Edgardo Mortara

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Not to be confused with Edoardo Mortara.
Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother and possibly one of his brothers, c. 1880

Edgardo Levi Mortara (Bologna, Papal States, August 27, 1851 – Liège, Belgium, March 11, 1940) was born as an Italian Jew and became the center of an international controversy when he was abducted from his parents by authorities of the Papal States and raised as a Catholic. He became a priest in the Augustinian order.

Born and raised Jewish during the first six years of his life, Mortara was taken from his family by church authorities after they learned that he had been given emergency baptism by a domestic servant during a serious infantile illness. In the Papal States it was against the law for non-Catholics to raise Catholic children. Mortara was adopted by Pope Pius IX and entered the seminary in his teens.

Mortara case[edit]

Removal from parents[edit]

On 23 June 1858, in Bologna, which belonged to the Papal States at that time, police arrived at the home of a Jewish couple, Salomone ("Momolo") and Marianna Padovani Mortara, to take one of their eight children, six-year-old Edgardo, and transport him to Rome to be raised as a ward of the state. The police had orders from Holy Office, authorized by Pope Pius IX. Edgardo had been secretly baptised Catholic as an infant.[1]

Under Catholic doctrine, "emergency" baptism may be administered to a person in danger of imminent death by anyone, man or woman, even a non-Christian, and is considered a valid baptism as long as it is done in the manner in which the Catholic Church baptizes. Originally intended as a relief for Catholic families suffering high infant mortality rates, it had not been intended to be used for Jewish families. This rule allowed anyone to perform emergency baptism so the infant would not die unbaptised. Its use in the case of very ill Jewish children was accepted by the Christian population.

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862

After Mortara was baptised, which was attested to by the servant girl who had performed it, he was a Catholic in accordance with Catholic canon law. According to canon law, which was the law of the Papal States, non-Christians could not raise a Christian child even if the child was their own. In 1912, in his testimony in favour of the beatification of Pius IX, Mortara noted that the laws of the Papal States did not allow Roman Catholics to work in the homes of Jewish families (one reason was to prevent this very situation from happening).[2]

Historian David Kertzer has questioned whether the baptism, which had no witnesses, actually took place. In his 1997 book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Kertzer investigates the story and quotes from contemporary testimony. It appears that the servant girl Morisi told the local priests her story at a time when she was seeking to obtain a dowry from the church. Investigations on behalf of the Mortaras revealed that she was reputed to be a thief. It was reported that Mortara's illness had not been life-threatening, thus not requiring an emergency baptism. On the other hand, other testimony was consistent with Morisi's story, and the church authorities were evidently persuaded that she was telling the truth.

Edgardo was taken to a house for Catholic converts (a "House of Catechumens"[3]) in Rome, maintained at state expense. His parents were not allowed to see him for several weeks, and after this period were not allowed to see him unsupervised. Pius IX took a personal interest in the case (Kertzer confirms that the pope helped raise Edgardo), and all appeals to the Church were rebuffed. Church authorities told the Mortaras that they could have Edgardo back if they would convert to Catholicism, but they refused. According to Kertzer, the Mortaras had several audiences with the pope regarding the matter.

Reaction and opposition[edit]

The incident soon received extensive publicity both in Italy and internationally. In the Kingdom of Sardinia, the largest independent state in Italy and the centre of the liberal nationalist movement for Italian unification, both the government and the press used the case to reinforce their claims that the Papal States were ruled by medieval obscurantists and should be liberated from Papal rule.

Jewish organizations and prominent political and intellectual figures in Britain, the United States, Germany, Austria and France lodged protests with the Vatican. Soon the governments of these countries added to calls for Edgardo to be returned to his parents. Even the French Emperor Napoleon III, whose troops garrisoned Rome to protect the Pope against the Italian anti-clerical unificationists, protested.

When a delegation of prominent Jews saw the Pope in 1859, he told them, "I couldn't care less what the world thinks."[4] At another meeting, he brought Edgardo with him to show that the boy was happy in his care. In 1865 he said: "I had the right and the duty to do what I did for this boy, and if I had to, I would do it again."[5][6] In a speech in 1871 defending his decision against his detractors, Pius said: "Of these dogs, there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places."[7][8]

The Mortara affair resulted in the founding in 1860 of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in France. Adolphe Crémieux and other French-Jewish leaders formed the Alliance to advocate for all Jews who faced such circumstances.[9]

Ordination and later life[edit]

In 1859, after Bologna had been annexed to Piedmont, the Mortara parents made another effort to recover their son, but he had been taken to Rome. In 1870, when Rome was captured from the Pope, they tried again, but Edgardo was then 19 and therefore legally an adult. He declared his firm intention to remain a Roman Catholic. In that year, he was assigned to France. The following year, his father died. In France, he entered the Augustinian order, being ordained a priest at the age of 23, and adopting the spiritual name Pius.[10] Fr. Edgardo Mortara was sent as a missionary to cities such as Munich, Mainz and Breslau to preach to the Jews there. He became fluent in a variety of languages. As he traveled widely, his effort to convince Jews to convert was mostly unsuccessful.[10]

During a public-speaking engagement in Italy, Mortara reestablished communications with his mother and siblings. In 1895, he attended his mother's funeral, led by the rabbi of Bologna. His nieces and nephews, as adults, recalled the frequent visits from him.[11]

In 1897, he went to New York, where he preached in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Michael Corrigan, the Archbishop of New York, told the Vatican that he opposed Mortara's efforts to evangelise Jews, on the grounds that such efforts might embarrass the Church in the eyes of the United States government. When Father Mortara asked Bishop Corrigan for financial support, the archbishop refused.[10]

Mortara died in 1940 at the abbey of Bouhay in Bressoux, near Liège in Belgium, having spent his last years there.[12] He was 88 years old.

Pope Pius IX's relationship with Jews[edit]

Civil law in the Papal States did not permit baptized Christians to be raised by non-Christians. Pope Pius IX, who had partially emancipated the Jews living in the Papal States, found himself in a quandary when he learned of the Mortara baptism. The Mortara case was the catalyst for far-reaching political changes; its repercussions are still being felt within the Catholic Church and in relations between the Church and some Jewish organizations.

In §1672 of Mortara's testimony for the beatification of Pius IX, the priest stated, "I greatly desire the beatification and canonization of the Servant of God (Pius IX)."[2][13]

The Mortara affair increased discontent with the temporal power of the papacy within Italy. International leaders, including Catholic rulers such as Franz Joseph I of Austria and Napoleon III, requested that Mortara be returned to his parents; The New York Times published 20 editorials on the case.[14]

Around the turn of the 21st century, interest in the Mortara case was revived because of the campaign to secure canonisation for Blessed Pius IX.[10] In 1997 David Kertzer published The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which brought the case back to public attention. In 2000, Jewish groups and others, led by several descendants of the Mortara family, protested the beatification of Pius.

The story became the subject of a play, Edgardo Mine by Alfred Uhry, and an opera, Il Caso Mortara by Francesco Cilluffo, premiered February 25, 2010, by the Dicapo Opera in New York City. An Irish film titled Edgardo Mortara, based on the play and Kertzer's book, was planned to begin production via Miramax in October 2002, but the project was halted for lack of funds.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ David Rabinovich, producer, director (May 2007). "The End of the Inquisition". Secret Files of the Inquisition. PBS. 
  2. ^ a b [1], originally published in English by Zenit News Agency, September 20, 2000.
  3. ^ Dawkins, 2006, pp. 169–172.
  4. ^ Kertzer (1997), Ch.15, p.261
  5. ^ Levitan, Dov (Parashat Va-Yeshev 5771, November 27, 2010). "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara" (DOC). Bar-Ilan University: Parashat Hashavua Study Center. p. 3. Retrieved September 10, 2011.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. ^ De Mattei, p. 156
  7. ^ Stowe, Kenneth (2007). Popes, Church, and Jews in the Middle Ages: Confrontation and Response. Ashgate Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 0-7546-5915-1. 
  8. ^ Carroll, James (2002). Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews — A History. Houghton Mifflin Books. pp. 379–380. ISBN 0-618-21908-0. 
  9. ^ Lupovitch, Howard N. (2009). Jews and Judaism in world history. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis. p. 172. ISBN 0-415-46204-5. 
  10. ^ a b c d Allen, John L. jr. (September 1, 2000). "Pope of infallibility set for beatification". National Catholic Reporter, Online. Retrieved 2011-12-11. 
  11. ^ See Kertzer
  12. ^ Thomas Brechenmacher, Der Vatikan und die Juden. Geschichte einer unheiligen Beziehung vom 16. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart, Beck: München (2005), p. 113
  13. ^ At the conclusion of his deposition (§1695), Mortata states: "I am firmly convinced, not only by the deposition I have given, but by the entire life of my august protector and father, that the Servant of God (Pius IX) is a saint. I have the almost instinctive conviction that one day he will be raised to the glory of the altars. For me it will be an intimate joy for my entire life and a great comfort in the hour of my death to have cooperated to the limits of my strength toward the success of this cause. I pray to God by the intercession of his Servant to have mercy on me and forgive my sins, and make me rejoice in his presence in Paradise." [2]
  14. ^ Cornwell, 2004, p. 151
  15. ^ "Edgardo Mortara collapses". The Guardian. September 18, 2002. 


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