A Kidnapping and Church History

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Kidnapping and Church History


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


As far back as 417, the Roman Empire's Christian rulers prohibited Jews from employing Christian servants in their homes, fearful that the menials' faith and beliefs might be undermined. In Italy, the ban was repeated down the centuries, as in the 1733 Edict on the Jews posted on church doors of the Bologna diocese. Yet Italian Jews, unable to get around Sabbath laws and their rabbis by other means, kept on taking in Christian help.

The difficulty was resolved temporarily in cities and states of the peninsula each time the Jews were ghettoized or expelled, which happened periodically from the 16th century on - a feature of the church's reaction to the more general assault upon its powers from Lutheranism and Calvinism to the north. Napoleon's arriving French forces tore down the ghetto gates, and Pope Pius IX did the same again later, before the pressures of national unification and Risorgimento rattled him back to a politically conservative position.

Whenever the situation eased up, the Jews came back, in small numbers at first, trying to blend in (following tenets of the Enlightenment) as best they could while staying out of the way of papal, Austrian or whatever authorities were holding sway at the time. It was in this setting that Momolo and Marianna Padovani Mortara moved in 1850 with their growing family - there would be eight children altogether - from the duchy of Modena to Bologna.

The Mortara brood increased the following year with the birth of a baby boy, Edgardo (the Mortara's gave their sons and daughters Italian names), and to assist with extra work about the house, a Christian servant named Anna Morisi was acquired. At some point during the ensuing year, Edgardo fell sick. Anna, fearful that the baby would die and go to hell, sprinkled water on his forehead and said the words of the Christian baptism.

It was important to get the wording exactly right, for such baptisms were not valid otherwise. But so long as the rite was performed correctly, the baptizer did not even have to be a Christian for the ceremony to stand in the church's eyes. A Jewish child so baptized immediately ceased to be Jewish.

Somehow, word of what Anna had done - she later said she'd been only 14 at the time - got about, and after a roundabout journey lasting, one takes it, some years, reached the ears of Father Pier Gaetano Feletti, Dominican representative of the Inquisition in Bologna. At any rate, at nightfall on Wednesday, June 23, 1858, uniformed police came to the Mortara home to take 6-year-old Edgardo away.

The distraught Mortara family was given a stay of 24 hours, during which time the father was granted an audience with the inquisitor, but the next night, Edgardo was removed from his home and taken to Rome, to be installed in the House of the Catechumens. Such houses, where one entered a Jew and came out a Christian with a new name and identity, have been traced back to the third century, but the one for which Edgardo was destined had been established in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

In trying to liberate Edgardo, Momolo Mortara would visit his son in this institution, but reports of what actually happened on those occasions - as with many other events in the story - conflict. This was unavoidable, David Kertzer explains, there always being two stories, that of church officials, focusing on Edgardo, and the Jewish community's account, primarily concerned with the plight of the parents. In "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," Mr. Kertzer has done what can be done to sort it all out.

Mr. Kertzer brings to his task the skills of a professor of social science, anthropology and history at Brown University and more. His father was a Jewish chaplain in the American forces that liberated Rome in World War II, and his daughter, hardly less fascinated by il caso Mortara, wrote her undergraduate thesis on it. …

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