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Why a 150-year-old kidnapping case has Catholics arguing today

The Edgardo Mortara case is as relevant now as it was in 1858.

Pope Francis leads the celebration of the Vespers, on the...
Francis’s papacy has galvanized Catholic debate over the relationship between church and culture.
Giuseppe Ciccia/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

One of the biggest debates taking place in the Catholic world right now is over an event that happened 150 years ago.

Earlier this month, Dominican priest Romanus Cessario, OP, a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, wrote a controversial book review in the right-leaning Catholic magazine First Things. The book in question was Kidnapped by the Vatican? the newly published memoirs of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy living in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, soon to be part of unified Italy.

As an infant, Mortara was baptized during an illness without his family’s consent by his Catholic nanny, who believed he was near death. However, Mortara survived, and five years later, the baptism came to the attention of Bologna’s inquisitor, who ordered Mortara removed from his family by police and made a ward of the Catholic Church. He was relocated to Rome and remained under the personal supervision of Pope Pius IX. Despite the Mortara family’s well-publicized efforts to get their child back, Pius steadfastly refused to allow Edgardo to be returned. He later became a Catholic priest and expressed gratitude at the events that had led him to Christ.

Nonetheless, the case became an international scandal in the 1850s and ’60s. Cessario’s views on the ordeal proved no less controversial in 2018, as his piece on the Mortara case became a lightning rod for wider Catholic questions about the church’s relationship to modern liberalism.

Cessario saw the Mortara case as a triumph of Catholic doctrine

Cessario defended the decision of the Catholic Church, then under Pope Pius IX, to place what was — in Cessario’s view — divine law over secular concerns. While he admits the case was heartbreaking for Mortara’s family, he sees it as a triumph of the idea that baptism is irrevocable and that those who are baptized, with or without their consent, must necessarily be raised in concordance with the Catholic faith.

“Divine Providence,” Cessario concluded, “kindly arranged for [Mortara] being introduced into a regular Christian life.”

Cessario dismisses 19th-century critics of the church’s decision as anti-Catholic bigots; he focuses on how it galvanized anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, sidestepping wider questions of severe anti-Semitism in Europe at the time and Pius IX’s dubious relationship with the Jewish community overall. (For starters, Jews in the Papal States were required to live apart from Catholics in specially designated “ghettoes.”)

Ultimately, Cessario concludes: “Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions — the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son. One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim.” In other words, he defended Pius’s act as a triumph of Catholic principle over secular concerns.

The Mortara case still resonates with many Italian Jews today

The backlash was swift. A number of outlets, including the Jewish-American magazine the Forward, condemned Cessario’s review. They noted that it seemed to defend a blot on Catholic history that is inextricable from the anti-Semitism of the time and that still polarizes Italian Jews today (as late as 2000, Italian Jews were protesting the beatification of Pius IX over the case).

For many Jews, the Mortara case is a hideous stain on Catholic-Jewish relations (albeit one of many), a reminder of a time when Jews were treated as second-class citizens in a Catholic theocracy. Mortara’s removal from his family was the natural culmination of a whole system of policies designed to render the Papal States’ Jews strangers in their homes.

The Forward ran a piece on the controversy with the headline “Catholic Magazine Justifies Kidnapping, Converting Jewish Baby.” Scholar Robert T. Miller wrote that First Things’ editors “ought to know better than to drag up this old nonsense, and they deserve to be roundly vituperated for doing so much damage to the good relations Richard John Neuhaus and his many Jewish collaborators at First Things were able to build over so many years.”

Other Catholic commentators were no less critical. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Herald called the review “inexcusable.” Massimo Faggioli of the progressive Catholic magazine Commonweal wrote that the review betrayed a reflexive, knee-jerk traditionalism that “ignores completely the development of Catholic teaching on Jews and Judaism, on religious liberty, and on the freedom of conscience approved by Vatican II, confirmed and repeated by all the popes of the post-Vatican II period.” Even the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian whose sympathies generally lie with ecclesiastic tradition, called Cessario’s “coldness” “breathtaking.”

First Things editor R.R. Reno ended up publishing a defense of the piece. In it, he attempts to stave off accusations of anti-Semitism by pointing to his Jewish wife and praises Cessario’s willingness to challenge the assumptions of modern liberalism, saying Cessario challenges him to remember that “I must not imagine complacently that my natural moral sentiments and the modern liberal principles I endorse will always happily correspond with the demands that flow from ‘the reality of the Lord’s things.’”

But in order to understand the controversy around Cessario’s article, it’s important to realize what, exactly, Catholics are fighting about. The controversy over Mortara is not only about accusations of anti-Semitism. It’s also about the ways different Catholic camps conceive of the challenges of — and appropriate response to — modern liberalism, a divide that has only deepened under Pope Francis’s controversial papacy.

The Mortara case is a Rorschach test for views on modern liberalism

Cessario’s brand of traditionalism, with its insistence that religious faith demands a “higher loyalty” at odds with “secularist” worldly ethical concerns, is at once a theological stance and a political one. It is also about the ways a nostalgic form of “traditionalism” — one that rejects the individual in favor of a focus on pure doctrine — has become a kind of identity marker both for right-Catholic scholars and thinkers and for political alt-right.

Faggioli notes the way Catholic religious conservatives and right-wing political views tend to feed on one another. Referring to the Second Vatican Council of 1959-’65 (or Vatican II), which was widely seen as an attempt to integrate the church into the “modern” world, Faggioli writes, “[O]ver the last fifty years we have seen how rejection of Vatican II has always been part of the resurgence of fascist political cultures among right-wing Catholics in Europe and in Latin America ... historically, Catholic fascism ... was a product of Catholic anti-liberalism.”

Within this paradigm, revisiting Mortara’s case also presents a referendum on the failures of modern liberalism and the focus on an individual’s happiness (whether it’s a teenager coming out as gay, a woman deciding to divorce her husband, or, as in the Mortara case, a child being permitted to stay with his birth family) at the expense of a greater metaphysical good. Some members of the Catholic right are suspicious of some of Pope Francis’s perceived flexibility on issues like LGBTQ relations and divorce, seeing them as an example of the church ceding ground to modern culture. Cessario and his brethren see the Mortara case as a positive example of a time when the church refused to do precisely that.

After all, the Mortara incident occurred in a time and place when Catholic canon law and political law were one and the same. It’s this era that many Catholic integralists — who say that Catholic doctrine should guide all social and political action, and that secular governments should cede to the pope — would like to return to.

The papacy of Pius IX, for many of these Catholics, exemplifies these qualities. Pius IX was the pope to commission the 1864 Syllabus of Errors, a document that’s still controversial among Catholics today. It explicitly rejects moral relativism, modernism, secularism, and the separation of church and state. By celebrating him, many Catholics also celebrate his hardline stance more generally. Cessario’s essay fits neatly into that tendency.

Cessario, like many on the right flank of the Catholic Church, exhibits nostalgia for a period in Catholic history when (in his view) the church stood fast against the evils of liberalism. Those who have opposed him aren’t just opposing his view on the Mortara case. They’re questioning the degree to which the Catholic right has become trapped by its own traditionalism, whether its reflexive reactionary tendencies have become more about signaling discomfort with liberalism than about advocating for what’s best for the church.

As Winters writes, “[Cessario and Reno’s essays] reveal exactly what is so hateful, extremist and myopic about the thinking of so many conservative Catholics these days. Adhering to an a priori theological claim, and relentlessly applying that claim with a pretended logic, in utter indifference to the human realities and other divine teachings at issue.”

The historical nostalgia for Pius IX is misplaced

What’s ironic, of course, is that the Mortara case isn’t actually an example of the Catholic Church reigning supreme. Rather, it’s an example of a church in crisis for both political and theological reasons. Many of the ultraconservative developments of the 19th century under Pope Pius IX were, in fact, defensive, desperate attempts to shore up support for waning Catholic influence.

Europe in the 19th century, after all, was in many ways embracing increasing secularism, threatening the Papal States’ political power in the face of Italian nationalists, who wanted to unify the fragmented city-states of the Italian Peninsula into a single country. (Spoiler alert: they pretty much did.)

Plenty of developments in the Catholic Church at that time were about holding on to and galvanizing an increasingly limited base. Pope Pius IX wouldn’t have had to write a Syllabus of Errors if he weren’t deeply, deeply worried that those “errors” — secularism, modernity, moral relativism, and more — threatened Catholic ideology.

To cite another telling example, Pius IX’s most famous theological development, papal infallibility — the idea that the pope cannot be wrong when speaking formally ex cathedra — was only codified during the 1869-’70 First Ecumenical Council of the Vatican. That council, ultimately, had to be abruptly suspended when Italian nationalists captured Rome, wiping out most of the Papal States forever.

Cessario’s essay was, at best, tone-deaf. While the intent may not have been anti-Semitic, Cessario remained stunningly oblivious to the way anti-Semitism and other political factors played a role in Pius’s relationship with the Jewish community overall, as well as to the lingering effects of the case on Italian-Jewish relations.

That doesn’t mean that Cessario is automatically wrong to raise the questions that he does. What’s interesting and valuable about his piece is that he is willing to ask whether a social or cultural model outside of modern liberalism is, or should be, viable. As a thought experiment, as well as a disengaged theological question about the “meaning” of baptism, it’s worthwhile. And if you are a believing Catholic, the Mortara case does raise interesting questions about where certain elements of doctrine end and human compassion begins.

But Cessario’s critics are right to see in his piece knee-jerk reactionary nostalgia, rather than a constructive effort to find a path forward, beyond the liberalism and individualism he decries. As Faggioli writes:

The original sin of the post-Vatican II era is that Catholic liberal-progressive theologians in the U.S. largely consigned Catholic tradition to a past that is forever past. This opened the way for conservative-traditionalist theologians to, if you will, ‘kidnap’ the tradition, re-baptizing it in an anti-historical, anti-liberal fashion, with the language growing ever more extremist as time has passed.

Faggioli calls for a third way or a middle ground — a way for Catholics to question and critique elements of modern liberalism without automatically seeking refuge in the past. He notes, “Many Catholics are eager to go beyond liberal, secular democracy but have no idea of what the post-liberal democracy world would look like.”

But for the church to navigate its place in the world, it may be forced to find out.

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