In 1858, in the city of Bologna—then part of the Papal States—a Catholic servant secretly baptized six-year-old Edgardo Mortara, the ailing son of the Jewish family that employed her, believing that the ritual could cure him of his illness. When the authorities found out that a child whom they deemed a Christian was now being raised by a Jewish family, they kidnapped him. Pope Pius IX, despite the pleas of Edgardo’s family and the subsequent international outcry, personally intervened to ensure that the kidnapped child would be kept from his parents. In a recent essay, a Dominican priest has defended Pius IX’s decision. Joseph Shaw, the chairman of the Latin Mass Society, takes issue with this defense:
States routinely intervene in family life where the good of members demands it. This interference is sometimes absolutely necessary, but it remains extremely important that it is kept within strict limits. The integrity of the family in general, and the rights of parents over children in particular, do not exist at the pleasure of the state: as the Catholic Church has consistently taught, they predate the state and their prerogatives cannot be overridden by the state. In this case, the justification for overriding the rights of parents over a young child was that the child had been baptized. . . .
The duty of baptized parents or godparents to raise a baptized child in the [Christian] faith was not being violated by [Mortara’s] parents: they had no such obligation. It was to fulfill the child’s right to a Catholic upbringing that he was removed from his family. No one claimed that the parents had done anything wrong.
The right to a Catholic upbringing is violated, however, by every nominal Catholic family . . . that fails to educate its children [according to Catholic teachings]. . . . While the Church would have greater justification for demanding state intervention in cases where the parents are baptized, it would appear that in such cases there is actually far more reluctance to intervene. Only in the most extreme cases would children be taken from their baptized parents: no one in the Papal States was demanding small children from parents who had, for example, simply lapsed. Something strange is going on here.
I’m afraid the strange thing going on is the attitude toward the Jews. I don’t want to engage in any kind of self-flagellation, but it is a historical fact that the treatment of the Jews in Catholics countries has not always been just, and since we do not think popes are impeccable there is no a-priori reason to think the shadow of such injustice should not have fallen on the Papal States. The civil law and policy applied to the Mortara family placed Jews in an especially disadvantageous position, compared to other families who might be failing to bring up their baptized children correctly, and I do not see the moral or theological justification for this special treatment.