Pope Who Kidnapped and Baptized Boy is No Saint, Jewish Leaders Say

Jewish protests are mounting against Vatican plans to beatify the 19th-century pope infamous for sanctioning the forced baptism and kidnap of a 7-year-old Jewish boy.

Pope Pius IX, who knocked down the walls of Rome’s ghetto but pursued virulently anti-Semitic policies, is scheduled to be beatified Sept. 3. Beatification is the last step before sainthood.

Since the Vatican announced plans for his beatification last fall, Jewish leaders have increasingly warned that the decision could have serious repercussions on Catholic-Jewish relations.

The latest protest was raised this week in Rome, during a day-long seminar on Pius IX and the Jews sponsored by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

“The era in which Jews keep silent is over,” said Amos Luzzatto, the president of the union.

“We don’t want to get into the process of beatification — that is the exclusive competence of the church,” he said. “But it must be made clear that this decision will have consequences on our relations with the Vatican. The openly anti-Judaic attitudes of that pope have left a wound that is still open in our community.”

In particular, he said, the kidnapping of 7-year-old Edgardo Mortara in 1858 was “a wound in the body and spirit of Italian Jews which has not scarred over.”

Edgardo was seized from his home in Bologna by papal guards acting on the pope’s orders, after a servant told a priest that she secretly baptized the boy when he was a baby.

Bologna at that time was under papal jurisdiction. Edgardo was brought to Rome, where he was virtually adopted by Pius IX and brought up as a Catholic.

The incident sparked a public outcry and a wave of international protests. Emperors Franz Joseph of Austria and Napoleon III of France urged the pope to give up the child, but he remained adamant. Mortara eventually became a priest and died in 1940.

Elena Mortara, the great-great-niece of Edgardo, said she and other family members felt “damaged” by the affair.

In a letter earlier this year to Archbishop Jose Saraiva Martins, chairman of the church’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, B’nai B’rith International President Richard Heideman said the Mortara case “demonstrated a fundamental disrespect and disdain for Jews, for Jewish feelings, and indeed for basic, God-given human rights.”

He said he hoped that “in the interest of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation — a process in which both sides have invested much — the Mortara case will carry weight when the beatification decision is made.”

The Mortara case is only one reason Jews look askance at Pius IX’s planned beatification.

In an article in Shalom, the magazine of the Rome Jewish Community, author Daniele Scalise described Pius IX as “anti-Semitic and violent.”

Scalise wrote, “His policy toward Roman Jews was that of trickery, arrogance and cruelty.”

Pius was a complex figure. Deeply conservative, he rejected papal reconciliation with progress, liberalism and modern civilization and championed the concept of papal infallibility.

He reigned from 1846 to 1878 and was the last pope to wield temporal power. He saw the vast papal states of central Italy wrested from papal control during Italy’s unification process, which brought full equality to Jews in Italy.

Rome, the last stronghold of papal power, finally fell to Italian freedom fighters in 1870.

NEXT STORY