Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Edgardo Mortara

Edgardo Mortara (1851 - 1940) was a six-year-old Jewish boy living in Bologna, Italy, when he was seized by the Papal authorities in 1858 and taken to be raised as a Catholic. His case became the centre of an international scandal and the catalyst for far-reaching political changes. Its reverberations are still being felt within the Catholic Church and in relations between the Church and Jewish organisations.

Table of contents
1 The Mortara Case
2 Piux IX and the Jews
3 Further reading

The Mortara Case

On the evening of 23 June 1858, police of the Papal States, of which Bologna was then part, arrived at the home of a Jewish couple, Momolo and Marianna Mortara, to seize one of their eight children, six-year-old Edgardo, and transport him to Rome to be raised by the Catholic church.

The police had orders from the Vatican authorities in Rome, authorised by Pope Pius IX. Church officials had been told that a Catholic servant girl of the Mortaras had baptized Edgardo while he was ill because she feared that he would otherwise die and go to Hell. Under the law of the Papal States, Edgardo's baptism made him legally a Christian, and Jews could not raise a Christian child, even their own.

Edgardo was taken to a house for Catholic converts in Rome, built with funds from taxes levied on Jews. His parents were not allowed to see him for several weeks, and then not alone. Pius IX took a personal interest in the case, and all appeals to the Church were rebuffed. Church authorities told the Mortaras that they could have Edgardo back if they converted to Catholicism, but they refused.

The incident soon received extensive publicity both in Italy and internationally. In the Kingdom of Piedmont, the largest independent state in Italy and the centre of the movement for Italian unification, both the government and the press used the case to reinforce their claims that the Papal States were ruled by mediaeval obscurantists and should be liberated from Papal rule.

Protests were lodged by both Jewish organisations and prominent political and intellectual figures in Britain, the United States, Germany, and France. Soon the governments of these countries added to calls for Edgardo to be returned to his parents. The French Emperor Napoleon III, whose troops garrisoned Rome to protect the Pope against the Italian unificationists, also protested.

Pius IX was unmoved by these appeals, which mostly came from Protestants, atheists and Jews, and were thus without moral force for him. When a delegation of prominent Jews saw him in 1859, he 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."

The Mortara case served to harden the already prevalent opinion in both Italy and abroad that the rule of the Pope over a large area of central Italy was an anachronism and an affront to human rights in an age of liberalism and rationalism. It helped persuade opinion in both Britain and France to allow Piedmont to go to war with the Papal States in 1859 and annex most of the Pope's territories, leaving him with only the city of Rome. When the French garrison was withdrawn in 1870, Rome too was annexed by the new Kingdom of Italy.

In 1859, after Bologna had been annexed to Piedmont, the Mortaras made another effort to recover their son, but he had been taken to Rome. In 1870, when Rome was captured from the Pope, they tried again, but Edgardo was then 18, and had declared his intention of remaining a Catholic. In that year, he moved his residence to France. The following year, his father died. In France, he entered the Augustinian order, being ordained a priest at the age of 23, and adopted the name Pius. He was sent as a missionary to cities such as Munich, Mainz and Breslau to preach to the Jews, with little effect. He became fluent in a variety of languages, including the difficult Basque language.

During a public-speaking engagement in Italy he reestablished communications with his mother and siblings. In 1895 he attended his mother's funeral.

In 1897 he preached in New York, but the Archbishop of New York told the Vatican that he opposed Mortara's efforts to evangelise the Jews on the grounds that they embarrassed the Church. Mortara died in 1940 in Paris, after spending some years in a monastery.

Piux IX and the Jews

The Vatican's doctrine that baptism of Jewish children, even by lay people, required that they be raised as Christians was one manifestation of its doctrine that Christianity was the true religion and that Jews were second-class citizens who had no rights to oppose the Church's will.

At Pius IX's accession in 1846, for example, Jews in Rome were required to live within a squalid ghetto. Although Pius at first showed some liberalising tendencies towards the Jews, the attempted republican revolution in Rome in 1848 changed his mind: like most conservatives at this time, he associated the Jews with radicalism and revolution.

To this official view was added Pius's personal anti-Semitism. In a speech in 1871 he called the Jews of Rome "dogs" and said: "of these dogs, 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."

The Mortara case has attracted new attention in recent years because of the campaign to secure canonisation for Pius IX, a campaign driven by Pope John Paul II and his conservative supporters. Jewish groups and others, led by descendants of the Mortara family, protested the Vatican's beatification of Pius in 2000. In 1997 David L Kertzer published The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which brought the case back into public attention. The story became the subject of a play, Edgardo Mine by Alfred Uhry, and a film version is planned.

In Italy, Jewish leaders and some Catholic scholars have warned that the canonisation of Pius IX will undermine the goodwill engendered by recent Vatican attempts to atone for the Church's history of anti-Semitism. B'nai B'rith, a prominent Jewish group based in the United States, has also protested against the campaign to canonise Pius. The Mortara case is thus once again a live issue in Jewish-Catholic relations.

Some senior Catholics continue to defend Pius's actions in the Mortara case. Monsignor Carlo Liberati, the church official who advanced Pius IX's beatification, said Pius should not be judged by the Mortara case: "In the process of beatification, this wasn't considered a problem because it was a habit of the times" to take baptised Jews and raise them as Catholics. "We can't look at the church with the eyes of the year 2000, with all of the religious liberty that we have now," Liberati said.

Professor Elena Mortara, who continues to campaign on the Mortara case

Liberati also said: "The servant girl wanted to give the grace of God to the child. She wanted him to go to heaven... [and] at the time, the spiritual paternity was more important than civil paternity."

Jesuit Father Giacomo Martina, a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, wrote in a book about Pius's life, "In perspective, the Mortara story demonstrates the profound zeal of Pius IX [and] his firmness in carrying out what he perceived to be his duty at the cost of losing personal popularity." He also said the pope regarded his critics as "unbelievers... [operating] a war machine against the church."

Elena Mortara, a great-great-grandaughter of one of Edgardo's sisters, and a professor of literature in Rome, continues to campaign for an apology from the Vatican for Edgardo's abduction and against the canonisation of Pius IX. She has said she is "appalled at the idea that the Catholic Church wants to make a saint out of a Pope who perpetuated such an act of unacceptable intolerance and abuse of power." She explained that she "feels historically obliged in the name of my generation to ask [the church] if this is the example you want to give."

Further reading

The history of this case is recounted in David I. Kertzer's book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (ISBN 0679768173), published in December 1998 by Random House and in paperback in June 1999 by Vintage Books.