I got my first taste of anti-Catholicism at an early age. I was perhaps 10 years old when two bullies in the neighborhood, their religious bigotry evident even at that young age, reported with a sneer how the Pope had kidnapped young Jewish boys, tearing them away from their frantic parents and imprisoning them in the Vatican.

The story was not true, or was at least incomplete; but it's been told again and again, fueling outrage among some Protestant communities against the Catholic Church. David Kertzer, author of the 1997 best-seller The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, made this claim in his book and in a recent interview:

For centuries in Italy, small Jewish children were regularly taken from their parents based on claims of secret baptisms by Christians, and outside of the Jewish community, no one seemed to care.

Could this eye-popping story be true? Were Jewish children routinely stolen from their parents for indoctrination in the Catholic faith, as Kertzer seems to claim?

 

The Mortara Story

A 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, was indeed taken from his parents and raised inside the Vatican walls – a situation which is inconceivable in light of modern laws and the emphasis placed by contemporary society upon parental rights. Now, there are two films in the works about the Mortara case – including one by Steven Spielberg.

But the untold details should help to quash the outrage which the story has engendered on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the Jewish community. In 2005, acclaimed Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, author of The Ratzinger Report, an interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and Crossing the Threshold of Hope, a book-length interview with Pope John Paul II, tackled the complex story. A 2017 English-language translation of Messori's book, Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara, casts new light on the case.

There's a new Foreword to the book by Roy Schoeman, a Catholic convert from Judaism and author of the book Salvation Is From the Jews. Schoeman explains the issue at heart in the Mortara controversy. The case sits at the crossroads of the greatest social transformation of modern times: from a fundamentally religious view of the world to a fundamentally materialistic one. One's worldview will influence one's perspective on whether the laws of the Papal States requiring baptized Catholics to be raised in the faith are, in fact, just laws. “What if,” Schoeman asks,

...the teaching of the Catholic Church is true? What if, once created, the human person lives for all eternity, and the nature of that eternity – whether perfect bliss or unending misery – is dependent on the sacraments and on the person's moral formation? Then should not the same principle that gives the state the right to intervene for the physical welfare of the child give the state the right, perhaps even the duty, to intervene for the eternal welfare of the child as well?

The book's author, Vittorio Messori, has accurately reported on the history of the Edgardo Mortara case, explaining that in the Papal States, laws which were generally accepted at the time mandated that Mortara – who was surreptitiously baptized by a household servant as an infant when death seemed imminent – be raised in the faith. Edgardo was satisfied to live behind the Vatican's sturdy walls, where he came to understand not only his own Jewish faith, but also the Catholic faith which grew from that Judaic root. Happy in his new life and firm in his Catholic faith, Edgardo Mortara went on to become a Catholic priest.

Messori quotes from Mortara's own testimony:

When I was adopted by Pius IX, the whole world shouted that I was a victim, a martyr of the Jesuits. But in spite of all this, I, most grateful to Divine Providence, which had led me to the true Family of Christ, was living happily at Saint Peter in Chains, and in my humble person the law of the Church was in effect, despite Emperor Napoleon III, Cavour, and some other great men of this earth. What is left of all that? Only the heroic “non possumus” (“we cannot”) of the great Pope of the Immaculate Conception.

Pope Pius IX, for his part, had no regret about his role in raising the young Edgardo Mortara as a Catholic. Despite strong opposition from politicians, the media, and the Jewish community, the Holy Father remained steadfast in his belief that he had done the right thing. Years later, he said in a public forum,

“What we did for that boy, We had the right and the duty to do. And if the opportunity presented itself, We would do it again.”

 

The Wide-Ranging Consequences of the Mortara Case

In the 18th century, the outcry regarding Edgardo Mortara's adoption was an important factor in bringing about the end of the Papal States.

In the present era, the case is being used as an argument against the canonization of Pius IX, who was beatified in 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

And the story has attracted the attention of Hollywood, with both director Steven Spielberg and now-disgraced filmmaker Harvey Weinstein working on separate film projects to tell the story from a secular perspective.

Spielberg's studio, Dreamworks Pictures, had begun production on a feature-length film titled “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.” Spielberg's attention was diverted, however, and production was delayed when Spielberg became involved in directing “The Post,” which is scheduled to open in theaters in January 2018. When the “Mortara” project resumes, the role of Pius IX will be played by stage actor Mark Rylance; but Spielberg's team has not yet finalized their search for an actor to play the role of young Edgardo.

 

Will Hollywood Get It Right?

Will the Hollywood productions capture the nuances of the case, reporting on Mortara's happiness at being given the opportunity to learn the Gospel story while growing up inside the Vatican's walls? Will Spielberg's work reflect upon the eighteenth-century cultural norms mandating that a baptized Christian be raised in the faith?

No – the storyline relies on David Kertzer's accusatory 1997 best-seller; and that anti-Catholic bias is likely to color both Spielberg's and Weinstein's productions.

Fr. George Rutler, pastor of St. Michael's Church in New York and a trusted Catholic author, acknowledged that ambiguities regarding the Mortara case will remain; but the measured commentary of Vittorio Messori and the unprecedented publication of Fr. Mortara's own diaries  put the whole emotional dilemma into a clearer light.

Messori's Kidnapped by the Vatican? will help Catholic readers to prepare themselves for the shortsighted and inflammatory criticisms which will surely come, once the story reaches the big screen.