The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862

Non Possumus is the title given to Romanus Cessario’s recent defense, in the February issue of First Things, of the June 1858 abduction in Bologna of the young Jewish boy Edgardo Mortara, and his justification of the refusal of Pope Pius IX to return the child to his family. The title reveals much. To those who implored Pope Pius IX to return Edgardo, who had been secretly baptized by his Catholic nanny when the boy was seriously ill, the pontiff responded: “Non possumus” (“We cannot”). Almost fifty years later, when Theodor Herzl sought the support of the Vatican in his effort to secure a homeland for Jews, Pope Pius X offered the same unsympathetic words, “Non possumus.” These identically pitiless papal responses link the two incidents not only linguistically but also theologically. They are connected by prejudice against the Jews—that is, by anti-Semitism.

According to the most reliable sources, young Edgardo made the trip to Rome in tears and yearned to go home. The abduction of her young son drove Edgardo’s mother, Marianna, to an insane grief that almost took her life. Still, Pius refused the desperate pleas of the Mortara family, not to mention the outraged protests of hundreds of intellectuals, religious figures, and journalists, many of them Catholic. A half-century later, Pius X instructed Herzl that he could not sanction the move of Jews to Jerusalem. After all, the Holy Places had been “sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ.” Since the Jews, he went on, had not “recognized our Lord,” he could not “recognize the Jewish people,” whose religion, he declared, was “superseded by the teachings of Jesus Christ.” As to conceding Judaism any further “validity,” Pius responded with familiar words: “We cannot.”

Non possumus. Those are words that, for most Catholics, should live in ignominy. Fr. Cessario’s choice to link his review of Vittorio Messori’s Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara (St. Ignatius Press) with that expression is, therefore, most regrettable. This is especially so as his article at once praises Messori’s translation and, more gravely, attempts to justify Pius IX’s decision to abduct a young non-Christian boy. Although Pius is reliably reputed to have declared that he could not have cared less about public opinion, Cessario declares, in a breathtaking sentence, that “piety, not stubbornness, explains this response.” Piety? Actually, Pius was likely moved to act—or not to act—by traditional Catholic supersessionism. For this reason, Cessario, whatever his intention, has opened himself to the charge that his apology for Pius IX is itself an ongoing expression of Catholicism’s millennial teaching of contempt.

We should also note that Cessario abdicated his responsibility as a reviewer by praising Messori’s profoundly flawed and ideologically driven translation of Edgardo’s memoirs, written three decades after his abduction. In a paper given at the most recent annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (December 2017), David Kertzer, author of the authoritative The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (1997), documented the ways in which Messori interpolates his own language (sometimes entire paragraphs) and bowdlerizes or excises Edgardo’s language as a way of justifying the pope’s ill-considered decision. Messori also minimizes or omits Edgardo’s own testimony, which faulty memory and a desire to hallow Pius IX had made imperfect, and he denies the degree to which an ecclesiastical agenda transformed a tragic story of abduction into a providentially choreographed narrative of salvation. Messori also minimizes the extent to which Edgardo, because of the trauma of being taken from his family at an early age, later suffered from physical and psychological ills, including depression and other neuroses. The data here are so clear that these omissions cannot reasonably be attributed to casual mistakes; they give every appearance of being intentional sleight-of-hand alterations, intended to vindicate the pope and minimize the afflictions with which Edgardo’s childhood ordeal plagued him for the entirety of his adult life.

Quite clearly, it was not Cessario’s intent to review the book. Instead, he aims to vindicate Pius IX by explaining to outsiders (read: Jews) and reminding insiders (liberal Catholics) how baptism works. Cessario seems blithely indifferent to the reality that an understanding of the metaphysics of baptism is unlikely to persuade a non-Christian of the justice of Pius’s abduction, which most, quite reasonably, regard as monstrous. Here, in explaining prevailing theories of baptism, Cessario lapses into patrolatry. Not surprisingly, Cessario explains Augustine’s theology of baptism with great clarity, emphasizing correctly the Augustinian conviction that the ritual imposed an indelible, invisible character on the soul of the baptized. He is right to emphasize that trained Catholic priests at the time of the abduction would have grasped this understanding of baptism. But, importantly, such priests might also have reasonably concluded that the case failed to satisfy the conditions required under canon law. It is telling, for example, that the 1917 Codex iuris canonici specifically requires the consent of at least one of the parents if he or she is still living (Canon 750 §2). It is not clear that the servant’s belated testimony satisfies the conditions stipulated in the prior subsection. Thus, in the canon law, there is the issue of sacramental liceity, which Cessario does not address.

Even more obviously, though, contemporary Jews would not have understood it. Even if they had, their understanding would have been irrelevant, as European Jews were not clamoring to be baptized. Cessario is also historically correct to emphasize that all legitimately baptized children required catechetical instruction. Yet in accepting that Edgardo had been legitimately baptized, Cessario assumes precisely that which most European and American thinkers reacting to the Mortara case profoundly doubted or denied. It was emphatically not, as Cessario suggests, their ignorance of the invisibility of the baptismal mark or the effects of baptism that caused Edgardo’s family, “the Jewish community of the time,” and much worldwide Gentile opinion to interpret Edgardo’s “relocation”—a more evasive euphemism for his abduction and forced removal to Rome can hardly be imagined—as an act of “unjust religious and political hegemony.” It was natural revulsion for a heartless, shocking outrage orchestrated by one regarded by many as the custodian of the moral and natural law who remained, despite Cessario’s denial of papal inflexibility, ever more stubbornly deaf to the pleas of the Mortara family and the international community.


Augustine (354–430) formed his theology of baptism in the North African struggle with the Donatist Church, as Cessario notes. Yet this historian of Christian thought, charged with training seminarians in Boston’s diocesan seminary, omits an important element in the struggle. Since the two churches were locked in a century-long stalemate, Augustine’s fellow North African bishops proposed that the imperial forces, then sympathetic to the Catholic Church and impatient with Donatist inflexibility, use their powers to coerce the Donatists—to return them to Catholic orthodoxy. Although Augustine eventually acquiesced, he did so only reluctantly and only after state force proved harshly effective. His initial position, against the pragmatic arguments-from-effect of his fellow North African bishops, was that compelled baptisms would be feigned, merely nominal—in a word, a sham. The Donatists might masquerade as Catholics, but forced conversion would, Augustine initially argued, generate countless merely theatrical conversions. In fact, the Donatists simply continued to practice Donatist Christianity until Muslim expansion wiped them—along with Catholic Christianity—from the map of North Africa.

Cessario practically makes an idol of Augustine in ways that would have troubled Thomas—ironically, like Cessario, a member of the Dominican order.

Yet, even were Augustine’s later teaching univocal and authoritative, it does not follow that it was without flaw or infallible. Cessario himself admits that, at the time of the kidnapping, Catholic theological opinion on baptism was not unanimous. Late-antique and medieval theologians pushed back vigorously against aspects of Augustine’s thought, and none—including Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274), who felt deeply the weight and authority of patristic teaching—accepted the notion that the opinion of any church father, even the greatest, was without error. Cessario practically makes an idol of Augustine in ways that would have troubled Thomas—ironically, like Cessario, a member of the Dominican order.

The mention of Aquinas leads us to ponder Cessario’s even more serious errors. Cessario rehearses Thomas’s essentially Augustinian position on the indelible character of baptism. Critically, though, he fails to mention Aquinas’s arguments against the forced baptism of Jewish children. In the Summa Theologiae 3.68.10, Aquinas directly addresses the question, “whether Jewish children should be baptized against the will of their parents.” Here, ironically, he quotes a sermon written—of all people—by Augustine (Sermon 169), which concludes that such a baptism would be inefficacious. Thomas also quotes a point of canon law, one with roots deep in the patristic period, that no Jew “be forced to believe.” Thomas’s strongest point, perhaps, is that forced baptism would violate not only divine but also natural law, which puts the child in the care of his parents. “Therefore,” Thomas concludes, “it is not the custom of the church to baptize the children of unbelievers against their parents’ will.” To baptize a Jewish child would be to violate natural justice.

Crucially, Thomas had also argued earlier in the Summa, in a text that goes straight to the issue of abduction, that no civil prince could ever take a child from the custody of his parents, or do anything to a child that opposed the parents’ wishes. Once a child reaches the age of reason, he may consent to be baptized, even against the wishes of his parents, but only then. Even the subjection of Jews to the civil power “does not exclude the order of natural or divine law.” It is, Thomas concludes, for the parents “to dispose of the child in all matters relating to God” (Summa 2a2ae.10.12).

Against the weighty opinion of Thomas, Cessario contends that, because the Papal States (which  included Bologna in 1858) united religious and civil powers in the person of the pope, the latter was justified in resorting to force to educate Edgardo in the faith into which he had, in Cessario’s view, been baptized, even if secretly. Yet the unparalleled authority within the Catholic Church of Thomas Aquinas—who in turn relies upon Augustine, canon law, and the natural law—argues against Cessario. Indeed, Cessario seems not to notice how Thomas’s theological views—named officially by Pope Leo XIII as authoritative for the Catholic Church—subvert his attempted vindication of Pius IX. Unctuous observations like “Except for the solicitude of Blessed Pius IX, the Mortara child may never have learned of his baptism” may not have seemed as creepy to Thomas as they do to us. But Thomas certainly would have disapproved. Cessario seems oddly blind to how his most cherished authorities fundamentally undo his entire case.


Incidentally, those authorities also pose a weighty challenge to First Things’ editor R. R. Reno’s sheepish apologia (“Judaism, Christianity, and First Things”), a labored explanation of his decision to publish Cessario’s piece. It was, Reno claims, his “purpose in bringing this episode confront us with the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees” (here echoing Cessario’s language about the “indomitableness of the divine initiative”). “God’s covenant with us,” Reno goes on, “establishes realities that we cannot redirect or reshape as we wish” (including forced baptism and child abduction?). Cessario’s piece had, he explains, challenged his own complacent view that “natural moral sentiments” and “modern liberal principles” would “always happily correspond with the demands” of God. Yet, it was a fallible papal decision, and a pope’s stiff-necked refusal to honor the natural law, not God’s decrees, that are at stake here. No divine command decrees that a child be circumcised or baptized against the will of the child’s parents. Aquinas recognized this; too bad Reno does not. Moreover, no thoughtful Christian doubts that our natural moral affections might, in certain circumstances, be in tension with the revealed will of God; it should not have taken Cessario’s mistaken reasoning to awaken this possibility in the veteran Catholic theologian Reno’s mind. Absurdly, Reno, whose children have been raised Jewish (his wife is Jewish), dares to compare his experience to that of Edgardo’s parents: “In a certain sense, God kidnapped my children.” In the end, it would have been better for the journal he oversees, for Jews, and for Jewish-Christian relations had Reno simply killed a review that justified an act most Christians and all Jews regard as outrageously immoral—and, crucially, one they so regarded at the time. Reno’s apology fails to persuade, or to quiet the anxieties of those who have observed First Things take a troublingly reactionary turn under his watch.

More disturbing still is Reno’s willingness to give the nihil obstat to Cessario’s evident nostalgia for the bad old days, well before Vatican II and Nostra aetate, when Jews were still the deicide people, subject to Vatican oversight and condescension, and viewed through the lens of the millennial teaching of contempt. That Pius IX chose to educate a Jew, and not an uncatechized baptized Catholic (of whom there were hundreds of thousands in Italy alone), practically proves that the pope was motivated by anti-Semitic feeling—a point Reno makes himself.

Far more troubling is that Cessario both explicitly and implicitly reflects these radically regressive views. Throughout the piece, Cessario chastises the victims of the church. He upbraids the Mortaras for hiring a Catholic servant, though it was then common practice, as observant Jews needed one to carry out tasks forbidden them on Shabbat. Would Cessario have preferred that the Mortaras have violated Jewish Law to honor the Papal? (Besides, the Catholic servant also broke the law. Why does this go unmentioned?) Cessario faults the family for not appreciating the Augustinian view that the baptismal character was invisible, veering dangerously close to the hoary slur that blindness prevented Jews from acknowledging the truth of Christianity. It was blindness, one supposes, that prevented them from perceiving the inscrutable action of “divine Providence,” which, unknown to all, was busy “kindly arrang[ing]” Edgardo’s introduction “into a regular Christian life.” (Regular? One presumes Cessario here is referring to Edgardo’s later entrance into religious life.) If Providence was behind it all, the Mortaras were wrong to see the horror as an abduction.

Inability to see also explains why the family and the Jewish community (not to mention Gentile critics) failed to recognize that, once baptized, Edgardo was an “anonymous Catholic.” For a Catholic priest to inform Jews that they are, in fact, secretly Catholic, is simply callous and condescending, a regrettable expression of church triumphalism. Cessario faults the desperate parents for not appreciating that the “articles of faith” obligated Pius to give their unwillingly baptized and soon-to-be-kidnapped child a Catholic upbringing. He blames the grieving mother for overreacting to a priest’s “calm” explanation that she could not raise her son, now baptized, in the family household. Nor did she grow less anxious when the Inquisitor putatively encouraged her not to worry, as “little Edgardo would be under the protection of the pope himself.” (Cessario reports this incident as true, but, as Kertzer has shown, the representation of the Dominican inquisitor, Fr. Feletti, as showing great solicitude for the Mortara family is pure invention.) And Fr. Romanus reproaches the family for refusing to accept the church’s proposal to educate Edgardo in a Catholic boarding school in Bologna. Unfortunately, Cessario is unaware that this offer was another invention; it was never made.


Why refuse such magnanimity? Presumably Jewish stubbornness, then well known as a timeless mark of the people and race, as the Jesuit writers of Civiltà Cattolica were just then industriously stressing to the journal’s wide readership. Also deplorable was the Mortaras’ cleaving to the natural bond of family and thus failing to “render a higher honor to God above.” Cessario is alluding to Jesus’ warning that those who do not hate their parents cannot be his disciples (Luke 14:26). Yet why should the Mortaras, faithful Jews, have obeyed a command in one of the Gospels of which they were unaware? And how is service to God in Judaism to render God an inferior honor, unless one believes that the New Covenant superseded the Mosaic? Why—why on earth—ought the Mortaras, or any Jewish family, have accepted the view, articulated by Cessario, that “Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions,” including the family?   

To baptize a Jewish child would be to violate natural justice.

Quite clearly, then, Cessario is still captive to the assumptions, rejected authoritatively by the decrees of Vatican II and by several popes, of classical Christian supersessionism. That captivity blinds Cessario to the possibility, indeed the certainty, that the Mortaras simply had not accepted the notion that the Second Covenant had superseded the First. For six decades now, many authoritative Catholic theologians have insisted that the New Covenant by no means abrogated the first. While God has given no man the authority to pronounce on such matters, Catholic theologians have insisted that the Law of Moses remains valid. The classical Christian teaching that the church is verus Israel or that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s favored is, then, not only arrogant and triumphalist; it is epistemologically ludicrous. For who among us can claim to know the mind of God? Cessario might reply by insisting that supreme authority on such matters was vested by Christ in the successors of Peter.

If so, let me recommend that he review John Paul II’s speech to the Jewish community of Berlin in 1980. In that address, the pope forcefully asserted that the Jewish community are the “people of the Old Covenant, which was never revoked” [emphasis added]. Will Cessario accept this papal pronouncement as authoritative? We must also ask why opponents of Vatican II, from the uninformed to the highly educated, trot out the most pernicious anti-Semitic canards to resist the reforms of the council.

Lest we still doubt that Cessario was moved, in part, by traditional Catholic anti-Semitic ideas, we might observe that the author declares that “prejudiced manipulation of the Mortara case has not disappeared.” What can he have in mind? As an example, he reminds us that the (Jewish) Steven Spielberg is “currently preparing a film adaptation” of the (Jewish) David Kertzer’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. One wonders what supernatural powers have allowed Cessario to divine that the film, the shooting of which has not begun and the screenplay of which he has not seen, will manipulate audiences to the prejudice of the Catholic Church? Yet Cessario writes, according to his own testimony, to “forestall wrong and unwarranted interpretations” of the abduction and to explain to the uninitiated “a right understanding of baptism and its effects.” It is thus, Cessario hopes, that Jews might now be brought to appreciate why young Edgardo had to be torn from the bosom of his family to acquire a Catholic upbringing. It is hardly likely, however, that Jews, having been properly instructed in the effects of baptism, will finally understand that Pope Pius’s actions were not monstrous but simply required by the nature of things. Nor should they understand. Cessario seems himself unaware of the crucial sentence in Vatican II’s Nostra aetate: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues—such is the witness of the Apostle (Romans 11:28–29).” Or does he simply reject it?

Finally, one will have noticed that Cessario insists on calling Pope Pius “blessed.” This is because John Paul II beatified Pius IX in 2000. Cessario yearns for Pius IX to be sainted. Regrettably, in his view, the cause for his canonization has languished. Why? Because, perhaps, of the protests of those “who claim to speak for Mortara but ignore his own words.” That cryptic reference, untangled, can only refer to Jews, still blind, incapable of perceiving the unmissable sanctity of the cruel and doctrinally confused kidnapper of Edgardo Mortara.

Kevin J. Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard, is a historian of medieval Christian religious thought and of religion in the Nazi era. He co-authored with Jon Levenson, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale University Press). 

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Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: View Contents
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