On the “kidnapping” of Edgardo Mortara by Pope Pius IX: Who is right?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 30, 2018

Vittorio Messori’s recent book, Kidnapped by the Vatican?, has created quite a furor. Different wings of the Church are at odds over the issue raised by the late-nineteenth century case of Edgardo Mortara, who was taken from his Jewish parents to be raised a Catholic after he had been baptized by a nursemaid when in danger of death. This was done under the authority of Pope Blessed Pius IX.

Mortara himself later approved of the Church’s intervention. He counted himself blessed to be a son of the Church, he became a priest, and he regarded Pius IX as a saint. Nonetheless, the case created considerable consternation at the time, and it has had the same effect today following the publication of a review of the book in the February issue of First Things. In that review, Romanus Cessario, OP defended the Church’s action.

The debate has strong political resonance. Angry partisans on both sides have ranged from proposing a sort of Catholic integralism as the ideal political philosophy to condemning Fr. Cessario and First Things for not recognizing the timeless validity of every word from the mouth of the father of Catholic pluralism, John Courtney Murray.

I agree with those who argue that the speed, intensity and level of outrage in the denunciations of Cessario arise partly from an unrecognized attachment to modern secular patterns of thought. The unfortunate condition of being culture-bound is impossible even for very good Catholics to fully escape. (In his own day, I suspect Pius IX’s position represents another case of the same problem.) But I also agree with those who argue that Fr. Cessario should not have defended Pope Pius IX in this matter, because in this case the Holy Father was simply wrong.

I base my own position on two important principles: First, that it is never lawful to inflict natural evils for the purpose of bringing about supernatural good. If it were, I would be strongly tempted to go about impoverishing just about everybody so that, in their desperation, they might turn to God. Second, fidelity to God’s revealed will may never be construed to require actions contrary to the natural law (of which God is also the author).

But before explaining my own position, it is necessary to point out that the Mortara case is far more complex than most people seem to think.

The Complexity of the Case

In the first place, the Mortara case is unique to the situation of the Papal States, the only generally Catholic polity on earth in which the Pope was not only the head of the Church but also the head of State. The Papal States were a political anomaly, a holdover from that period in history when political power was considered personal and bishops were drawn from the younger sons of the nobility—that is, from the reigning political and military class—and were expected to exercise substantial political and even coercive power.

In the Papal States, then, both civil and ecclesiastical law were under the authority of the Pope, and it was not always easy to make the necessary distinctions between them. We can see why the question of how to deal with a baptized Catholic in a Jewish household became a matter of civil law in the Papal States, and we can also see why this question has not arisen anywhere else in the world.

In the second place, we need to recognize that civil governments—including all those operative in our own time—deal regularly and as a matter of course with the problem of when to remove children from the households of their parents. We need not pretend to be shocked by the Mortara case, in which the civil government of a country deemed it in the best interests of the child to place him in the custody of others, just as our own governments have always done over and over again.

Typically, civil governments do this when they believe the parents will not take proper care of the child—in situations of abuse, incompetence, extreme poverty, moral danger, and the failure to obey civil laws which the State deems essential to the child’s good—such as the failure to enroll a child in the public schools or the propensity to form children in ways inimical to the triumph of gender theory.

If we are honest, we will admit that the civil authority constantly raises questions, according to its perception of the common good, about when and how to restrict the rights of parents for the sake of their children. We may take issue with some of the decisions, but we would be uttering a convenient lie if we were to insist that we are morally bound to take issue with all of them. In this context, we should also note that we never refer to the intervention of civil authority in child custody as “kidnapping”. To refer to this case that way is to settle the question before it is raised.

Foundational Analysis

The problem we face in the present instance is this: While we are used to weighing and acting upon natural arguments in such cases, we are totally unfamiliar, in our culture today, with weighing supernatural arguments. The thought does not cross our minds. Regardless of one’s conclusion in the Mortara case, this is one of the chief signs of the profound inadequacy of modern secular culture—I mean the sign that the supernatural is not a sign at all, in the sense that the supernatural simply does not signify, that the supernatural ought not to be a serious consideration affecting ordinary human life.

Nonetheless, as I said, the decision of the civil government under Pope Pius IX was wrong, and it can be demonstrated to be wrong in two ways, the first from principle and the second from the absurdity that results if it is considered correct. But let me first caution against excessive reliance on the use of “rights” language in our analysis. The language of “rights”, divorced from moral obligations, almost always leads to false conclusions, as we have seen again and again in our own time. Let us instead consider obligations under the natural law.

Husbands and wives have a moral obligation to be open to life in the form of children and, once these children arrive, to care for them, nurture them, and raise them up in virtue and responsibility to the best of their ability. This is part of God’s design through the natural law, and it is not negotiable. This does not mean different cultures will not vary in how they assess the proper fulfillment of this moral obligation, sometimes within legitimate bounds and sometimes not. In some classes and cultures, it may seem right to apprentice the child at a fairly early age; in others, for far worse reasons, it may seem right to let servants raise the children, sending them off to private boarding schools as soon as possible.

Not all exercises of parental responsibility are wise, but the parental obligation in the natural law is such that government is bound to make space for it, from which we may speak of the corresponding right of the parents to be left free to fulfill their authentic moral obligation in regard to their children. But since, as we have already seen, all governments everywhere have limited that right, we must ask ourselves under what circumstances civil authority may justly interfere with this moral obligation.

It is here that we see the answer we need. The parental obligation is a moral obligation under the natural law. This means that civil government can cease to honor that obligation only when the parents refuse to foster, or are incapable of fostering, the natural goods which are the object of their obligation. Will the child starve? Will he be abused or injured? Will he be neglected? Will he clearly fail to receive the minimum care and formation necessary to emerge as a responsible adult? Does he have special physical or psychological needs which the parents cannot possibly meet? These are the pertinent questions on which civil government may reasonably act.

Spiritual errors and absurdity

It is an error to introduce knowledge that we possess only through Revelation into this analysis. The parental obligation does not arise from the teaching of the Catholic Church, nor does it exist only in a state of grace. It is, in fact, prior to both—as is all of the natural law—though the Church alone can read it without error. It is false to argue that a baptized child has some sort of absolute “right” to a Catholic upbringing. Rather, Catholic parents have a moral obligation to provide their children with a Catholic upbringing, and on this basis we can say that a Catholic child who is spiritually neglected has not been given his due. But those who do not know Catholicism is true have no such moral duty, and they do not abuse the rights of their children by failing to perform it.

Please note that it is not because grace is unimportant that it is an error to introduce the problem of the supernatural, in the form of sacramental grace, into this analysis. In the space of this essay, of course, I cannot give a thorough account of grace (presuming that is something anyone can do). Suffice it to say that it is not a sign of our confidence in Divine grace to insist that a baptized child should be taken from Jewish parents and given a Catholic education. To make this argument, in violation of the natural law, is in fact precisely a sign of a lack of confidence in Divine grace, as if grace cannot possibly effect any good result if we, in our bumbling human way, do not take control and superintend its every operation.

A moment’s reflection will show the absurdity of the argument that it was morally right to take Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents so that his emergency baptism (without the consent of his parents, incidentally) would be able to take its proper effect in a maturing Catholic life. Let me begin by noting that all non-Catholics who are baptized with the proper intention and the proper formula (including the vast majority of Protestants) are in the same position. Are we to take all of their children from them because the parents are without the requisite commitment and knowledge to raise their children in the Faith, or because their children will never receive the subsequent sacraments which would ordinarily strengthen the Christ-life within them?

And what of “bad” Catholic parents? What of parents who get their children baptized but do not otherwise practice their faith, do not prepare them for confession or communion or confirmation, do not attend Mass or help them learn the catechism? Are we to take their children away so that the grace of their baptism will be “more likely” to bear the desired fruit? Or perhaps we should go further still. In our regnant secular culture, surely a huge percentage of those Catholics who do attend Mass regularly are steeped in false values and habitual sin. My heart yearns to protect and nurture their unfortunate children, as does the heart of the Church. But that does not justify our taking them and placing them in more competently Catholic families!

Finally, if I am honest, I must admit that every Catholic parent is a bad parent in one way or another. There are no perfect parents. Even those of us who are deeply committed foster the life of grace in our children in some ways while stunting that life in others. So much is beyond our control, and this is precisely the reason we must have confidence in the power of Divine grace, which touches each and every child in so many ways, sacramentally or otherwise. After all, though the Church dispenses grace, even she does not control it once it enters the soul.

Nor should we think, when we cannot control the life of grace even in our own children, that, in framing laws for the common good, we should seek to control its operations in others. We must not usurp the natural obligation which Our Lord Himself imposed—when He played like a child and worked as a master craftsman in the creation of the world (Ps 8)—on the mothers and fathers whom He destined to collaborate with Him in bestowing the gift of life.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: [email protected] - Jan. 31, 2018 10:17 PM ET USA

    Nice analysis but one important point. You were not there. Hindsight is always great. If considered a civil case regardless of how wrong it might be,back then it was more final then today due to appeal processes. Even then Catholics and other Christians lose. Regardless of the moral law or natural law, or even civil law. We bemoan the results but work to correct it. A hundred years from now who knows what will be written and by whom for better or worse.

  • Posted by: Cory - Jan. 30, 2018 11:57 PM ET USA

    I thank God for letting me come upon your website. You and Phil Lawler and others in your website are a Godsend. Your analyses is always clear and well thought out. Praise the Lord for that.