In reading The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David Kertzer, readers might find it difficult to not shake their heads in utter disbelief, for it elicited that reaction in me. Nominated for the National Book Award, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara tells the compelling if not disturbing true story of Catholic zealotry gone terribly awry.
On a June evening in 1858, six-year-old Edgardo Mortara and the rest of his Jewish family were at home living their lives and minding their own business. However, that quickly changed when guards from the Office of the Inquisition were ordered to take little Edgardo out of his parents charge and remove him from his family home. Horrified at what was happening, the parents demanded to know why they had to give up their son. Informing them that he had been secretly baptized, he thus became a ward of the Papal states. Under canon law, he, in effect, was no longer Jewish but a Catholic-Christian and could no longer live in a house where Jewish ideology could be imbued and fostered in a young and malleable mind. He was escorted out of the house and sent to Rome to live in the House of Catechumens, a house for Roman converts. This incident sent Edgardo's father, Salomone, into a desperate quest to get his little boy back. The incident provoked international outrage and catapulted a simple and decent family onto the global stage of religion and politics.
The kidnapping brought physical and mental havoc onto the Mortara clan; they were unexpectedly thrust into the glow of the public eye. And all the while, they maintained that their son was Jewish, raised with thorough orthodox values and traditions and that a serious error had to have occurred. But as time went forward, they learned some things that they were not privy to, the paramount one being that their son was baptized by a Catholic servant girl named Anna Morisi who was once in their employment. When Edgardo was ill, perhaps not seriously but she deemed it to be, she took the action of extreme unction, an act that any baptized Christian can take when an unbaptized person is on the very threshold of death. They take water and pour it over the head saying, In the name of the Father, the Son, And the Holy Spirit, I baptize you... What Anna Morisi did was perform a legitimate baptism, but she was unaware of the Catholic doctrine and policy ramifications that were attached to such a desperate and final act. She had inadvertently made Edgardo not only a Catholic-Christian (without his parents knowledge), but also a ward of the Papal States. Incredibly enough, this was not an uncommon happening, apparently, because many Jewish families hired Catholic servant girls to work in their homes; the Jewish families had work to offer and the young Catholic women wanted to earn dowries for their marriages, one of many legitimate reasons for the unusual work set-up. However, it was a set-up that was none-to-pleasing to the Vatican hierarchy, for they wanted to avoid happenings like this from occurring. But the working relationships between the Jewish and Catholics only seemed to make it happen more. It was not until Edgardo's baptism that the case was carried forward into the international spotlight.
Edgardo could see his father but only on supervised visits, and although the boy was well taken care of, his Jewish roots were slowly being chipped away at, his Jewishness gently being nullified. His biological father was gradually being replaced, by of all people, Pope Pius IX, whom Edgardo was gradually seeing as the fatherly male figure that every boy/girl needs in their life. Casting away the criticism from the public at large, Pope Pius IX essentially believed that if he relinquished the boy back to his parents, he would have, in essence, abrogated the valid baptism as performed by Anna Morisi. The wider question that had to have been asked was, Would Jesus Christ himself also have been abrogated-to any degree-in the process? And herein is where the quandary laid. Obviously Pope Pius IX thought in the affirmative. The only other solution that the Mortaras could have chosen in order to get Edgardo back was to convert themselves to the Catholic faith, an almost impossible thing to ask when devout people consider their faith as unchangeable as their height or eye and hair color. It would have been a galling request.
As all this happened, Edgardo gradually became indoctrinated to the point that he didn't even want to see his family anymore. That only added fuel to the fire, because amidst all this strife, Italy as a country was looking to break away from Papal authority, the charge being led by by the Kingdom of Sardinia, a liberal and nationalist bulwark state that desired total Italian unification; they and the media used the Mortara case as an example to illustrate the supernatural "backwardness" of the Pope and the curia in the Vatican. Churned out articles and demonstrations put the Pope in a Catch-22. By refusing to give up the boy, outside countries allowed a war between Piedmont and the Papal States to happen whereby the Pope lost most of his territories and influence, thus relegating him to the stewardship of Rome alone, and then later on, when the French left, he was denied even that. Material and territorial sacrifices were huge for the Pope and it left an amazing legacy that I'm sure was somewhat responsible for the discussion of a possible Vatican II down the road.
Edgardo's life was never the same. And he never became the strong Jewish man that his parents had envisioned him becoming. The indoctrination was so thorough that he eventually became an Augustinian Catholic priest, preaching for the perpetual conversion of the Jews; he did reestablish connections with his family, but he was probably viewed as the outsider in every sense of the word. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara was a stellar work of Italian history, and it definitely earned its NBA nomination. This case was cited in a PBS documentary that I saw titled Secret Files of the Inquisition, and that in companion with this work makes for an insightful overview of a difficult time in Catholic-Jewish relations.