The abduction of a Jewish child on June 23, 1858 in the princely state of Bologna, Italy, led to profound changes both within the organization of world Jewry and within the power of the Papal authority in Rome.
At that time, Italy was a confederation of princely states under the authoritarian rule of Pope Pius IX, known in history as Pio Nono. He ruled over the patchwork of kingdoms and principalities backed by the army of the Austrian Empire, known as the Papal states. Bologna was under the watchful eye of the Pope, having survived a Napoleonic conquest in 1796 and two subsequent uprisings almost half a century later. But the Pope’s power was waning, and in 1859, the city was to vote in favor of annexation by the Kingdom of Sardinia, ready to become the Kingdom of Italy.
The Pope and his inquisition, therefore, were prepared to implement Catholicism till its last Sunday mass.
The evening of June 23, papal police arrived at the home of the Mortara family in Bologna to take away their six-year-old son, Edgardo.
According to the authorities, the family was Jewish, but their son was not, and he ran the daily risk of falling into apostasy. They claimed that some five years earlier, the family’s Catholic servant, Anna Morisi, had sprinkled water over the head of their son, and pronounced the formula of conversion, having mistakenly believed that Edgardo was on the verge of death.
Under the law of the land, once a child was baptized, he was forbidden from being raised in a Jewish household. Thus Edgardo was whisked off to Rome, where he was placed in the House of Catechumens - an institution dedicated to brainwashing Jewish converts.
The Mortara story was by no means was an isolated incident. It was one in an epidemic of cowboy baptisms that even occurred in the middle of the street using rainwater scooped up from the gutter. All that mattered was that a Christian baptized a Jewish child. Then papal police would come and steal the child from his or her parents’ arms, marching triumphantly to the Catechumens.
Beyond the walls of the princely states and the confines of the Catholic Church, the story of Edgardo became a sensation, while the affair increased discontent with the temporal power of the papacy within Italy. Men such as Count Camillo Cavour, the architect of Italian unification, used the affair to agitate against Rome. International leaders, including Emperor Franz Josef and Napoleon III, requested that Mortara be returned to his parents; The New York Times published some 20 editorials on the case. Protestants across Europe and the United States were incensed by the injustice and mobilized against the obscurantism of the Catholic Church.
For the pope, it was inconceivable to return the boy to a life of apostasy. He took to calling the boy “son,” and refused to return him, seemingly as a last spiteful effort to assert his shrinking temporal authority.
Later, in 1870, when the Pope fell and Rome was captured, the Mortara family embarked on their final attempt to rescue their son – now 19 years old. But Edgardo declared his firm intention to remain a Roman Catholic and refused to return unless they too embraced Catholicism.
Pio Edgardo Mortara joined the priesthood in 1873 and became a respected preacher, dying peacefully in a Belgian abbey in March 1940 – on the brink of its capture by the Nazis. Had he lived some two months longer, he would have been in Belgium to see its occupation, where his baptism would have counted for very little.
Beyond the immediate family tragedy the kidnapping caused, the event had profound historical implications.
The Mortara Affair made Jews aware of the need for a central body to represent their interests. In 1860, two years after the abduction, Isidor Cahen founded the Alliance Israélite Universelle (Universal Jewish Alliance) in Paris. He declared the Jews must rely on themselves for their own defense and protection.
The affair also institutionalized American Jewish political action for the first time by leading to the creation of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites in 1859. The board intended to secure and maintain Jewish civil and religious rights after the disjointed community failed to convince the American government to become involved.
The affair also contributed to the diminishing of the Papal power, as it strengthened those nineteenth-century forces seeking liberalism, nationalism, Italian unification, and anti-clericalism. In 1870 Italian troops entered Rome and the temporal power of the popes, which had lasted for a thousand years, came to an end.
More recently, the affair has been re-examined by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, where, in an effort to discredit religion and its authorities, he notes that the Mortaras could have had Edgardo back in a second, “if only they had accepted the priests’ entreaties and agreed to be baptized themselves.”
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• David Kertzer: The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.
• Bonfil, Robert: Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. Trans. Anthony Oldcorn.
• Frankel, Jonathan. The Damascus Affair: "Ritual Murder," Politics, and the Jews in 1840.