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I need to begin today’s post with a short history lesson. If you’ve heard this story before, bear with me.

In the mid-1800s, the Italian peninsula was fragmented into several independent nations. One was the Papal States, a theocracy under the direct rule of the Vatican, governed from Rome. Perhaps surprisingly, a small Jewish community lived there at the heart of Christian power, in an era when the church wasn’t known for tolerance.*

Although it was technically illegal, and perilous for reasons that will shortly become clear, many well-to-do Jewish families hired Christians as domestic servants, because they could do household chores on the Sabbath. One such family was the Mortaras, a merchant clan from Bologna: the husband, Salomone; the wife, Marianna; and eight children, one of whom was their son Edgardo.

In 1857, a rumor reached the Inquisition that a Jewish child in their jurisdiction had been baptized. This was a serious matter, because baptism made a child Christian in the eyes of the church. According to a 1747 papal decree, if a child of non-Christian parents was baptized, the church had a duty to take that child away from his or her parents and raise them as a Catholic.

The inquisitors traced the rumor to the Mortaras’ Catholic servant, Anna Morisi. Under interrogation, she admitted that Edgardo had been gravely ill when he was an infant, that she was afraid he would die, and to save his soul, she’d secretly baptized him but never told his family. When the Inquisition found this out, they sent the papal police, who knocked on the door and took six-year-old Edgardo away from his hysterical parents.


The Mortaras pleaded for the return of their son, to no avail. Edgardo was sent to a Catholic school in Rome. Pius IX himself was apparently fond of the boy and treated him like an adoptive son.

But it was a Pyrrhic victory for the church. The story of Edgardo Mortara’s abduction was publicized throughout Europe and the United States and sparked an international furor. There were diplomatic condemnations, petitions and editorials denouncing the Vatican. The French emperor Napoleon III, whose soldiers had been propping up the Papal States, was personally angered, which may have inspired his decision to switch sides and ally with the ambitious Kingdom of Sardinia. This led to the wars of Italian unification that ended with the military defeat of the Vatican, the reduction of the Papal States to the rump of Vatican City, and the setting of Italy’s modern borders with Rome as its capitol. In a real sense, the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara brought about the end of the Catholic church’s earthly dominion.**

So, why recount this old history? For this reason: First Things magazine, a conservative religious journal with an intellectual reputation, published an article in its February 2018 issue titled “Non Possumus” – Latin for “We cannot,” which was Pope Pius IX’s response to international appeals to return Edgardo to his parents.

The author’s purpose is to defend the pope’s behavior in the Mortara affair and to argue that the church did nothing wrong in this 170-year-old child kidnapping. Brace yourself:

Those involved in the removal of Edgardo Mortara were certainly conscious of the human pathos, but the human element was not the only one to be considered. Both the law of the Church and the laws of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized receive a Catholic upbringing… This law was not unreasonable, moreover. Even today, the Code of Canon Law, can. 794 §1, assigns to the Church the task of educating Catholics.

According to the author of this column, baptism has magic powers. If someone says a prayer and sprinkles water on your head, even without your knowledge, that marks you permanently as the property of the Catholic church (“Augustine compares this to the mark of a branding iron on a beast”). This gives them the right to control your life, according to a rule they made up.

The author characterizes Edgardo’s abduction as “not unreasonable”, and says that the law which allowed them to do this is in force “even today”. The unmistakable implication is that if the church became aware of another baptized child of non-Christian parents tomorrow, it would be justified in kidnapping them too, if not for the regrettable inconvenience that the pope no longer has a standing army to do his bidding.

It’s chilling to think how wide a net this reasoning could be used to cast. There may not be very many secret baptisms of Jewish children, but there are millions of cultural Catholics who baptized their children but don’t attend church. Would the Vatican also be justified in seizing custody of all those children for compulsory religious reeducation?

In fact, the article says, Edgardo’s kidnapping was a good thing – a blessing. After all, if the church hadn’t taken him, he’d have wound up condemned to eternal torture just like his Christ-killing family:

Pior to the arrival of the papal gendarme at his parents’ home, Edgardo Mortara was an anonymous Catholic. In his case, divine Providence kindly arranged for his being introduced into a regular Christian life.

And if you think that anyone who could write this must be a cruel child-snatching vulture with no compassion whatsoever, the author hastens to assure you that that’s not true. He says it’s very sad that Edgardo had to be taken from his parents. It’s just that a “higher” law supersedes our puny rational standards of good and evil:

No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above. Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions — the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son.

The article closes with an ominous question: “Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” – with the clear implication that the answer is no.

Again, I need to emphasize: This isn’t some long-dead inquisitor’s jeremiad being dusted off and dragged into the light of day. This column was written in 2018. And here’s the kicker: The author, Romanus Cessario, is a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. His job is to teach candidates for the priesthood. What do you think he’s teaching them?

In an appalled editorial, Damon Linker writes that the decision to print this article illustrates the religious right’s turn back to authoritarianism. After a brief window in which it seemed the church might embrace tolerance and changing norms, many of its defenders are making a sharp about-face and reasserting the medieval mindset that religion should have absolute power over society and its dogmas may not be questioned (this theocratic philosophy is sometimes called “integralism”, as in, the state and the church should be one integrated body). See also Rod Dreher, who calls it “monstrous” and “grotesque”.

For all that it shocks the conscience, this is the same move that many religions are making as they see their authority and their numbers shrinking. They don’t want to join the modern world if it means they have to share power, respect people’s freedom of conscience, or update their views in light of humanity’s evolving moral understanding. They’re wagering that by doubling down on the old claims of absolute authority, they can recapture the power they once had. I think it’s far more likely that pining for the days of tyranny will only accelerate their decline and ultimate fall.

* The pope at the time, Pius IX, was the one who issued the infamous Syllabus of Errors that claimed the church should possess absolute civil power. On the other hand, he was viewed in some quarters as a reformer because he revoked a rule forcing Jews in the Papal States to attend Christian church services specifically aimed at converting them to Christianity. By the standards of the time, this was a progressive gesture.

** As for Edgardo Mortara himself, he never returned to his family. Years of indoctrination beginning from that early age had the desired effect: he converted to Catholicism and even became a priest. Even after the Vatican fell in the war of Italian independence and he was free to go where he wished, he remained a Catholic to the end of his life.
This shouldn’t surprise atheists. It’s no different from any other case of a kidnapped person adopting the ideology of their kidnappers, and shows how rare it is for people to throw off the effects of intense childhood brainwashing.

Image: “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...