Salomone and Marianna Mortara were a Jewish couple who lived in Bologna, which was then part of the Papal States. On June 23, 1858, they were completely unprepared when a troop of police came to their home, seized 6 year old Edgardo and took him to the local House of Catechumens, an institute dedicated to convert Jews. Edgardo was brought there because the family’s former maid (whom it had been illegal for the Mortaras to have employed since Jews were not allowed to hire Catholic domestics) told her priest that she had baptized the boy during a serious infantile illness. According to Papal law, a Catholic child, even one baptized by a lay person in such strange circumstances, could not be raised by Jews. The story of young Edgardo caught the attention of Pope Pius IX, who then took a personal interest in educating the boy.
When the Mortaras begged for their child to be returned, the Pope offered to do so if the whole family would convert. They refused. When they publicized their plight, there was a wave of international pressure for Edgardo to be released. Even Napoleon III of France and Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, both Catholic, spoke out for his return to his family. The Pope’s response was: “I couldn’t care less what the world thinks.”
The effect of the Pope’s attitude was to incite the already high emotions of those who felt that the church had too much power. It was one more spark in the already burning desire for revolution. In 1859, a revolution began that ended with a unified Italy and Papal power limited to the City of Rome. The Mortara incident also instigated the creation of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, which served as an advocate for Jewish rights in many countries.
Taken when he was young and impressionable, submerged in church doctrine and personally doted on by the Pope, Edgardo chose, when reunited with his family at the age of 19, to remain Catholic. In fact, he became a priest and often preached to Jews with the intent to convert. Edgardo Mortara died on March 11, 1940.
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