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April 3, 2017 6:39 am

The Mortara Affair and Christian-Jewish Relations

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Vatican City. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The story of Edgardo Mortara is a scandalous example of Christian theological cruelty and arrogance towards Jews.

In the 19th century, six-year-old Edgardo Mortara was seized by the Church from a Jewish family in Bologna, Italy. Bologna’s inquisitor, Father Pier Feletti, had heard that Edgardo had been secretly baptized as a baby by a Catholic woman working in the family’s home, when she thought that he was about to die from an illness. As a result, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition declared Edgardo to be irrevocably a Catholic, and ordered that he be taken from his family and brought up by the Church.

An appeal was made to Pope Pius IX to reject the decision, and return Edgar to his distraught parents and siblings. But, despite a public outcry in Europe and the US — and a desperate campaign by the boy’s family — the pope refused. On the contrary, he kept the boy firmly in his care, and out of the public eye. It became a matter of principle, a desperate attempt by the papacy to assert its declining power as secularism began to erode its authority. It was the equivalent of the sexual scandals that have undermined the moral authority of Catholicism today. In all such cases, the Church’s priority was protecting its own interests at the expense of human suffering.

Father Feletti was prosecuted for his role in Edgardo’s seizure after pontifical rule in Bologna ended in 1859. But he was acquitted, because the court determined that he was simply following orders (yes, there were shades of Nazism). The Pope continued to act as a father to Edgardo, who trained for the priesthood in Rome until 1870, when the city was captured by the Kingdom of Italy and the Papal States were brought to an end. Edgardo then left Italy for France, where he was ordained three years later at the age of 21. He stayed outside of Italy most of his life, and died at the age of 88 in Belgium.

Many felt that the Vatican’s actions in Edgardo’s case epitomized all that was wrong with the Papal States, and pontifical rule. Some historians consider the event to be one of the most significant of Pius IX’s papacy, and some say that it accelerated the end of papal rule over parts of Italy.

But the case also shows how entrenched antisemitism was in the Vatican, and how the Church’s theology taught contempt for Judaism and Jews. This hatred continued until Pope John XXIII began to change Catholic teachings.

Two things brought this sad affair back to my mind. The first was hearing that Steven Spielberg is working on a film about the incident. The other was receiving a copy of Writing for Justice: Victor Sejour, the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and the Age of Transatlantic Emancipation by a descendant of Edgardo Mortara, Elena Mortara. Until reading the book I confess that I had no idea who Victor Sejour was.

At the same time as the Mortara affair was occurring, black Americans were being deprived of their rights in the United States — even though they had just been freed in the Civil War. In France, many of the intellectuals who fought against antisemitism also fought for the emancipation of blacks in the United States.

These two issues were combined in the work of a remarkable man.

Victor Sejour was an American-born black poet and writer who moved to France, and became a celebrity. Among the many plays he wrote was a fictional adaptation of the Mortara affair, in which the abductee was a young girl. The play was so successful in its day that it was translated into five European languages. It was called La Tireuse de Cartes (“The Fortune Teller”) because the mother of the abducted child, disguised herself as a fortune teller to find and stay close to her lost daughter.

The theme of inhumanity in the Church was also explored by the recent TV series, “The Young Pope.” The series is beautifully shot and directed, and centers on what happens when the conclave of cardinals appoints a compromise candidate as pope — a young American idealist, played by Jude Law. The series deals courageously with the conflicting demands of spirituality, honesty and politics at the largest religious institution in the world.

Law’s character is a man struggling with the position and his conscience. He tries to be honest with himself and others, and struggles for a purity and honesty; this, of course, conflicts with the interests of the cardinals and the establishment of the Church. The series shows exactly how and why a pope could allow himself to become so inhuman — and why the Vatican failed in its Christian mission, and rallied around the pope over the Mortara affair. Even today, we witness how the good intentions of Pope Francis are often thwarted by a more traditional curia. And it saddens me that Israel’s chief rabbinates share exactly the same pathologies of political intrigue, vested interests and power plays.

I have always resented religious authority, precisely because it invariably subordinates individuality, sensitivity and compassion.

Leaders, regardless of what other talents they may have, are invariably involved in trying to root out dissent and all kinds of challenges. They often betray their integrity for the sake of their position, while convincing themselves that they are doing the best to preserve the dignity of the institution. The best of leaders are rarely willing to be honest and admit to doubts. Of all the major rabbis that I am aware of, the great Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik was the only one to confess publicly to such personal, human limitations.

In the end, all governments and powers — religious or secular, Left or Right — are or become corrupt. Failure of moral authority and a dearth of courageous leaders is a disease that has infected the majority of human institutions. Elena Mortara’s fascinating, well-documented and scholarly study is a very welcome and eloquent description of the problem, and a plea for change.

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