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went on, had not “recognized our Lord,” he could not “recognize the Jewish people,” whose religion, he declared, was “superseded by the teachings of Jesus Christ.”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 Cessario’s choice to link his review of Vittorio Messori’s Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara (St. Ignatius Press) with that expression is, therefore, most regrettable.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.