Steven Spielberg had his script; he had chosen his locations and had begun to build his sets. He had cast almost all his parts. He just needed a boy to play Edgardo Mortara, the six-year-old that Pope Pius IX had taken away from his Jewish family in 1858, because the boy was Catholic. (A maid had baptized him when he lingered at death’s door as an infant, but he did not die.)
Spielberg, however, could not find the right child actor. The director searched in vain for the boy he needed “to carry the movie.” A little over a year ago, Spielberg gave up. We apparently won’t see a blockbuster Edgardo-Mortara movie anytime soon. (Harvey Weinstein had the idea of making a movie about Mortara, too. But…)
Spielberg had wanted to recount the early life of the Jewish-born Catholic priest who once enjoyed international fame. During his childhood and teenage years, Edgardo Mortara’s name passed the lips of practically every king, queen, prime-minister, and president on earth. And it appeared in the editorials of practically every newspaper, as the world lurched into the political alignments that eventually led to World War I.
But Spielberg had made a bad choice about the book upon which to base his script. David Kertzer wrote The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara without reading one highly significant document: Father Mortara’s own memoirs.
Kertzer has since raised quibbles about the reliability of the text of Mortara’s memoirs, originally written in Spanish. But the disputed passages do not change anything fundamental about the book. The Atlantic called the final Italian (and English) text “heavily doctored.” But close analysis does not support that charge. The real problem is that the anti-Pope-Pius side of the debate regards Mortara as having been “brainwashed.” But, by that logic, all Catholics who believe in Christ and His Gospel have been brainwashed.
So, back to our task at hand: a consideration of Mortara’s words. As an adult, Father Mortara wrote his story, in order to defend Pope Pius IX from the charge of malicious kidnapping. In so doing, Mortara told the tale of a beautiful, holy life. He thought he was praising Pope Pius’ holiness. But he was in fact unwittingly revealing his own.
Maybe Spielberg couldn’t find the “right” actor, thereby dooming his movie, because the story, as he intended to tell it, only included half of the facts. How can you tell a good story on film, while neglecting the point-of-view of the protagonist himself?
(Let’s let Spielberg concern himself with projects like Indiana Jones XVII, or whatever he’s up to, and focus on whether Mortara rightly concludes that Pope Pius rightly ordered his “sequestration” from his family.)
Italian scholar Vittorio Messori unearthed Mortara’s memoir. In spite of all the controversy that surrounded Mortara’s life, his own book had never been published for the general public. Messori wrote a lengthy introduction and published the book in Italian. Now Ignatius Press has published an English translation.
Earlier this year, Father Romanus Cessario “reviewed” Kidnapped by the Vatican? for First Things magazine. But Father Cessario paid scant attention to anything about Mortara’s life after age six. Indeed, Messori himself, in his introduction, apologizes to the reader for Mortara’s supposedly inartful and unconvincing prose. (Ironically enough, Messori’s prose requires a lot of concentration to grasp; Mortara’s, by contrast, flows smoothly.)
In his introduction, Messori belabors the following point: Pope Pius IX’s 19th-century critics were hypocrites. In other Christian lands, baptized children were removed somewhat routinely from non-Christian homes. And in the Muslim world, Christian children could be castrated and enslaved.
Okay, but this argumentation does not resolve the moral question about Pope Pius’ decision to remove Mortara from his family home. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Anyway, it’s as if Cessario and Messori, intent on defending Pope Pius IX’s decision, fall into the same trap as Kertzer and Spielberg–and everyone else intent on demonizing the pope: All of them treat Father Mortara’s own point-of-view as an unnecessary afterthought.
The Pope was obviously terribly, grievously wrong to take Edgardo from his parents! It was crass anti-Semitism!
The Pope had good reason and basically did the right thing, according to solid 19th-century logic!
It’s as if the polemicists consider these the only options, and what Mortara himself has to say–that doesn’t really matter.
But actually sitting down and reading Mortara’s words forces you to take him seriously. I picked up the book to test my own conclusions about the affair against what the man himself says. (I’ll come back to that shortly.) Once I started reading Mortara’s own narrative, I couldn’t put the book down. He tells the gripping story of his early life.
The Risorgimento took control of Rome during Edgardo’s teenage years, and the pope no longer had any governing power. The new Italian government had a mind to return the young man, now a seminarian, to his family home–by force if necessary, against Edgardo’s own will and strenuous objections.
So Edgardo and his seminary professors enacted a plan for the young man to escape the city on a midnight train to Austria, disguised and accompanied by a similarly disguised seminary priest.
As the two of them waited anxiously to board the train, the priest saw Edgardo’s father, also at the train station that very same night. The companion informed Edgardo of his father’s presence; they sat motionless to avoid his glance.
Edgardo marvels that his father did not see him. I wonder myself if perhaps the father actually did recognize the son, but loved him enough to keep quiet and allow him to escape, so he could live the life he wanted to lead.
Anyway, Father Mortara wrote a vivid, eminently readable book. He narrates the facts of his early life, including his “removal” from the family home by order of Pope Pius, so that the boy could receive the proper Catholic education to which his baptism entitled him.
Mortara offers not only a narration of facts, but also a moral defense of the pope. Father Mortara argues as follows: His parents had employed a Christian shabbos goy (non-Jewish sabbath servant) in defiance of the law. The law prohibited Christian servants in Jewish households precisely to avoid cases like Mortara’s, where a baptism at the point of death produced a Catholic who wound up surviving and required a Christian education. The Mortaras broke that law.
According to Mortara’s moral reasoning, the responsibility for his removal from his family therefore lies with his parents.
Everyone involved regarded the removal as highly regrettable. The Pope had offered a compromise alternative: Edgardo could attend a Catholic boarding school in Bologna (his hometown), and his family could see him every week. But the Mortaras rejected this proposal.
So, according to Mortara, and according to Pope Pius himself, the Pope had no choice. He had an obligation to see to it that Edgardo received a Catholic education.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge this: Both the Pope and the parents recognized something very important: Every child has a right to a thorough education in religion.
The idea of “waiting till he grows up, so he can decide” did not appeal to either party in the dispute. Because both sides recognized that no such option really exists. Children will grow up with the religion of the adults they live with. If that religion = “none,” then the adults have failed to provide the religious education that the child deserves by right.
Back to Mortara’s argument: His parents had broken the law. He was a Catholic six-year-old, with a right to a Catholic education. His parents would not co-operate with the Pope’s humane compromise proposal. Therefore, Pope Pio had no choice, and his parents were to blame for the pain.
The Pope himself echoed this logic in his repeated response to the critics who demanded that he return the child to the parents. Non possumus. We cannot.
Now, you don’t have to be an anti-clerical, anti-Catholic worldling to see the hypocrisy in such a statement. As I mentioned, in the book’s introduction, Messori points out the hypocrisy of the Pope’s critics. Fair enough. But:
How many baptized children living in the papal states in the 1860’s did not receive the proper Catholic education that they deserved? It is staggering to imagine the number of Catholic children who languished in religious ignorance because of parental inattention–inattention by Catholic parents. In every generation, we face this problem. And the Pope never claimed to have an irrevocable divine mandate to remove these children from their homes.
No. The non possumus; the laying of the responsibility on the parents for the “sequestration” of the child: not credible, not accurate, not true.
The pope could have offered the compromise; he could have received the refusal; then he could have said: We strongly urge you to educate your child as the Catholic that he is. You owe him that. We stand ready to help you.
And then the pope could have left it at that, trusting in God, and His Providence, and His unfathomable wisdom in the care of souls.
Mortara praises Pope Pius for “saving him from hell.” If the boy or young man had had to return to his Jewish parents, he thinks that he would certainly have wound up damned. In his mind, a black-or-white alternative presented itself: 1. The reprobate world outside the perfect society of the Church. 2. Salvation under the aegis of the Successor of St. Peter.
But this distinction does not altogether harmonize with the New Testament.
First of all, as Pope Paul VI pointed out on the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Papal States, St. Peter never received a mission to govern everything. Christ made Peter and his successors the chief shepherds, the pastors of the world.
Some authority must possess the power to remove children from their homes, if necessary. Parents can and do commit crimes against their children. (The great Roy Schoeman, in his forward to the English edition of Mortara’s memoirs, points this out. Parents do not have absolute power over their children.)
We would say that failing to give a Catholic child a Catholic education is a crime, a grave dereliction of duty. But can we honestly argue that, all other things being equal–the child safe and fed and protected from danger–that under such circumstances, such a crime should be punished by removing the child from the home? Can we honestly argue that such a punishment would serve the cause of building up the Catholic religion?
And could anyone ever apply such a punishment consistently? Or supply the parental care that such children would need? Hardly.
No, let’s say this: Parents of Catholic children, you owe your children an education in the Catholic religion! If you fail to provide it, you stand guilty of a grave crime, for which God will punish you (not us; we don’t have the authority to mete out punishments for such crimes of negligence). We stand ready to help you avoid such a punishment.
Second mistake of Mortara’s: A Christian cannot regard the culture and society of Jews as equally spiritually dangerous as the culture and society of pagans. I’m not saying that Mortara was “brainwashed” to think that way. But we can’t regard his prediction as infallible, that he would have wound-up damned if he had been forced to return home. He might yet have found the way to heaven.
So, to conclude:
Mortara’s memoirs reward the reader. The book leaves you admiring the author’s earnestness, his intelligence, his narrative skill, his theological insight, and his holiness.
Pope Pius IX enjoys heaven–of that we can be sure, because Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in the year 2000.
Saints can and do make blameworthy mistakes. In my book, the holy pope made a blindly stubborn mistake in 1858–a mistake with excruciatingly painful consequences for a Jewish family that did not deserve such pain.
Their pain, however, is not the whole story. The parents and siblings came to love and admire their priest son and brother (not without some misgivings, to be sure). God had a plan. Mortara’s book shows us how beautiful that plan was, in spite of everything.