The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara

sothebys-edgardo-mortaraBy Moritz Daniel Oppenheim –, Photo by Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, Public Domain,

One of the fastest and surest ways for a nation to lose legitimacy in the eyes of others is by condoning the kidnapping of children.  People and governments are willing to accept a great deal of wickedness in the behavior of people towards adults.  We accept, for example, that there is a great deal of injustice in our societies.  Yet one of the marks of civilized behavior is that it seeks to protect children from harm.  Even parents do not have absolute rights over their children, as there are limits and boundaries of what is acceptable behavior.  Those governments and regimes which do not respect and honor children are viewed with special horror—whether these be the child trafficking areas of Brazil or Southeast Asia [1] or the terrorism of contemporary Islamist groups in Nigeria and the Levant, to give a few representative examples.  Such a problem happened in the 1850’s and 1860’s in Italy, and it appears to have contributed to the downfall of the Papal States, which had endured since the times of Charlemagne.

While the story is nearly forgotten now, except by Jewish historians [2], at the time, it was a big deal.  A sick young child in a Jewish household was secretly baptized by his Catholic maid, and when word of this got around, the child was kidnapped and raised as a Catholic, eventually becoming a priest.  Despite the best efforts of the parents, the child, once kidnapped with the power of the pope, was lost to them forever, lost to the faith of Judaism and lost to his family, and the efforts of the Pope to justify the kidnapping once it had taken place led him to be viewed with abhorrence by many who had previously been allies.  The hostility of the French to the action by the Papal States, for example, led to the rapid fall of most of Italy to the forces of reunification, and eventually the large Papal States shrunk to the tiny Vatican City that remains today.  The appeals of the immensely wealthy Rothschild family or the French ruler Napoleon III were not able to overcome the stubbornness of the Pope regarding the supposed importance of a baptism of a child who did not choose the Christian faith in secret by a maid and in rules that stated that a Christian, even one baptized in such a furtive manner, could not be raised by non-Christians, even his own parents.

There are at least two problems with this context on a religious level that led to this particular debacle.  On the one hand, we have the view of Roman Catholicism towards baptism.  Both Judaism and many Christian denominations practice customs which seal newborn children of believers as belonging to a given faith before they choose it.  For Jewish boys, this happens at the bris, circumcision, at eight days of age.  For many children, this happens soon after birth via some sort of baptism.  It is not the point of this short account to discuss baptism in detail, but rather only to point out that where baptism involves a change of faith, the Bible clearly points out that rational choice is required in the matter.  Those who heard and were convicted in their hearts by the Pentecost message of Peter and his fellow Apostles in Acts 2:37:  “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  To which Peter replied in Acts 2:38:  “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit.”  Nor is this an isolated case.  In Acts 16:29-34, when the Philippian jailer was wondering what he needed to do to be saved, Paul replied that he needed to believe and be baptized, at which point the jailer washed the stripes he had given Paul hours ago and provided food for him and his party, with common rejoicing.  These examples demonstrate that it is not merely the ritual of baptism that is of importance, but the conviction of heart, the chance of beliefs, and the repentance for sin.  None of these conditions applies when a child is furtively baptized without the knowledge of anyone else on the superstitious belief that the water, apart from a change of heart and belief and practice, will result in salvation, and that the absence of water alone will lead to condemnation.

The second problem is no less profound.  How was it that a Catholic maid ended up being in a Jewish household in the first place?  In fact, Jewish households regularly had Catholic maids on account of a refusal to properly honor the Sabbath.  Both Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 clearly point out that maidservants are to be released from their labors on the Sabbath, along with animals, children, and resident aliens.  In clear violation of the commandment, though, it has been the custom of Jews to consider the Sabbath their privilege rather than the plan of God for all people, and their tradition to hire Gentiles as servants in the belief that such people could be commanded to work on the Sabbath while fellow Jews would have to be given time off.  In stark contrast to this, the Sabbath commandment is about refraining from exploitation, apart from the ethnicity or religion of the servant or employee being spoken of.  Had the Mortara family not violated the Commandments of God by seeking to exploit Gentile labor on the Sabbath that was provided for rest, there would have been no surreptitious baptism of their son, and no kidnapping at all.  It is not only the Catholics in this matter who had a mistaken view of the scriptures concerning their practices towards others, after all.

Given the likely importance of the Mortara case in bringing to a close centuries of Papal control over large parts of Italy, one of the most momentous events of Italian history, why is the case nearly entirely forgotten today?  In light of the horrors of the 20th century and state kidnapping of Jews, this is precisely the sort of historical event that should be remembered, because the kidnapping of young Edgardo Mortara in the Papal States discredited that realm in like fashion, if much smaller scope as the kidnapping of so many Jewish children is one of the many black marks against the Nazi regime.  And if the Papal States thought that the salvation of one boy was at stake, so too did Hitler’s Germany see the salvation of their nation at stake, even if we view both as mistaken.  Is the case of the kidnapping of a child less important to remember because that child was Jewish?  Was the kidnapping of free blacks in the north [3] in the antebellum period not spoken of or openly mourned by those who supported the realm of the kidnappers because those kidnapped were black?  Are we not all brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father?  Does not the loss of honor and dignity that happens to anyone attack the honor and dignity of all of us?

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

Kertzer, David I (1998) [1997]. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-679-76817-3.

Kertzer, David I (2005). “Mortara Affair”. In Levy, Richard S. Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. pp. 470–471. ISBN 978-1-85109-439-4.

Grew, Raymond (March 2000). “Review: The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara by David I Kertzer”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 68 (1): 189–191.

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to The Kidnapping Of Edgardo Mortara

  1. Pingback: Machiavelli’s Revenge | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Why Are You Barefoot? | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: It Is A Joy For The Just To Do Justice | Edge Induced Cohesion

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