In 1858, in the city of Bologna—then ruled directly by the Vatican—a six-year-old Jewish boy was surreptitiously baptized by a domestic servant and then forcibly removed from his parents so that he could be raised as a Catholic. Despite the ensuing international outcry, Pope Pius IX personally ruled that the boy, Edgardo Mortara, not be returned to his family. Last week, Romanus Cessario revived the controversy with an essay justifying the kidnapping, sparking many condemnations and some defenses. To Matthew Franck, even Catholics of a conservative disposition ought to condemn Pius IX’s actions:
Did the Cessario piece jeopardize Catholic relations with Jews? It shouldn’t. . . . But Jewish concerns are perfectly understandable: the Mortara case is better and more painfully remembered in the Jewish community, while many Catholics had never heard of it until now. And, rather shockingly, Cessario’s [essay] made essentially no concessions to the sensibilities of Jews or of anyone else who believes the legal abduction of Edgardo Mortara “offends against the dignity of the family as a natural institution,” in the words of [one Catholic commentator].
[One reason for the controversy] is that inside the Catholic intellectual world another debate is raging today, between the adherents of, respectively, “integralism” and “liberalism,” over the relationship of the church to political power. The terms of this debate are still sorting themselves out, but . . . the integralists are sure about what they’re against: liberalism, a word they use as an epithet to describe not only today’s progressive left but the whole edifice of the modern free society, with its emphasis on individual rights, limited government, and free markets. . . .
But in truth we can discuss the Mortara case, and condemn the pope’s actions in it, without folding the discussion into the integralist-liberal debate at all. Pius IX . . . was wrong in the Mortara case—grievously so—for venerable Catholic reasons he should have understood even in his own day. . . . Even further back than Thomas Aquinas, the church has taught that it is wrong to baptize Jewish children against their parents’ wishes, much less to take them from their parents. . . .
Edgardo’s parents were alive, capable, and non-abusive. Nonetheless Cessario endorses the simple progression from a valid baptism, to the church’s duty to a young Christian, to Pius’s forcible seizure of Edgardo. [His argument] rests on an erroneous view of the legitimate reach of state power. Pius wore two hats, the spiritual and the temporal, and, led astray by his sense of spiritual obligation to a baptized Christian, he wrongly used his temporal authority to snatch Edgardo from his family (and then compounded the injustice by raising the boy himself, without benefit of a married mother and father, as would be normal in a Catholic adoption).