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Notes on Edgardo Mortara from a Protestant Onlooker

January 15th, 2018 | 14 min read

By Jake Meador

Last week First Things, as the colloquialism earthily says, stepped in it.

The occasion for this unpleasantness was the publication of an essay by Romanus Cessario, O.P., arguing that the church was within its rights when Pope Pius IX abducted Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child who had been baptized as an infant by his Catholic nanny when it was thought that the boy would die.

The outrage that followed was predictable. Given the nature of the story, there were several places the outrage might have gone. Sadly, the one place it went most consistently is actually the least interesting and easiest to address.

Natural and Supernatural Goods

Here is my friend Rod Dreher responding to the essay at his blog:

This is monstrous. They stole a child from his mother and father! And here, in the 21st century, a priest defends it, saying it was for the child’s own good. …

The Pope kidnapped a child from his parents. What would Fr. Cessario and those who agree with him say to radical Muslims today who kidnap non-Muslim children, compel them to say the shahada(profession of faith — the Muslim equivalent of baptism), then refuse to return them to their parents because they cannot let a Muslim child be raised by infidels? The jihadist argument is that this is just, and better for the souls of the children.

And here is First Things editor-in-chief Dr. Rusty Reno sharing a personal story that highlights the same basic concern, though in a far more troubling way.

An acquaintance was married to a Jewish man. She had been raised Catholic, and converted before the wedding. They went on to have a large family. He became more observant. She followed suit. Their family was a pillar of the Orthodox synagogue. She called one day, wanting to come over to talk. I was a bit surprised. She was not a close friend. It seemed awkward. But I said, “OK.”

She said she was having doubts about the course of her life. She was thinking more and more about Jesus. She knew that I was a Christian writer, which is why she came to me, hoping that I could help her. She implored me, “What should I do?” I hesitated in the face of this terrible question. Eventually I answered, “Oh, Anne, you have to be careful and remember what this might mean for your husband and children.” She looked at me with sadness in her eyes.

Rod’s specific framing of the problem is better than Rusty’s. Rod is writing about this within a certain political context in which he is trying to preserve space for Christians and so he quite naturally thinks “how does this principle work in the hands of progressive activists?” and, again quite naturally, is repelled by the answer. Reno’s response, in comparison, is much more concerning. To be sure, the issue his friend raised with him is relationally and personally difficult. Indeed, the difficulty would only be heightened for Reno, given that he himself is married to a Jewish woman and his children were raised Jewish.

The question Dreher and Reno, both of whom I respect enormously, seem fixated on is something like this: Do the supernatural claims of the Christian faith supersede the natural claims of the family? Put another way, if there is a real discernible Christian good that can only be obtained at the expense of one’s family, is it worth it?

Obviously in a well-ordered society those claims would not even be put into competition with another and the question would be moot. But, then, we quite obviously do not live in such a society and so the two sometimes raise competing claims. In that situation, we must decide which trumps the other. Fortunately, Jesus actually deals with this question head-on:

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

It is a hard teaching, of course. Christ himself acknowledged as much. But it is not an ambiguous one or a terribly complicated one, at least to the extent that we’re dealing with it in response to the question that Dreher and Reno are raising. Scripture is quite plain, indeed even many of my Roman friends recognize its perspicuity on this point: When the supernatural good of salvation is in competition with a natural good, the supernatural should win.

This is a point we understand well when taken into the political sphere: Even a man as deferent to the magistrate as Calvin could see that in a case where the magistrate required the Christian to engage in acts contrary to the faith that it was better for the Christian to disobey the magistrate and suffer the consequences than to abandon the faith.

The same principle would apply to a case like that of Fr. Rodrigues in Silence. The error Rodrigues makes is valuing the natural good of bodily life over the supernatural good of knowing God through Christ. Certainly this is a hard thing to accept emotionally and we should not be cold and indifferent to that difficulty or to those who are particularly touched by it. But a thing can be both simple and difficult.

There are better questions we should ask about Mortara.

Coercion and Religious Faith

The giant question that has mostly been ignored, I think, or glossed over too easily, concerns whether or not the institutional church has the right to physically coerce believers in matters pertaining to Christian teaching. Protestantism has generally answered that question by saying, “no, it does not.” Certainly, the answer to that question took us a long time to work out. Moreover, the fact that the institutional church cannot coerce in matters of faith does not mean that the magistrate cannot coerce in matters affecting public life, which may in some cases include aspects of religious belief or practice.

So there is ambiguity here, but also a clear principle that explains why the church erred in the Mortara case: The church did not err by thinking that supernatural goods should trump natural; the church erred by using physical coercion to force a particular outcome. That is where those of us on this side of the Tiber (mostly) stand. So we can maintain our scandalized response to the Mortara affair while also maintaining a coherent theological system that does not make supernatural goods subservient to the natural.

Rome’s position on this matter is another matter. Cessario makes the relevant arguments in his essay, but his is not the only First Things essay to raise these kind of questions.

Here is Thomas Pink:

The coercive authority of the Church, and in particular her authority punitively to enforce obligations to Catholic faith and practice on the baptized, is still fundamental to modern canon law.

Later in the same essay:

The Church has jurisdiction over the baptized, who have an obligation of fidelity to the Church, to believe her doctrine and to obey her laws, including a duty to assist her mission when she requests it. And, according to traditional doctrine, the Church has the right and authority to enforce this jurisdiction coercively, with temporal or earthly penalties as well as spiritual ones. The Church has no right to punish unbelief among the unbaptized, who are outside her jurisdiction and have no obligation of fidelity to the Church.

But the Church still has the authority to use coercion to defend her jurisdiction against those unbaptized who interfere from without, proselytizing on behalf of false religions. As for the baptized, who do have obligations of fidelity to her, the Church has the authority to punish culpable unbelief through penalties for heresy, apostasy, and schism. The point of such sanctions is punitively to reform heretics, apostates, or schismatics, or at least to discourage others from sharing their errors.

When Pink says the church has authority “over the baptized” he does not mean only those baptized in the Roman church. He means all Christians who have been validly baptized with water in the triune name. Thus Pink is arguing that someone like myself, baptized by sprinkling in a PCA church as an adult, is a baptized Christian and is, therefore, subject to the coercive authority of the church. Put another way, if the church wished to coercively punish me for my heretical beliefs that I hold willfully, she would be within her rights to do so. That obviously is not the same as saying she is obliged to deal with me in that way, but it does mean that she can. In the Roman view, Christ has authorized her to do that.

To the extent that most Protestants have arrived at a very different answer to this question, it opens up space for a candid discussion about a key point of departure between the two traditions. In particular, those who are looking at swimming the Tiber because of an often understandable draw to the tradition, aesthetic, and liturgical depth of the Roman church would do well to ask if the things actively drawing them to Rome really are distinctly Roman and if there are any other things that are distinctively Roman that they have a harder time accepting, such as the church’s right to coerce baptized Christians.

We should press the point further though. Here is Sohrab Ahmari, himself a recent convert, commenting on the Mortara affair:

From a Protestant perspective, the above is absolutely right, of course. We reject the use of force to coerce religious belief. But if you have submitted yourself to the Roman church… well, Rome hasn’t done that. Indeed, she has done quite the opposite. And, as a member of this church, you don’t get to tell the church what it can and cannot do on matters where the church has spoken. The church has said that baptism causes an ontological change in the person, making them a member of the church. It has also said that the church has the right to coerce belief in baptized Christians who are in serious error.

Certainly one can argue that what the church did was imprudent, particularly given the horrid history European Christians have with anti-Semitism, a point Reno rightly raised in his essay as well. It is quite easy to make the case that Pius IX acted imprudently. But you can’t say that “it’s hard to see (Jesus)” doing a thing the church has plainly said it is licit for the church to do. To do so pits Jesus against his own body.

To be sure, the Mortara affair is an edge case. The uncomfortable fact at the center of the story is that if the infant Mortara dies, no one is talking about this. It’s a bizarre situation where a Roman Christian performed a valid baptism for reasons the church itself says are entirely proper and, because the child lived, unexpected and uncomfortable questions had to be addressed. So yes, this is a weird case and no one should take from it the lesson that they better not hire Catholic nannies or else the local bishop is going to show up to abduct their child. That is not the point.

What does seem to be the point to me, though, is that per church teaching you cannot say Pius IX was wrong to do what he did. Indeed, per church teaching a very good argument can be made that he was right to do it—and Mortara himself, who grew up to be a priest and was thankful to Pius IX for raising him, would argue that Pius did well.

So while you can argue that Pius’s decision was unwise, you cannot, while a member of the Roman church, argue that it was somehow against the faith. If you do that, then you are saying that your own understanding of the faith can stand in judgment of the church’s teachings. For a Protestant, that isn’t necessarily a problem. We acknowledge times when institutional churches, even quite large ones, have embraced grave theological error and, in so doing, become enemies of the Gospel. Roman Christians, in contrast, cannot make that move. One of the big questions, then, that the saga of last week raises is how Roman converts will respond to learning about these aspects of the church’s teaching.

Mortara, Radicalism, and Indifferentism

Finally, we should consider a point raised in Reno’s essay.

Near the end he writes:

Today, Catholicism is not tempted to take up the sword and restore the temporal powers Pius IX possessed. Instead, we are riven by debates about divorce, remarriage, and communion. This week, a German archbishop opined that perhaps it is time for the Church to discuss the possibility of blessing gay relationships. And Catholic parents are more concerned about getting their children into elite universities than ensuring sound instruction in the faith. These and other erosions of the faith suggest a crisis of confidence in God’s irrevocable deeds and our call to honor them with all our hearts, minds, and souls—a crisis that, Cessario warns, will be exacerbated by a too-facile reading of this terrible episode.

Reno is right in a very limited way to say that the immediate challenges facing the church are those listed above rather than the questions raised by the Mortara affair.

That said, Reno would do well to ask why those are the problems facing the church and, indeed, he has on many occasions. His last piece before this editorial wrestled with those questions in interesting ways as he reflected on his time at Yale and the Yale v Chicago fights in the 1980s which Brad East wrote about for us last year.

Unfortunately, it is very hard to reconcile what Rusty says in that piece with what he says in this more recent editorial. The piece about liberalism explores how the contemporary western order creates significant problems for serious Christians who wish to follow their Lord in all realms of life. But, then, Dr. Reno has turned around and written the editorial quoted above which seems to deal with these problems by refusing to acknowledge them in the name of keeping the peace and not giving offense.

In a blockbuster of an essay for Fare Forward (buy a copy!), my friend Jose Mena notes that one of the great dangers of our era is what he and I have both called “indifferentism.” It’s the spirit that says doctrine x doesn’t really matter that much and we shouldn’t fight over it. I wrote about it for Christianity Today when the Eugene Peterson story about same-sex marriage erupted last year.

Here is Jose in Fare Forward:

Voltaire’s apocryphal liberal aphorism that “I disagree with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it” obscures the moral impact of legal indifferentism. I don’t agree with anyone’s decisions to engage in torture or murder, and there’s no world in which I’d defend to the death a right to cruelty and violence. The implication—which has been entirely absorbed by our culture—is that religion and speech and belief and so on are purely private matters, ones which are of relatively little significance either socially or personally. It would be wrong to punch a Nazi—that’s assault!—but we’re indifferent to whether anyone engages in Holocaust denialism. This is how Richard Spencer’s venomous white supremacy gets the backing of the ACLU—ideas, after all, never hurt anyone. It’s as though the soul doesn’t exist.

Here’s the bizarre thing about Reno’s response: In the final paragraph, he (rightly!) laments the many battles that the Roman church and western Christians more generally find themselves locked in. And he, again rightly, notes that these battles have precious little to do with edge cases that raise questions about the coercive authority of the church. Yet earlier in the piece he himself admits to withholding the plain truths of the Gospel from a person asking him to share them for fear of how it would affect her family life! And he doesn’t seem to recognize that the emerging radicalism of younger Christians might be connected to the very indifferentism he exemplifies in this essay.

In that story Reno ironically does the same thing Peterson did in his interview with Merritt: He cares passionately about something that is important, but secondary as far as its eternal significance is concerned, while implicitly shrugging at a thing of far greater import. The family life of Reno’s friend plainly concerns him deeply. That is admirable. We should care about the family lives of our friends, particularly in an era that cares as little about the family as our own. But what of her immortal soul? To say “you must consider your family,” and no more is to ignore the plain words of Jesus, who anticipated that very situation 2000 years ago.

And that rhetorical move, I would suggest, is precisely why the church finds itself in the mess Reno himself describes so ably. Christians—and boomer Christians especially, though Reno has, to his great credit, seldom been in their number—have spent most of the past 30-40 years equivocating on matters that Scripture addresses quite clearly. And now these same Christians want to know why younger Christians are revisiting the questions raised by the Edgardo Mortara story and embracing far more radical versions of Christian faith and practice.

The reason is simple: We’re tired of shrugging.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).