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Debate Over Kidnapping A Jewish Boy Revives Questions About Catholicism’s Compatibility With Political Liberty


Four years ago, Patrick Deneen famously summarized a simmering debate between Catholics who believe their faith is compatible with liberal democracy and those convinced that the liberalism exemplified by the American experiment is a “deeply flawed project” with philosophical commitments not only contrary to Catholic orthodoxy, but “leading inexorably to civilizational catastrophe.”

Given the stakes involved, Deneen memorably dubbed this internecine feud “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” It has certainly been worth watching over the past month, even as many of its participants suddenly wish viewers would avert their eyes.

The Edgardo Mortara Debate

The showdown’s latest iteration was provoked by an essay in the February issue of First Things (“America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life”), in which the Dominican theologian Romanus Cessario defended the papacy’s forcible removal of a six-year-old boy from his natural family in 1858.

“The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” as David Kertzer titled the affair in his well-regarded history, was prompted by a former servant’s claim to have secretly baptized the child five years earlier. Since Catholics believe that sacrament brought Edgardo under the jurisdiction of the Catholic church and entitled him to a Christian upbringing, he was removed from his Jewish parents, who could not ensure that upbringing.

The Mortara affair garnered worldwide attention in its day, and Cessario’s essay has done the same in our own. The most recent attention has also made even more visible the fault-line Deneen previously mapped.

Explicitly situating himself on one side of that line, for example, Robert Miller called on First Things to denounce Cessario’s essay and reaffirm religious freedom “as understood in liberal states.” Massimo Faggioli followed suit: “You can be for freedom of religion OR you can believe that Pius IX was right in the Mortara case.” Perhaps the most well-known figure on the same side, Princeton University’s Robert George minced no words in denouncing the actions that Cessario defended, as “an abomination” and a “gross, unspeakable injustice.”

Others advertised their position across the divide in terms just as explicit. P.J. Smith, who also writes regularly for First Things, located the “real motivation” for such negative reactions in “comfortable, bourgeois liberalism.” Dean Abbot likewise located the impetus for criticism in a “sentimental attachment to liberalism.” C.C. Pecknold, in a now-deleted tweet, recommended Orestes Brownson’s 1859 analysis of the Mortara case as “superior” to anything published in 2018. Brownson concluded that the pope’s action was “perfectly justifiable” and “the most natural thing in the world,” not least because, “other things being equal, the right of the Christian overrides that of the Jew.”

A Test Case?

In this light it’s not difficult to discern why partisans on both sides, although unable to resist weighing in, find this debate “more than a little regrettable.” Those convinced that liberalism and Catholicism are natural allies dislike being reminded (and dislike non-Catholics being reminded) of historical evidence to the contrary. Mathew Franck thus called the debate precipitated by Cessario’s essay a “needless quarrel,” Michael Brendan Dougherty proclaimed it “utterly useless and counterproductive,” and the Jesuit magazine America asked, “Why are we still talking about a Jewish boy who was kidnapped by the Vatican?”

Catholics committed to the rejection of liberalism, on the other hand, are understandably hesitant to allow the impression that the Mortara case illustrates liberalism’s inevitable alternative. Harvard’s Adrien Vermuele, for example, bluntly declared that “Pius IX’s actions were valid,” while also noting that the real debate “seems to be about whether to say so publicly.” Though withholding comment on the pope’s role, Deneen himself offered that “it’s mistaken to consider Mortara as the test case” in the showdown he’s otherwise been keen to publicize.

Such sentiment is perfectly understandable. Even easier to understand, though, is why commentators such as the New York TimesRoss Douthat are not buying it. Namely, the Mortara case “really does bring an ongoing intra-Catholic argument to a necessarily sharp point.” In light of “All of the ongoing talk about recovering the church’s 19th century political tradition, reviving integralism, [and] pondering Catholic political thinking for a post-liberal age,” he wrote in a Twitter thread, “You can’t just retreat and say, ‘oh, this was an isolated/weird case, let’s not make it a test of integralism.’”

Integralism and its Implications

Douthat is exactly right, and for more reasons than one. The first, as multiple scholars have documented, is quite simply that the Mortara case was in fact neither an isolated nor, in historical terms, a “weird” case. Similar cases were so well known by the nineteenth century that the Jews of Ferrara, for example, typically required household servants to sign an affidavit that they had not secretly baptized any children in the family.

As David Kertzer concluded his own study of the Mortara affair, “What was striking about the case was not the forced baptism and the taking of the Jewish child from his family, but the fact that, after centuries in which such events happened regularly, the larger world finally took an interest.”

But the more obvious reason we cannot now retreat from considering the Mortara affair as a test case is that this is precisely the manner in which it was offered to the readers of First Things. Cessario’s own conclusion is unambiguous on this point. “Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question,” he wrote: “Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?”

Tellingly, this was also the pull-quote the magazine chose to promote the article. Editor R.R. Reno subsequently doubled-down on this point in justifying publishing Cessario’s piece. “My purpose in bringing this episode forward,” he said, “was to confront us with the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees.” Nor is this, incidentally, the first time those associated with First Things have used the conviction that “Pius IX was right in the Mortara case” as a not-so-subtle indicator of traditionalist orthodoxy. (Nor is it the first time the journal has defended coercion in religion more broadly.)

Indeed, there is good reason to consider the affair a nearly ideal “test of integralism.” Specifically, there has never been a more integral relation between Catholic theology and civil polity than in the very Papal States ruled by the church’s supreme earthly head and governed in accordance with its canon law.

This context simply cannot be ignored when Cessario explains that the pope “felt duty-bound” to enforce a law that “was not unreasonable,” and that in fact the Catholic church’s “articles of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing.”

Vittorio Messori, whose edition of Edgardo’s memoirs Cessario was ostensibly reviewing, is equally emphatic. The pope’s decision to remove Edgardo from his family was “necessary according to both canon law and civil law”; “the Church has no choice” (“not even today,” he parenthetically adds) in such matters. And, of course, this was the understanding of Pius himself, whose consistent reply to those who urged him to return Edgardo to his parents was made the title of Cessario’s essay: “Non Possumus”—we cannot.

An Unjust Law Is No Law at All?

It is worth dwelling on this logic and its implications at a bit more length than most commentators have been willing to do. Pius and his contemporary defenders insist he was duty-bound to enforce the law of the church and state over which he was the sovereign. Surprisingly few critics of this interpretation have explicitly invoked the alternative logic of venerable doctors of the church such as Augustine and Aquinas, who insisted that an unjust law is no law at all. That is, if the requirements of canon and civil law were unjust, Pius did indeed have a choice. He could—and should—have simply abrogated those laws or refused to enforce them.

Pius and his contemporary defenders insist he was duty-bound to enforce the law of the church and state over which he was the sovereign.

Strangely enough, it was the aforementioned Brownson who addressed this point most clearly in the course of defending Pius. “If a wrong had been committed,” he wrote, “the Pope would have been most ready to redress it, since it was the action of the tribunals, which he was free to rescind, if unjust.” The very fact that Pius did not redress or rescind that action is, by Brownson’s estimate, sufficient proof that it was neither wrong nor unjust.

Although Brownson does not directly address it, this raises the question of the criterion by which one might determine whether any human law and its required actions are just or unjust. The traditional answer is again provided by theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas. A just law is that which is derived from and conforms to eternal law—“the type of Divine Wisdom”—as well as natural law, which is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.” As such, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” notes that the natural law also is “immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history.”

Because it is the Catholic understanding that the church’s magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of both natural law and the faith itself, Brownson’s implied logic is eminently logical. The pope would indeed have been in the single best, and authoritative, position to determine whether the relevant civil and canon laws were in conformity with natural law and “Divine Wisdom,” and were therefore just. Pius—and other Catholic bishops and theologians for several centuries previously—continuously and unambiguously affirmed that they were.

There’s No Backing Away

But the above logic also reveals precisely why traditionalists, integralists, and others Deneen labels “radical” Catholics cannot now back away from considering the Mortara case a test of their position. The argument that Pius acted rightly because his actions were “necessary according to both canon law and civil law” only holds weight if those laws were themselves just. By definition, though, a just law conforms to a higher law that is not only eternal but is also “immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history.” 

In other words, if removing a baptized child from non-Catholic parents was truly just in the nineteenth century, then it remains so today. If “Pius IX was right,” if his actions were “valid,” “perfectly justifiable,” and indeed “necessary”—not only in view of natural and eternal law but also according to the church’s “articles of faith” and “requirements of faith”—then one cannot simply say that the same actions would be unjust today.

This does not, of course, mean that Reno should be disbelieved when he says publishing Cessario’s essay was not meant “to encourage Catholics to kidnap Jewish children who had been baptized in secret.” Nonetheless, such a disclaimer clearly evades the substantive issue. On the logic of Cessario, Messori, and other defenders of Pope Pius, the most that might be said is: “We don’t encourage kidnapping baptized Jews, but should Catholic authorities do so they would not in fact be committing an injustice.”

But Wait, There’s More

Such phrasing, though, highlights a further implication often obscured by Pius’ defenders and detractors alike. Namely, the principles upon which the defense of Pius rests are by no means exclusive to Jews. Because the Mortaras (like many other families who found themselves in similar situations) were indeed Jewish, this fact has understandably been emphasized. Thus, Cessario’s essay has drawn responses not only from outlets such as The Forward and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but even from Haaretz and The Times of Israel.

The determinative fact in the church’s explicit logic was not that the Mortaras were Jewish; it was simply that they were not Catholic.

But the determinative fact in the church’s explicit logic was not that the Mortaras were Jewish; it was simply that they were not Catholic. As one anonymous defender of Cessario explains, “the boy was not seized because Pius IX had a desire to persecute the Jews, but rather, because the boy had become a Catholic, in virtue of his baptism.”

Therefore, as Cessario himself explained, the church’s “articles of faith bound Pius to give Mortara a Catholic upbringing.” The child was removed from his parents because, being Jewish, they would not guarantee that upbringing. But of course neither would, say, devout Protestant parents.

Despite this logic, there is no comparable historical record of baptized children being taken from Protestant parents. It is hardly credible, therefore, to claim that the Mortara case had “nothing to do with anti-Semitism.” In fact, it almost certainly did. The point does remain, though, that, in principle, it need not have.

It’s All About Baptism

The fundamental principle that Pius’ defenders deem inextricable from the Catholic church’s “articles of faith” was perhaps most concisely summarized by Aquinas already in the thirteenth century. The non-Catholic parents of children who have been baptized—even against their parents’ will—“lose the rights of parental authority over their children.”

If you are a Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Anglican who has had your child baptized, consider yourself now informed that your child has actually ‘become a Catholic.’

As shocking as that might sound, the explication and defense of this principle is found in Catholic manuals of theology well into the twentieth century. Entirely representative is Cardinal Louis Billot’s explanation that the baptized “ipso facto” come “under the tutelage and rule of the Church,” and “whether they wish it or not, they remain perpetually bound by all the obligations of Christians.”

Further, as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange explains no less typically, Subjects are able to be compelled by their superiors so that they might satisfy their obligation.” Edouard Hugon thus draws these threads together and makes the relevant conclusion crystal-clear. The baptized “are on account of baptism a thing of the Church,” and so “the Church obtains the right over them”; therefore, “she is able to separate them from their parents.”

Note well: these are not claims made specifically about baptisms in a Catholic church or by a Catholic priest. Nor do they refer exclusively to “secret” or “emergency” baptisms, as Edgardo Mortara’s might have been. They are claims made about baptism, period.

If you are a Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Anglican who has had your child baptized, consider yourself now informed that your child has actually “become a Catholic, in virtue of his baptism.” You have thus, “ipso facto,” placed him or her under the “tutelage and rule” of the Catholic church. Should you not allow your child to be educated in the Catholic faith, the integralists would like you to know that you have become that child’s “enemy,” and have thereby forfeited your “rights of parental authority.”

Those are the grounds on which it is argued that “Pius IX acted correctly in principle”; he acted in accord with what “is indisputably the teaching of the Catholic Church, always and everywhere.” As such, in the Mortara case, “the very Catholic faith is at stake.” Or, in other words, one simply cannot avoid viewing the affair as “a test of integralism.”

Putting Up or Shutting Up

This logic, though, also reveals even more clearly why many do not want it to be viewed in those terms. If Pius’ actions were indeed necessitated by the church’s canon law and its articles of faith, and yet those actions were in fact, as George and other Catholics charge, a “gross, unspeakable injustice,” integralism badly fails the test by making injustice inextricable from Catholic orthodoxy.

Integralism badly fails the test by making injustice inextricable from Catholic orthodoxy.

Conversely, it passes the test only by establishing that the actions of Pope Pius were “valid,” “perfectly justifiable,” and “necessary” because they were in and of themselves just. But if the forcible removal of baptized children from non-Catholic parents was just in the nineteenth century, it remains, in principle, no less so today. Integralists and other “radical” Catholics—as well as their enablers—must therefore own the implications of that conclusion and stop pretending the Mortara affair has no continuing relevance simply because a similar situation is not “remotely likely in 2018.”

They might also give up the self-pitying lament that the real travesty of the Mortara affair was, as Cessario claims, that it “exacerbated anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States.” If the leadership at First Things, like Deneen’s “radical” Catholics, doubts “the congeniality of the American project to Catholicism,” they can hardly complain about others expressing the same doubts about the congeniality of Catholicism to the American project.

Whether or not Catholicism is in fact (and in principle) compatible with the kind of liberal democracy represented by the American experiment is, of course, a question that only Catholics themselves can ultimately answer. While that in-house showdown continues, though, the rest of us will certainly consider it worth watching.

Author Update:

C.C. Pecknold has expressed concern that I accuse him of anti-Semitism above. I of course do no such thing, but I am happy to state explicitly that I do not believe Pecknold to be anti-Semitic.

By way of further clarification, even the related quotation of Brownson does not appear to be anti-Semitic per se, but to betray a kind of anti-Judaism. This distinction might seem (and often is) unhelpfully pedantic, but in this context is especially important.

As Brownson’s contrast between Christians and Jews suggests, he is operating with religious categories rather than categories of race, ethnicity, or nationality. That is, like Cessario, Messori, and others quoted above, Brownson arrives at his conclusion from specifically theological premises.

Unlike many integralists then and now, however, Brownson would eventually rethink that conclusion and explicitly argue that all religions are “entitled to equal and full protection.” I thank Liberty Fund’s Richard Reinsch at for drawing my attention to this.