Anger at scholar's book on abduction

August 12, 2005

An Italian academic's justification of the Vatican's forcible removal of a Jewish child from his parents to be raised as a Roman Catholic in the 19th century has angered academics, including one of the child's descendants.

A book by Catholic scholar Vittorio Messori on Edgardo Mortara, who in 1858 was taken from his family to be raised as a Catholic because he had been secretly baptised by a Christian servant, has reopened an old wound in relations between modern Italy, its Jews and the Vatican.

Professor Messori, a frequent lecturer in Catholic universities, based the book I, The Jewish Child Kidnapped by Pius IX on a recently discovered autobiography, in which Mortara tells how he was raised under the direct supervision of Pope Pius IX, joyfully embraced Catholicism and eventually became a priest.

Professor Messori, who enjoys Vatican favour and twice interviewed Pope John Paul II, has been criticised by academics who feel the positive tone of his book tries to justify stealing a child from its parents. And his suggestion that Italian Jews, who were confined to ghettoes and lacked civil rights, were happy to be ruled by the Pope has also been described as "offensive revisionism".

Mortara was born in 1851. In infancy, when he was ill, a servant girl secretly baptised him so he would not go to hell if he died. In 1858, Pope Pius IX, who then ruled Bologna and central Italy, heard of the baptism and ordered police to take the child away from his parents. He was taken to a Catholic institution in Rome, where his parents were allowed to see him only briefly weeks later, with Vatican officials present.

The affair became an international cause célèbre for Jewish and Christian groups and was held up by supporters of Italian nationalism as a glaring example of Papal despotism.

British philanthropist Moses Montefiore travelled to Rome to ask for Mortara's release, but to no avail. Bologna became part of Italy in 1859, but Mortara was kept in Rome and saw his mother only once more in 1878, when he was 26, although he attended her funeral in 1895.

"Messori's text uses the language of the 19th century to express subtle anti-Semitism," said Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, professor of modern history at the universities of Venice and Padua. "He attacks gays, protestants and Jews, while denying the church was anti-Semitic with phrases such as 'the church has always defended Jews who had converted to Catholicism'. It is an ugly text that sees Pius IX as the victim of international attack by pro-Jewish interests."

Elena Mortara, professor of Anglo-American literature at Rome's Tor Vergata University and a specialist in American Jewish literature, is Mortara's great-grand-niece. "The Mortara family had the moral strength to rebel against the abduction and draw attention to the practice of forced conversions, particularly of infants, under the temporal power of the popes. An international scandal followed, with protests from Catholics as well as non-Catholics showing how totally anachronistic such an act was," she said.

"But here, in our own time, we have a book describing the kidnapping of a six-year-old child as a glorious victory of the true faith. It is sad to see the re-emergence of an obscurantist vision that, after the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II's Mea Culpa , we believed had been buried."

She added: "It is disturbing that Messori explains that today's Canon Law confirms the principle of Mortara's abduction, and considers legitimate the forced conversions of infants in danger of death against the parents' will, be they Catholic or not. This violates the universal principle of respect for the faith, or non-faith, of others."

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