Kidnapping For A Higher Purpose?

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Steven Spielberg is supposed to direct the movie, if it is ever made. Apparently, the movie was delayed because Spielberg jumped into making The Post. Now, there is no production schedule for The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

If it is produced, the movie will become a ripe opportunity to criticize the Catholic Church. And, depending how the Church responds, the criticism will be deserved, because it was the Church that did the kidnapping.

The Mortara case dates to the 1850s in Bologna, a city in the Papal States (before the establishment of modern Italy). A Jewish family’s infant son became terribly sick and looked as if he might die. The nanny, a Catholic, secretly baptized little Edgardo.

Edgardo survived. Five years later, in 1858, Edgardo’s secret baptism became known. On June 23, police came to the Mortara residence and took Edgardo from his family, declaring that he was Catholic, and had to be raised as such. Edgardo became a ward of Pope Pius IX, who oversaw his education.

To add intrigue to this drama, Edgardo apparently took to his Catholic education so much that he was eventually ordained a priest. Father Mortara, who died in 1940, wrote a memoir, in which he praises Pope Pius IX. It was published in 2005, but translated into English only last autumn.

Even if Edgardo Mortara adapted well to the Catholic faith, could such an abduction could be justified?

Father Romanus Cessario, a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, justifies it. In a review, written for the publication First Things, Father Cessario states:

“[Laws] of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing that his parents could not … In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life.” 

Father Cessario makes the point that Pius strongly believed that spiritual matters were always more important than temporal matters; arguing that such a belief left Pius no choice in raising the baptized Edgardo.

But, even if Pius is said to be following his conscience, his actions were wrong. You do not rip a child from his parents unless there is some type of abuse. And being raised Jewish is not abuse. 

Father Cessario isn’t cold-hearted. But that doesn’t affect his view:

“No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above … This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son …”

This can be only “understandable” in the strictest, literal, and legalistic interpretation of Christian teaching and Baptism. I tread lightly in disputing a respected theologian, but the reading from Matthew 10:34-35 (in part, “it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set son against father …”) hardly is a call to invade homes and kidnap children.

Pius IX was pope for an extraordinarily long time, 1844-78. Such a lengthy papacy is likely going to include both successes and failures. He is actually known as Blessed Pius IX, having been beatified in 2000. His case for beatification began in 1907 but was reportedly sidetracked by some of his controversial actions, including the Mortara affair. But Pius IX also defended and promoted the faith. He oversaw the first Vatican Council, and constantly fought battles against modernism, moral relativism, and secularization.

In the Mortara case, Pius IX faltered in not recognizing the dignity of the family, even if it’s seen in a temporal light. Our faith constantly emphasizes family as a foundation. We point to Christ, who arrived as a baby and was raised in a family (impeccable Jewish mother and father, by the way), not a temple. 

In his letter about families, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes: 

“The covenant of love and fidelity, lived by the Holy Family of Nazareth, illuminates the principle which gives shape to every family … On this basis, every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world.

“ ‘Nazareth teaches us the meaning of family life, its loving communion, its simple and austere beauty, its sacred and inviolable character. May it teach how sweet and irreplaceable is its training, how fundamental and incomparable its role in the social order.’ “

Part of that quote comes from Pope Paul VI. So, most popes do know the importance of family.

Going back to the Edgardo Mortara saga, and Father Cessario’s review, it’s encouraging that not only Archbishop Charles Chaput criticized the review, but so did First Things editor R.R. Reno.

The drama reminds me of a true story I read, titled, “The Merit of a Young Priest.” It involved a Jewish couple in Poland, in 1942, who gave their son to a Catholic family, before they were shipped off to a Nazi concentration camp. The Jewish mother requested that, should she and her husband not survive, their son be sent to relatives and raised in their religion.

The Jewish couple did not survive, and the Catholic mother considered keeping the boy and baptizing him in the Catholic faith. She consulted a young priest who, upon hearing the whole story, refused to perform the baptism and instructed that the boy be sent to his Jewish relatives. The young, Polish priest was Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and former teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.