Child abduction is a terrible heart wrenching crime, pure and simple. You let the child out of sight for a second and your baby never comes back. At least one thing’s for sure. At home — right there in front of your eyes — they are safe.Well, that’s what Mr and Mrs Mortara thought, until the pope came and stole their son, with logic that would defy Kafka.
Three things counted against the Mortaras. The first mistake was that they lived in Bologna. The second was that it was the year 1858. Nowadays, kidnapping of small boys is not on the papal agenda (despite what parish priests have been doing). At that time though, the law was on the pope’s side. Well, papal law was and that was what worked in Bologna. This was before Italy’s unification and Bologna was situated one of the Papal States.
The third strike against the peaceable God fearing Mortaras, Salamone and Marianna, was that the God they feared was the Old Testament one. They were Jewish.
And that’s where Kafka kicked in.
Their nearly-seven-year-old, Edgardo Levi Mortara, had been ill. There is some dispute about the facts of his illness. But the way it was told to the Pope was like this. The boy had been close to death. The family’s (Catholic) teenage servant girl claimed while she was alone with the sick boy she had secretly given him an emergency baptism — not that he or his parents asked for it, you understand.
Happily for the family, but sadly for the New Testament squad, the little boy recovered. So when the maidservant told her story to priests, a bunch of papal goons and police barged Nazi-style late at night into the baffled shopkeeper’s house on the evening of June 23rd 1858, and stole the screaming infant from among the eight of their children.
Whatthe, howthe…? I hear you ask. The Kafka factor was this: A special sort of sharia law that applied in the Papal States decreed that no Christian child could ever be raised in the home of a Jew. He was now Christian, though he did not know it, ergo he could be whisked away by God’s gauleiters to cry his heart out at a local monastery, before he was quickly moved to Rome. The family were given a receipt for what was now church property.
The international incident this caused had geopolitical ramifications. It strengthened the view that Pope Pius IX was anti-Semitic, which he plainly was by his public pronouncements. Arguably it sped up Italian unification. The revolutionaries had designs on Rome and Rome was only supported with French troops. Responding to French public opinion against the pope, Louis Napoleon tried using this as a bargaining chip with the Pope. That did not work. It definitely boosted the no popery movement in Britain and set back Irish home rule 50 years.
For the family there was not what broadcasters delight in calling ‘closure’. They were allowed to see their boy in 1859 and the father visited in 1860, but did not see the child. I am sure that mirrors had already been covered in the Mortara household and the twice yearly letters from Edgar imploring his parents to convert to the Christian way went unopened.
They tried once more to claim back their boy in 1870 after Italy had unified, but the Jesuit mantra of ‘give me a boy at seven and I will give you the man’ had won. Edgar did not want to know. He took the name of the pope who stole him — Pius — and as a priest he travelled Europe and America mostly trying to win over more Jews for Jesus without much success. He reconciled with his mother and one of his brothers, as the photograph shows, but never with his father. He died of old age in Liège in 1940. Yes that’s right, a Jew in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Oh the irony.