The Atlantic

The Doctored 'Memoir' of a Jewish Boy Kidnapped by the Vatican

Edgardo Mortara’s autobiography is roiling Catholic-Jewish relations—based on the false assumption that the text is accurate.
Source: James Baillie / Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters / The Atlantic

After a century and a half, the story of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara—a Jewish boy who was kidnapped by the Vatican—has once again become the subject of acrimonious debate.

The facts are certainly dramatic enough: In June 1858, on the orders of Pope Pius IX, papal police knocked on the Mortaras’ door in Bologna, Italy, and seized the boy from his family. He had been secretly baptized by a Catholic servant and so, according to Church doctrine, could not remain with his Jewish parents. In a tear-soaked scene, Edgardo was torn from his father’s arms and hustled into a police carriage bound for Rome, where he would be raised in Church institutions. Worldwide protests followed. Thousands of people—from American protesters to the French emperor Napoleon III—demanded the child’s return. Pius IX refused.

The case has reverberated into the 21st century. Pope John Paul II’s decision to beatify Pius IX in 2000 led to angry protests from the descendants of the Mortara family and from Rome’s Jewish community. More recently, Steven Spielberg’s announcement that he plans to make a movie about the event (based on my book, ) produced a over Pope Francis’s attempts to reform the Church.

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