Edgar Mortara was born of Jewish parents in Bologna, Italy, Aug. 26, 1851. When he was one year old and seriously ill, the family maid surreptitiously baptized him. Six years later an uneasy conscience impelled her to report her action. When the matter came to the attention of the archbishop of Bologna (and presumably of Pope Pius IX), the Holy Office ordered Edgar removed from his family and given a Christian education. He was taken to Rome and became a ward of the pope, who thereafter manifested a tender solicitude toward him.
Mortara's parents made several unavailing attempts to recover him. As late as 1870, after Victor Emmanuel took Rome, they sought the aid of the new government, but found their son adamant in his Catholicism. He had entered the novitiate of the Canons Regular of the Lateran, taking Pius as his name in religion. He was ordained in 1873 and died in Bouhay, Belgium, March 11, 1940, having manifested throughout his priestly life great zeal for the conversion of his people.
The fruitless efforts of the Mortara family set off a violent international reaction. Initiated usually by indigenous Jewish communities, it took the form of mass meetings, petitions to governments, and excited discussions in the press. Non-Catholic opinion everywhere was indignant, while Catholic commentators strove, though not unanimously, to defend the removal. Protests were sent to the Vatican by Cavour, Napoleon III, and Franz Joseph. The pope's answer, when given, was always the same: "We can do nothing."
The Mortara case was the chief contributing factor in the formation of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (1860), for many years the foremost international Jewish organization devoted to the "defense of Jewish rights wheresoever attacked." Some historians also see the case as contributing to the downfall of the Papal States.
Catholic defenders of the action of the Holy Office based their arguments on the nature of Baptism, contending that the recipient becomes a child of the Church and incurs supernatural obligations; hence the Church's right to educate him. Canonical precedent for the action goes back to the 4th and 17th Councils of Toledo in the 7th century, which ruled that Hebrew children should be separated from their parents lest they follow them in error. These canons were accepted by Benedict XIV, promulgated in his letter Postremo Mense of 1747, and incorporated in the Canon Law in use in 1858.
The 1917 CIC makes no mention of this discipline, and recent theological opinion has not favored it. This became evident in discussions of the similar Finaly Case of 1950. Most theologians then argued that this discipline does not constitute a general law of the Church, that divine law does not abrogate natural law, and that recourse to the "secular arm" is neither a necessary nor a permanent part of the Church's mission to govern. All agreed that in extraordinary circumstances the salvific will of God may attain its ends without a Christian atmosphere or education.
Bibliography: a. de lacouture, Le Droit canon et droit naturel dans l'affaire Mortara (Paris 1858). b. w. korn, American Reaction to the Mortara Case (Cincinnati 1957). e. h. flannery, "The Finaly Case," The Bridge 1 (1955) 292–313. a. f. day, "The Mortara Case," Month 153 (1929) 500–509. d. i. kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (New York 1997).
[e. h. flannery]