On the upcoming Steven Spielberg film “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara”

With word out that Steven Spielberg is moving forward with his film “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” – with a release possible as early as the end of the this year – it may be helpful for those in catechetical leadership to prepare themselves for some of the inevitable questions that will arise by learning some of the basic facts of the case.

Historical Context

In the 1850s and 1860s, the country of Italy as we know it today did not exist. The Italian peninsula was divided politically into a number of different jurisdictions. Prominent among these in central Italy were the Papal States. In that region, the Pope was not only the supreme spiritual leader, but also served as monarch in the secular realm. There was no distinction between Church and Civil Law in these area. At this time the Papal States included the city of Bologna.

During this time, in the papal states, it was illegal for a Christian child to be raised by non-Christian parents. The thinking behind this is that it was necessary for the Church to protect the religious up-bringing of its members.

It was likewise illegal in most circumstances to baptize a child without the express consent of his or her parents. The notable exception to this law, however, was that it was permissible to baptize a child who was in danger of death, not only without the parents’ consent but also against their express wishes. At that time the Church had not been able to reconcile the idea of the necessity of baptism for salvation and the possibility that God might see to the salvation of unbaptized children. (For an understanding of today’s thinking, see Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1261.) Therefore this  exception to the general law was seen as an exception designed for the good of the child in question.

In 1859 the city of Bologna passed out of the control of the papal states into the hands of the Kingdom of Sardinia as the process of unification of the Italian peninsula continued.

In 1870, with the advent of the Frano-Prussian war, the French troop stationed in Rome who had secured the papal states against the advancing Italian forces withdrew.  As a result Italian forces entered the city of Rome, Pope Pius IX withdrew behind the Vatican walls, and the Papal States were effectively ended. Pope Pius IX refused to accept this and it was only with the Lateran treaty of 1929 that a concordat between the Holy See and Italy was concluded and Pope renounced all claims to the Papal States except for Vatican City and few extraterritorial properties (e.g. the Lateran Basilica).

Brief Summary of the Particular Circumstances This Case:

  • The Mortara family was a part of a small but prominent Jewish community in the city of Bologna.
  • Like most Jewish families they employed Christians as domestic workers.
  • One of the people who worked for a time for this family (about 6 years) was a woman by the name of Anna Morisi
  • In 1857 evidence was presented to the authorities in Bologna that Anna had secretly baptized Edgardo Mortara, now about five years old, several years previously when he had fallen gravely ill.
  • The authorities secretly investigated and come to the conclusion that that baptism had in fact taken place and was valid.  Edgardo was, therefore, a Christian. This investigation was carried out outside the knowledge of the Mortara family.
  • In keeping with the law, authorities came to the Mortara family home on June 23, 1858 and announced to the family the finding that Edgardo was a Christian and that he was to be removed. Negotiations and appeals followed, but in the end Edgardo was removed from the family against their wishes late the following day.
  • Edgardo was brought to Rome and placed in the house of catechumens.  He was cared for there and received catechetical instruction as a Christian.
  • Though it was about a month before Edgardo’s family came to know to where he had been taken, eventually, his father, Momolo, was permitted to visit his son in Rome several times between August and September.
  • Divergent accounts of the mental state of Edgardo during this period emerged.  His family portrayed him as being despondent and wanting to return home. Those sympathetic to the Catholic Church portrayed him as eagerly, almost supernaturally, accepting the Catholic faith, advancing catechetically, and expressing a desire that his whole family become Catholic.
  • The Mortara family sought assistance internationally to having their son restored to them. It because an international cause célèbre, receiving press coverage around the world and provided significant ammunition to anti-Catholic detractors.
  • In the face of international criticism, Pope Pius IX not only refused to return Edgardo, but began to take a strong paternal interest in the boy. The pontiff regularly spent time with the boy and played with him. In time Edgardo came to regard the Pope as another father.
  • In 1865, at the age of 13, Edgardo entered the novitiate of the canons regular of the Lateran adding the Pope’s name to his own to become Pio Edgardo Mortara.
  • When Rome fell in 1870, just before Edgardo turned 19, he feared that he would be forcibly returned to his parents by the Italian army.  The Italian commander, General Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora, told him that as he was 19 years old he could do as he wished. Edgardo was smuggled out of Rome by train along with a priest on 22 October 1870, late at night and in lay clothes. He made his way north and escaped to Austria.
  • In 1872 he moved from Austria to a monastery in France where, with special dispensation because of his young age, he was ordained a priest at age 21. He received a personal letter from the Pope to mark the occasion, as well as a lifetime trust fund of 7,000 lire to support him.
  • Father Mortara traveled throughout Europe as a preacher at first avoiding Italy.
  • Edgardo and his mother were reunited in 1878 when she came to hear him preach in southern France and he maintained contact until her death in 1890. Throughout this time he attempted to convert her to Christianity, which she never did.
  • Edgardo returned to Italy for the first time in 1891. He visited with his siblings and their families whenever he was in Italy thereafter.
  • Eventually Father Mortara settled in at the abbey of the Canons Regular at Bouhay in Liège, Belgium. Father Pio Edgardo Mortara resided at Bouhay for the rest of his life and died there on 11 March 1940, at the age of 88.

Whatever the movie may or may not portray and whatever the reaction of the public, these facts are important to know.