Edgardo Mortara: The kidnaped Jewish boy.

Edgardo Mortara as an adult and Augustine Order priest (right) and his mother (seated).

Edgardo Mortara (Bologna, in Italy, August 27, 1851 – Liège, in Belgium, March 11, 1940) was a Jewish boy who became the center of an international controversy when he was kidnapped from his Jewish parents by authorities of the Papal States and raised as a Roman Catholic. He later became a Roman Catholic priest. The seizure of the boy followed his emergency baptism by a domestic servant during a serious infantile illness.

The Mortara case

On the evening of 23 June 1858, in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, police arrived at the home of a Jewish couple, Salomone (“Momolo”) and Marianna Padovani Mortara, to take one of their eight children, six-year-old Edgardo, and transport him to Rome to be raised as a ward of the state.

The police had orders from Holy Office authorities in Rome, authorized by Pope Pius IX. Church officials had been told that a 14-year-old Catholic servant girl of the Mortaras, Anna Morisi, had baptized Edgardo while he was ill because she feared that he would otherwise die and go to Hell. Under Roman Church doctrine, Edgardo’s baptism was considered valid. This made him a Christian. By canon law, which was enforced in the Papal States, non-Christians could not raise a Christian child, even their own. In 1912, in his testimony in favour of the beatification of Pope Pius IX, Edgardo himself noted that the laws of the Papal States did not allow Catholics to work in the homes of Jewish families (one reason being to prevent this very situation from happening). That law was widely disregarded due to the ability of Catholic servants to work on the Jewish Shabbat.

Edgardo was taken to a house for Roman converts (a “House of Catechumens”) in Rome, maintained at state expense. His parents were not allowed to see him for several weeks, and then not alone. Pius IX took a personal interest in the case, and all appeals to the Church were rebuffed. Church authorities told the Mortaras that they could have Edgardo back if they would convert to Catholicism, but they refused.


The incident soon received extensive publicity both in Italy and internationally. In the Kingdom of Sardinia, the largest independent state in Italy and the centre of the liberal nationalist movement for Italian unification, both the government and the press used the case to reinforce their claims that the Papal States were ruled by medieval obscurantists and should be liberated from Papal rule.

Protests were lodged by both Jewish organizations and prominent political and intellectual figures in Britain, the United States, Germany, Austria, and France. Soon the governments of these countries added to calls for Edgardo to be returned to his parents. The French Emperor Napoleon III, whose troops garrisoned Rome to protect the Pope against the Italian anti-clerical unificationists, also protested.

When a delegation of prominent Jews saw the Pope in 1859, he told them, “I couldn’t care less what the world thinks.” At another meeting, he brought Edgardo with him to show that the boy was happy in his care. In 1865 he said: “I had the right and the duty to do what I did for this boy, and if I had to, I would do it again.” In a speech in 1871 defending his decision against his detractors, Pius said: “Of these dogs, there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places.”

The Mortara case served to harden the already prevalent opinion among liberals and nationalists in both Italy and abroad that the rule of the Pope over a large area of central Italy was an anachronism and an affront to human rights in an “enlightened” age of liberalism and rationalism. It helped persuade opinion in both Britain and France to allow Piedmont to go to war with the Papal States in 1859 and annex most of the Pope’s territories, effectively leaving him with only the city of Rome. When the French garrison was withdrawn in 1870, and the Italian army assaulted the city, Rome too was annexed by the new, unified, liberal Kingdom of Italy.

Ordination and later life

In 1859, after Bologna had been annexed to Piedmont, the Mortara parents made another effort to recover their son, but he had been taken to Rome. In 1870, when Rome was captured from the Pope, they tried again, but Edgardo was then 19 and therefore legally an adult, and had declared his firm intention of remaining a Roman Catholic. In that year, he moved his residence to France. The following year, his father died. In France, he entered the Augustinian order, being ordained a priest at the age of 23, and adopted the spiritual name Pius. He is also known as Pio Maria. Fr. Edgardo Mortara was sent as a missionary to cities such as Munich, Mainz and Breslau to preach to the Jews there. He became fluent in a variety of languages and a successful missionary.

During a public-speaking engagement in Italy he reestablished communications with his mother and siblings. In 1895, he attended his mother’s funeral, led by the rabbi of Bologna. His nieces and nephews, as adults, recalled the frequent visits from the priest. It is not clear whether they knew him as a relative or “family friend.”

In 1897, he preached in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, but Michael Corrigan, the Archbishop of New York, told the Vatican that he opposed Mortara’s efforts to evangelise the Jews on the grounds that such efforts might embarrass the Church in the eyes of the United States government.

Mortara died in 1940 at the abbey of Bouhay in Bressoux, near Liège in Belgium, having spent his last years there.

Pius IX and the Jews

Civil law in the Papal States did not permit baptized Christians to be raised by non-Christians. Pope Pius IX, who had partially emancipated the Jews living in the Papal States, found himself in a quandary. The Mortara case was the catalyst for far-reaching political changes, and its repercussions are still being felt within the Catholic Church and in relations between the Church and some Jewish organizations. Mortara was raised as a Catholic, became a priest, and remained a priest for the rest of his life.

The Mortara affair increased discontent with the temporal power of the papacy within Italy and produced calls from around the world, including Emperor Franz Josef and Napoleon III, for Mortara to be returned to his parents, including 20 editorials in The New York Times.

The Mortara case has attracted new attention in recent years because of the campaign to secure canonisation for Blessed Pius IX, a campaign driven by Pope John Paul II and other Catholic faithful. Jewish groups and others, led by several descendants of the Mortara family, protested the Vatican’s beatification of Pius in 2000. In 1997 David Kertzer published The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which brought the case back to public attention. The story became the subject of a play, Edgardo Mine by Alfred Uhry, and an opera, “Il Caso Mortara” by Francesco Cilluffo, premiered February 25, 2010, by Dicapo Opera in New York City.


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