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When the Church Also Kidnaps Children

Imagine a seven-year-old Jewish boy taken away from his parents and never given back. No, this isn’t October 7, 2023, but Bologna, Italy, in 1858.

One of the pertinent lessons that we learned from Yehudah’s approaching Yoseph, the Egyptian viceroy in last week’s parsha, Vayigash. was that it is important to stand up, respectfully, and call out immorality for what it is. A caveat, of course, is not to make things worse and engender more immorality – saichel must be used.

The purpose of standing up for a moral truth is to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and that moral calamities that have happened in the past never happen again.

One case in point is the kidnapping of a young boy from Bologna, Italy, authorized by Pope Pius IX. The story was made famous by the remarkable researcher, historian, and captivating author David Kertzer in his 1997 historical account of the horrid incident, entitled, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.”

It was a Shabbos evening, June 23, 1858, when the police of the Papal States, of which Bologna was then part, arrived at the home of Momolo and Marianna Mortara, to seize one of their eight children, 6 year old Edgardo, and transport him to Rome to be raised by the Catholic church.

Essentially, a Catholic servant of a Jewish family had claimed, in her confession to a priest, to have poured water on a sick young Jewish boy for the purpose of baptizing him. She did not want the poor boy to burn in hell for not having been Christian. The church took the child away – forever. The pope stated that a “Catholic” child cannot be raised by Jews.

Edgardo was taken to a house for Catholic converts in Rome, built with funds from taxes levied upon Jews. His parents were not allowed to see him for several weeks, and then never again alone. Pius IX took a personal interest in the case, and all appeals to the Church were rebuffed. The church so brainwashed the poor child that he eventually became a priest.

At the time, protests were lodged by both Jewish organizations and prominent political and intellectual figures throughout the world, including Emperor Franz Ferdinand, President Grant and French Emperor Napoleon III.

Pope Pius IX was unmoved by these appeals, which mostly came from Protestants, atheists and Jews. When a delegation of prominent Jews saw him in 1859, he told them, “I couldn’t care less what the world thinks.” In 1865 he said, “I had the right and the duty to do what I did for this boy, and if I had to, I would do it again.”

As an added chutzpah, the church sent him to try to convert Jews in New York City In 1897, but the Archbishop of New York, Michael Corrigan, told the Vatican that he opposed Mortara’s efforts to evangelize the Jews on the grounds that it was embarrassing and, well, awkward.

In a speech in 1871 he called the Jews of Rome “dogs” and said: “of these dogs, there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places.”

Edgardo died in Belgium in 1940, two months before the Nazis invaded.

The church had so indoctrinated Mortara into Catholic thought that when he wrote his memoirs years later (published in 2005 by Vittorio Messori) he stated that he had “always professed an inexpressible horror” toward Jews. This was left out in Messori’s translation from the original Spanish version.

 

The Movie

In April 2016, word broke out that producer Steven Spielberg’s next movie would chronicle this story of a Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara in Italy who was kidnapped and raised in the Catholic Church. Spielberh had initially purchased the rights to Kertzer’s book, a script was written by Tony Kushner, the man responsible for previous Spielberg scripts and actor Mark Rylance, was to portray Pope Pius IX.

It didn’t happen, and Spielberg allowed his option to produce it to expire this year. Perhaps it may have been too controversial a topic to touch – even for Spielberg.

 

Never an Apology

The church never apologized for any of this. Indeed, in the year 2000, Pope Pius IX was even ‘beautified,’ a step that has to happen before an official church declaration of “sainthood.” At the time this transpired there were Jews who had led and held protests regarding the matter, including Mortara’s own great grand-niece Elena Mortara, a professor and published author.

Some people have asked why we care? “The Catholic church has always had a strong history of antisemitism and we cannot change that,” – the thinking goes. But should this really be our attitude? In the 1980’s and 1990’s, I surveyed a number of Gedolei Yisroel about whether or not Jewish hishtadlus in Vatican Council II, when the Church had re-examined a number of their long-held views on Jews and Judaism, was appropriate hishtadlus or not. The response was a definitive “yes.”

There is a fascinating alternative text to the Midrash Tanchuma, found in the Bodleian library in Oxford University which may be instructive here. There is a pasuk in the Torah that states Az yavdil Moshe – And then Moshe separated the future cities of refuge. The Midrash states that the word “Az” indicates the recitation of Hallel or shira. “Who said Shira?” the Midrash asks. “Moshe said it.”

We see here that Moshe Rabbeinu was so concerned with the welfare and well-being of future fugitives that he recited Shira and Hallel over their good fortune in now having refuge cities – even though they were not yet born.

We need to be concerned about future Jewish children as well. The story of what happened to a 6 year old Edgardo Mortara must be told and retold. The movie should be made if that will get the message out that such immorality should never be tolerated – even if it comes from a leading religious figure.


The author can be reached at [email protected]

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