Opinion

Is American Catholicism Under Attack by Extremists Nostalgic for anti-Jewish Teachings?

A 19th century Pope forcibly abducted a Jewish boy from his family, causing international outrage. Now, a traditionalist minority eagerly justifies the Church's actions, as part of their war on today's 'heretical' Pope - and decades of improved Jewish-Catholic relations

'The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara' by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862
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The publication in a leading American religious journal of an essay defending the 19th century kidnapping by the Church of an Italian Jewish boy has sparked controversy among U.S. Catholics and fears that the denominations conservative wing is being hijacked by extremists.

The article published last week in the conservative magazine First Things sought to defend the actions of Pope Pius IX, the pontiff who in 1858 ordered the seizure of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, on the grounds that he had been secretly baptized by his Catholic nanny when he had fallen seriously ill as a toddler.

The essay has sparked a storm of reactions online, with many even in the conservative camp condemning it.

But the controversy is merely the latest chapter in a broader rift among Catholics, especially in the United States, where a vocal minority is growing increasingly bold in its extremism and its opposition to Pope Francis policies, experts told me.

Anger over Francis perceived liberal views and lack of interest in strictly upholding traditional Catholic positions on divorce, abortion, homosexuality and other key issues for conservatives, is quickly translating into a wholesale rejection of any change in Catholic teachings, including the seminal reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which revolutionized the Churchs attitude toward Jews and other religions, as well as steps taken by recent popes to atone for the Churchs past role in promoting anti-Semitism. 

"Some sectors of American Catholicism are showing disturbing signs of traditionalism that may lead to a nostalgia for anti-Jewish teachings," says Massimo Faggioli, a Church historian and professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

"They are looking for examples in past Church leadership of opposites of Francis, of opposites of Vatican II and modern theology. They want to convey the message that what we had in the 19th century was the true Catholicism, and this one is a sellout."

The essay in First Things – written by Romanus Cessario, a Dominican priest and theology professor at St. Johns Seminary in Boston – suggests the Mortara family were at fault for the affair because they ignored the anti-Semitic legislation of the time, which, among other restrictions, barred Jews from employing Catholic servants.

Father Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother (center) and another man, perhaps a brother of Edgardo. Photograph taken between 1878-1890
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Cessario argues that under canon law it is licit to baptize a child whose life is in danger even without the parents consent, and that Pius, who took Edgardo as his ward, was duty bound to give the newly-minted Christian the Catholic education his family could not provide. The author again places the onus on the family's 'obstinacy', by noting that "the Church offered to enroll Edgardo in a Catholic boarding school in Bologna, but his parents refused."

At the time, the kidnapping sparked international outrage, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, and calls for Mortara to be returned to his family.

It also "had a huge impact on the international Jewish community, resulting in the formation of the first Jewish self-defense organizations," says David Kertzer, author of "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," a 1997 book credited with renewing contemporary interest in the affair. "It was a tragedy for the Mortara family but it was a very important case in the liberation of Jews from their second-class citizen status in much of Europe, especially in Catholic countries."

By 1870, when Italian troops entered Rome and brought an end to the Papal States and the popes temporal power, Mortara had become a dutiful Catholic and was studying to become a priest. He refused to abandon the Catholic faith, taking his vows and living abroad until his death in 1940 in Belgium.

Cessario dismisses any criticism of Pius conduct as "prejudiced manipulation," particularly Kertzers book and an upcoming Steven Spielberg movie based on it. He instead cites Mortaras memoirs, whose recent translation into English spurred the First Things essay, in which Edgardo expressed gratitude toward Pius and hoped that he would one day be recognized as a saint.

Pope Pius IX was indeed beatified in 2000, despite protests from the Italian Jewish community, but his canonization process has since stalled.

Seizing on the increased attention generated by the news of the planned Spielberg movie, more conservative Catholic commentators have rushed to defend Pius conduct in the Mortara case, Kertzer said. "While most do not directly attack the Second Vatican Council, much less Pope Francis, the criticism is clear to anyone sophisticated in the Catholic world," he told me.

"Francis has gotten the right wing of the Church angered, and Mortara seems to be a useful way to do battle against the Church as Francis sees it," said Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Pope Pius IX
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Since his election in 2013, Francis has frequently riled conservatives, for example, by opposing the increased use of the Latin Mass, striking a conciliatory tone on gay priests and suggesting in a 2016 document that some divorced and remarried Catholics could be allowed to receive communion.

This last act prompted four cardinals, including American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, to publicly express a series of dubia (doubts in Latin) and call on Francis to clear up the "confusion" sowed by his text amongst the faithful. When Francis did not respond, dozens of traditionalist theologians and clergy, many of them Americans, signed a letter that accused the pope of spreading heresy

Fearful of further Church reforms, conservative U.S. Catholics are also emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and the growing polarization in American politics, said both Kertzer and Faggioli, the theologian who teaches in Philadelphia.  

Traditionalists "are afraid of same sex marriage, of abortion, of all these issues, and have responded to these new social phenomena by saying that the Catholic Church doesnt change because it can never change," said Faggioli. Such an attitude inevitably leads to condemning all recent reforms, including those of Vatican II, and to praising acts of doctrinal rigor like those of Pius in the Mortara case.

"The First Things article fails to mention that the Catholic teaching that Pius IX was implementing is no longer the policy or the theology of the Catholic Church toward the Jews since the 1960s at least," says Faggioli. "Articulating that argument on the behavior of Pius while failing to mention these last 60 years is ignorant and misleading."

While the extremist wing of conservative Catholicism is still "marginal," its ideas have a broad reach, thanks to its strong presence in the media and on the Internet, Faggioli said.

"This is not without consequences, for example for young priests or those who study to become priests and for whom these ideas may become normal," he said. "And thats really scary."

Responding to the controversy generated by Cessarios essay, the editor of First Things, R.R. Reno, wrote that the Mortara case was a "stain on the Catholic Church" and that the publication of the article was not intended to rehabilitate Pius IX or "encourage Catholics to kidnap Jewish children."

However, Reno, a former theology professor whose columns have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, also obfuscated the issue when he indirectly acknowledged that the essay was not just a contrarian historical analysis, but a call to reject Church reform - and that was a "perceptive" and legitimate position, no matter the bad taste it left in readers' mouths.

Pius story is a reminder, he wrote, that Catholics, "riven by debates about divorce, remarriage, and communion," cannot "redirect or reshape" Gods covenant with them as they wish.

Critics will be left wondering why, once again, this debate has to be played out at the expense of Jews who lived and died, powerless, in the shadow of the Church's persecution for so many centuries.