Latter-day Saint Book Report on “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”

In 1857 officials raided a home in the Jewish ghetto in Bologna, Italy and forcefully removed a 6-year old child based on the testimony of a servant that he had been baptized as an infant and was, therefore, Christian. At the time Bologna was under the direct rule of the Pope (back in the day the Pope ruled over a chunk of Italy as a sovereign). While Catholic canon law stipulated severe penalties for baptizing a Jewish child without the consent of their parents, once a baptism did take place it was considered valid, and sometimes that child was removed to be raised in a Christian home or religious house. Jewish children being abducted because of surreptitious baptisms had happened before, but this particular case happened after a tipping point in small-l liberal sentiment in Europe, and became exhibit A for the perception that the Church was increasingly out of touch. A diplomatic storm arose as emperors, prime ministers, and the newly liberated European Jewish community all put immense pressure on the Vatican to release the child back to his parents. However, Pope Pius IX wouldn’t budge because of his sincere religious interpretation, and there’s some evidence that the capture of this Jewish boy was one of several straws that broke the camel’s back, eventually leading to the invasion of the Papal States and the destruction of the Pope’s temporal power in Italy. 

On a personal level, Edgardo was adopted by the Pope, who showed a warm fondness for the boy, and by the time the Pope’s power collapsed and the Jewish community was in a position to get Edgardo back he was of age and had already made his decision to pursue a religious life as a devout priest. (Sidebar: Stephen Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein were both going to do movie versions of this book with A-list actors all lined up, but Spielberg pulled the plug after he couldn’t find a child that fit the part, and well, we all know what happened to Weinstein). 

First, a disclaimer, then Latter-day Saint insights from the Catholic side. This post is not an anti-Catholic screed. If we recognize Brigham Young’s religious authority and providential virtues while also recognizing that he was subject to the racist failings of his day, we should extend the same courtesy to our Catholic friends with a Pope who, while in many ways progressive for his day, had attitudes that towards Jews that don’t look great in the year 2022. More generally speaking, compared to the contemporaneous alternatives the Vatican has been on the right side historically much, much more than they get credit for. (For a more in-depth discussion on stereotype versus reality, see Rodney Stark’s book Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History). 

Pope Pius IX was the longest serving Pope ever, with a tenure that was almost coterminous with Brigham Young’s as President of the Church. My understanding is that the social science literature suggests that after a certain age our opinions stop changing and calcify; therefore, the “progress happens one funeral at a time” idea has some bearing in empirical reality, and in institutions that are presided over by older people like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s not unlikely that the framework of the leader was developed nearly a half century before most of the other members developed theirs. Having a young leader that serves for a long time comes with risks as well as benefits. One of the benefits is that they hold the line against the winds of change, and one of the risks is that they hold the line against the winds of change. 

It’s sort of an unspoken article of faith among the left that the the winds of change are almost always good, and on the right that they aren’t, but it’s not that hard to find examples of both. Spiritualism was all the rage back in the day of the Godbeites, and some people tried to co-opt the Church and its pulpits (including the creator of Sherlock Holmes) to push this new spiritual fad; people who were with the times were into mediums and seances. Similarly, eugenics were very hip with very modern thinking celebrity crowd, and during the beginning of the sexual revolution getting rid of age of consent laws was considered a very forward thinking, liberal position (and was much more mainstream than people realize, it’s only in the past half century that that Overton window on the left has constricted to exclude that position.) While popular mythology holds that the class of right thinking, reasonable people have always had the same social opinions, the fact is that the history of our social moral development is replete with false starts and broken branches, and it’s harder to know where we’ll end up than some people think. 

This book gives a front row seat to the tumultuousness of the Catholic Church figuring out which lines had to be held even if it conflicted with small-l liberal society and new ideas like the separation of Church and state. There is a scene in the book when Pope Pius IX writes to Father Mortara and explains how much Mortara’s Christianity has cost him, but that he cares for him and would do it again, and for a moment it’s kind of touching before you remember that he’s talking about kidnapping a child from his parents. The leader who refuses to budge is either, as President Hinckley said, “a man of judgment who isn’t blown about by every wind of doctrine,” or he’s just all the more recalcitrant, depending on what they are not budging on. 

From the Jewish side, this book helped me to feel, in painful detail, why there is incredible sensitivity around Jewish-to-Christian conversion. Of course I knew the reasons on a fact-based level: pogroms, periodic confiscation of assets, massacres, ridicule and intense pressure to convert, blood libel, etc., but it’s one thing to know the historical facts, it’s another to read the actual letters and accounts. Lather, rinse, and repeat this process for a hundred generations and it’s amazing the Jewish people still exist and don’t all hate Christians. 

Even if I left the Church I’d still feel there was something divinely providential about the Jewish people. (However, as a gentile who I believe follows the seven laws of Noah, my understanding is that I can have the best of both worlds and still get into Jewish heaven while eating BLTs and going mountain biking on Saturdays.) The oldest archaeological documentation we have of Israel is an ancient Egyptian inscription that “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” And for 3,000 years since people have been trying to bring that to pass. The irony, of course is that ancient Egypt has been gone for around ~2,000 years, whereas the seed of Israel is still with us, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy that “though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee.”

It’s clear in Latter-day Saint scripture that the descendants of Judah have an important part to play in the Latter-days *as Jews*. D&C 133 commands that those “who are among the Gentiles flee unto Zion. And let them who be of Judah flee unto Jerusalem.” About a decade later Joseph Smith sent Orson Hyde to Palestine to dedicate it for the gathering of the Jews, 2 Nephi 29 makes it clear that the Jews still have a special status before God as His people (and that the gentiles will be punished for their anti-semitism), and D&C 68 makes it clear that God still recognizes the validity of Jewish priesthood lineages for offices in the Aaronic priesthood. 

Of course, the Book of Mormon is meant for the converting of “the Jew and the Gentile,” so if missionaries tract into a Jewish home it’s not like they’re going to skip it, but at the same time Jews aren’t especial targets for conversion. Furthermore, D&C 45 makes it clear the big grand conversion will happen after the miraculous second coming, not as a result of this-worldly proselytizing efforts. On one hand I do unapologetically believe that the only path to exaltation is through Jesus Christ, on the other hand while reading the book I was cheering the Jews not converting to Christianity (and here I am talking about Christianity in general—there’s a reason the Nazis reprinted Martin Luther) like I would cheer the fact that no Jehovah’s Witness in the concentration camps renounced their faith and simply walked out as they could have done. In a respectful marketplace of ideas the theological disagreements would be more salient, but once the Nazi hammer starts falling on them, then by gosh I have a testimony that Joseph Rutherford is a prophet. 

Of course, because of our theology of afterlife conversion we have the luxury of being more flexible about religious diversity. As I’ve written about (and have been interviewed about) elsewhere, if you believe that the unbaptized are going to hell for all eternity then that logically changes your moral calculus, including on issues of religious freedom (and is one reason why the people who came up with idea of eternal physical torture will, ahem, have hell to pay in the hereafter for every devastated mother whose children wandered from the faith).

In the immediate case of Edgardo Mortaro, I’m not sure what the Catholic theology is regarding the unbaptized (although I should, my brother wrote a dissertation on the topic), but throughout you get the sense that Pope Pius IX was being internally coherent and sincere in his particular interpretation of Catholic theology. (The Jewish community used their legal-religious experience honed from their Talmud exegesis and aimed it towards Catholic canon law, writing a rather sophisticated and well-cited argument for returning the boy based in statements from the early Church Fathers, but the idea of Jews lecturing him on canon law just made the Pope even more upset and it backfired). 

Whatever the case, while there is still some “convert or burn” in our scripture (here I’m thinking specifically of the missionary sons of Mosiah for whom “the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble,”), I’m glad that taken as a whole we have a theology of post-life second chances. My motive for proselytizing on my mission was that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through His Church is the pathway to exaltation in this life or the next, not that if they slammed the door in my face then ipso facto their progression is stalled out for eternity.

However, our post-life theology comes with its own sensitivities in the form of baptisms for the dead, and baptisms in any form obviously trigger some deeply held, millenia old feelings for the Jewish community. The book reported how a Jewish humorist made the point that Edgardo wasn’t any more Christian than the Pope would be Jewish if Jews forced their way into the Vatican, held him down, and circumcised him. (Of course you know where I’m going with this; the “circumcision for the dead” thought experiment is irresistible.) I wouldn’t really care if some esoteric Jewish New Religious Movement did an analogous ritual for my ancestors (during the latest baptism for the dead hullabaloo the “how would you feel if people made your ancestor’s a different religion?” argument fell a little flat–I suspect most Latter-day Saints wouldn’t care and might even appreciate the show of concern). However, my ancestors weren’t killed, pilfered, and driven from their homes because they did not get circumcised, and that’s an important distinction.  

Ultimately the answer for us as Latter-day Saints is what baptism for the dead is, as opposed to what it looks like. As the Church is at pains to explain, baptism for the dead does not make people Christian posthumously, it only gives them the option (of course, if Moses the lawgiver is visiting from the Celestial Kingdom and telling you to accept, I suspect most will accept). 

Brigham Young’s noted that “if you persecute us, we will sit up nights to preach the Gospel.” Throughout the book you get a front row seat to how extremely tight knit Jewish ghetto life was, forged in the fire of brutal otherizing, and realize how much the act of having and rearing a child is a communitarian as well as individual act. 

While his family was eventually able to see and connect with Edgardo again, it wasn’t as a Jew, but as somebody who had been forcefully channeled into being sort of a counter-Jew, and you viscerally feel how much Jewishness was very much a part of what it meant to be a Mortega. 

Some like Richard Dawkins think children shouldn’t be raised with any community-particular belief, but in addition to individuals children are also extensions of kinship groups, tribes, and yes, faith groups that are greater than the sum of their parts (which is why, I suspect, hyper-individualists like Dawkins tend to have fewer children, they cost so much there isn’t much of an individualist reason to have them; you have them not for you but as an extension of you). If my children left the Church, it would greatly soften the blow to have them join Orthodox Judaism, the Hutterites, Amish, or conservative Catholicism, because then they’d be more likely to continue to have children, and their children have children, etc., whereas nowadays without that sense of the numinous community the branches on the kinship tree kind of die off. 

2 comments for “Latter-day Saint Book Report on “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”

  1. First Things reviewed the book back in 2018 and – well, that reviewer came to the conclusion the Church did the right thing:
    “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. ”

  2. Yeah, that review was excoriated by conservatives like Rod Dreher and Robert George; I doubt it was a representative view among the First Things readership.

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