Was a Memoir of a Jewish Boy ‘Kidnapped’ by the Pope Doctored?

ANALYSIS: The story of Edgardo Mortara, who was raised as a Catholic — after Pope Blessed Pius IX learned he had been secretly baptized by a nursemaid — has sparked fresh controversy, amid reports about a translation.

(photo: Crop of Ignatius Press book cover)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The story of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy seized from his family and raised as a Catholic — after Pope Blessed Pius IX learned he had been secretly baptized by a nursemaid — prompted an immediate outcry in 1858.

A century and a half later, the story has sparked a fresh burst of controversy, amid reports that a translation of Mortara’s memoir, written after he grew up to become a Catholic priest and often expressed “gratitude” for the Pope’s intervention, had been “doctored” to place Pius’ decision in a more “sympathetic” light.

Father Mortara’s complex story is now the subject of an upcoming Steven Spielberg film, and a 2017 English-language translation of his “doctored” memoir has renewed debate over the Pope’s actions.

The 6-year-old son of Jewish parents in Bologna, one of the largest cities of the Papal States, Edgardo was secretly baptized when he was an infant by his 16-year-old nursemaid, after he fell ill and doctors feared he would die. When government authorities in Bologna learned what had happened, they followed Church law and decreed that he should be educated as a Catholic.

Edgardo was “sequestered” from his family and brought to Rome at Pope Pius IX’s direction. Educated by the Order of the Canons Regular, he later entered the order as a 16-year-old novice.

Last month, David Kertzer, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Brown University historian and author of the 1997 best-seller, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, was the first to raise questions about the Italian translation of Mortara’s autobiography by Vittorio Messori, the Italian Catholic journalist and author of The Ratzinger Report and Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

Mortara had written his story in Spanish three decades after he was removed from his family. The story was subsequently typed up and archived by members of his religious order, the Canons Regular at St. Peter in Chains, Rome.

“In reading the Italian text, I found many elements that were historically inaccurate, but I was not sure to what extent those inaccuracies were the work of Mortara himself … or had been the result of changes in the Mortara text introduced by Messori,” Kertzer told the Register.

After comparing the Spanish-language memoir with Messori’s Italian translation — the basis for a subsequent English-translation released by Ignatius Press in 2017, Kidnapped by the Vatican? — Kertzer identified a number of troubling alterations that led him to conclude that the memoir had been altered to present Pope Pius IX’s intervention in a more “sympathetic” light.

Kertzer pointed to a 300-word paragraph in the Italian translation that recalled a poignant encounter between Mortara and Dominican Father Gaetano Feletti, the papal state official responsible for removing him from his family.

In Messori’s translation, Father Mortara writes — in the third person — that he holds “very dear the memory of this respectable friar, who was one of those who more closely intervened in the spiritual regeneration and rehabilitation of his soul.”

But in an April 15 article for The Atlantic, Kertzer noted that this passage “never appeared” in the original Spanish account.

The Associated Press undertook its own comparative study of the Spanish original and the Italian translation and reached a similar conclusion.

“The alterations do not significantly change the overall thrust of Mortara’s oft-stated gratitude to the ‘saint’ Pope Pius IX for having saved his soul by removing him from his Jewish family to raise him Catholic,” read the report by Nicole Winfield, the AP’s Rome correspondent.

“AP found that anti-Semitic comments contained in the original Spanish had been removed from the Messori translation, including a reference to Mortara having ‘always professed an inexpressible horror’ toward Jews.”

Father Mortara’s great-great niece, Elena Mortara, who joined other family members and Jewish leaders to oppose the beatification of Pius IX in 2000, told the AP that the alteration “was evidence of an effort to erase the anti-Jewish indoctrination her ancestor received from the Catholic teachers who raised and educated him.”

Messori, the supervisor of the Italian translator, told the AP that he had not altered the language of the Spanish memoir and blamed any changes on editors at the Italian publisher, Mondadori.

The Register was unable to reach Messori.

Meanwhile, Ignatius Press, the publisher of the English translation of Father Mortara’s memoir, is now conducting its own review.

If the allegations are confirmed, Ignatius Press “will make changes in the second printing and will also note these inaccuracies or changes to the original on our website,” Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press, told the Register.

But Father Fessio also described the alleged alternations as “minor” and said they do not effectively change Father Mortara’s narrative.

“This controversy has arisen with the movie planned by Spielberg, and we thought, ‘This is a book that has Mortara’s view of this.’ That is why I wanted to do the book,” said Father Fessio.

“Despite the legitimate criticism that Kertzer made about parts being omitted, it doesn’t change what Mortara intended.”

But Ignatius Press has also raised questions about the Mondadori publishing house’s handling of the memoir.

Back in 2016, Ignatius Press had queried Mondadori about the location of the original Spanish memoir, as it wanted to use that as the basis for its English translation.

In an email to Ignatius Press that was provided to the Register, an employee at Mondadori stated that the Spanish text could not be located, but Father Mortara had made an Italian translation, and Messori had obtained it.

“[T]he text found by Messori is the original one, translated from Spanish into Italian by Father Mortara himself for his brothers: Father Mortara is ther [sic] guarantee of its authenticity!” read the Nov. 28, 2016, email from a Mondadori employee.

That message conflicts with a separate statement made in Messori’s introduction to the Italian translation. There, he explains that he found the Spanish text at the Canons Regular community at St. Peter in Chains and used that for his Italian translation.

“Why did Mondadori say that the Spanish [text] was unavailable?” asked Mark Brumley, the CEO of Ignatius Press.

Aside from the question of translations, the larger issues raised by Edgardo Mortara’s removal from his family expose an ongoing debate over the actions of Pius IX.

As an adult, Father Mortara maintained close ties with his Jewish family. But in his Spanish memoir, and in his many homilies that explored the fateful events that led to his removal from his family home, Father Mortara repeatedly praised Pope Pius IX’s decision.

His family saw things very differently, and today Elena Mortara contends that Edgardo was “brainwashed” and never had the chance to freely choose the Catholic faith.

Indeed, even at the time Edgardo was seized from his family, his case prompted protests in Europe and the United States, and it remains a painful issue in Catholic-Jewish relations to this day.

Kertzer, for his part, had been sharply critical of the actions of Pius in Edgardo’s case well before identifying problems with Messori’s translation.

Kertzer told National Public Radio in an April 24 interview that the Pope’s decision to place Church law before the rights of Edgardo’s parents is the “story ... of the preservation of a medieval view of society against Enlightenment ideas of personal freedoms and constitutional rights and the equality of all citizens.”

His remarks point to the deeply contentious nature of this historic event. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Messori and Kertzer have tangled over this matter before.

In his introduction to the English translation of Father Mortara’s memoir, Messori referenced Kertzer’s lengthy historical account and said the bibliography did not cite the priest’s Spanish memoir. Thus the Ignatius Press translation would provide a timely response to the “complete silence about Mortara’s long life as a Christian” in Kertzer’s book and in other widely-circulated accounts.

Kertzer confirmed that he had not read the memoir before publishing his best-seller in an email to the Register. His work “focused on the events around the taking of Edgardo and not on his later life as a priest.”

About five years ago, Kertzer obtained a copy of the 1888 Spanish memoir. But he said that it did not provide a “reliable” account of the historic record, and so it was important to “challenge attempts to rewrite what actually did happen.”

Within the Church, there has been an equally tense exchange of perspectives on Father Mortara’s difficult case.

In a February 2018 review of the memoir published by Ignatius Press in the journal First Things, Dominican Father Romanus Cessario acknowledged that Pius’ actions were viewed harshly by those who sought to advance a secular system of individual human rights and by others primarily motivated by anti-Catholic bigotry.

But with Spielberg’s upcoming film in mind, Father Cessario sought to present the Pope’s actions through a different lens, one that offered a “right understanding of baptism and its effects.”

Father Cessario noted that the Code of Canon Law (868) still affirms that “an infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.”

Further, as the Catechism explains, “Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ.”

“While the Mortara case pitted Christian against Jew, it also exemplified something they share. Jews and Christians alike pledge a higher loyalty that they honor in ways that seem incomprehensible to the world.”

The review prompted condemnation from Jewish and Christian commentators who viewed it as an endorsement of Pius’ actions.

“Just as we either believe in the sanctity of human life or we don’t — there’s no middle ground — either we believe in the sanctity of the family or we don’t,” said Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading Catholic public intellectual, in a Jan. 11 post on Twitter.

“It is for parents, not other authorities (be they civil or religious), to direct the upbringing and education of their children.”

In a response to such critics, First Things editor R.R. Reno emphasized that the “Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church.”

Reno also noted that his own wife is Jewish, and their children are being raised in her faith, in accord with God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

Reno approved the review, he said, not to endorse Pius’ action, but as an opportunity to “confront us with the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees.”

The furor reveals the deep sensitivity of this historic case. And while those involved with the release of the English translation sought to broaden the public’s understanding of Pius’ actions before the Spielberg film’s arrival, there is little evidence that this aim has been achieved.

“Theologically, the Mortara case is a challenging question, because Christians really do believe that baptism is a permanent thing,” said Rod Dreher in a post on his “American Conservative” blog, and “modern people have to be very careful about judging the acts of people from much earlier ages by our standards today.

“That said, at best, what happened was a tragedy.” 

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.