Pursuant to church practice (not doctrine) in the 19th century, a Jewish child baptized, with or without parental knowledge and consent, could not be returned to the custody of non-converted parents. Accordingly, Jews entering the House of Catechumens, a residence for converts located in Rome and in other Papal States were required to have their children baptized. Between 1814 and 1818, according to David I. Kertzer, author of “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” and “The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism,” the papal police, under orders of Pope Pius VII (1800– 23), entered Rome’s ghetto on twenty-two different occasions, always at night, to seize Jews and take them to the local House of the Catechumens. In that brief period, seventeen married women, three women engaged to be married and twenty-seven children were removed by force. Mothers had a simple choice: accept baptism and keep your children or leave without them. This background information sets the stage for what occurred 40 later.
Bologna, 1858, during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX (1846-78): A police squad, acting on authority of the Holy Inquisition, forced its way into the home of a Jewish merchant, Momolo Mortara, wrenched his crying six-year-old son, Edgardo (photo above), from his arms and rushed him off in a carriage bound for Rome. Edgardo’s mother, Marianna, was so distraught that she collapsed in grief and had to be taken to a neighbor’s house. With this terrifying scene, Kertzer begins his award-winning book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” and launches into an investigation of the boy’s abduction, showing how this previously little known incident contributed to the demise of the Papal States in Italy. As his parents desperately searched for a way to get their son returned to them, Kertzer relates, why, out of their eight children, Edgardo was taken away. Years earlier, the family’s Catholic servant girl, Anna Facchini, fearful that the infant Edgardo might die of an illness, secretly baptized him. He recovered, but when the story of his baptism reached the Roman Inquisitor, it resulted in an order for him to be seized and sent to a special monastery where Jews were converted to Catholicism. The Inquisitor’s justification for abducting the child was based, as noted previously, on church custom at the time that no Christian child could be raised by Jewish parents.
The Edgardo Mortara case quickly became an international cause célèbre. Although such kidnappings were not uncommon in Jewish communities across Europe, this time the political climate had changed dramatically. Public opinion began to turn against the Vatican as news of the family’s plight spread to Britain, where the influential Rothschild family got involved, and even to the United States, where no less than twenty critical editorials were published in The New York Times alone. Pius adamantly refused to have the child returned to his parents despite their repeated pleas, even refusing them permission to visit with him. Edgardo, eventually estranged from his parents, was adopted by Pius IX and later ordained a priest.
In the Kingdom of Sardinia, largest independent state in Italy and the center of the liberal nationalist movement for Italian unification, the ruling authority used the case to reinforce its claim that the Papal States, viewed as a medieval anachronism, should be liberated from Papal rule. When a delegation of prominent Jews had an audience with the Pope in 1859, pleading for the boy’s return, Pius told them, “I couldn’t care less what the world thinks.” At another meeting, he brought Edgardo with him to show that the boy was happy in his care. In 1865 he said: “I had the right and the duty to do what I did for this boy, and if I had to, I would do it again.” In a speech in 1871 defending his decision against his critics, Pius said: “Of these dogs (Jews), there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places.”
John Cornwell, author of “Hitler’s Pope, the Secret History of Pius XII,” asserts that the notion of “Jewish obstinacy” was a crucial element in the Mortara case. He wrote:
“When the parents of the kidnapped Edgardo pleaded in person with the Pope for the return of their son, Pio Nono (It. Pius IX) told them that they could have their son back at once if only they converted to Catholicism which, of course, they would do instantly if they opened their hearts to Christian revelation. But they would not, and did not. The Mortaras, in the view of Pio Nono, had brought all their suffering upon their own heads as a result of their obduracy.”
Despite an international outcry and strong diplomatic pressure from Emperor Napoleon III of France (whose troops were defending Rome against the Garibaldi’s republican army) and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Pius IX persisted in refusing to change his position. His obstinate refusal to relent undermined whatever public support remained for continuation of the Papal States, which, after eleven centuries of existence, ended with the unification of Italy in 1871.
Steven Spielberg is reportedly planning to produce and direct a movie based on Kertzer’s “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.”
In September, 2000, Pope John Paul II (1978–2005), despite public opposition, beatified Pius IX, the last step before canonization to sainthood. The announcement shocked many admirers of John Paul’s historic fence-mending with Jews, including his prayer at Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2000. “It hit like a thunderbolt from heaven,” said Elena Mortara, professor of American literature at the University of Rome and great-great-granddaughter of Edgardo Mortara’s sister. “Pius IX’s repression of Jews’ civil rights,” she added, “is in itself serious enough to stop this beatification.”
It should be noted that in 1946, Pope Pius XII refused to permit the return to surviving relatives of “hidden” Jewish children of French nationality who were baptized during the Holocaust. In 2005, the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, discovered a letter dated November 20, 1946, in which Pius XII ordered that Jewish children baptized during the Holocaust were not to be returned to their parents. Pius’ defenders claim that the letter is either a forgery or a misinterpretation.