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Blessed Pius IX and Edgardo Mortara

By Thomas Storck
In this case, Pius IX's beatification was met with an uproar and hostility.

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In September of this year Pope Pius IX, who reigned from 1846 to 1878, and was the last pope to be ruler of an extensive civil territory, was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Usually someone's beatification is the occasion of great rejoicing on the part of those who have spiritual devotion to him—who are accustomed to ask for his intercession—and general approval on the part of other Catholics, while the rest of the world looks on with indifference.

But, in this case, Pius IX's beatification was met with an uproar and hostility. Even segments of the Catholic press did not seem to see any reason for the Pontiff's beatification and found mostly negative things to report about him, at least as far as his public life was concerned. These publications failed to note his immense charity—the fact that as bishop he gave away most of his income, that he housed women who had been rescued from prostitution in his own episcopal palace until suitable quarters could be found for them, and many other acts of charity. Nor did they mention that in the beginning of his reign he had decreed a general anmesty for prisoners who had plotted against the papal civil authority and that he established an elected government for the Papal States. Or, that the revolutionaries, wanting nothing less than the total abolition of papal rule, assassinated his lay prime minister and forced Pius IX from Rome itself in 1848.

The supposed "constitutional government" which Pius IX resisted (according to some Catholic press reports) was nothing less than revolutionary anarachy and a later power grab by the Kingdom of Piedmont, which, in effect, established a tyranny of the northern Italians over the rest of the peninsula. Nor was it widely reported that Pius IX, like Blessed John XXIII a century later, invited the separated Eastern Orthodox, and even Protestants, to the First Vatican Council in 1870. But the greatest of this great Pope's supposed sins, in the eyes of most commentators, was undoubtedly the affair of Edgardo Mortara.

Edgardo Mortara was a Jewish boy who lived in Bologna, then in the Pope's civil domain, who had been secretly baptized by a Catholic, Anna Morsi, who was working for the family as a maid. Several years later, disturbed in her conscience, she mentioned the matter in confession, and the upshot of it was that in 1858 the civil authorities of the Papal States removed the boy from his family and took him to Rome. There he became a ward of the Pope.

Eventually he was ordained a priest, and after the seizure of Rome by the Italians in 1870, decisively rejected the possibililty of a return to Judaism, and lived out his life as a Catholic priest outside of Italy. Now what are we to make of this act, so offensive to our modern notions?

In the first place, for the life of me, I cannot see how it in any way could be characterized as anti-Semitic, as some have said. If Pius IX would have had Edgardo killed, then of course that would be anti-Semitism. But if Hitler was an anti-Semite, then Pius IX most definitely was not, for Hitler would never have taken a Jewish child and fostered and protected him and allowed him to join the priviledged ranks of the priesthood. But what of another charge, that Pius IX desired the forced conversion of Jews? A little reflection will show that this is absurd.

I do not know how many Jews lived in the Papal States in 1858, but it was definitely more than one family. If Pius IX had desired the forced conversion of Jews, why did he limit himself to just one boy in one family? All through the Middle Ages, when the Jews of Europe were at the mercy of Catholics— though regrettably Catholics did not always behave towards them according to the precepts of the Gospel—it was precisely because the Church forbade the forced conversion of Jews that European Judaism survived. If the Church had favored a policy of forced conversion, the entire body of Jews could have been eliminated in one generation by taking their children and forcibly baptizing them. No, neither Pius IX nor any other pope desired to compel Jews to become Catholics. There is another explanation for what this saintly Pontiff did.

The key to understanding this is, because of his baptism, Edgardo had become a Catholic. Though the maid sinned in baptizing him against his parents' wishes, having become a Catholic, his ontological status was changed. He was now a Catholic and had a right to a Catholic upbringing. Parents' rights are not absolute. Who would dispute the right of the authorities to intervene if Christian Scientist parents were preventing their child from receiving medical care or parents who were members of a cult allowed their children to suffer physical or sexual abuse? In the case of Edgardo Mortara, he had received the greatest gift possible to a human being, sanctifying grace, and even his parents did not have the right to prevent him from fulfilling his divine calling. Pius IX's government was doing the only thing it could do, for the boy's right to be instructed in the Catholic faith had come with his baptism, even though Anna Morsi should never have baptized him.

The most important point to remember here is that because Edgardo Mortara had become a Catholic, no one had a right to keep him from what he was entitled to. Doubtless it was very hard for the parents and the other children in the Mortara family to lose Edgardo, and we can understand and sympathize with the protests they and many others throughout the world made. But sometimes hard, cold logical truth must win out over our feelings. In any case, putting this matter in context, allows us to see that Pius IX was neither an anti-Semite nor a kidnapper, but a conscientious pastor trying to do his duty to all his children.

© 2000 Thomas Storck

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