Friday, May 6, 2016

In defense of Pius IX in the Mortara Affair

It has come to my attention that Steven Spielberg and therefore Hollywood are interested in taking shots at the Church once again, this time by way of a complicated event in History (surprise in this 120 character or below culture)
Edgardo Levi-Mortara in his clerics
The issue?  The Mortara Affair in which a young Jewish boy had been baptized by a house servant when the child was gravely ill.  The diocese recommended the case to Rome and Pius IX had the child removed from the care of his parents and brought him up in the Catholic faith.

But to more effectly relate the story to you it is important to note the context of the time, and how this was a media event of its day.  The event was related in a fantastic book on Pius IX entitled  "Pope Pius IX: The Man and the Myth" by Yves Chiron


From Orsini to Mortara

If 1857 had been dominated by this long apostolic journey, 1858 was the year in which Italy’s destiny was at the mercy of the (then) secret agreement between Napoleon III and Cavour. It all started on January 14 with an attempt on the Emperor’s life. As he was going to the Opera, four Italian republicans, led by Orsini, a former member of the Constituant Assembly of the Roman Republic, threw bombs at the imperial cortege. Orsini, under the influence of an exiled French republican, believed that with Napoleon III dead, the Republic would be restored in France and would help Italy towards unit and towards becoming a republic too. The Emperor emerged unscathed from the assassination attempt, but 156 people were injured, more or less  seriously, and eight of them died.

As well as intensifying the evolution towards a more authoritarian regime. Orsini’s assassination attempt made Napoleon III determined to conduct policies more decidedly in favor of Piedmont-Sardinia. If France were to help Piedmont-Sardinia to throw the Austrians out the Italy, it would acquire the good graces of the partisans of Italian unit and also of the French republicans who had so far been hostile to the Empire. Of course, Napoleon III reckoned to profit territorially from this military intervention in Italy. This was the purpose of the Plombières Accord. For waters in this spa in the Vosges Mountains. On July 21, Cavour discreetly made his way thither and had two long private discussions with the Emperor. It was agreed that France would help Piedmont-Sardinia to expel the Austrians from the north od Italy. After the victory, Piedmont-Sardinia and the Romagna, two regions of the Papal States. In exchange for its help, France would get Savoy and Nice which, in the wake of the 1815 treaty of Vienna, had reverted to the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.
The contents of this agreement remained secret. Cavour regarded the projected annexations as the first step towards Italy’s complete unification. Napoleon III, however, had no intention of promoting an unified Italy at this time. True, in 1849 he had sent troops to re-establish the Pope in Papal States from him. He believed, however, that Italy could become a confederation and that that the Pope, the head of the Papal States (even of a reduced Papal States) could give stability as president of this future Italian confederation.

In many ways Napoleon III had the wool pulled over his eyes in this Plombières Accord. The skillful Cavour gave the impression that he would be content to create a kindom of Northern Italy, whereas for a long time his real intention had been much broader. As for Napoleon III, he was lending his support to an enterprise that would have the immediate effect of handing Savoy and Nice to France; but this would alienate the sympathy of Catholics and break up the totality of Papal States.

Under cover of a war of liberation against Austria, Piedmont-Sardinia was in fact preparing to attack and despoil the Papal States. Was it a coincidence that the “Mortara Affair” erupted a few months after the Plombières Accord? This affair, which was publicized by a Bologna newspapaer for some months. Liberals and anti-clericals saw it as an opportunity to lead a campaign against the Church’s “obscurantism.” In virtue of the many controversies it prompted, this “Mortara Affair” can be compared to the “Dreyfus Affair” which was to give France much anguish some decades later.

Edgardo Levi-Mortara, son of a rich Jewish family of Bologna, born in 1851, fell gravely ill at the age of seventeen months. The family’s Catholic servant, Anna Morisi, thinking that the child was near to death, decided to baptize him secretly herself, pouring water on him and pronouncing the sacramental words. Against all Hope the child recovered and the servant kept it a secret. In 1858 Edgardo’s brother Aristide also fell seriously ill. One of Anna Morisi’s friends said that she should baptize him. The servant refused, saying that she had already baptized Edgardo some years earlier, that he had recovered, and that since that time his parents had brought him up according to the Jewish law. She did not want a similar situation to arise in Aristide’s case. The story became known to the Bologna ecclesiastical authorities, and, thinking the case too serious, they referred it to Rome.
The Congregation of the Inquisition, with the approval of Pius IX, decided to remove the young Edgardo from his family and bring him up as a Christian. This was June 24, 1858, and the boy would be seven next birthday.. Later Mortara spoke of the event: “The police took me to Rome and presented me to His Holiness Pius IX, who received me with the greatest kindness and declared himself to be my adoptive father, which, in effect, he was.” The boy was entrusted to the Institute of Catechumens, which was administered by the congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

His parents went to Rome to take him back; they were refused, but they were allowed to see him every day. The young Mortara himself declared that he did not wish to return to his parents, and they went back to Bologna. It was they, no doubt, who alerted the press to what they considered and “abduction.” The Italian newspapers, followed by those of all Europe, seized on this unfortunate affair.

The fact is that, in acting in this way, Pius IX was only acting in accordance with the current canonical rules. For centuries the Church had strictly forbidden the baptism of Jewish children without  their parents’ consent, except in two very precise circumstances: when a child had been abandoned by its parents, or if the child had been entrusted to the care of a Christian and was in imminent danger of death. In this second case, if the baptized child survived, it could be taken away from its family to protect it from apostasy. In order to avoid these dire circumstances the law of the Papal States prohibited Jewish families from having Christian domestic servants, who might be inclined to baptize those in danger of death. In employing Anne Morisi, therefore, the Mortara family had committed an infraction against this wise measure.

In the case of the boy Mortara, furthermore, it should be stressed that he was completely happy with his new poition. Initially Pius IX had considered placing him in a Jesuit college, but, given the rising tide of polemics, he was afraid that the Jesuits might again be exposed to the attacks of the liberal and anti-clerical press. So, in December, he entrusted the boy to a school run by the Canons Regular of the Lateran. Every month the Pope paid the appropriate school fees and attentively followed his protégé’s progress in his studies. Later, Mortara completed his novitiate with the Canons Regular and was ordained priest.

This Mortara Affair featured in the European press for severfal months. In france, L’Univers was one of the very few newspapers to defend the Pope’s decision. Louis Veuillot summoned Dom Guéranger to remind readers of the doctrine involved in the case. The Abbot of Solesmes wrote:

“There are two distinct rights present here, that of the parents regarding their child’s education, and the right of the child himself to enjoy the advantages obtained through his baptism and to be preserved from the peril resulting from any possible infraction of the duties incumbent upon him. As for thse two rights, one belongs to the order of nature, and the other belongs to the supernatural order: both come from God. In this conflict, which has priority? The supernatural right, without any doubt. God cannot contradict Himself…”

The vast majority of the newspapers, however, denounced the Church’s “obsolete laws” and “theological law’s oppression of the natural law.” As Louis Veuillot wrote, “This application of the law seemed cruel; it seemed insulting to the generous spirit of the century, it was a crime against nature and the final proof that eh pontifical governance should be swept from the world like the last spot of mire from the ages of barbarism. The clamoring, or rather the bellowing, became universal.

The Jewish community of Allesandria, in Piedmont-Sardinia, appealed to all the world’s synagogues to protest publicly, and demanded that governments should intervene diplomatically. France, through the intermediary of her ambassador in Rome, the Duke de Gramont, first sent a very severe not eot Cardinal Antonelli, and then asked pius IX himself to “give back”  Mortara. The Pope replied that “in conscience” he could not allow “a Christian to be brought up in the Hebrew religion.”

The Mortara Affair was, in many ways, an engine of war against the Church; it gave people the opportunity to denounce “the government of the priest.” Cavour, in private correspondence from this period, recognized this, not without a certain cynicism:

“The Emperor has been delighted with the Mortara Affair, as with everything that may compromise the Pope in the eyes of Europe and in the eyes of moderate Catholics. The more charges that can be made against him, the easier it will be to impose on him the sacrifices called for by the reorganization Italy… We must make the most of all the Emperor’s efforts to bring the Pope to follow a more reasonable political line… by insisting, with regret, that the Pope’s conduct shows it to be absolutely impossible that he should keep the temporal power outside of the walls of Rome” 


So when your friends are talking about this movie send them to read this so they better understand the context.



  1. Very interesting. The actions of the Jewish community of Alexandria show the great influence that Jews had on international affairs already in the 19th century. It isn't really surprising that one of the most famous Jewish directors should pick up this topic. Catholics would never have that much influence, but we are largely to blame ourselves for this sad state of affairs.

    The only problem with the argument that the Mortaras went against the laws of the Papal States prohibiting Jews from having Catholic servants is that Bologna no longer was part of the Papal States in the 19th century. Nonetheless, this measure is indeed a wise one.

  2. I apologize for the error in my previous comment, Bologna was indeed part of the Papal States at that time.