Edgardo Mortara's mother's tears should not be forgotten

A new biopic on the life of a Jewish-born, forcibly baptized Father is in the works.

Coptic Christian Cross R370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Dalsh)
Coptic Christian Cross R370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Dalsh)
In 1858, a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, was secretly baptized by his 14-year-old Catholic nurse without his parents’ knowledge or consent. Alerted years later to the danger to the eternal soul of a new Catholic being reared by Jewish parents, Pope Pius IX, head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as Italy’s Papal States, ruled that Edgardo should be forcibly removed from his family and raised as a convert to the pope’s faith. Father Edgardo Mortara died at the beginning of the Holocaust, alienated from his Jewish heritage but still revering Pius as his “spiritual father.”
Steven Spielberg has announced that he is at work on a biopic about the case. Edgardo Mortara again matters.
First Things, a US-based conservative Christian magazine, published a lead story by Dominican professor of theology at Boston’s St. John’s Seminary Romanus Cessario, who not only has launched a preemptive attack on the Spielberg film, but offers a spiritual encomium for Pius IX. The pope’s ordering of the Mortara kidnapping Father Cessario celebrates as a great act of conscience as well as vindication of the norms of both church and state.
Father Cessario is a throwback to Inquisition-era apologists for the worst failings of the Catholic Church, that laid the theological groundwork for the enslavement of Africans by Europeans and, ultimately, for the mass murder of Jews by European Christians.
Unfortunately, we must fear history repeating itself. In the United States 160 years ago, with the exception of a single newspaper, the predominately Irish American Catholic press rallied behind the papacy. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s newspaper, The Guardian, fused a plethora of antisemitic arguments: Protestants were behind Jewish protests; the pope saved the young Mortara’s soul, which his parents would have sacrificed to the devil; the six-year-old boy was old enough to make up his own mind; his parents were themselves planning to convert to Catholicism.
All untrue.
Before the Civil War, predominately poor Irish Catholic immigrants rallied around the pro-slavery Democratic Party and the ultramontane Church that was moving in the direction of proclaiming papal infallibility.
Today, Father Cessario, whether or not he admits it, is flirting with a small but loud minority of Catholics in the US and Europe who are in various degrees of rebellion against Pope Francis’ reformist papacy that tries to continue the liberalizing legacy of Vatican II. This is what makes Cessario’s new defense of the unconscionable kidnapping and forced conversion of a Jewish child not just a bizarre aberration but potentially a dangerous challenge.
We should all remember the tears of Edgardo Mortara’s Jewish mother. We should all join together with Christians, conservative or liberal, who affirm the denunciations of religious kidnapping and forced conversion, and stand by the value of the natural family. People like Rod Dreher, Kevin Madigan and Michael Sean Winters, who rose to protest the hideousness of Cessario’s argument.
We pray that there is no room in the body and soul of Catholicism, present or future, for Father Cessario’s divisive, hateful message. Pope Pius IX presided over the retrograde First Vatican Council, and issued the Syllabus of Errors, which loudly rejected the notion that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Very different was the attitude of a young Polish priest, Father Karol Wojtyla, who in 1946 refused a request from a Catholic woman who had sheltered a Jewish boy to baptize him, in consequence of the killing of his parents, because “it would be unfair to baptize the child while there was still hope that the relatives of the child might take him.” That priest became Pope Saint John Paul II. The child, Shachne Hiller, renamed Stanley Berger, grew up Jewish in Canada and the US.
Cessario’s message may derive from Pius IX. Ours resonates with more recent popes, and the liberalizing influence of Vatican II. May that more recent vision blossom for all of us, Jew and Christian and Muslim. And may hatred and intolerance wither on the vine.
Dr. Harold Brackman is a historian and a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of interfaith affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.