June 23, 1858, marked the beginning of the Edgardo Mortara affair, in which the Catholic Church removed a Jewish child from his home in Bologna, in the Papal States, on the grounds he had been baptized, and proceeded to bring him up as a Christian. Aside from the pure personal drama of the episode, the Mortara affair had important repercussions both in Europe and internationally, and played not a small role in the subsequent unification of Italy and the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy.
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In the mid-19th century, the Papal States, where the Church was the sovereign power, still covered a significant portion of the central Italian peninsula. On June 23, police arrived at the home of Salomone and Marianna Padovani Mortara, parents of eight children, and announced they had come for the couple’s 6-year-old, Edgardo.
According to a young woman who had been a servant in the house, she had secretly arranged for Edgardo to be baptized into the church at the age of 1, when he was suffering from a serious illness. (Catholic law allows for “emergency” baptism, even by a layperson, if an individual is believed to be in mortal danger.) The Church claimed it was only doing its duty in taking Edgardo, as the law in the Papal States forbade a Catholic child to be raised by non-Christian parents.
The Mortaras told the police they knew nothing of Edgardo’s supposed baptism, but the officials said they were acting on orders of the Church. In fact, Edgardo’s seizure had been authorized at the highest level possible, by the pope himself, Pius IX. The child was brought to Rome, to the House of Catachumens, an institution dedicated to conversion of the Jews, and in fact, in the years to follow, Pius took a personal interest in his upbringing and education, calling Edgardo his “son.”
Historian David Kertzer, who wrote a 1997 book on the affair, suggests that the servant girl’s testimony was far from reliable, and that she may have exaggerated the details of Edgardo’s illness – in any event, his parents denied that he had been mortally ill as a baby.
The Mortaras made every effort to have their son returned to them, and when Edgardo’s story was reported internationally, both foreign governments and Jewish groups began to appeal to the pope to return him to his family.
Both Napoleon III, the French emperor, whose army provided protection for the Catholic Church in Rome, and the pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, also urged him to release Edgardo, but Pius, a stubborn man who believed in the rightness of his actions, would not relent.
When a delegation of Jewish leaders visited him in 1859 to appeal on behalf of the Mortaras, Pius told them that he “couldn’t care less what the world thinks.” He did offer, however, to return Edgardo to his parents if they agreed to have the rest of the family convert. They declined.
Although Edgardo had initially begged to be returned to his parents, who were permitted supervised visits with him, he grew to like his new life. He studied for the priesthood, and joined the Franciscan order. At age 23, he took his orders, adopting the spiritual name of “Pius.”
On the larger level, the affair gave impetus to an existing move to do away with the Papal States, and to unify Italy under a single civil government. The incident also led to the founding, in 1860, of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in France, a human-rights organization that still exists today as an educational institution.
By 1861, Italy had been united as a kingdom, under the rule of Victor Emanuel II, and all of what had been the Papal States, with the exception of Rome, came under his rule. Church rule over Rome ended nine years later, after Napoleon III withdrew his support of the pope. The Church was left with control of only Vatican City.
As a priest, Edgardo Mortara took on the mission of converting Jews, and he traveled around Europe, and eventually to New York, in pursuit of this goal. He is believed not to have had much success. He also kept in touch with his family, especially after he reached adulthood, and, for example, attended his mother’s funeral, in 1895.
Mortara died on March 11, 1940, at the age of 88, at the abbey of Bouhay, in Belgium.