Mortara Abduction

On the evening of June 23, 1858, in Bologna, papal police broke into the home of a six-year-old Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, and snatched him from his distraught and bewildered parents. According to Inquisition authorities in Rome, the family's Catholic housekeeper testified that she had had Edgardo secretly baptized when he fell ill at the age of one. The kidnappers had the law on their side, for the abduction of Edgardo, which was the most infamous example of several such cases in nineteenth-century Italy, was sanctioned by canon law, which maintained that a child once baptized was forbidden to be reared in a Jewish home. Edgardo was spirited away to the Catechumens and his Catholicization began immediately. Frantic efforts to have the child released came to naught; his parents were repeatedly told, however, that they could be reunited with their son provided they themselves converted. Despite the storm of international protest, both popular and diplomatic, Pius IX refused to relent and in fact raised Edgardo as his own "son." Pio Edgardo Mortara joined the priesthood in 1873. A celebrated preacher, he failed, despite consistent efforts, to induce his parents to convert. Mortara died in a Belgian abbey on March 11, 1940.

Beyond the immediate family tragedy occasioned by the kidnapping, the event had profound historical implications. Men such as Count Camillo Cavour, the architect of Italian unification, and Napoleon III of France, both of whom sought to destroy the temporal authority of the Papal States, used the affair to agitate against Rome. Protestants across Europe and the United States were incensed by the injustice and mobilized against the obscurantism of the Catholic Church. Both the failure of world Jewry's protests to free the boy and the abduction itself only underscored Jewish vulnerability. The Mortara Affair made Jews aware of the need for a central body to represent their interests. In 1860 in Paris they founded the Alliance Israélite Universelle (Universal Jewish Alliance). Its motto, taken from the Talmud, was "All Israel is responsible for one another." The organization actively sought to combat discrimination against Jews wherever it occurred. When Pius IX was elected pope in 1846, liberal Catholic circles had hoped that Pius would lead a liberalizing trend and reverse the conservative thrust of his predecessor, Gregory IX. Pius's first two years fulfilled their expectations but the political upheavals of 1848 saw him reverse policy, and his thirty-two-year-long pontificate, the longest in Church history, waged a relentless battle against the forces of modernity. The Mortara Affair is emblematic of this stance, as was Pius's issuance of the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, which, among other things, condemned freedom of speech and religious tolerance. In September 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified Pius IX.

The kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara was not the act of an all-powerful church. Rather, it was a last-gasp effort to assert its shrinking temporal authority. While Edgardo was lost to his family and community, the long-term effect of the abduction was to diminish the power of the Papacy, for it galvanized those forces promoting liberalism, nationalism, Italian unification, and anticlericalism. In 1870 Italian troops entered Rome and the temporal power of the popes, which had lasted for a thousand years, came to an end.

See also: Abduction; Catholicism; Judaism.


Kertzer, David I. 1997. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. New York: Knopf.