The Audacious Case of Edgardo Mortara

David I. Kertzer’s book on the amazing case of a little Italian Jewish boy abducted by the authorities of the Roman Inquisition (if no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, how much more surprising the Roman Inquisition) is a page-turner, filled with intrigue, personal and political. It was such an absorbing narrative that movie moguls had planned to turn the story into a film, starring Anthony Hopkins as pope Pius IX (Pio Nono) and Jauvier Bardem as Momolo Mortara, Edgardo’s father.

In some ways it was a small story about a single Jewish family’s experience with the papacy’s temporal rule within the Papal Legations. Canon law confined Jews to ghettos, which is where the Mortaras lived in Bologna. Canon law also specified that Christians should not interact with Jews, nor should Jews employ Christian girls as servants. Here the Mortaras (along with most Jews and Italian Christians) looked the other way and this is where the family’s son became vulnerable. For canon law also specified that a Christian of any rank, from humblest servant to noblest Cardinal, should baptize an infant in near-death circumstances, even against the will of parents. The Mortaras’ servant in 1852 baptized the infant Edgardo when she thought he was going to die. He survived. Canon law also stipulated that by virtue of baptism a person was a Christian and forbade Christian children from being reared by non-Christian parents. Consequently, in 1858, when the Roman Inquisition learned of a Christian child in a Jewish home, authorities instructed the papal police to take Edgardo (age six) from his parents and rear him in a home for catechumens.

Edgardo’s parents’ lives were never the same. Momolo, the father, spent the rest of his life trying by every legal means to recover his son. This meant neglecting his business and depending on charity. The international Jewish community rallied to the Mortaras for both humanitarian and political reasons. Momolo spent almost the last year of his life in prison and on trial, accused of of murdering another Italian Christian servant girl. Kertzer argues convincingly that the death, for which Momolo was found not guilty, was actually a suicide. But thanks to the anti-semitism that prevailed in Christendom, authorities were more inclined to attribute the death to Momolo than to the deceased Italian Christian. Only a month after being freed from prison, Momolo died of natural causes, the unnatural end to an unbelievably tragic life. I would have paid $9 gladly to see Bardem portray this tragic figure.

But the case of Edgardo Mortara took on international significance – not only among Europe and North America’s Jewish communities – but among Europe’s rulers because it exposed the illiberal and pre-modern character of papal rule in a sizable portion of what would become the nation of Italy. For instance, Napolean III in France, who provided military protection to a fairly weak papal regime (at least in the temporal realm), wanted to see Jews in Italy receive the rights of citizens – you know, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity don’t exactly square with Jewish ghettos and forced evangelistic sermons that church law required Italy’s Jews to hear every Sabbath after attending synagogue (often the priests would use the text expounded earlier by the rabbi). Meanwhile, France and Austria had holdings in Italy that Italians wanted for their own nation. As a result, the case of Edgardo became a crucial episode in the unification of Italy (1870). If the papacy could lose its temporal power, then occupying foreign forces would lose some of their reason for rule in Italy and then perhaps the people of Italy could achieve a unified nation.

But Pius IX, who still holds the longest tenure of any pope, and who started his tenure in 1846 with sympathies for republicanism, dug in his heels and became one of the Vatican’s most conservative figures. The revolutions of 1848 spooked him. Out went thoughts of political liberalization and in came a vigorous assertion of papal authority (both temporal and spiritual). Pio Nono would not even consider giving up Edgardo to his parents (despite all sorts of circumstances that suggested the servant girl had made up the story of the boy’s illness and baptism). With papal rule crumbling and Pius’ political allies unwilling to prop up the papacy one more time, the pope made Edgardo a special case and adopted the boy as a ward of the papacy.

It is a story ripe for the big screen.

But it is also a story that Jason and the Callers never consider in their theories of papal audacity and Roman Catholic superiority. For as much as some might think that the notion of the papacy holding two swords, temporal and spiritual, is of the distant medieval past and died with Boniface VIII, in fact, Pius IX was still committed to this part of church teaching (and revealed truth, by the Vatican’s reckoning). Kertzer reminds readers of how long this idea lived and that Italy’s existence depended on the pope being stripped of temporal power:

The autonomy of national churches – championed in the past not only by secular rulers who were hostile to control from Rome but also by major sectors of the Catholic population and clergy in France, Austria, and elsewhere – was during this Restoration period increasingly challenged by the growth of the “ultramontane” movement. The ultramontanes argued that local churches everywhere should come under the strict control of the Holy See. They sought to bolster the power and the prestige of the Pope, and they championed the supremacy of Church law over secular legal principles. In all this, they fought not only the liberal movement but their opponents within the Church as well, those who, from the ultramontanes’ perspective, were poisoned by Enlightenment ideas that were at odds with the Church’s mission.

The Pope’s refusal to return Edgardo to his family became a sacred cause for the ultramontane forces, involving the prestige and authority of the papacy as well as the supremacy of divine law over modern ideas of individual rights and religious equality. (130-131)

Kertzer explains that this view of papal authority was not simply the construction of French conservatives but also the pope who was not coincidently responsible for establishing the Immaculate Conception of Mary and papal infallibility as Church dogma:

The Pope was not above a conspiratorial view of the forces lined up against him. No organized opposition to papal rule was permitted in the Papal States, and so he had some grounds to worry about conspiracies, which from the time the Restoration began had plagued the papacy. Those opposed to the temporal power of the pope were not only branded agents of the devil but cast together in one large, godless cabal run by the Freemasons. A Civilta Cattolica article illustrates the Pope’s thinking. The minister of a great power, the journal reported, had come to plead for Edgardo Mortara’s return to his parents “in the name of the needs of modern society.” “What you call modern society,” the Pope replied, “is simply Freemasonry.” . . .

Pius IX told the French journalist that he would risk his life to defend the papacy’s temporal rule, “because temporal power is necessary for the Church’s freedom, and the full freedom of the Church is necessary for all Catholic society and for all humankind.” Painfully aware of the superior political strength of the forces lining up against him, the Pope ruminated: “Undoubtedly, order will one day be restored. But after how much time? And at the cost of what catastrophes!” (157-58)

This case of a six-year old boy was a big deal – for the Mortara family, the Vatican, Italy, Europe, and the world. (Who will retrieve the screenplay and re-sign the actors?)

9 thoughts on “The Audacious Case of Edgardo Mortara

  1. …………………..”But Pius IX, who still holds the longest tenure of any pope, and who started his tenure in 1846 with sympathies for republicanism, dug in his heels and became one of the Vatican’s most conservative figures. The revolutions of 1848 spooked him. Out went thoughts of political liberalization and in came a vigorous assertion of papal authority (both temporal and spiritual).”

    Interesting, this is Ratzinger some 120 years later, two years after the passage of Vat II and the student revolts in Germany.


  2. $9? How about $12?

    Indeed, such a tragic story. Does the book go into what happened to the kid? 6 years old is pretty far along for a child to be ripped from his family.


  3. An amazing story in an revealing period of history in modern Rome. The irony is that the mid-1800s was the beginning of the modern era for the West and yet the Vatican was defensively clinging to its medieval past. I doubt that J and the C’s will touch this. It’s too messy, too human, too recent, and too tragic with implications better left ignored. So not in keeping with the high office of the Vicar of Christ… It’s much easier for one to stay “in the peace…” by employing a biblicist’s approach to decrees, teachings, and catechisms of the Vatican – parsing this word and that definition. To step back and take a good look at the long and winding (twisted) road of Rome might cause some unwanted theological indigestion for the committed and newly minted RCs.


  4. Old Life brought this story to you four years ago:

    The Church “offered” to compel a Jewish child baptized without his consent or the consent or knowledge of his parents to receive a Catholic education against the will of his parents? Some offer. And God “kindly arranged” for this child to be taken from his Jewish parents and raised by the Church?

    This is monstrous. They stole a child from his mother and father! And here, in the 21st century, a priest defends it, saying it was for the child’s own good.

    Meanwhile, Tim Keller is still silent.


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