As has been well described elsewhere, in 1858, in Bologna when it was part of the Papal States under Pope Pius IX, a 6-year-old Jewish boy who had been secretly baptised by a servant when he had been thought to be at the point of death, was taken from his parents to be raised a Catholic.
This was a rare kind of case, but it had been contemplated in the civil law of the Papal States, and the decision was in accordance with longstanding practice. In the face of an international outcry, Pope Pius IX refused to restore little Edgardo to his family.
First Things has been getting more ‘traddy’ in recent years but they have jumped the shark by publishing a defence of this action of Pius IX by a Dominican theologian, . This must surely be one of the most indefensible actions by any Pope of modern times, not least because there is no dispute about the facts of the case. Nothing in the article made me remotely more sympathetic to this action of Pius IX.
I have a lot of time for Pius IX, in general. I also think the Papal States were good and necessary (so necessary, in fact, that they had to be resurrected in miniature form in 1929). Furthermore, I accept the constant teaching of the Popes on the cooperation of Church and State. None of this obliges me to accept that every decision made by Pius IX as head of the Papal States in the Good Old Days was a good one, nor that all the policies of the Papal States were good and just. The whole point of being Traditional Catholics is that we are not slaves of the daily thoughts and doings of Popes. We are not Ultramontanists. It would be silly to reject Ultramontanism about the post-Conciliar Popes and adopt it for the pre-Conciliar ones. We can leave that kind of inconsistency to liberal and conservative Catholics.
Popes have made many mistakes over the centuries. Some of their foreign policy decisions were disastrous, as anyone who reads any history can see. Their internal policies are no more impeccable. I labour the point because, really, we are at complete liberty to assess the civil laws and temporal policies of the Papal States without fear of undermining the Faith.
Is this, then, not about the Faith directly? No, it isn’t. It is about the exercise of temporal power in the Papal States. States routinely intervene in family life where the good of members demands it. This interference is sometimes absolutely necessary, but it remains extremely important that it is kept within strict limits. The integrity of the family in general, and the rights of parents over children in particular, do not exist at the pleasure of the state: as the Church has consistently taught, they predate the state and their prerogatives cannot be overridden by the state.
In this case, the justification for overriding the rights of parents over a young child was that the child had been baptised. It is perfectly true that baptism places a person under the jurisdiction of the Church: it gives the Church certain rights over the person, and gives the baptised person certain obligations towards the Church. It is also perfectly true that the State can and should enforce some of these rights and obligations on behalf of the Church, where this is necessary. Thus the duty of Catholics to provide financial support to the Church, to observe various rules about marriage, and so forth, could be, in Catholic states, determined in cases of dispute by Church courts, whose judgements could if necessary be enforced by agents of the state. The cooperation of Church and State was particularly seamless in the Papal States, but the distinction still existed. What is important to note is that the Church would not, obviously, attempt to enforce such obligations against non-Catholics, of whom the most prominent examples in Catholic states has historically been members of various Jewish communities.
This is where the Mortara case becomes interesting. The child may have been baptised, but the parents most certainly had not been. The duty of baptised parents or godparents to raise a baptised child in the Faith were not being violated by these parents: they had no such obligation. It was to fulfil the child’s right to a Catholic upbringing that he was removed from his family. No one claimed that the parents had done anything wrong.
The right to a Catholic upbringing is violated, however, by every nominal Catholic family, and come to that by baptised non-Catholics, who fail to educate their children in the Faith as they should. No doubt in some cases this did lead to state intervention, though I fancy not under that description: I mean, the civil authorities would have found places in orphanages for children whose parents were dead, insane, or otherwise incapable of bringing up their children in a reasonable way. The problem is that while the Church would have greater justification for demanding state intervention in cases where the parents are baptised, but it would appear that in such cases there is actually far more reluctance to intervene. Only in the most extreme cases would children be taken from their baptised parents: no one in the Papal States was demanding small children from parents who had, for example, simply lapsed. Something strange is going on here.
I’m afraid the strange thing going on is the attitude towards the Jews. I don’t want to engage in any kind of self-flagellation, but it is a historical fact that the treatment of the Jews in Catholics countries has not always been just, and since we do not think Popes are impeccable there is no a priori reason to think the shadow of such injustice should not have fallen on the Papal States. The civil law and policy applied to the Mortara family placed Jews in a specially disadvantageous position, compared to other families who might be failing to bring up their baptised children right, and I do not see the moral or theological justification for this special treatment.
As with the sex-abuse scandals, it is relevant to point out the wider context: in this case, that Jews were in many cases protected by Church teaching and Papal policies; that Protestant theology and Protestant states have been problematic in this area to say the least; and that the worst anti-semitism of all time has come from an ideology--Nazism--also hostile to Christianity. But it remains important not to let our Catholic amour propre blind us to the seriousness of the historical problem inside the Church, lest our failure to recognise or criticise it cause more scandal.
But there is something else as well. As I have noted, this is about the use of State power: the temporal arm of the Papal States. It seems Stephen Spielberg is planning to make a film about the Mortara case. Is he going to make a film about the Johanssen case, when Swedish social services kidnapped a home-schooled Christian child? Is he going to make a film about UK social services attempting to meet targets for the number of children taken into care, and the secret family courts which cannot be reported in the press, which have become a national scandal? Is he going to make a film about the Romeike family, which fled from Germany because social services there were likely to abduct the children for the crime of being home-schooled, who sought and gained asylum in the USA until they were very nearly forcibly repatriated by the lovely President Obama?
I don’t think so.
Please note, gentle reader, that today's debate about family policy does not have liberals on the side of the rights of the family, and the wicked old Catholic Church on the side of the state’s right to snatch away children who, in the eyes of some petty functionary, would do better in care. No, it is liberals who have the second attitude, and it is the teaching of the Church which supports the former. The Mortara case is a case in which the Papal States had slipped into a way of thinking and acting which is today characteristic of liberals. Defenders of Pope Pius IX, please note.
See also: Position Paper on the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews; and see the corresponding label in this blog.
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