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The Edgardo Mortara case is as relevant now as it was in 1858.

One of the biggest debates taking place in the Catholic world right now is over an event that happened 150 years ago.

Earlier this month, Dominican priest Romanus Cessario, OP, a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, wrote a controversial book review in the right-leaning Catholic magazine First Things. The book in question was Kidnapped by the Vatican? the newly published memoirs of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy living in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, soon to be part of unified Italy.

As an infant, Mortara was baptized during an illness without his family’s consent by his Catholic nanny, who believed he was near death. However, Mortara survived, and five years later, the baptism came to the attention of Bologna’s inquisitor, who ordered Mortara removed from his family by police and made a ward of the Catholic Church. He was relocated to Rome and remained under the personal supervision of Pope Pius IX. Despite the Mortara family’s well-publicized efforts to get their child back, Pius steadfastly refused to allow Edgardo to be returned. He later became a Catholic priest and expressed gratitude at the events that had led him to Christ.

Nonetheless, the case became an international scandal in the 1850s and ’60s. Cessario’s views on the ordeal proved no less controversial in 2018, as his piece on the Mortara case became a lightning rod for wider Catholic questions about the church’s relationship to modern liberalism.

Cessario saw the Mortara case as a triumph of Catholic doctrine

Cessario defended the decision of the Catholic Church, then under Pope Pius IX, to place what was — in Cessario’s view — divine law over secular concerns. While he admits the case was heartbreaking for Mortara’s family, Read More Here