Cardinals and bishops in Vatican City on February 2, 2018. Franco Origlia/Getty Images.
In 1858, a boy named Edgardo Mortara became famous throughout Europe and beyond when, two months shy of his seventh birthday, he was seized from his family’s home in Bologna to be raised as a ward of the Catholic Church. Edgardo was taken from his mother and father not because they were cruel or negligent, but because they were Jewish. As an infant, he had been secretly baptized by his family’s Catholic maid, which meant that he was, by the Church’s definition, a Christian—and according to the laws of the Papal States, to which Bologna then belonged, it was forbidden for a Christian child to be raised by Jews.
The Mortara case, as it is called, was long a point of special bitterness for Jews, particularly in Italy. For at least some Catholics, it has also been a continued source of shame—which no doubt helps account for the furor that has greeted a controversial review of Mortara’s newly-translated memoirs. The review, by the Dominican theologian Romanus Cessario, has two things in common with the memoirs themselves: both are the work of Catholic priests—Father Edgardo Mortara, thirty-seven when he wrote his own account of the case, had already been ordained for seventeen years—and both were written not to condemn but to praise the men who took the child Edgardo from his family.
Cessario’s review, published in the American journal of religion and politics First Things, has not only resurrected old arguments—historical, theological, and political—over Edgardo’s once-notorious seizure. It has also sparked a debate, among Catholics and others, that has expanded rapidly to encompass fundamental questions about the present-day Church, its claims to authority, its relation to the Western liberal political order, and—inextricable from the rest— its relation to Judaism.
The passions surrounding the Mortara case have their immediate roots in both the dramatic circumstances of Edgardo’s life and the resolute strangeness of the society in which he lived. The world of the Papal States collapsed only on the eve of the American Civil War, yet for most Americans and American Jews it must be in many ways as remote as is medieval Christendom. That this world should be intruding upon us now, when the immemorial issue of Christian-Jewish conflict might seem to have been consigned to the dead past by the scars of the 1940s and the ecumenism of the 1960s, is a reminder of nothing so much as William Faulkner’s dictum that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I. The Case
After his seizure by the military police on the evening of June 23, 1858, Edgardo Mortara would see his parents but rarely, and would never return to the apartment in which he had been born. Instead he was taken to Rome, many days’ journey from Bologna, there to be raised and educated under the guardianship of a man he had never met.
The Papal States, in which Bologna then lay, had been carved out of the receding territories of the Byzantine empire in late antiquity and ruled by the popes ever since. Until 1870, when their last province would vanish into the newly united Italy, they marked Europe’s last exercise in ecclesiastical government, persisting tenaciously in a world of republics and nation-states; in them the pope, long past the medieval zenith of his power, still reigned as both spiritual and temporal leader. The Church’s Code of Canon Law thus had the full force of civil law behind it when it stipulated that a Christian child could not be raised by Jewish parents.
Father Pier Feletti, the Dominican inquisitor of Bologna, had been informed that, when still an infant, Edgardo had fallen deathly ill and been baptized by his family’s Christian maid, Anna Morisi. In theory, it was illicit by canon law to baptize a Jewish child without the consent of its parents, but exceptions were allowed in instances, like Edgardo’s, where a child was held to be in danger of death. Moreover, as a contemporary compendium of church doctrine emphasized, once a baptism had taken place, the consequences were the same whether it was licit or not: “baptism given in situations where it is not licit to give it remains, nonetheless, valid,” and those baptized were henceforth members of Christ’s mystical body, the Church. In such cases, “the baptized children should not be returned to their Jewish parents but raised by Christians in the Catholic faith.”
So it would have made no difference if, as both the Mortaras and their family doctor tirelessly maintained, Edgardo had never in fact been deathly ill. To the untutored eye a frightened Jewish child, he was a Christian nevertheless, and was therefore taken to the House of the Catechumens in Rome so that he might become outwardly what he already was in spirit.
The Mortaras’ own contemporaneous accounts of the events following Edgardo’s removal diverge radically from those of the Vatican hierarchy and the pro-papal press. The historian David Kertzer relates that, at his next encounter with his father Momolo, who had come to Rome on a futile quest to petition for his release, Edgardo “lovingly told his father that his most ardent wish was to return home, and . . . took comfort in Momolo’s assurances that he would not leave Rome without him.” By contrast, the Polish bishop Joseph Pelczar described a creature of saintly self-possession who had calmly asked his father, “Why do you cry? You see that I am fine here,” and expressed the devout hope that Momolo, too, would receive baptism.
Pelczar’s version was echoed by the Jesuit periodical Civiltà Cattolica, which reported that Edgardo “showed a marvelous happiness” as soon as he entered the House of the Catechumens, declaring “that he did not want to be anything other than what he was, that is, a member of Christendom”; for now, he said, “I am baptized and my father is the Pope.”
Indeed, as in many subsequent Catholic treatments of the Mortara case, Pelczar and Civiltà Cattolica not only attributed a marvelous sanctity to Edgardo but saw in him nothing less than an alter Christus, “another Christ.” Pelczar’s narrative itself eerily echoes the description, in the Gospel of Luke, of the boy Jesus rebuking his parents when they find him in the Temple: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Edgardo’s future meetings with his parents were subject to the same divergent interpretations. The illness into which Marianna Mortara fell after her son’s removal prevented her from reaching Rome until October. When she at last saw Edgardo, she would report, he “always showed his affection for me and his desire to return to his family and to his religion, and always recited his Jewish prayers with me. . . . He had lost weight and had turned pale; his eyes were filled with terror.”
Civiltà Cattolica proposed a different source for this terror: Marianna, seeing a medallion of the Virgin Mary hanging around her son’s neck, had ripped it off in a fit of rage, exclaiming (as a Catholic weekly in Bologna added), “I’d rather see you dead than a Christian!” Marianna’s alleged propensity for violence against the innocent would have come as little surprise to readers of Civiltà Cattolica, which ran frequent accounts of the ritual murder by Jews of Christian children.
But why did this relatively unremarkable incident become notorious throughout Europe and America, a cause célèbre eliciting the ire of the English-language press, the Rothschild family, and the Emperor Napoleon III? After all, the government of the Papal States seized Jews against their will for indoctrination and baptism often enough during the 19th century; Kertzer, to whom we owe the standard English study of the Mortara case, counts 47 such instances in Rome alone during the years 1814-1818. Even the precise details of Edgardo’s removal—the purportedly grave illness of a baby, the baptism by a Catholic servant, the seizure of the child on the testimony of a single witness—had been reenacted in enough Jewish households to assume a kind of banal familiarity.
That a routine occurrence became an international scandal was due in part to the unique historical moment during which it unfolded, as the rising autonomy and self-confidence of Europe’s Jews intersected with the declining fortunes of a papacy whose temporal power had outlived its perceived moral authority. But more than this, it was due to the actions and identity of the man who became Edgardo’s de-facto guardian and surrogate father, and who refused to restore him to his family in defiance of the condemnations and exhortations of rabbis, diplomats, and parliamentarians. This was Pope Pius IX, or Pio Nono, bishop of Rome and ruler of the Papal States.
It is uncertain whether the pope knew who Edgardo was before his removal, but as the news of the incident spread he could not help becoming involved: as the head of both church and state, his was the final word on all public calls and private requests for the boy’s return. As they multiplied, Pius became increasingly adamant in his refusal, answering them all with the terse Latin tag non possumus: “we cannot.” Yet he also took a personal interest in the child, involving himself in his education and establishing an annuity to support him. As he wrote to Edgardo in 1867, “you are very dear to me, my little son, for I acquired you for Jesus Christ at a high price.”
By that time Edgardo, too, had come to see the pope as his father. Two years earlier, at the age of thirteen, the boy—who had already lived longer as a ward of the Church than in his own family—had changed his name to Pio Edgardo Mortara, becoming a novice in the priestly order of Canons Regular of the Lateran. Whether or not his conversion had been the spontaneous miracle depicted by the Catholic press, it was, by now, an accomplished fact. Only two years later, he would later recount, he was sending letters to his parents “dealing with religion and doing what I could to convince them of the truth of the Catholic faith.” To these exhortations they were unresponsive, however, telling him that the letters had “nothing of me in them outside of my name and signature.”
In 1873, in a monastery in Poitiers, France, Edgardo was ordained a priest at the relatively youthful age of twenty-one. Thereafter, Father Pio Edgardo Mortara, a prodigious polyglot, spent much of his career traveling across Europe, preaching sermons in six languages. Many of them, drawing on his own inspirational story, had as their goal the conversion of the Jews. In this, as with his own parents, he is reported to have met with little success.
Meanwhile, one by one, the other protagonists in the drama left the stage. Momolo died in 1871, two years before Edgardo’s ordination, to be followed by Pope Pius in 1878 and Marianna in 1890. Fr. Mortara himself died in 1940 as an old man of eighty-eight, having survived the last of his parents by 50 years. By then, Bologna had seen explosive industrial growth, Mussolini’s accession to power, and the Aryanization of its university; three years after his death, much of the city center, where he had been born, would be flattened by Allied bombs.
Edgardo, however, died far from Bologna, in an abbey near Liège, Belgium, having spent most of his adult life outside of Italy. Famous throughout Europe as a child, he lived long enough to be largely forgotten as both Europe and its Jews turned their attention to matters more urgent than the fate of a single child. Had he lived a few years longer, he, too, would likely have died as he was born, a Jew.
II. Liberalism, Anti-Liberalism, and the Catholic Church
The Mortara case epitomizes a world that the institutional Church, in the wake of the Shoah, has sought strenuously to put behind it. In its 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), the Second Vatican Council repudiated both the traditional Catholic anti-Judaism championed by Civiltà Cattolica and the disdain for Jews and Judaism underlying Edgardo’s seizure. In marked contrast to such attitudes, the Council, alluding to the apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, proclaimed that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.” For many if not most American Catholics today, the Mortara case is a reminder of a part of the Church’s history that is best forgotten.
At first glance, then, this would seem an especially odd time for a distinguished journal of Christian thought like First Things to take up the defense of Pius IX. Yet, to a certain contingent of Catholics, Pius is still a hero—not necessarily for his handling of the Mortara affair, but primarily for his sweeping and uncompromising opposition to the heresies of modernity. Among those heresies, according to his 1864 encyclical known as the Syllabus of Errors, are political liberalism, religious pluralism, and the separation of church and state.
As it happens, all three of these “errors” are cornerstones of the liberal democratic order that has prevailed in the West since World War II. That order is now held by many to be failing, endangered—its opponents say—not only by its enemies without but by its own internal contradictions. A kind of anti-liberalism has therefore become a defining political impulse of the current moment, common in various centers of opinion across the left-right spectrum but taken up with particular fervor by some Catholic intellectuals.
Opposition to liberalism may not seem like a novelty; Americans are accustomed to hearing “liberals” denounced on Fox News and talk radio. But the noun “liberalism,” as it is now defined by its educated opponents, signifies something much broader: not the ideology of a particular political coalition or party but the entire political and philosophical tradition—deriving from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and others—that places the rights-bearing individual at the center of the moral cosmos, elevating it above the claims (in particular) of community, tradition, and revelation.
In this sense, most modern American conservatives have been liberals themselves, as rhetorically committed as their political opponents to individual liberty and autonomy. Democratic and Republican politicians of the past 70 years have, like their European counterparts, differed less in their adherence to these principles than in what they’ve taken to be their limits and their proper sphere of application. And the same has been true, in the West at least, of most ordinary people. In other words, liberalism is not just the leading political philosophy of the post-World-War II era but its dominant ethos. Why, then, are a growing number of Catholics rejecting it?
In part, because they have never been comfortable with it. Catholic social teaching, with its concern for the collective care of the poor, sits as uneasily with economic liberalism as does Catholic sexual morality with social liberalism. And beneath these tensions lies a deeper incompatibility. Liberalism and the dominant intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church conceive of liberty, self, and the state in antithetical ways.
In liberal thought, liberty means primarily freedom to choose, freedom from constraint, freedom from coercion. It is thus morally neutral: since the purpose of the state is, at bottom, to guarantee the liberty of its subjects, the state must remain agnostic regarding competing conceptions of the good life. It cannot, for example, legislate in favor of the moral code of Christians without impinging upon the liberty of atheists or Zoroastrians.
This requirement of moral neutrality is captured in Mill’s famous “harm principle”:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
By contrast, to Augustine—who arguably shaped Catholic thought more decisively than any other figure after the apostle Paul—liberty is not simply freedom from constraint but a real moral and metaphysical quality, with which we were endowed at our creation but of which we have been deprived by sin. In a sense, to act wickedly is the same thing as to lack liberty; I cannot have the liberty to sin, because liberty and sin are mutually exclusive.
Once we define liberty in this way, as a moral quality inconceivable apart from goodness, then it is clear that the state cannot maximize the former while ignoring the latter. And the incompatibility with liberalism runs deeper. Whereas, for Mill, liberty applies to the individual, to the Catholic Church the moral life is inescapably corporate, and no line can be drawn, as Mill wants to draw it, between the good of one person and that of society. The moral harm we do to ourselves is also visited on others.
From this it might be concluded that the ideal Catholic polity is one that orients its citizens toward their collective salvation. That conclusion is the foundation of the political philosophy known as Catholic integralism, which has seen a revival in recent years—and which finds in the Papal States its last historical exemplar. Integralism may not be a necessary consequence of the Church’s understanding of liberty and the moral life—or if it is, it is a consequence most Catholics have studiously avoided for the past century. But it is illustrative of the profound tension between that understanding and the ideals of the liberal state.
Given this, it is not surprising that Catholics have been among the most trenchant and perceptive critics of the liberal order. In terms alternately probing and excoriating, well-known Catholic philosophers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre have been analyzing the weaknesses of liberalism for decades, and have done so not as voices in the wilderness but from within the heart of Anglo-American academia.
To be sure, most Catholics (like most people) are not philosophers, and the philosophical inconsistency between the Church’s and the modern state’s conception of liberty was, for a long time, of concern to relatively few of them. For decades the most prominent Catholic intellectual in America was William F. Buckley. Today, his brand of “Christian individualism” looks as liberal as a Toyota Prius, and few even of his disciples would advocate it. By contrast, a philosophically consistent Catholic anti-liberalism is newly prominent. The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig cites Augustine and Taylor in support of socialist economic policies, while The Benedict Option—an influential tract advocating Christian separatism by the conservative ex-Catholic (now Eastern Orthodox) Rod Dreher—takes its title and inspiration from the end of MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue.
What is now happening, in other words, is not so much the “return of Catholic anti-liberalism”—to cite the title of a recent article about, tellingly, the reemergence of the Mortara case—as its introduction into the mainstream of American political and religious discourse. That this mainstreaming should be taking place now is a consequence not only of the unprecedented weakness of the liberal order but also of a deepening rift within the Church itself.
The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), the most important event in the Church’s recent history, initiated a series of sweeping reforms to both liturgy and doctrine: the Mass was translated from Latin into the vernacular; the Church attempted, without relinquishing its exclusive claims to authority, to enter into dialogue with other Christian communions; and, in Nostra Aetate, its traditional teaching on the Jews was revised.
The watchword of Vatican II—aggiornamento, or “bringing up to date”—neatly captures the council’s primary objective, which was to bring the Church into dialogue with modernity. But the idea of “dialogue” has about it a fatal vagueness: what I call a fruitful dialogue may look to you like no more than a promising start, and to someone else like abject surrender. Those three interpretations correspond roughly to three significant factions in Catholic debates today: those for whom Vatican II was a valid enterprise that has accomplished its purpose; those for whom its spirit dictates further reforms yet to be realized; and those for whom it was a disaster. The three are usually dubbed conservative, liberal, and traditionalist.
Whether or not Vatican II itself was a disaster, it did little to forestall or contain the disaster that it was intended, in part, to prevent. Writing less than a decade after the fact, the critic Wilfrid Sheed pungently captured the vertiginous pace of the Church’s demographic implosion by the late 1960s:
[S]uddenly ex-Jesuits were pouring out in beards and atrocious sports shirts. . . . Habits of a lifetime . . . fell like dominoes. . . . Prayers, fasts, even Sunday Mass itself came off in one piece. . . . God’s foot soldiers, the middle-aged middle-class parishioners, downed [their] rosaries and defected in thousands to the prevailing life-styles, adopting even [that] barbarous word. . . . Deprived of their regular brow-beating, they turned out to be just like Americans.
The sexual revolution, which to Sheed lay at the root of this collapse, is also at the center of the Church’s current conflicts. Perhaps the most hotly contested of Pope Francis’ reforms are those that seem to liberalize the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics. Of these, none has been more controversial than the move toward offering communion to the divorced and remarried: persons whom the church, which holds marriage to be indissoluble, has traditionally regarded as adulterers.
The reason the Church holds marriage to be indissoluble is that marriage—just like the baptism that Anna Morisi gave to Edgardo Mortara—is a sacrament. And although to outsiders it may seem strange that apparently modest shifts of emphasis concerning the sacraments should be so hotly contested, they are momentous for Catholics because of what they imply about the nature and destiny of the Church itself. The questions being raised about them are at once practical and theological—concerning not only what the Church should do in order to survive and flourish in the culture of the increasingly post-Christian West, but also what it can do to accommodate that culture while still remaining itself.
Like all traditional Christian denominations in Europe and America, the Catholic Church has suffered gravely from the effects of secularization. The flight of Sheed’s “middle-class parishioners” has never really stopped, even if it has been somewhat offset by immigration and conversion. Just as damagingly, the Church’s seminaries and monasteries, which emptied precipitously in the 1960s, have never really refilled, though anecdotal evidence suggests some signs of renewed life.
This demographic precariousness forms part of the background to the present debates. The fundamental dividing line in Catholic polemics today, as the Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen argued in a prescient 2014 article titled “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching,” is between those who think that the Church should come to some kind of working arrangement with liberal modernity and those who believe that no such arrangement is possible.
Thus, many of those who support the Francis-era reforms argue that the Church’s parishioners are, like it or not, modern people, with modern needs that it must accommodate if it wishes not to lose them. By contrast, their opponents—noting that an endless series of accommodations on the part of mainline liberal Protestantism has done nothing to halt its enfeeblement—say that people will have no reason to choose Christianity over a secular world from which it has become indistinguishable.
Beneath the practical arguments there lie more fundamental debates about the nature of Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church’s claims to authority in particular. For those who support them, the reforms mark a long-needed prioritization of mercy over legalism: not a “doctrinal” change, but a “pastoral” attempt to assuage the suffering and isolation that characterize the present age. For those who oppose them, including many conservative and traditionalist Catholics, they are a foolish gambit, opening the door to abortion and euthanasia and sacrificing the Church’s authority and truth at the altar of bourgeois individualism. In other words, they are not a response to the challenges of the age but a capitulation to its spirit. Unsurprisingly, some of these Catholics have already come to agree on a name for that spirit of the age—one that sums up its amoral hedonism, its narcissistic drive for self-fulfillment, and its reckless disregard for the lives of the weak and the unborn. Its name is liberalism.
In this conflict, it is the accommodationists who hold the institutional power, and who seem to have the ear of the pope. But it is their opponents—the “radicals,” as Deneen calls them—who are full of passionate intensity. To them, the accommodationists are the stodgy establishment, while they are the insurgency; and they are animated by all the fervor, camaraderie, and creative energy characteristic of insurgents.
At the same time, they are also turning inward. MacIntyre’s great indictment of liberalism in After Virtue was embedded in a grand narrative linking Catholic moral thought to the Homeric epics, the Greek polis, the paintings of Rembrandt, and the novels of Jane Austen. By contrast, many of Deneen’s radicals are “not interested,” as the Anglican literary scholar Alan Jacobs laments, “in finding intellectual resources outside the Catholic tradition (narrowly conceived) or in hearing commentary from outside the Catholic tradition.” They speak, increasingly, only to each other.
This is in part because, having discovered that liberalism is the enemy, they now see it everywhere. “Liberalism” can mean everything one dislikes about modernity, or everything from which one wants to dissociate oneself. Particularly on social media, the quarrels of many “radicals” against other Christian confessions combine polemical intensity with playful contempt in a way that seems puzzling only until one realizes their true target: if not Vatican II itself, then what they see as its facile, liberal ecumenism, which asked Catholics to set aside their particular claims to authority in the interest of Just Getting Along.
If a large part of the energy animating online polemic comes from the transgressive thrill of violating ecumenical pieties, behind it lies an entirely earnest conviction: that the truth of Catholicism, if it is to serve as a bulwark against the annihilating spirit of modernity, must be asserted over and against all other truth claims. The Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule, who like many Catholic radicals is a convert from Protestantism, has summed up this sentiment elegantly:
[T]here is no stable middle ground between Catholicism and atheist materialism. One must always be traveling, or slipping unintentionally, in one direction or the other.
It is here that contemporary Catholic concerns run up against the question of Judaism. It’s clear enough where Vermeule’s former confession, the Episcopal church, sits on the slippery slope between Rome and the abyss. But what is Judaism’s place in this picture of the world? If Vatican II’s conciliatory attitude toward other Christian confessions must be rejected as liberalism, why not its conciliatory teachings on the Jews?
III. The Debate over the Memoirs and Their Reviewer
This, then, is the background against which First Things published its review of Mortara’s memoirs. Curiously, its author, Romanus Cessario, seems to have been only secondarily interested in the memoirs themselves, evidently composed in Spanish by Father Mortara in 1888 and published in Italian only after his death. Rather, Cessario’s principal purpose was to forestall “wrong and unwarranted interpretations” of the Mortara case and to show that the Church’s refusal to return Edgardo to his parents, despite a firestorm of international criticism, was motivated solely by “piety, not stubbornness.”
At its heart, Cessario’s essay is a technical argument about baptism. He seems sincerely convinced that—once they “acquire a right understanding of baptism and its effects”—readers will accept that Pius was merely doing what God’s will bound him to do and will grasp why Edgardo Mortara’s removal from his family was not only right but inevitable.
One of the surprising things about the review is that it appeared in First Things at all. This is not just because the magazine’s founder, the late Richard John Neuhaus (another Protestant convert to Catholicism), was a noted philo-Semite, or because the journal has published many fine Jewish scholars who would probably take a less sanguine view of Pius’s actions than does Cessario. It is also because, in its early years, First Things was generally speaking a “neoconservative” publication, whose editors believed the values of the Church to be in principle reconcilable with the ideals of the American founding. It was, in other words, liberal in the broad sense.
It’s true, though, that Neuhaus’s philo-Semitism came coupled with a curious defensiveness on the subject of Christian anti-Judaism, which his successors at First Things have inherited; almost every significant study of the subject written in the past twenty years (including Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews, David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, and Jeremy Cohen’s Christ-Killers) has been savaged in its pages. Correlatively, its attitude toward liberalism has also shifted markedly; in recent years, it has come increasingly to serve as a mouthpiece for radicals and integralists who, as its senior editor Matthew Schmitz enjoins, “renounce liberalism, and all its pomps and works.”
On baptism in particular, at least one First Things author has staked out an unambiguous position. In a 2012 article titled “Conscience and Coercion,” Thomas Pink wrote, in opposition to a common interpretation of Vatican II, that “The coercive authority of the Church, and in particular her authority punitively to enforce obligations to Catholic faith and practice on the baptized, is still fundamental to modern canon law” (emphasis added). The subtitle of the article: “Vatican II Changed Policy, not Doctrine.”
Cessario’s essay thus represents the natural convergence of a growing anti-liberalism, a jealous regard for the Church’s authority, and a defensiveness about the Jews. If the essay’s explicit thesis is that the Church’s actions in the Mortara affair were a just exercise of its power, then its implicit claim is that those actions could be condemned only on the grounds of a specious liberalism.
To this way of thinking, the lesson to be drawn from the Mortara affair is a simple one: Church and liberalism are inimically opposed. One must choose, and accept the consequences that this choice entails. “Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” This, the closing sentence of Cessario’s essay, poses the choice starkly.
Was the essay itself conceived as a means of forcing that choice upon its readers? If so, it was a singularly inept one. Despite hoping to “forestall wrong and unwarranted interpretations” of the Mortara case, Cessario neglects actually to review the book of Mortara’s memoirs (translated into English by Michael J. Miller) that he is ostensibly writing about. Had he done so, he might have noted that—as Kevin Madigan notes in Commonweal—its editor, the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, “interpolates his own language (sometimes entire paragraphs) and bowdlerizes or excises Edgardo’s own language.” Or he might have remarked on several disturbing features of Messori’s lengthy introduction, which he instead cites approvingly—for example, that it quotes sources out of context so as to distort their meaning; or that it defends the papal ghettoes as an act of benevolent paternalism inspired by the Jews themselves; or that it attributes the opposition to Edgardo’s seizure to a Masonic conspiracy.
But Cessario is not inclined to question Messori too closely, because—like Messori and like the 19th-century Jesuits of Civiltà Cattolica—he sees in the Mortara case the mysterious workings of Providence, which “kindly arranged for [Edgardo’s] being introduced into a regular Christian life.” He does not pause to wonder why Providence bestowed its kindness so seldom on lapsed and unobservant Catholics, and so often on Jews.
Running alongside and contrasting strangely with this faith in Providence, a peculiar sense of grievance pervades the essay. Cessario complains of “prejudiced manipulation of the Mortara case”—like, he presumes, Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming adaptation of David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. He notes plaintively that “the Church offered to enroll Edgardo in a Catholic boarding school in Bologna, but his parents refused.” He is also alive to questions of religious persecution—specifically, of Catholics. The Mortaras’ “Gentile sympathizers,” we are told, were guilty of “exacerbat[ing] anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States” by publicizing the case. Anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, by contrast, is passed over in silence: Cessario mentions the Papal States’ exclusionary regulations prohibiting Jews from employing Christian domestic servants, but only in order to castigate the Mortaras for violating them.
Even the article’s title, Non Possumus (Pius’s “we cannot”), is associated by Cessario with the words of the 4th-century bishops martyred by the emperor Diocletian: “We cannot live without this thing of the Lord.” Like Pius himself—who wrote to Edgardo that “people lamented the harm done to your parents [but] no one showed any concern for me, father of all the faithful”—Cessario is clear that the true victim in this affair was the pope.
In reading Cessario’s review of the memoirs, as in reading Messori’s introduction to them, one is struck by a peculiar tone that both of them share with the 19th-century Catholic accounts of the case—a subtly histrionic quality. It is as if all the authors had agreed beforehand on the literary genre to which the Mortara case belonged: a kind of clerical version of the contemporary romances of Alexandre Dumas, full of weeping mothers and kidnap plots, peopled by characters of great piety, benevolence, and inflexible principle who shine all the more brightly against the shadowy backdrop of malice and conspiracy that threatens them.
That Cessario’s review would be poorly received was thus not difficult to anticipate—though evidently neither Cessario himself nor the editors of First Things did in fact anticipate it. The latter, for their part, soon began backpedaling, giving over the magazine’s Twitter account to a sequence of notable past articles by Jewish contributors. Within a couple of days the editor, R.R. Reno, posted on the magazine’s website an essay entitled “Judaism, Christianity, and First Things” in which he discussed his struggles as a Christian with the Judaism of his wife and children, and attempted to stand by Cessario while simultaneously distancing himself from his opinions.
None of this prevented the controversy sparked by the article from spreading, first from social media to a variety of Christian publications, and thence to mainstream outlets like Vox and the Atlantic. Reno’s own efforts met with scorn both from those who thought he had disavowed Cessario and from those incensed that he hadn’t. On Twitter, prominent Catholic conservatives expressed their dismay over the review and were promptly denounced as “liberals” by a coterie of First Things readers. One contributor, the Catholic University of America’s C.C. Pecknold, lauded a treatment of the Mortara case by the 19th-century American preacher and Catholic convert Orestes Brownson, in which the Jews were likened to Shylock seeking his pound of flesh. Another, Adrian Vermeule, hit (in a related argument) on a defense of Church malfeasance apparently inspired by the paranoid Soviet notion of encirclement: they had no other option, liberalism made them do it.
Another strange thing about the controversy, as it unfolded thereafter, was the marked absence from it of Jews. It is not just that they were absent as participants. For a long time they were absent as subjects, too, largely ignored by defenders and attackers alike. To Commonweal’s Massimo Faggioli, Cessario’s essay revealed mainly that he and his defenders were antediluvian traditionalists “obsessed with continuity.” Robert T. Miller, writing for the Witherspoon Institute, tied First Things’ treatment of the Mortara affair to the “galloping statism” of the magazine’s economic positions, as if the destruction of Jewish families were an evil roughly on the order of financial regulation. In the American Conservative, Rod Dreher, after forthrightly assailing the anti-Jewish bias of Cessario’s review, raised the specter of the progressive state’s removing Christian children from their homes to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, while Damon Linker’s treatment of the case opened with the declaration that “Catholic anti-liberalism is back.”
In other words, most critics carried out the argument within the terms in which Cessario and his defenders had framed it: the state against the individual, tradition against modernity, the supernatural (baptism) against the natural (the family), and the “requirements of faith” against “putative civil liberties” (note the sardonic “putative”). The signal large exception to this was the ecclesiastical historian Kevin Madigan, who excoriated Cessario in Commonweal for perpetuating Christianity’s classic anti-Jewish “teaching of contempt.” Madigan aside, however, critics and defenders alike agreed that the Mortara affair was primarily about the clash of elemental, opposed principles.
These oppositions, in turn, inexorably led back to the fundamental conflict between the Church and liberalism. In that view of things, both Cessario’s essay and its defense by others could be identified as opportunities for Christians to demonstrate publicly their commitment to the anti-liberal cause—acts of “performative heartlessness,” as the critic B.D. McClay memorably described them.
Still, it does not follow, from the idea that they were a performance, that they were not also about Judaism, or that they should be of no concern to Jews. Christian behavior toward the Jews has itself been part of a performance for centuries. To understand what that performance meant in the Mortara case, and what function it serves in the present-day Catholic polemic against liberalism, we need to turn precisely where Cessario turns—to baptism.
IV. Baptism and Sacramental Realism
In her novel The Violent Bear it Away, the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor presents the averted baptism of a little boy first from the rationalist perspective of his father, the cultivated atheist Rayber, and then, chapters later, from the perspective of Rayber’s nephew, the backwoods prophet Francis Marion Tarwater:
[Tarwater] felt a hush in his blood and a stillness in the atmosphere as if the air were being purged for the approach of revelation. . . . The sun, which had been tacking from cloud to cloud, emerged above the fountain. A blinding brightness fell on the lion’s tangled marble head and gilded the stream of water rushing from his mouth. Then the light, falling more gently, rested like a hand on the child’s white head. His face might have been a mirror where the sun had stopped to watch its reflection.
Tarwater, drawn by an irresistible compulsion to baptize the child, has seen clearly what his uncle only half-glimpsed: the overpowering weight of the sacred surrounding them, charging a beam of sunlight, the heaviness of the air, with the terrible immanence of God. O’Connor’s novel thus conveys, more vividly than can a theological treatise, the view of the cosmos that underpins the Catholic understanding of baptism.
In that view, the world is not divided into mind and matter, as in the philosophy of Descartes. Nor is God a divine watchmaker who stands outside His creation looking in; rather, He pervades it, as in Isaiah: “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Material things—not gold, or incense, or rubies but the humblest of everyday things, like bread, wine, and water—are at the same time vehicles of the divine presence.
This presence does not pervade all of creation equally; it inheres, in a particular and special way, in this loaf of bread, not that one, in this glass of wine, not that one. In Catholicism’s self-understanding, the sacraments—the eucharist and baptism above all—are an extension of the logic of the incarnation: the belief that God entered history at a particular time as a particular person.
Indeed, it would be just as true to say that the sacraments are one of the chief signs of the Church’s consciousness of its Jewish origins, a reminder to itself that the God it worships is historical and not abstract: that, in the words of Blaise Pascal, He is the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.” Hence the dogged insistence of the early Church Fathers that the bread and wine of the eucharist were in truth the body and blood of Jesus—thereby convincing many of their refined pagan contemporaries that they were cannibals.
If this insistence on the sacramental acted as a safeguard against an excessive “spiritualization” of religion, it also became a safeguard against the obverse—what the modern German sociologist Max Weber would call the “disenchantment of the world,” that slow, fitful, uneven process by which God and the gods came to be banished from the cosmos, leaving us a universe empty save for our selves. In this process, the agonizing self-questioning of Protestant theology over the nature of the eucharist—is it merely spiritual? Is it symbolic? Is it an act of commemoration?—marks a pivotal stage in the transition to a world where bread is always, in the end, just bread.
In such a world, we have, as Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, come “disembedded” from the cosmos—and not only from the cosmos but from society; the moral demands and needs of others no longer penetrate us as they used to. We have, bit by bit, become that characteristic creature of liberal political thought—the rational, self-interested, autonomous individual. Liberalism in this sense, as a means of organizing the world predicated on God’s absence, is the opposite of the sacramental.
As Weber’s critics have rightly argued, however, a disenchanted cosmos never remains disenchanted; it must be filled up again with new gods. Among such gods we might include rights: those characteristically liberal artifacts toward which many Catholic anti-liberals direct the same hard-headed skepticism with which secularists greet accounts of miracles. MacIntyre writes: “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.” The question is therefore not, “do you believe in invisible and unverifiable things?” but rather, “in which invisible and unverifiable things do you believe?”
The choice between the liberal and sacramental views of the cosmos could be seen as a choice between rival gods, or rather between God and Mammon. You cannot worship both; you must choose. To combat liberalism, you must unhesitatingly affirm the validity of the sacraments; to affirm the validity of the sacraments, you must deny (or subordinate) the reality of rights.
Baptism, in its original form, was an immersion in water—the element of primordial chaos out of which God created the world, and to which, in the time of Noah, He almost returned it. That is to say, baptism is not just a washing but a birth and a death, and arguably as irreversible as either. As Cessario writes, quoting Paul: “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Pius’s actions in the Mortara case could thus be understood as a logical consequence of the materiality of the divine: regrettable, perhaps, but necessary, because the mysterious workings of God take precedence over the rights of the individual.
This, in essence, is what R.R. Reno argued in defending his decision to publish Cessario’s article:
I did not publish Romanus Cessario’s review of Edgardo Mortara’s memoir in order to rehabilitate Pius IX. Nor did I want to encourage Catholics to kidnap Jewish children who had been baptized in secret. . . . My purpose in bringing this episode forward was to confront us with the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees.
But Reno misspoke. The Mortaras were not solitary, rights-bearing individuals but members of a community with its own claim upon “God’s irrevocable decrees.” The baptism and seizure of their child were predicated on the opposite assertion: that those decrees can, in fact, be revoked.
V. The “True Israel”
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Genesis 12:2)
I will establish my covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant. . . . This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. . . . So shall My covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. (Genesis 17:7-14, emphasis added)
The account of God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis is foundational to the communal identity of both Judaism and the Church because it narrates the origin of a historical community to whose legacy both lay claim: the people of Israel, set off from all others by its covenanted relation with the one true God. Yet, when read literally—a practice for which Christianity has always chided Judaism—this passage contains several claims that were to pose a problem for later Christian commentators.
First, it claims that the community with which God makes His covenant is defined primarily by descent (while allowing for the possibility of conversion). Second, it claims that the covenant is everlasting. And finally it claims that the requirement of the covenant, the means by which the people as a whole affirms its collective identity, is male circumcision. Pious Jews in any age—as Edgardo’s memoirs claim the Mortaras were—would have had their sons circumcised, because circumcision is not simply a sign of the covenant; it is the covenant itself, “in your flesh.”
These features posed a dilemma for early Christianity, a fiercely missionary faith that had originated as a Jewish movement but soon began to seek Gentile converts. When it did, certain questions became inevitable. What was the status of those Christians not descended from Abraham “according to the flesh” (in Paul’s phrase)? Must they be circumcised? Must they observe the dietary regulations and other aspects of the Mosaic law? Paul’s negative answer to these questions was buttressed, and the rapid spread of Christianity was made possible, by a transvaluation of the requirements of the covenant:
For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart. (Romans 2:28-29)
If this method could be used to include Gentiles in the covenant, it could also be used to cast Jews out:
For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel. . . . [I]t is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. (Romans 9:6-8)
Even so, Paul cannot say, or cannot bring himself to say, that the covenant God said would last forever is now simply abrogated: “As regards the gospel, [Jews] are enemies of God,” he writes to the Gentile church in Rome, “but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29, emphasis added)
This last sentence, which Cessario cites to defend the seizure of Jewish children—and which Reno cites in his own defense—is in Paul, ironically enough, an affirmation of Israel’s continuing election. How then is one to reconcile it with his claim that the Jews are “enemies of God”? Later theologians have sought to extract from these seemingly antithetical statements a consistent interpretation. Considered as a human document, however, the statements display a tension in Paul’s thought that is unresolved and perhaps unresolvable. The same ambivalence pervades the Gospels: an inescapable expression of the tension between Christianity’s need to appropriate to itself the authority of the covenant and the danger posed to that authority by its radical reinterpretation of the covenant’s demands.
The New Testament bequeathed this ambivalence to subsequent Christian thought, but with the passage of time it came to mean something quite different, both emotionally and morally. Whatever else it was, the New Testament was part of an argument among Jews and former Jews, animated by the pathos that impels our quarrels with our closest family. As the early generations passed, and the church increasingly became a Gentile phenomenon, its debate with Judaism lost this intimacy. In his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, the 2nd-century apologist Justin Martyr tells his Jewish interlocutor that the messiahship of Jesus is demonstrated “in your scriptures, nay, rather not your scriptures but ours.” The “we” who possessed the scriptures were no longer a Jewish sect but the Gentile Church, the True Israel: “Just as Christ is Israel and Jacob, so we who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ are the true Israelitic race.”
For this true, spiritual Israel, the sacraments took over the role that had been played by circumcision in the false, carnal one. Jesus himself was the new covenant, and thus the eucharist, his body and blood, was also the covenant: the “new and eternal covenant” cited by Catholic priests each Sunday at the climax of the mass.
The means by which one entered into the covenant, the sign of one’s membership in the community, was baptism. As the Gospel of John (3:5) had put it, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Church never forgot that Jesus himself had been circumcised; among the relics housed in medieval cathedrals were several purporting to be the sanctissimum praeputium or “most holy foreskin.” Yet toward the continuing practice of circumcision by Jews, Christianity increasingly evinced the same spiritualized disgust with which the pagan Romans had once regarded the eucharist.
And if baptism was a mark of entry into the community, it was also among the means by which the scriptures became “not your scriptures, but ours.” To read the Hebrew scriptures as Christianity classically has done— typologically, to use the technical term—is to see that all the events of the Hebrew Bible have their fulfillment in Jesus’ life, ministry, death, resurrection, and Church: Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea, that narrative of national birth, is but a “type” of the believer’s birth by “water and the Spirit.” Only in baptism is its true meaning revealed.
In the course of history, for reasons that are still debated, the early, vigorous Jewish-Christian disputation over the meaning of scripture and covenant gradually gave way to a Christian monopoly. As a result, as the Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Christian doctrine felt able to go its own way, without engaging the rabbis in a continuing dialogue.” But although it now had the field to itself, Christianity did not relinquish the debate. Rather, it continued to prosecute its arguments against Judaism long after there were no Jews to answer them.
In the process, the Judaism of early Christian polemic began its transformation into what David Nirenberg in Anti-Judaism calls the “Judaism of thought,” a language of opprobrium available even to those who had never met a Jew. The Jews imagined by later Christian invective were less a practicing religious community, whether present or past, than a complex, endlessly variegated symbol through which Christians carried out their internecine arguments: “weapons,” as Nirenberg says of Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish tracts, “forged for service in conflicts with other Christians.”
Nevertheless, the Christian tradition of argument adversus Iudaeos (“against the Jews”) endured. Precisely “because the victory of Christian theology over Jewish thought came more by default than by conquest,” Pelikan writes, “the question of the relation between the two covenants has returned over and over to claim Christian attention.” Christianity had perpetually unfinished business with Judaism, and with Jewish truth claims.
Those Jewish claims could not be refuted on the basis of any shared authority—Jews and Christians had come to read scripture in irreconcilable ways, and in any case Christianity’s inheritance of the covenant was fundamentally validated not by exegesis but by claims to a new revelation. But if Jewish claims could not be disproved, neither could they be ignored. According to the “doctrine of Jewish witness” that the western Church inherited from Augustine, the Jews carried and preserved Christianity’s own scriptures even as they demonstrated, in their subjugation and wandering, the victory of the messiah whom they had rejected.
Judaism thus presented Christianity with an inescapable trap, for its claims could be neither disproved, nor acceded to, nor destroyed, nor forgotten. In their obdurate blindness, the Jews could only be—again and again, and always temporarily—subjugated. And anti-Jewish polemic consisted of more than argument; it was also enacted symbolically. The sacraments—both the sign of the Church’s continuity with the fleshliness of the Jews, and the means by which it claimed to supersede them—were the central symbols by which this polemic was carried out.
The medieval “blood libel,” still propagated by the Catholic press of Pius’s time and given new life by the Nazis, held that Jews sacrificed Gentile children to use their blood in Passover matzah. This ritual, confessions to which were extracted by torture well into the early modern period, elegantly inverted the historical relation between Jewish and Christian religious practice: the Passover matzah was not the historical progenitor of the eucharistic bread, as in the Gospels, but its demonic mirror image.
The blood libel, like the related charge of host desecration, enacted Christianity’s symbolic triumph over the Jews in narrative. But the triumph could also be enacted more concretely. Our first, fragmentary records of the forced baptism of entire Jewish communities date from the 5th century. In the 6th, Pope Gregory the Great lamented that “Many of the Jews dwelling in [Arles and Marseilles] have been led to the baptismal font more through the use of force than by preaching.” In the 7th, Jews throughout the Byzantine empire and the Iberian peninsula were presented with the choice between baptism and expulsion.
In the 11th century, crusaders passing through the Rhineland on their way to the Holy Land paused long enough to massacre many of its Jews while baptizing others at the point of the sword. In the 14th, the Jewish quarters of cities throughout Spain and Portugal were flooded with mobs crying “let the Jews convert or die.” In the 17th, the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible commanded the Jews of a city he had just conquered to receive baptism, and—displaying a keen eye for symbolism—drowned the refusers in the Dvina river. In each instance, the waters of baptism, source of life and vehicle of divine grace, became instruments of death and subjugation.
Coerced baptism of Jews was frowned on by the Western Church’s most eminent theological authorities. Augustine discouraged it, the papal decretals forbade it, and Thomas Aquinas specifically enjoined against baptizing a Jewish child without the parents’ consent. If the practice persisted, it was because it filled a need. Like the blood libel, forced baptism demonstrated symbolically what could not be demonstrated by argument: the Church’s supersession of the carnal Israel. The Christian who baptized a Jew at sword-point demonstrated not only the powerlessness of that Jew but the impotence of Judaism, the hollowness of its claims to the covenant, and the contrasting glory of Christianity. In the humiliation and subjection of his fallen rival he beheld the image of his own election.
The symbol of the Jew, like all symbols, did not remain static; it accrued new meanings over time, though without ever entirely losing its old ones. In the 12th century, as the historian Jeremy Cohen writes in Living Letters of the Law, Western Christianity’s encounter with both Islam and internal heresy dislodged the Jews from the unique role to which Augustine had assigned them. This, however, did not lead to a bettering of their condition; on the contrary, the special role of “witness” had previously afforded them a kind of protection. Now, alongside the “wandering, exiled Jew of the older Augustinian tradition” there grew up the “Talmud Jew” of the later Middle Ages: “Talmud-heretic, deliberate unbeliever, agent of Satan, and enemy of God, His revelation, and His church.”
With this change of the Jew’s image came the first systematic inquisitorial campaigns to convert him. Like the image of the Talmud Jew himself, these campaigns were pioneered by Fr. Cessario’s Dominican order, which pursued them with a zeal that routinely transgressed the boundaries drawn by kings and popes. Their objective was straightforward. “Wherever they could,” Cohen relates in The Friars and the Jews,
the friars encroached upon the daily religious lives of the Jews. Burning or editing the books needed to sustain the rabbinic tradition, invading the privacy and sanctity of the synagogue, and instilling fear through mob violence all pointed toward the same end: inducing the Jews to accept Christianity, thereby destroying the Jewish community in Christendom.
This image of the Jew—the exemplar of heresy and unbelief—was in turn the progenitor of the image of the Jew that would one day supplant it, so familiar to us from the polemics of the 19th century: the Jew of modernity, urban and assimilated, whose emancipation marked the dawning of the age of materialism and disenchantment. Jews like the Mortaras, who spread out beyond the ghetto walls, living among Gentiles and giving their children Gentile names, signified by their very presence the precariousness of the Christian order. In their attempts at unobtrusiveness, they became only the more obtrusive, for the difficulty of distinguishing between Christian and Jew showed how perilously close the Christian was to all those things the Jew represented: apostasy, skepticism, godlessness. From symbolizing a past that Christianity had overcome, the Jews gradually came to symbolize a future it dreaded.
This is why the persecution of the Jews, pursued by soldiers, individual monarchs, and bands of friars in the medieval period, and sometimes actively discouraged by Rome, became a matter of official papal policy only in the early modern period following the loss of half the Church’s territories to Protestantism. The ghettoes, established in 1555, and the House of the Catechumens, established in 1548, were weapons directed against the Jews but especially against all that they represented. The Church’s Jewish policy is inseparable from its long struggle with modernity.
By the 19th century, one part of this policy had manifestly failed: the ghettoes no longer served their crucial symbolic function of keeping Christian believer and Jewish unbeliever separate. To a Church beleaguered and diminished, soon to lose the last vestiges of its temporal power, the baptism of the Jew thus came to mean something very different from what it had meant to the powerful medieval Church: no longer an assertion of Christian victory but a rearguard action against nationalism, Protestantism, liberalism, and all the corrosive powers of the modern age.
Historians of anti-Judaism tend to emphasize that its development is not linear; archetypes of the Jew do not neatly supplant their predecessors, like a line of kings; rather, each takes up its eternal place beside the others in the Christian imagination, like a pantheon of gods. In the Mortara case, and in the reactions to it, we can see each of these gods incarnated: Paul’s carnal Israel, one day to be saved, reflected in the sentimental press accounts of Edgardo’s piety; the child-sacrificing “Talmud Jew,” embodied in the depictions of Edgardo’s wrathful mother; and the “wandering, exiled Jew” of the Augustinian tradition, reborn in the wandering, exiled Father Mortara. And finally, there is the Jew of modernity: the boy whose baptism, upbringing, and vocation, preserved against the collective will of infidel press and apostate kings, testified to the battered Church’s continuing glory.
VI. Blank Pages
The Jews, as the Catholic writer Eve Tushnet recently wrote, are
the consistent sticking point in every Catholic political fantasy. . . . And every reimagining of Catholic politics which is not explicitly and uncompromisingly opposed to Jew-hate will be slowly corroded by it.
If so, this is not just because, as Tushnet says, “Judaism is in certain important senses true.” It is also because the Unbelieving Jew plays so central a role in the drama of Christian anti-modernism that it is hard to see how that drama can be restaged without him.
The role Edgardo Mortara played in the drama of his baptism—a drama about the inheritance of the covenant, the material power of the sacraments, the disenchantment of the world, and the survival of the Church—was a role that, for Christians, only a Jew could play. The tragedy consists in the inability of the playwright to distinguish the actor from the role. When the Church seized Edgardo Mortara from his parents, and when Fr. Cessario affirmed its actions in the name of defending faith against liberalism, they did what Christian anti-Judaism always does: transform the Jews into a cypher by means of which essentially Christian problems can be worked out, Christian battles fought, Christian needs reaffirmed.
This accounts for what, among all of the strange aspects of the Mortara affair’s long afterlife, is surely the strangest: that in a debate that is fundamentally about the materiality of the divine—the simple, concrete immediacy of God’s presence in the world—the living, breathing Jewish child at its center should remain so resolutely abstract. Bishop Pelczar’s description of Edgardo’s encounter with his father in Rome, with its deliberate allusion to the Gospel of Luke, shows that even then, only a month after his removal from his home, the concrete son of Momolo and Marianna Mortara was already vanishing behind the luminous image of the Christ child.
Even Father Mortara himself, when the time came to write about the Jewish boy he had once been, did so in the third person; one searches his memoirs in vain for any depiction of interior life apart from the stereotyped descriptions of Christlike piety related in the contemporary Catholic press. He read his own life as Christianity has traditionally read the Hebrew scriptures, typologically. He had come to accept the same tacit assumption shared by the men who took and raised him, the editor who would tamper with his memoirs, and the theologian who would review them: that prior to his baptism he was simply an empty book, in which a Christian story was waiting to be written.
It is jarring to see that book reopened now, as if some Catholics were eager to press Jews back into the theological servitude from which the Vatican so recently released them. God knows, Jews and Christians alike have more urgent challenges to face—both within their ranks and without, both together and apart.