Richard Dawkins Misreads the Mortara Affair

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, uses the “Mortara affair” to make a point he could have made perfectly well without misreading the historical context of this sordid episode. Perhaps the affair is better known by the title of David Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The general background, for those of you who don’t recognize the name Edgardo Mortara, is the following:

Edgardo, a Jewish boy from Bologna, was taken from his mother’s arms by the papal police in the year 1858. Why? As a baby, he had been secretly “baptized” by an illiterate Christian servant-girl. Word of the baptism spread across town and, eventually, reached Pope Pius IX in Rome. In those days the pope was also king and his subjects were subject to his every papal whim. Bologna was part of his receding empire, and the Mortara family was powerless to stop the legalized kidnapping of their child. The Mortaras were never to be reunited with Edgardo again.

Dawkins rightly criticizes this horrible incident as a travesty of the religious worldview. This is perhaps a minor incident in the catalog of papal crimes against the Jewish people in the name of supersessionism. That canon law could dictate the fate of a Jewish child, tearing him away from his biological family only to be coddled as the pope’s protege in an endless campaign to convert the Jews (for this is what is was in no uncertain terms), is  terribe enough. Dawkins doesn’t stop there, however, which is where I want to begin.

Edgardo was taken to the House of Catechumens in Rome, a building created for the conversion of Jews (and, incidentally, Muslims) to the “true” faith. It was one of the jewels in the pope’s crown. They immediately went to work on Edgardo in order to break his Jewishness down. Essentially, they brainwashed the child until he cracked under pressure (he had nobody to consult but the priests) and accept that he was now a Christian. (Note that for the Catholic Church, Edgardo’s soul had been transformed at the moment of baptism. He was property of the Church. He could not be left in the care of those infidels, his parents.)

Of course the greater strategy was to convince the Mortaras to convert en masse. If they ever wanted to see Edgardo again, there was no other way. They refused, and Dawkins chalks up their refusal to another brand of theological hotheadedness. The Mortaras, he notes, could have had Edgardo back in a second “if only they had accepted the priests’ entreaties and agreed to be baptized themselves.” A few sprinkles on the head, an itsy-bitsy prayer, and it was back to normal. They could have faked the whole rite in ten minutes, but they instead chose to forfeit their son and remain faithful Jews.

What is wrong with this reasoning, I wondered? On the surface it almost makes sense. To understand the Mortaras’ refusal, we need to take a closer look at the reality that they were up against in the Kingdom of the Cross (to borrow a phrase from Uri Zvi Greenberg).

Another book by David Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews, places the Mortara affair in its context. By no means was this an isolated incident. It was an epidemic. Forced baptisms had been common in Rome for centuries, sometimes occurring in the middle of the street using rainwater scooped up from the gutter. All that mattered was that a Jewish child was “baptized” by a Christian. Then papal police would come–always at night–into the Roman ghetto and steal the child from its parents’ arms, taking it to the Catechumens.

At other times, (usually poor) Jews would volunteer themselves for conversion, usually seeking a better life–a “passport to Europe,” in Heinrich Heine’s phrase. If these men happened to be married, their wives were sent for. Some of the women proved “stubborn” and were put in solitary confinement for days, weeks, even months, where they were worked on around the clock by Catholic priests. They were given religious literature (assuming they could read it) and told that Judaism was the path to hell, etc…some of the women caved, while others were sent back to the ghetto traumatized and single.

One particularly cruel incident is that of Salvatore Tivoli. He spent the first year of his (voluntary) conversion in the Catechumens as a cook. Then, one day, he disappeared. Apparently he had had second thoughts about his decision. He went first to Turkey, then settled in Livorno. Livorno, in Tuscany, was outside the papal realm and was known for its liberal attitude towards Jews, who lived in relative comfort there and even had rights. (Later in the 19th century, the painter Amedeo Modigliani would be born in this community).

Anyway, the pope’s men never forgot about Salvatore Tivoli. As a convert, he was their property. They eventually tracked him down in Livorno, where he was living with his young, pregnant wife Rebecca. His crime, naturally, was apostasy.

They arrested Rebecca, her crime being complicity with apostasy. She was also pregnant with the child of an apostate. Rebecca was brought to a hospital, where she refused to eat non-kosher food. The Church authorities promptly stopped her family members from bringing her meals, accusing them of wanting to poison both Rebecca and the newborn (better dead than Christians, it is understood). This sort of accusation was common at the time.

The families of both Tivoli and Rebecca were arrested as well: parents, brothers and sisters. Their crime? Abetting apostasy. Tivoli himself was nowhere to be found. He was a wanted man. Finally the Tuscan authorities stepped up to all this papal bullying. They ruled that Tivoli, when found, was to be arrested and turned over to the Vatican authorities. The newborn girl would be taken from her mother and sent to the House of Catechumens in Livorno, where she would be entrusted to the Holy See. Everyone else was free to go. The child was baptized, renamed Fortunata, and sent to Rome to be raised as a Christian orphan. To add insult to injury, she was listed as “illegitimate” on her baptismal certificate.

This was the reality behind the Mortara case. To accuse the Mortaras of Jewish theological stubbornness is to play cards with the pope’s deck. They risked much more than a few drops of water and a bogus baptismal certificate. They would have been ripped, like Edgardo, from the womb of their community, their biological  families (which appears to have been Dawkins’ original point) and their history as Jews, which is much more than a simple article of faith, as everyone knows. It is surprising that all this seems to have eluded Richard Dawkins; in an attempt to undermine religious faith, he misconstrued the nature of Jewish identity and did a posthumous injustice to the Mortaras themselves.

But their story does not end here. Kertzer narrates a further episode in the Mortara odyssey. In 1870, the year Porta Pia was breached and the Italian army entered Rome, one of the soldiers was Riccardo Mortara, Edgardo’s brother. Riccardo made his way directly to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli (where Michelangelo’s statue of Moses can be seen today) to find his brother. Twelve years of failed international diplomacy had passed, and finally the pope’s fortress had fallen and his temporal power had ended. Certainly now Edgardo would come back to his family and all would be righted? Wrong. The damage had been done.  As soon as Edgardo, the youthful priest, saw his brother in uniform, he screamed, “Vade retro, Satana!” Riccardo answered that he was his brother, that now Edgardo was free. Edgardo’s reply was, “Before you get any closer, take off that assassin’s uniform.”

Edgardo would try to convert his own mother on her deathbed in the last hours of her life. She would die an infidel.

Edgardo himself died in Belgium on the eve of the Nazi invasion. He was eighty-eight years old. It goes without saying that–had he lived a few months more–he would have been murdered by Hitler’s hounds for the irreversible “crime” of being Jewish.