Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

The Legacy of Edgardo Mortara

Why is the kidnapping of a little Jewish boy by officers of the Catholic Church 160 years ago the subject of acrimonious debate today?

The crime took place in long-ago Italy, in the city of Bologna, at a time when such outrages were not uncommon. For centuries, church-ordered abductions of Jewish children, who, like Edgardo, had been secretly baptized by a Christian housekeeper, were carried out with impunity in territories under papal rule.

The Jews were powerless under the rule of the popes who had royal-like powers. Yet even then, the kidnapping sparked an uproar that went international, something unprecedented in its day.

The Mortara case was different from others, writes historian David Kertzer in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. “It unfolded at a critical crossroads in European history when the dominance of the all-powerful Catholic Church was being challenged.”

The plight of one little boy ignited an international campaign to end the despotic rule of the church, whose deep-rooted anti-Semitism eventually became its own undoing.

“The episode has reverberated into the 21st century,” writes Kertzer in The Atlantic, generating scrutiny of the Vatican’s leadership – specifically Pope Pius IX – who presided over the Catholic church at a pivotal crossroads in history.

As opposing camps in the Catholic world vie for control of the Church, with reformers pitted against the traditionalists, the lessons of the Mortara case are hugely relevant.

Traditional Catholics fighting efforts by reformers to modernize the church are in the minority; they need a hero to raise their profile. But in today’s liberal society, reformers who want the church to remove its taboos against deviant lifestyles are the heroes. Those fighting to uphold traditional values are seen as extremists, out of sync with moral “progress.

Ironically, the “extremists” in search of a hero are willing to rehabilitate a despot like Pope Pius IX in order to prop up their cause. For all that he was reviled in his time, he stood behind so-called “divine law” – traditionalist Catholics say. That is the kind of leadership needed today.

In the Edgardo Mortara case, church dogma held that a little Jewish boy who had a few drops of water sprinkled on his head now belonged to the church and must be raised as a Catholic. So dictated the pope, who gave the Inquisition’s soldiers who carried out the abduction his blessing.

Today’s Catholic hardliners manage to find something heroic in this conduct, and in the pope’s obstinate refusal, in the face of world outrage, to return little Edgardo to his family.

“It Was the Practice of the Times”

“It was the practice of the times,” argues an Italian Catholic leader who defends Pius IX as “a model of Christian virtue” in tune with so-called “divine law.”

“I too would have done the same. We can’t look at the church of the past with 21st century eyes, with all of the religious liberty that we have now.”

As chronicled in The Kidnappping of Edgardo Mortara, Pope Pius IX was responsible for ghettoizing Rome’s Jews, stripping them of their civil rights, and subjecting them to humiliating public spectacles. This, too, was “the practice of the times.”

During the Inquisition’s nearly 400-year reign, it was also “the practice of the times” to burn Jews alive at the stake as heretics. Would Pius IX admirers defend these atrocities as well?

For Jews, the revisiting of the Edgardo Mortaro tragedy is a searing reminder of how the Jewish people endured the bitter persecution of the Catholic Church for so many centuries.

Although Pope Pius’s sphere of control was continually eroding in the mid-19th century, the church of Edgardo’s day was still very powerful. Pius IX was a virtual monarch, equipped with a large armed force ready at a moment’s notice to carry out his bidding. In Rome, where Edgardo was held, his authority was unchallenged.

In the days following Edgardo’s abduction from his parents’ home in Bologna, Italy, word spread like wildfire to Jewish communities throughout Italy. The uproar that followed fed anti-clerical forces then gathering momentum in many of the Italian provinces.

As Edgardo’s family frantically searched for a way to free him, their plight spread from Italy to Britain, where Sir Moses Montefiore and the Rothschilds adopted the cause. From Britain, the scandal spread to France where it mobilized Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In America, where the Vatican’s tentacles could not reach, the church came under scathing attack. Church dogma sanctioning the abduction of Jewish children who had been secretly, forcibly baptized enraged Jews; the doctrine fueled passions between church supporters and critics throughout the world.

Edgardo’s Family Fights To Free Him

Despite the towering obstacles, Edgardo’s father threw himself into the cause of his son’s rescue. With only meager resources, he generated an extraordinary level of activity for his son’s release aided by activists across Europe.

Arguing that the abduction was illegal according to the Church’s own laws, he composed a long letter to the Inquisitor who had ordered the kidnapping, and to Pope Pius IX himself who had officially “adopted” Edgardo, undertaking the child’s religious education. The letter to the Pope, as well as much of Mortara’s subsequent testimony about the abduction, have been recovered from the church’s archives.

Through the prism of Mortara’s heartbroken letter, parts of which are quoted in Kertzer’s book, the traumatic kidnapping scene has been frozen in time. Police invade the home, insisting that Mrs. Mortara wake up her sleeping son and turn him over to the police. The letter describes how little Edgardo, awakening to find his mother clutching him and his bed surrounded by police, began trembling and sobbing in terror.

Father and children fell at the feet of the police begging for mercy, as mother and child wept convulsively in each other’s arms. No one had even told Edgardo why the police were there, but no one had to. He sensed he was doomed.

After continuous pleading and frantic efforts to stall and bribe, the anguished mother is led away with her children by neighbors, who feared the family would be assaulted by the wrathful police. Edgardo is then wrenched from his father’s arms by the police commander and carried off in a carriage bound for Rome.

The father lunges after them, shouting to his child that he will follow right behind. But he suddenly faints, collapsing on the ground. Two weeks later, finally granted the right to visit his son in Rome, Edgardo confides to his father that one of the first things the church officials did when they led him away, sobbing for his parents, was to remove the mezuzah his parents had tied to a chain around his neck.

In its place, he was given a Christian medallion. Edgardo said he repeatedly refused it, until the policeman convinced the 6 year-old child that the medallion was just like a mezuzah.

Throughout the trip to Rome, the policeman tried to calm him with the promise that his parents would soon catch up with them. But as the trip wore on, Edgardo knew that he was being lied to, and that the nightmare was just beginning. The journey by carriage took several days.

Arriving in Rome, he was kept in the infamous House of Catechumens, an institution devoted to the baptizing and converting of Jews that was maintained by special taxes levied against the Jewish community. Here, Edgardo was immediately subjected to intense indoctrination by the priests.

Jews Unite Throughout Europe

In the desperate days following his abduction, meetings of Jewish community leaders were being called in all the Italian provinces, from the ghettos of Ferrara, Ancona, Cento and Rome under papal rule, to the recently emancipated Jewish communities of the kingdom of Sardinia, to the Jews of Florence and Livorno under the Duke of Tuscany.

Jews in the papal states, stripped of all civil rights and fearful of retaliation, were unable to publicly protest. Behind the scenes, however, these communities coordinated efforts with the Jews of all the Italian provinces, as well as their brothers and sisters in France, Britain and the United States.

For Jews in the free countries, the Mortaras’ misfortune was keenly felt as each person’s own personal tragedy. “Jews in positions of influence made full use of freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” writes Kertzer. “They succeeded in stirring up massive protests by mobilizing the most eminent Jewish statesmen, financiers, writers and editors to interest European public opinion, nations and governments in the case.”

In shuls throughout Europe, prayers for Edgardo’s release were offered, and thousands of dollars were collected to support the Mortara family in their campaign to free him. In the non-Jewish world, liberalists who viewed the Church as a tyrannical power opposed to moral progress, joined the campaign for his release. Italian nationalists who wanted Italy unified into a republic governed by Italians, not the Vatican, exploited the Mortara case as well.

Heartbreaking Visits

Surprised by the unexpected volume of opposition, the Church, while refusing to release Edgardo, at first permitted the parents to visit their child. Shlomo Mortara and his little boy finally embraced under the hostile eyes of the priests in the House of Catechumens, two weeks after Edgardo had been kidnapped.

Mortara’s account of these meetings, published in the Jewish and local press, describes emotional encounters where Edgardo clung to his father, expressing his longing to return home to his family. Throughout the meetings between father and son, the priests never left the two alone, constraining them from speaking freely. The priests frequently subjected Shlomo Mortara to missionary sermons in the midst of the father-son meeting.

Mortara was promised his son back if he would convert to Christianity; an offer he steadfastly rejected.

When Edgardo’s mother, after exhausting efforts, finally arrived in Rome to visit her son, the Vatican first reneged on its permission for a meeting, and hid Edgardo. After harrowing delays, Mother and son were finally allowed to see one another in a meeting choked with tears and despair.

According to the testimony of Edgardo’s parents, recorded in the press and retrieved from the court archives of this period, Edgardo confided that he recited Shema secretly every day, and tried to say whatever prayers he could remember by heart. He yearned to return to his family, but had been intimidated by the priests into suppressing his pleas to be taken home.

After a month-long stay in Rome, powerless to secure his son’s freedom, Mortara was forced to return to Bologna. Despite his heartfelt promises to Edgardo to return soon, it was months before he would be able to see his son again.

International Protests Spread

In addition to turning to France and Napoleon III to exert influence with the Vatican to release Edgardo, Shlomo Mortara petitioned the Rothschild family whose banking empire at the time stretched throughout much of Europe.

Long plagued by financial insolvency, the Vatican had more than once been helped out of difficulty thanks to generous loans from the Rothschilds. They in turn sought to leverage this special relationship to help fellow Jews. Through an earlier intervention, the pope had promised to end the annual public carnival degrading the Jews, and a similar promise was made to slowly abolish the ghettoization of the Jews in the papal states.

Barely three weeks after Edgardo was taken, the most influential members of the Rothschild family, including Lionel Rothschild, the first Jew to serve in the British parliament, traveled to Rome. There he used all his connections at the Vatican to protest Edgardo’s abduction and continued incarceration.

Despite this high-level intervention, the Pope refused to budge. As word of the Mortara case spread farther through Europe, and across the ocean to the United States; as committees of Jews organized protests and raised funds, and as governments voiced their disapproval, Pope Pius became more and more isolated. Yet, arrogant as ever, he remained entrenched in obstinacy.

“When a delegation of prominent Jews made their annual visit to the pope’s chambers in 1859,” writes Kertzer, “the subject was raised of the international furor over the Mortara case.” The pope pompously dismissed the subject, saying he couldn’t care less what the world thinks.

The Church Retaliates

With protests and denunciations increasing on both sides of the Atlantic, the leaders of world Catholicism began to strike back. Throughout its history, the Church had treated Jews as ruthlessly as it had in the Mortara case, and no one had ever dared to object. The Pope’s authority had never been so challenged, and by such a multitude of dissenters.

For many Catholics, the Pope’s refusal to return Edgardo to his family became a holy cause. They saw it as a symbol of the supremacy of “divine law” over “modern” ideas of individual rights and religious equality.

In addition, Pope Pius incorporated certain long-standing Catholic traditions, such as the “infallibility” of the Pope, into official Catholic doctrine. As one who was “infallible,” he preached, he was not permitted to back down lest he “sow confusion in the hearts of the faithful.”

A large European network of influential Catholic newspapers mounted an offensive, denouncing Jews and liberals for uniting for the purpose of destroying the Church. Anti-Semitic canards such as ritual murder allegations proliferated against the Jews in Catholic lands, as priests in weekly sermons whipped up peasant hatred and bloodlust.

A Father’s Lonely Crusade

As the months passed, Edgardo remained in captivity in Rome, no longer permitted to receive visits from his parents. A year later in December 1859, his father traveled to Paris to marshal support for his cause. But the issue that had captured the attention of the French ambassador the previous year no longer stirred the same interest. The French were busy with their own political troubles.

The editor of a major French Jewish newspaper, who had long championed the Mortara case, describes his meeting with Mortara at that time, quoted in Kertzer’s book:

“We, in Paris, saw a father who seemed obsessed with the effort to get his son back. We listened to him, we saw the tears in his eyes, this husband whose wife is still sick from the blow that struck her. We felt that the scar was still open, and we didn’t have the courage to tell him how unlikely diplomatic intervention now seemed to us.”

From Paris, Mortara went on to London, meeting with Sir Moses Montefiore, who had been an outspoken crusader for Edgardo’s release. He addressed the Board of Deputies of British Jews, pleading with them to bring Edgardo’s plight before the upcoming congress. He met with other statesmen including the influential Rothschilds who were helping him financially. They pledged to do whatever they could to secure support for him at the congress.

Due to unexpected political events, however, the congress was called off and the father’s dreams of seeing Edgardo’s cause taken up by leading diplomats came to nothing. He returned home a broken, defeated man.

Lost To His People

As the years drifted by, Edgardo’s family refused to forget him, imagining the young boy languishing in captivity, pining to return to them. The first time they received a letter from him, hope fluttered as they unsealed it with trembling fingers.

But the letter contained a message not from a yearning son wanting to rejoin his people, but an indoctrinated Christian urging his parents “to see the truth” and convert as he had. The family mourned the spiritual death of their cherished son, now wholly lost to them.

Thirteen years after Edgardo was abducted, the Pope’s hold over the Papal States of Italy was finally overthrown and the new Republic of Italy was proclaimed. Edgardo, now 19, suddenly became a free man. His father hurried to Rome in the desperate hope that their encounter would somehow penetrate the boy’s heart and awaken him to his Jewish identity.

Tragically, father and son never met. Edgardo fled to a neighboring province where he secluded himself in a monastery. There he remained, safeguarded in solitude, protected from his family’s overtures that threatened to unravel his defenses.

Pius IX died in 1881, after 32 years in power. The latter years of his reign were scarred by uprisings from factions fed up with papal despotism. His powers had been greatly reduced, and most of the Vatican’s property taken away under the Risorgimento, the 19th-century movement that united Italy into a republic.

Pius IX spent his last years as a virtual prisoner behind Vatican walls, reviled by Italian nationalists. So hated was he that during his funeral procession, a mob attempted to seize his body and hurl it into the river.

As for Edgardo, he had long ago been turned into a puppet of the church. Ordained as a priest and missionary in 1873, he was dispatched to establish Catholic outposts in other lands. Besides seeking to convert his own family through his letters, he traveled and preached in a host of cities and countries. The man without a home even sought in his later years to set up a Catholic ministry in the United States.

The archbishop of New York discouraged the plan. In an 1897 letter, he wrote that it would embarrass the church and damage Catholic-Jewish relations. The acrimony from the long-running abduction saga was apparently far from healed in this country.

Because Edgardo lived to the age of 88, the pain his odyssey caused the Jewish community was continually fueled by Catholic writers who pointed to his embrace of Christianity as proof that he had “freely chosen” his destiny, that it had not been forced upon him.

As a child kidnap victim, he had been loved and pitied by all in the Jewish community. As an adult missionary who sought to “win souls” for the same Church responsible for kidnapping him, he was no longer viewed with compassion. Some even called him a traitor to his people.


In the year 2000, at a seminar discussing the legacy of Pope Pius IX who had been rehabilitated and was about to be “beatified” – the last step on the way to sainthood –a woman in the audience stood up and introduced herself. She was Elena Mortara, a great-great niece of Edgardo Mortara.

Echoing the inflamed sentiments of the Italian Jewish community, Elena protested the move, saying she had “direct knowledge of Pius IX’s nefariousness.”

“It’s not just about Edgardo,” she explained. “It’s the fact that this pope deprived Jews of their civil rights in Rome. That in itself is serious enough to stop this beatification.”

Elena Mortara said she was deeply distressed “at the idea that the Catholic Church wants to make a saint out of a pope who perpetuated acts of shameful intolerance and abuse of power.”

She said her ancestors, members of her family and she, too, “had been damaged,” by the terrible wrongs done to them by the church under Pius IX.

The Mortara case “is the biggest wound that remains in the Italian Jewish world ….It still hasn’t scarred over’’ after more than 150 years, attested Amos Luzzatto, former president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

Although the Catholic church went ahead with Pius IX’s beatification, the process then stalled, depriving him of “sainthood” but also muting discussion of his odious legacy.

With the Mortara case now being used “as a cudgel in the internal struggles of the Catholic church,” as Kertzer writes, the retelling of the scandal with all its haunting injustice may open up a bigger can of worms than anyone bargained for.



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