For another book by David Kertzer on Catholic-Jewish relations, see my review of The Popes against the Jews here.
"Signor Mortara, I am sorry to inform you that you are the victim of a betrayal." The officer felt uneasy, but he had his orders. "Your son Edgardo has been baptised, and I have been ordered to take him with me."
The date was Thursday 24 June 1858, and the place was Bologna. The Pope's military police had come to take 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents, Momolo and Marianna, and deliver him to the Church authorities in Rome.
A terrible scene resulted. The police insisted that they were only following the orders of the local Inquisitor, Fr. Feletti. The Inquisitor himself insisted that he was acting under orders from the Vatican. In the face of the pleas of Edgardo's family, Fr. Feletti agreed to a 24 hour stay of execution, albeit with reluctance. It turned out that he was worried that the Jewish family would murder their child to prevent him from becoming a Christian.
When the 24 hours were up, Edgardo was taken by carriage to Rome and consigned to the House of Catechumens, an institution for the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Catholicism. During the journey, it was said that Edgardo showed a definite interest in the doctrines of the Catholic faith and an eagerness to go to church, though his police guard later suggested that this was the result of childish curiosity and the attention bestowed on him by Catholic fellow passengers.
This cruel situation had come about because the Mortaras were a Jewish family and Edgardo had been secretly baptised. Shorn of its ritual accoutrements, baptism is not a very difficult sacrament to administer: it consists simply of sprinkling the subject with water and saying "I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit". The only intention that the baptiser needs to have is a general willingness to do what the Church intends to do in conferring baptism. Then as now, Church law provided that a baby could be baptised only with its parents' permission and by a clergyman using the approved rites of the Church, but these requirements could be relaxed if the child was in imminent danger of death. In any event, whether it was conferred lawfully or unlawfully, a baptism that fulfilled the minimal sacramental requirements was valid and irreversible. A Jewish child who had been baptised was regarded by the Church as a Christian, and she could not be raised by infidel parents who would try to turn her away from her new faith.
Edgardo's case was not unique. Kertzer refers to several other cases of Jewish children being abducted to be raised as Christians, in most cases because a Catholic servant had performed an illicit baptism. In another case, a family had fled abroad in order to escape the same fate. Some Jewish families had adopted the practice of requiring servants to make a notarised statement on leaving service declaring that they had not baptised any of the family's children.
These inhuman incidents were able to happen because they took place within the Papal States, the lands in central Italy which lay under the direct control of the Pope and the Catholic Church. The Pontifical State had existed for centuries, but by the mid-1800s it had become a state of denial. Since the time of the French Revolution, the Italian peninsula had been swept by waves of revolts and invasions inspired by the new ideas of liberalism, nationalism and constitutional government. The tide of history was running against the notion that the Pope had the right to rule over an earthly kingdom through the medium of canon law enforced by civil police. The pontifical government was living on borrowed time, propped up by French and Austrian troops and funded by loans from (oh, the irony) the Rothschild banking dynasty. Yet the Catholic hierarchy continued to behave as if it was still the Counter-Reformation.
There was nothing inevitable about this ultra-conservative stance: it was a policy choice made by successive pontiffs with varying degrees of gusto. There were reformers in the Church. Cardinal Ercole Consalvi had held office as the papal Secretary of State a few decades earlier, and the reigning pope himself, Blessed Pius IX, had initially been regarded as something of a liberal. But Pius had had his fingers badly burned by the revolutions of 1848, and the day of the modernisers was not yet at hand. Not until Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) would the Church have a leader who was even half willing to make his peace with the nineteenth century.
Embedded in the reactionary Catholicism of the times was an unpleasant vein of antisemitism. Jews had lived in Italy since before the time of Christ, but in the Papal States they had long been subject both to popular hostility and to legal restrictions imposed by the Church authorities. In earlier times, the popes had shown a degree of benevolence towards the Jewish community, but since the Reformation their stance had hardened. Jews were locked in ghettoes, forced to wear badges identifying their status and required to listen to compulsory sermons aimed at converting them. It was still seriously believed that Jews kidnapped Christian children and consumed their blood (the notorious "blood libel"). In more recent times, the harshness of the anti-Jewish laws had been relaxed somewhat (Pius IX prided himself on his benignity in this regard), but Jews were still second-class citizens at best.
Nonetheless, the Mortaras and their supporters in the Jewish community did not take Edgardo's abduction lying down. They fired off letters - respectfully worded, of course - to Fr. Feletti, the pontifical Secretary of State and Pope Pius IX himself, culimating in a full-scale submission in September 1858 claiming that Catholic theology and canon law were on their side (the Pope did not appreciate being lectured by Jews on his own doctrines). The international press became interested, with editors using the plight of the boy from Bologna to fortify their readers' pro- or anti-Catholic political sentiments. The French ambassador got involved, as did the Rothschilds and the Anglo-Jewish legend Sir Moses Montefiore. The Jewish community of Rome, whose officials were at the forefront of the Mortaras' efforts, viewed these interventions with some concern, believing from their own long experience that the Jews of the Papal States could only lose from any attempt to strongarm the Pope.
Accounts of how Edgardo behaved in the House of Catechumens and how he conducted himself during meetings with his parents differed dramatically, and along predictable lines. The official version, in which he gloried in his new Christian life, has the clear appearance of propaganda. The natural assumption is that a 6-year-old boy forcibly separated from his parents must have been devastated by the experience, and that his parents' testimony to this effect must have been true and correct. On the other hand, Edgardo does seem to have adapted himself to his new situation, and doubts developed among some of the Mortaras' allies, including a Jewish official who saw the boy himself, about where his loyalties lay. After leaving the Catechumens, Edgardo seems to have settled quite well into his new life with the other boys at a church school in Rome, and in due course he was ordained as a Catholic priest.
Who had baptised Edgardo? Suspicion soon fell on Anna Morisi, a former servant of the Mortaras, and it duly turned out that she was the guilty party. Her story was that she had administered the baptism during a life-threatening illness that Edgardo had suffered in infancy. A local grocer called Lepori had suggested that she baptise Edgardo to ensure that he went to heaven when he died, and she had decided to take his advice. Several years later, she had told another servant in the neighbourhood, an enigmatic character called Regina Bussolari, what she had done. It was allegedly after Morisi spoke with Bussolari that the Inquisitor got involved. A woman called Elena Pignatti, who knew Morisi and had employed her after she left the Mortaras, recalled independently that Morisi had spoken to her about baptising Jewish babies several years before, at a time when one of the Mortara children was seriously ill.
This version of events did not go uncontested. Both Lepori and Bussolari denied speaking to Morisi. Most witnesses reported that Edgardo's illness had not been life-threatening, so a secret baptism should not have been necessary - and, in any case, Morisi herself had been sick in bed at the relevant time. More intriguingly, it appears that Morisi may have had a financial interest in suddenly coming out with her story several years after the event. In 1857, according to Elena Pignatti, just months before Edgardo's abduction, Morisi had been mysteriously summoned several times by the local priests, and she had explained to Pignatti that the Inquisitor had promised her a dowry. Morisi herself acknowledged that she had been after a dowry, but she insisted that she had brought the subject up with the Inquisitor only after he had questioned her about the baptism.
The Mortaras went to some lengths to prove that Morisi was no simple, God-fearing peasant girl. Marianna said that she had been a liar, and other witnesses claimed that she had been involved in several instances of theft. Predictably, given the climate of the times, her sex life was held up as evidence of bad character. Bologna was garrisoned by Austrian troops, and Morisi appears to have had a liking for handsome young men in uniform - not an unusual preference for a heterosexual female, but one which was politically incorrect in the 1850s.
The Church never provided a full account of its investigations, but its own version of events seems to suggest that the initial report came from a woman called Marianna Bajesi, who claimed to have heard rumours about the baptism originating from Regina Bussolari. On balance, it is probable that Morisi did baptise Edgardo, no doubt oblivious to the trouble that her act would cause in the future.
The Mortara affair was one of the rude shocks that awoke the upper echelons of the Catholic Church to the realities of the modern world. They may have been able to get away with this sort of thing in the middle ages, but the game had changed. The affair may even have changed the course of European history, since it may have influenced Napoleon III of France to allow Prime Minister Cavour of Piedmont to annexe most of the Papal States in 1859-60, an important step in the creation of the modern Italian state. When Bologna was freed from papal control as a result of this truncation of the Pope's realms, Fr. Feletti was arrested and tried by the new government. Even within the framework of the old laws, it was argued, he was guilty and deserving of punishment: he provided no proof that he had followed proper procedures in ordering the boy's seizure, and he appeared not to have ascertained properly that the baptism had been validly performed. The court, however, disagreed and acquitted him.
Fr. Feletti was small fry, though. At the centre of the controversy were Pope Pius IX and his de facto prime minister, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli. There is a longstanding tendency to see Pius as a kindly old buffoon who was manipulated by Antonelli. Antonelli was a devious politician who become a cardinal without ever being ordained a priest, and he was said to be more interested in money and women than in religion. There may be an element of truth in these caricatures, but Pius was no innocent dupe. He took a close personal interest in Edgardo's upbringing, and he strenuously resisted attempts to induce him to release the boy. He may have been an affable and pious man, but he was also wilful and intransigent. He cared not what governments, ambassadors or journalists ("the truly powerful people of our times") had to say on the matter. He had not the slightest qualm of conscience in keeping Edgardo separated from his parents, because he knew with unshakeable certainty that God was on his side. As his namesake Pius X would later prove, the worst popes are sometimes the holy ones.
Not that Pius was lacking in defenders. Catholic writers and newspapers praised his stoutheartedness and commended his actions. The Pope, they said, had acted in accordance with his religious duties, and besides, the boy was clearly loving it. His parents might be upset to have lost him, but they had lots of other children, and in any case they should have thought of that before they broke the law by employing a Catholic maidservant. What was more, they could immediately be reunited with Edgardo by becoming Catholics themselves, in which case they would also be granted eternal salvation. These lines of argument are oddly echoed by no less a person than the professional atheist Richard Dawkins. In The God Delusion, Dawkins uses the Mortara case as part of his foolish argument that ascribing parents' religion to their children amounts to child abuse. He seems to think that the Mortaras themselves were culpable because they had employed a Catholic servant due to silly Jewish scruples about the Sabbath and because they refused to make a fake conversion to Catholicism to get their son back.
In the meantime, events were moving on. Edgardo wrote to his parents on a number of occasions but couldn't resist trying to convert them to Catholicism, leading to a breakdown in communications. In 1864, a similar case to Edgardo's, involving a Roman Jewish boy named Giuseppe Coen, was reportedly instrumental in inducing Napoleon III to withdraw his troops temporarily from what remained of the Pope's territories. In 1870, the French troops left for the last time to fight the Franco-Prussian War, and the Italian army entered the Eternal City. The Pope's temporal power was extinguished, and the papacy enjoyed an extended toys-out-of-pram moment until finally the small area of western Rome known as Vatican City was handed back to Pope Pius XI in 1929. When Rome fell to the Italians, Edgardo was visited by his brother Riccardo, an officer in the invading army. Edgardo, now a young man of 19, insisted that Riccardo remove his "murderer's uniform" before he would speak to him. He then slipped out of Rome and fled to Austria before his parents could catch up with him. Coen's parents were similarly disappointed when they were reunited with a petulant teenager who wanted nothing more to do with them.
It seems that Momolo never recovered from his son's abduction. In 1871, his maidservant died under mysterious circumstances, and he was initially convicted of her murder amid allegations that he was an angry and violent man. The verdict was subsequently reversed by a higher court, and he died shortly afterwards. Marianna, who was suspected of playing a role in covering up the alleged killing, made her peace with Edgardo and died in 1890. As noted earlier, Edgardo himself became a priest. A clever man, he learnt several languages and became a missionary preacher. He eventually wound up in Belgium, where he died on 11 March 1940, just before the Nazi invasion. It was a mercifully timed demise. The baptism that took him from his parents and made him an international celebrity would, one imagines, have cut no ice with the SS.