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