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The Vatican Monarchy

Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith

by William F. Buckley Jr.
Doubleday, 313 pp., $24.95

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara

by David I. Kertzer
Random House, 350 pp., $26.00

Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture

by Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale University Press, 267 pp., $25.00

Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II

by Jonathan Kwitny
Henry Holt, 754 pp., $30.00

Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes

by Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press, 326 pp., $35.00

Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from Saint Peter to John Paul II

by Richard P. McBrien
HarperSanFrancisco, 520 pp., $29.50

The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism

by Michael W. Cuneo
Oxford University Press, 214 pp., $27.50

1. Imperial Papalism

William Buckley, in a book that mixes Catholic polemic, a survey of religious opinions, and personal reminiscence, tells us how, as children, he and his sister baptized unsuspecting adult visitors to their parents’ house:

I knocked [at the guest bedroom] and told them that Trish and I were looking for my dog. They welcomed us in to search the room. I knelt down to see if he was under the first bed, and, a drop of water on my forefinger, touched it on Arlie’s forehead as if to maintain my balance, silently inducting her into the Christian community, while Trish, emerging from under the other bed in search of the dog, did as much for her older sister.

When the children boasted of their missionary activity to their mother, she did nothing to discourage them: “Perhaps she permitted herself to believe that her friends’ two grown-up daughters, neither one of them at death’s door, had in fact been baptized.”

At the time of Buckley’s boyhood it was easy to get the idea that baptism was a magic act that performed its wonders if you just got the words and water right—like saying “Open, Sesame” while rubbing a door. Catholic children were told admiring stories of the Jesuit missionary Frances Xavier, who baptized uninstructed Asians by the thousands.

There were complex historical reasons for the simple-minded view that baptism produces an automatic (ex opere operato) effect. In the fourth century, Donatists said that bad Christians could not validly baptize. Orthodox Christians responded that the merits of Christ brought salvation, not the merits of the human baptizer. In the later Scholastic tag, baptism “results from what is performed, not who performs it” (ex opere operato, non ex opere operantis).

Of course, the performer of the act does matter, in the sense that he or she must intend to baptize. And the recipient must intend to be baptized. The Buckley children neglected that last point, perhaps because baptism is customarily given to infants, who clearly cannot have an intention in the matter. Theologians argued that children, before the age of reason, must obey God in His natural representative to them, the parents. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas said that children should never be baptized without their parents’ consent. He was especially harsh on those who said that Jewish or other infidel children can be baptized and taken from parents who do not worship the true God.

Man is structured toward God through reason, which is capable of knowing God. So a child, before the exercise of its own reason, is structured by nature’s own structure toward God through the parents’ reason, so it must perform its religious duty to God at the parents’ direction. (Summa Theologica 3g.68 a.10 ad 3.)

The supernatural order does not contravene natural law. It does not destroy parents’ rights in the family. As John Henry Newman put it, “The Pope, who comes of Revelation, has no jurisdiction over Nature.”1

Despite Thomas’s thirteenth-century teaching, Catholics in Italy were still forcibly baptizing Jewish children in the “enlightened” nineteenth century. The practice had the approval of the Pope, Pius IX, who, in 1846, had come to his office hailed as a liberal and humane man of his time. How could such a barbaric practice be condoned? Did the word of Thomas Aquinas have no weight?

Well, Thomas might be a saint, but he was not a pope, and earlier popes had condoned the practice. Thomas had quoted the Council of Toledo: “No one can be forced to believe.” But that was Toledo of the fifth century. A later Toledo, of the Inquisition, found coerced baptism a useful tool against Jews in Spain, and Rome gave its approval.

That approval, once given, is hard to withdraw. Though the papal teaching may not be infallible, it is still “Church teaching,” to be given the maximum possible weight. This was especially the approach of Pius IX, whose aim was to spread the mantle of infallibility over as wide an area as he could. Thus, when there was an outcry in the restive papal city of Bologna over the seizure from his family of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy, Pius had the child brought to Rome, where he asserted his own paternal right, superior to that of a merely natural (or, in the case of a Jew, unnatural) father.

For Pius’s own reputation, this was a disastrous position to be taking in 1858; but the irritable and epileptic Pope seemed to have a gift for making the worst of every situation he was put in. The case of the kidnapped boy caused an international scandal, with Jewish, Protestant, and secular organizations (and even a few Catholics) protesting the injustice of this intrusion into the most intimate arena of family rights. The Brown University historian David Kertzer tells the riveting tale, with great mastery of the sources, in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

Though Catholics were not supposed to act as servants in Jewish houses, this law often yielded to economic need, like many others in the hypocritical treatment of Jews. Technically, the two hundred or so Jews in Bologna were not even supposed to be there—an earlier expulsion had not been formally rescinded. To keep a low profile, they did not have a rabbi or synagogue in the town. Momolo Mortara and his family had come to Bologna to escape the rigidly ghettoized life in Reggio. In the eighth year of their inconspicuous residence there, a police official knocked on their door at dusk and demanded the surrender of Edgardo, who—they were informed—was a baptized Christian.

In taking the child, the authorities did not even tell the Mortaras when their child had been baptized, or by whom; but suspicion naturally turned to Christian servants. They were notorious for secretly baptizing their charges, either out of misguided affection for them or in revenge for grievances against their parents. This was so commonly done or suspected that many Jewish families required, at a servant’s discharge, that he or she sign a notarized deposition not to have baptized any child in the home.

The Mortaras’ current servant was questioned and denied that she had done it. A former servant, Anna Morisi, had returned to her country home and married. Friends of Momolo Mortara tracked her down there, and she claimed that she had baptized the infant because he seemed on the point of death. She had told the story to a friend, and reports of it reached the Inquisition.

The soldier who took Edgardo to Rome said that a miraculous transformation came over him when he was persuaded to put on a Christian medal after kissing its cross. From that moment, the previously resisting child asked to go into Christian churches along the way, memorized Christian prayers, and was given a scapular of the Blessed Virgin to wear. He already had a new family.

When Edgardo’s parents came to Rome, supported by the Jewish community, they were permitted to see the boy but not to take him away. The story was told that Edgardo’s mother, at the sight of a Marian medal on her son, ripped it off contemptuously (proving, among other things, that she was not a fit mother). The Pope’s newspaper would now make the claim that the boy had to be kept for his own safety—Jewish parents would probably torture him into giving up his faith or kill him for retaining it. The parents were told that their boy would be returned if they agreed to be baptized themselves and live thenceforth as Christians. Their refusal of this offer was taken as further proof of their unfitness.

Little Edgardo was swept into a dizzying big world, where the Pope himself, who was genuinely affectionate toward children, pampered him. This made good sense. The boy would, in only a year, reach the canonical “age of reason,” seven, when he could choose to be true to his new faith—and his keepers would claim in time that he did. He continued to be the Pope’s pet. When he came from his school to visit the Esquiline Palace, Edgardo later recalled, Pius, “like a good father, had fun with me, hiding me under his grand red cloak, asking, jokingly, ‘Where’s the boy?’ and then, opening the cloak, showing me to the onlookers.”

Pius felt vindicated in his “defense of the boy’s faith” when Edgardo became a devout seminarian (he later received a papal dispensation to be ordained a priest when he was twenty-one). When indignation at the kidnapping spread around the world, Pius, as usual, took this as a personal martyrdom he had to undergo to preserve papal claims. He told the boy, “My son,…you have cost me dearly, and I have suffered a great deal because of you.” To others he said, “Both the powerful and the powerless tried to steal this boy from me.” He stood firm because “I, too, am his father.”

On Jewish delegations that asked for the boy’s release, Pius vented his famous temper. He denounced them for “stirring up a storm all over Europe about this Mortara case.” One leader he excoriated as “Crazy! Who are you?” To another he said, “Lower your voice. Do you forget before whom you are speaking?” Since, in his liberal phase, Pius had freed Rome’s Jews from some earlier repressions (like compelled attendance at proselytizing sermons), he now blew up at them.

I suppose these are the thanks I get for all the benefits you have received from me! Take care, for I could have done you harm, a great deal of harm. I could have made you go back into your hole. But don’t worry, my goodness is so great, and so strong is the pity I have for you, that I pardon you, indeed, I must pardon you.

The Mortara case could not have come at a worse time for Pius’s standing in the world. The Risorgimento, the effort to unify Italy under one secular government, was reaching its climax. Ten years before the kidnapping, Pius had been forced by nationalist armies to flee his own city of Rome. He was restored only by French and Austrian troops, who maintained temporal dominion for the Pope over the next twelve years. This situation was so dishonorable that in England John Henry Newman wrote, ten years after the kidnapping: “Is it not portentous that the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, should be sustained on his throne against the rising of his own people by foreign bayonets?”

In this situation, the Mortara case made good propaganda for the Risorgimento. The nationalist leader Camillo di Cavour even plotted with the French ambassador to seize Edgardo in a counterkidnapping. The fact that French troops were occupying Rome on the Pope’s behalf made it embarrassing to the French government to be seen as complicitous in this offense to the family. Edgardo’s case contributed to the eventual withdrawal of support from the Pope.

  1. 1

    John Henry Newman, A Letter Addressed to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1875), p. 79.

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