment and respond. For some reason your comment was forwarded to my spam folder.

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