Why Convert? Stability

Ross Douthat reproduced Damon Linker’s reasons for converting to Roman Catholicism. Since Jesus has little appeal, this seems like one of the better expressions of cultural or philosophical Christianity (neo-Calvinists beware):

I became a Catholic (from secular Judaism) in the midst of a personal crisis. I longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth. Catholicism is perfect for people with such yearnings. It tells them that the Roman Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. Its magisterial authority can be traced back to St. Peter and the rest of Christ’s original apostles. It publishes a 900-page Catechism filled with elaborate, absolute rules laying out in minute detail how God wants us to live. It governs itself according to an intricate code of Canon Law that first began to be formulated nearly two millennia ago.

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

Douthat responds by describing the way conservative Roman Catholics acknowledge change without admitting discontinuity:

Let’s make a partial list of the changes that most conservative Catholics have accepted — sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically — in their church since the 1960s. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

So whatever the conservative religious psychology, however strong the conservative craving for certainty and stability, nobody looking at the changes wrought in the church over the last fifty years could possibly describe conservative Catholicism as actually committed, in any kind of rigorous or non-negotiable sense, to defending a changeless, timeless church against serious alteration. (Indeed, this is a point that traditionalist Catholics make about the mainstream Catholic right at every opportunity!)

Rather, conservative Catholicism has been on a kind of quest, ever since the crisis atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, to define certain essentials of the faith in a time of sweeping flux and change, while effectively conceding (to borrow Linker’s architectural image) that reformers can rearrange and remove the bricks of Catholicism so long as they don’t touch those crucial foundations.

What I don’t understand is how a change like the one on religious liberty at Vatican II is not crucial. It was clearly a big deal to Pius IX who abducted Edgardo Mortara, wrote a Syllabus of Errors to condemn most aspects of the modern world as then understood, and how eventually responded to the crisis of losing the papal states by doubling down with papal infallibility as infallible dogma.

In light of Pius’ conservatism compared to Vatican II, the idea that the pope might have been correct about Mortara led one elite Roman Catholic historian to write:

it was a fallible papal decision, and a pope’s stiff-necked refusal to honor the natural law, not God’s decrees, that are at stake here. No divine command decrees that a child be circumcised or baptized against the will of the child’s parents. Aquinas recognized this; too bad Reno [ed. the editor of First Things] does not. Moreover, no thoughtful Christian doubts that our natural moral affections might, in certain circumstances, be in tension with the revealed will of God; it should not have taken Cessario’s [ed. the author of a review of Mortara’s memoirs] mistaken reasoning to awaken this possibility in the veteran Catholic theologian Reno’s mind.

Is it just I, or is the Roman hierarchy really set up for lay Roman Catholics to challenge popes and bishops? It sure looks to me like something pretty crucial is at stake if a Council embraces teachings that then give Roman Catholics the power to condemn popes, and especially one that declared an infallible dogma.

Interpreting Vatican II in continuity with the church may be reassuring to conservative Roman Catholics (trads apparently understand how difficult that interpretive feat is and opt for discontinuity. But looking for matters essential (kernel) compared to ones ephemeral (husk) is right out of not the conservatives but the modernists playbook.

To Douthat’s credit, he did acknowledge that conservatives are confused.

Wasn’t Pius IX Speaking for the Church?

R. J. Snell responds to a piece a while ago about the flap over Edgardo Mortara at First Things:

When the Church is speaking for itself, its teachings do not lead to anti-liberalism.

This handy distinction seems to be a way to avoid Augustine’s views on religious liberty:

As Augustinians, Shields elaborates, Catholics define liberty not as “freedom from constraint” but as acting in conformity with the good. Once defined in that way, liberty cannot primarily mean (as it meant to Locke, Mill, and other founders of modern liberalism) “freedom to choose, freedom from constraint, freedom from coercion.” Instead, in the Augustinian view as described by Shields, the purpose of the state is not to secure a morally neutral freedom in consonance with whatever vision of the good life citizens happen to hold. Rather, it is to “orient citizens” toward the genuine liberty that leads to collective salvation. While “Catholic integralism,” as this position is sometimes termed, “may not be a necessary consequence” of the Augustinian vision of liberty, anti-liberal Catholics are disposed in its direction.

Snell goes on to say that this is not what John Paul II taught:

In 1993, for instance, John Paul II, quoting among other things the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) issued in the mid-1960s at Vatican II, taught that humans have a duty to follow their own conscience, since “God willed to leave man in the power of his own counsel,” with individuals “free and self-governed, swayed autonomously by [their] own will.” Of course, the Church also continues to insist that human conscience lacks the right to create moral value, and that persons attain genuine liberty when freely choosing the good. Yet mark the word “freely”: no one is to be, or coherently can be, coerced into either faith or liberty—such coercion is wrong and contradictory.

John Paul II similarly insists that individuals and political communities alike have a “rightful autonomy”: the “autonomy of earthly realities” in which “created things have their own laws and values . . . discovered, utilized, and ordered by man”—not by the Church. To the contrary, in recognizing the freedom of the individual, the Church also recognizes the autonomy of disciplines of knowledge, society, and legitimate political authority.

But the problem of Pius IX remains. When he was speaking — the Syllabus of Errors (which condemned political liberalism, for starters), for instance — apparently someone pretty high up in the church was the voice of the Vatican. Now, Snell might argue that John Paul II came later than Pius IX, and so the most recent teaching of the papacy matters, sort of the way you can see the development of an author and differentiate the early Wendell Berry from the late Wendell Berry.

That only increases the problem for Snell, however. The church is not supposed to have recent and early voices. Rome is not supposed to change. It is the rock in the history of West which resists modernity, the church Jesus founded in 30 AD and all.

Except that the Second Vatican Council broke widely with Pius IX (among many other popes). That means that something comparable was happening in Roman Catholicism to what was going on in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. when the latter adopted the Confession of 1967.


Good but Different Americans

With Ash Wednesday comes Lent and different rationales for turning up those practices that increase holiness. George Weigel opts for the difference that Lenten practice makes:

Friday abstinence was once a defining mark of the practicing Catholic, and Lenten pork roll raillery aside, it ought to be again. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is not renowned for its traditionalism, but some years ago the bishops mandated a year-round return to Friday abstinence south of Hadrian’s Wall, and good for them for doing so. If our baptisms really set us apart for Christ, then we should live a different temporal rhythm than the rest of the world: not to advertise our righteousness, but to remind ourselves, each other, and those who might be curious about these Catholics and their ways that we’re, well, different. And at a moment in Western cultural history in which the tsunami of the Culture of Me threatens to overwhelm everything, putting down behavioral markers of difference is no small thing. From Friday abstinence, who knows what might grow?

Well, these days at First Things someone might ask if Friday abstinence could lead to the kidnapping of baptized children from non-Roman Catholic parents.

Or how about the royal absolutism of French monarchs?

For those keeping score at home, liberalism is on the ropes at First Things, which is odd for a magazine that used to be (along with Weigel) firmly in the Americanist camp of U.S. Roman Catholics.

The problem is not Lent or abstinence from meat. I have great respect for minority groups that maintain their religious ways in face of a society that does little to encourage or foster such practices. The Amish and Orthodox Jews, for instance, who continue to maintain family and spiritual traditions without trying to Americanize their traditions are (or should be) obviously admirable in their fortitude and conviction.

But transferring such admiration to Roman Catholics comes with a catch. That snag is that Roman Catholic piety for a long time was not simply a way of being a good Christian before God but also came with expectations about society, the political order, and the church’s authority. To sever personal piety from Rome’s global reach or cultural aspirations was never possible, the way it has been for other faiths outside the political order that brought them into existence. The reason is that fellowship with the Bishop of Rome and all the affairs in which he had his hands was necessary to be a good Roman Catholic.

So Weigel’s proposal for being more distinct is no neutral proposition when Roman Catholicism in its most distinct expression was not necessarily a respecter of the sort of freedoms that allow the Amish and Orthodox Jews to practice their faiths. Like Neo-Calvinism, Roman Catholicism is not content with a personal faith. Religion is not a private affair but needs to take root in all areas of life — and there goes political liberalism.

Roman Inquisition's Success

David Kertzer concludes by observing that Edgardo Mortara’s story has fallen through the cracks of history thanks to its embarrassing features for both Roman Catholics and Jews. The difficulty Mortara presents to Rome is relatively easy to see, but one website captures the change in Vatican policy well:

One of the reasons the Church ordinarily restricts the administration of baptism to priests and deacons (while allowing for laity and others to do so when someone is at the point of death and a priest or deacon is unavailable) is to prevent precisely the kind of confusion your mother-in-law has created by taking it upon herself to baptize her granddaughter without the parents’ permission.

1. There is such a thing as conditional baptism, but it is a baptism given when the validity of the original baptism is in question or when there is doubt as to whether a baptism occurred. In this case, the baptism your mother-in-law performed — assuming she did it correctly — would be the original baptism. Should her granddaughter’s parents choose to return to their Catholic faith and raise their daughter as a Catholic, a priest or deacon would perform a conditional baptism both to make sure it is done correctly and to start a sacramental record.

2. Since her granddaughter presumably was not at the point of death when your mother-in-law baptized her, the baptism she performed is presumably valid but illicit. That means that your mother-in-law should go to confession to confess having performed an illicit baptism.

3. I can only recommend that your mother-in-law admit to the child’s parents what she has done. They need to know so that they will know that the child needs conditional baptism, not unconditional baptism, should they decide to raise her Catholic or should the child eventually decide to become Catholic herself. Even were the child baptized when she was in extremis, the parents would still need to know about the baptism once it was clear she would survive. The only difference is that your mother-in-law should apologize for an illicit baptism. If the child was baptized while in extremis, an apology is not necessary. If such an admission is not made, and the parents or the child decide eventually for baptism, then the child may receive an unconditional baptism — which would be objective sacrilege since baptism cannot be unconditionally repeated.

4. No, the child does not now need to be raised Catholic either by her parents or her grandmother, particularly if her parents continue to remain opposed to it. The Church now recognizes that it is not necessary to impose a Catholic education on a baptized child who was baptized without the permission of the parents and whose parents are opposed to their child being a Catholic. The Church learned the hard way from the case of Edgardo Mortara that such attempts to do so only cause bitter resentment by the families and by future generations and thereby deepen estrangement from the Church.

The embarrassment to Jews is less obvious until we remember how Edgardo turned out. He became a faithful Roman Catholic, entered the priesthood, and ministered out of a monastery in Belgium for much of his life. As a boy, Edgardo adopted Pius IX as his second father as much as the Pope adopted him as spiritual (and temporal?) son:

At Christmastime each year, Edgardo was called to the Vatican for a visit with the Pope. On these occasions, as Edgardo himself later fondly recalled them, Pius IX “always lavished the most paternal demonstrations of affection on me, gave me wise and useful training and, tenderly blessing me, often repeated that I had cost him much pain and many tears.” When he was still little, he recalled the Pontiff, “like a good father, had fun with me, hiding me under hi grand red cloak, asking jokingly, “Where’s the boy?’ and then, opening the cloak, showing me to the onlookers. . . . The Pope beamed with pride, as, at his prompting, the little convert translated Latin passages for him, to the delight of his visitors. (David I. Kertzer, Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 255)

Edgardo did have meetings with family members later in life. One came when his brother, Riccardo, was part of Italian freedom-fighter forces to liberate Rome from the Vatican’s rule:

When, however, Riccardo appeared in the doorway of Edgardo’s convent room, wearing the uniform of the Italian light infantry, he was in for a rude welcome. His 19-year-old brother, dressed in an initiate’s robes, placed one hand over his eyes to shield them from the sacrilegious sight and raised the other in front of him, signaling Riccardo to stop where he was. “Get back, Satan!” Edgardo shouted. But, the crestfallen Riccardo replied, “I am your brother.” To this Edgardo responded, “Before you get any closer to me, take off that assassin’s uniform.” (263)

Edgardo also met his mother once he had been ordained:

In 1878, Mariana Mortara, now widowed and with all of her nine children grown, heard that Edgardo was preachign in Perpignan, in southwestern France. Accompanied by a family friend, she went to see him. It had been twenty years since she had last laid eyes on her son. It was a poignant reunion, for Edgardo felt great affection for his mother. But try as he might to turn her onto the path of eternal blessing and happiness, he could not gt her to agree to enter the Catechumens and convert.

From that moment Edgardo, remained in touch with his family and, as he aged, sought out family members when he found himself in Italy. But while his mother made peace with him, not all of his siblings were so kindly disposed. (298)

That is why Edgardo Mortara never became a cause celebre for Jews:

For Italy’s Jews, it is not the pain of the Mortara memories that has made its discussion uncomfortable, but the embarrassment. The battle between the Jews and the Church was played out in a struggle over a 6-year-old boy. For the Jews, the Church’s claim that Edgardo could not remain with his Jewish parents because he had been supernaturally transformed by baptism was doubly insulting. Not only did it demonstrate their vulnerability to the Church’s political power, but it also asserted a Catholic claim to possession of the true religion, to a privilege relationship with the Almighty, and to the dismissal of Judaism as error, if not worse. When the Church began to publicize reports that Edgardo was showing signs of his supernatural transformation, the discovery of what, in fact, the little boy actually believed, and whether he truly preferred to stay in the Church rather than to return home to the Judaism of his ancestors, became a kind of public test of the relative merits of the two religions. It was a test the Jews lost.

Of course, Italian Jews were well aware of the psychological pressures exerted on the small boy and had no trouble coming up with a secular explanation of his ultimate decision to abandon his family and Judaism and embrace the Church, but this did not make his transformation any more palatable. That he followed the long – and, for the Jews, vile – tradition of such converts and dedicated himself to trying to convert his own family, and indeed Jews everywhere, meant that Edgardo came to be viewed with horror: he was a changeling. The child who had once been portrayed in the most glowing terms, the object of Jewish compassion, became a man who was disdained, whose character had to be discredited. He could not be happy he could not even be fully saine, for were he happy and sane, it wold reflect poorly on the religion of the Jews. It was best not to talk of him at all. (302)

All the more reason we need Javier Bardem to play Edgardo’s father, maybe Franka Potenta as his mother.

Italy or Infallibility

The claims to papal infallibility to which John Henry Newman objected came at precisely the time when Pius IX was on the hot seat with Italian republicans and Europe’s ruling class.

The military defeats suffered by Pius IX, far from leading him to make peace with the new regime, prompted him to go newly on the attack. In 1862, his allocution, Maxima quidem laetitia, reaffirmed that the Pope could not be free to do his spiritual duty without temporal power, and on December 8, 1864, he issued one of the most famous – and controversial – encyclicals of modern times, Quanta cura, with its accompanying Syllabus of Errors.

The idea of preparing an inventory of the errors of modern times had long been championed by the Jesuits of Civilita Cattolica. A team of Vatican experts drew up the list, and the Pope’s encyclical and the Syllabus were sent out together to all bishops with a cover letter sent from Cardinal Antonelli. The Cardinal explained: “The Pope has already in Encyclicals and Allocutions condemned the principal errors of this most unhappy age . . . . Therefore the Pope wished a Syllabus of these Errors to be drawn up for the use of all Catholic bishops that they may have before their eyes the pernicious doctrines that he has proscribed.”

For the Pope’s enemies, the Syllabus simply confirmed their belief that the pontifical state – if not the papacy itself – was a glaring anachronism in the nineteenth century. Among the pernicious doctrines the Pope condemned were that people should be free to profess whatever religion they thought best; that even those not in the Catholic Church could aspire to eternal salvation; that Catholics could disagree with the need for the Pope to have temporal power; that there should be a separation of Church and state; and “that the Pope could and should reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

Even many loyal Catholics – perhaps most – were shocked by the Syllabus, in which the Pope seemed to condemn progress and modern civilization. For the anticlerical forces, the Syllabus was “manna from heaven,” in the words of Roger Aubert, Pius IX’s biographer. One Piedmontese newspaper, noting that the Pope had condemned modern science, delightfully (if maliciously) asked whether he now planned to ban trains, telegraph, steam engines, and gaslights from his – albeit recently reduced – lands. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 257-58)

(Parenthetically, Protestants were and continue to be a mixed bag when it comes to progress and modern science. And that may be too charitable, since postmillenialism too readily morphed into paeans to modernity as the outworking of God’s special purposes. At the same time, Protestants who read Wendell Berry and figure out how to bemoan the dislocating effects of modernity often turn to Roman Catholicism as the Christian answer to the woes of progressive civilization. These folks find the Syllabus of Errors congenial if not prophetic. Too bad that every pope since Vatican 2 has refused to agree with Pius IX. These post-Vatican 2 popes have wanted the church to engage the modern world and update the Roman Catholic faith. Which makes me wonder why the Protestants who convert to Rome as a conservative response to modernity don’t join forces with the SSPXers who are truly opposed to modernity and to the contemporary Vatican’s indifference to if not outright rejection of Pius IX’s Syllabus.)

Kertzer also points out that Pius IX not only doubled down on his divine status in troubled times, but also continued to oversee the Roman Inquisition’s abduction of Jewish children.

In 1864, another episode involving a Jewish boy demonstrated anew the Vatican’s intention to hold out against the forces of secularization. The case involved 9-year-old Giuseppe Coen, who lived in Rome’s ghetto. One day Guiseppe failed to return home from his job at a nearby cobbler’s shop. His parents soon discovered that he had been taken to the House of the Catechumens, forced there, they said, by the Catholic cobbler. For the Jews and the enemies of Church temporal power, this had all the makings of Mortara redux.

At the beginning of August, when protests about the new case began to appear in the liberal press the church-allied Giormale di Roma painted its own picture of what had happened. Giuseppe Coen, a Jewish boy of the Rome ghetto, had long nourished the wish to become a Christian, along with the fear that he would be severely punished if his parents heard of it. “For fifteen days he begged his employer to take him to the House of the Catechumens.” Finally, on July 25, taking advantage of the visit by a relative of the cobbler who happened to have a priest with him, Guiseppe’s pleas were answered. They took him to the Catechumens, whether the boy convinced the Rector of his fervent desire to become a Christian.

The Coens had wasted no time in seeking French aid, for in the wake of the Mortara case, they had no illusions of getting their son released simply by petitioning the Church. Three days after the child’s disappearance, the French ambassador went to see Cardinal Antonelli on their behalf, and he returned to the Vatican the following morning to renew his angry protests.

The French liberal press quickly took the case up, demanding to know why French soldiers were standing by while Jewish children were being stolen from their parents. On August 13, the papal nuncio in Paris wrote to Cardinal Antonelli to report on his recent unpleasant meeting with the French minister of foreign affairs, Drouyn de Lhuys. The Minister railed against the holding of the boy, calling it an action contrary to the laws of nature, “carried out and sanctioned by the Holy See under the eyes of the French troops.” The nuncio reported, “I responded that France’s protection of the pope’s temporal power did not give it the right to involve it in measure and actions that regarded the Pontiff’s spiritual jurisdiction.” (258-59)

Echoes of Unam Sanctam were still reverberating in the Vatican, apparently. The papacy did not have the temporal power strong enough to make its spiritual power stick. The papal states were no match for Austria or France. But even if the papacy depended on the French and Austrians for protection, its officials could not recognize that the papacy was not temporally or spiritually independent. If Pius IX regarded his temporal power as essential to his spiritual authority, and yet he was not strong enough to defend his Legations, then the Church was not truly free. But this did not prevent the Vatican from regarding the stronger political powers as beholden to the pope. Apparently, the Vatican’s spiritual power not only depended on the integrity of the Papal States (temporal power), but also on the civil muscle of Roman Catholic emperors and kings. All power, civil and ecclesiastical, flowed from the Eternal City.

A 19th-Century Consensus on the Spirituality of the Church

While Europeans were figuring out what to do with Edgardo Mortara, church law, and papal power, other parts of the Christian world (okay, Protestant) were also struggling to sort out the temporal and spiritual realms. In 1834 the Afscheiding rejected the Dutch ecclesiastical establishment and opted for a church free from the constraints of political compromise. (Of course, many of these Dutch Calvinists still wanted a return to the Dutch republic of Dort’s Synod’s fame.) A similar secession occurred among the Scots when in 1843 the Free Church abandoned the comforts of the Kirk for an ecclesiastical existence free from state control. (Of course, Thomas Chalmers was loathe to call this a voluntary church – despite the name “Free” – and repeatedly affirmed that the Free Church stood for the establishment principle; this meant that the Free Church still preferred ecclesiastical establishment but only on orthodox terms.) And then there was the case of the Old School Presbyterians, who had no ecclesiastical establishment to repudiate but did reject the blurring of nationalism and Presbyterianism on display among the New School Presbyterians. This rejection involved the doctrine of the spirituality of the church – the idea that the church is a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends.

In each of these cases, Reformed Protestants were coming to a clearer understanding of the church’s spiritual character thanks to the lessons taught by church entanglements with temporal power.

The Vatican, thanks to the case of Edgardo Mortara and a European consensus, needed also to come to grips with a church vacated of temporal power and limited to spiritual authority. Italian republicans attempted to their best efforts to teach this lesson to the papacy when in 1849 they drafted an Italian Constitution that included these articles:

1) The papacy’s rule and temporal power over the Roman State is declared over.

2) The Roman Pontiff will have all the guarantees necessary for his exercise of spiritual authority.

3) the form of the government of the Roman State will be pure democracy, and will take the glorious name of the Roman Republic. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 22)

What conservative Reformed Protetants adopted freely with some minor discomfort, the conservative papacy had imposed on it by European politics.

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?)

Giving A Whole New Meaning to Church Universal

While Jason Stellman is trying to exegete his way back to Trent, I wonder in what part of the Bible or early church fathers you would read a statement like this from Pope Francis (yesterday):

“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”

“Instead,” the Pope continued, “the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil”:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Now I guess conservative Protestants are not supposed to notice affirmations like this. So far Jason and the Callers have not been as fired up about Francis as they were in the initial after glow of the Conclave. Then again, their blogs do go to sleep sometimes.

Still, how exactly do you pull tradition, the church that Christ founded, and conservative Christianity out of this? Have the Protestant converts to Rome really accepted the notion that Roman Catholicism is above liberalism, as if modernism doesn’t happen there, as if Pascendi Dominici Gregis was foisted on the Vatican by William Jennings Bryan and William Bell Riley?

Between Francis’ apparent sympathies to liberation theology and his universalism, the task of selling Rome as the conservative answer to Protestant disarray is going to be almost as hard as making a movie about Edgardo Mortara.