On the value of the Mortara Case

At First Things, Romanus Cessario, O.P., has an interesting review of a new book about the Mortara Case. Cessario’s review, discussing the recent publication of Mortara’s memoirs, provides an excellent historical, canonical, and theological introduction to the case. If you are unfamiliar with it, we encourage you to read the review. (For transparency’s sake: we contribute a regular web column to First Things.) The reaction to Cessario’s review, especially on every writer’s favorite microblogging platform, Twitter, was swift and outraged in many instances. This outrage is largely because Cessario does not seem to think that Pius IX did anything wrong when he removed little Edgardo Mortara from his parents’ home following his baptism by a servant girl. The reactions take a couple of major forms, but they boil down to this: the Mortara Case contradicts liberal ideas about the role of the state and the family in the state. Such reactions, however, seem to overlook some facts about the liberal state and they ignore the value of the Mortara Case as a historical example.

The Mortara Case has been in the air a while, on Twitter and elsewhere. There is a sense that it is an important event, though in many cases it is not always spelled out why it is important. On prior occasions, the reactions have been no less outraged, but the length of Cessario’s treatment and its prominence have provoked a larger, more sustained reaction. It’s too bad. Taken on its merits, Cessario’s piece is very good. It provides a large helping of historical, canonical, and theological material about the case and, more generally, baptism. We suspect that Cessario’s piece will not be read with all the attention it deserves, and that many of the thoughts it was clearly intended to provoke will be lost in the broader chorus of condemnation.

The immediate reactions—that is, to Cessario’s review—have been, as we say, outraged. On one hand, you have outraged progressive-modernist theologians who insist that Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae mean—either individually or collectively—that Pius IX was wrong and wicked in his actions. Neither document says any such thing, and such a reading requires the invocation of the long-discredited Spirit of Vatican II. (Plus a healthy dollop of liberalism—more on that in a bit.) The theologians do not grapple with the argument Thomas Aquinas makes in Question 10 of the Secunda Secundae Partis, to say nothing of the manualist tradition after Thomas. Nor do they address the magisterial weight of Thomas’s thought in the light of Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris and Paul VI’s Lumen Ecclesiae. Moreover, the doctrinal weight of Nostra aetate and Dignitatis humanae are open to debate, as Francis and officials in Francis’s Curia, like Archbishop Guido Pozzo, have recognized. In other words, there is potentially a debate about the Mortara case along the lines sketched out by the theologically inclined, though they do a poor job indicating the status quaestionis (to say nothing of advancing their arguments). Nevertheless, this is an interesting line of argument to explore with greater rigor.

It is less edifying, if possible, to see the extreme reactions of those who suggest that the Mortara case is some sort of shibboleth for traditionally minded Catholics. Naturally, at least some prominent authors who have said as much are not Catholic. Their argument is that the view that Pius IX acted consistently with sound doctrine, however that view is modulated or couched, is some sort of performative demonstration of orthodoxy, unalloyed with baser concerns, like feelings. In other words, they argue that an argument in favor of Pius IX, however uncompromising that argument may seem, is ultimately some sort of signal (or initiation ritual) for traditionally minded Catholics. One is reminded of Cardinal Newman’s statement in the Apologia pro Vita Sua that Kingsley was “poisoning the wells” against him. No matter what the arguments, no matter how rationally marshaled and logically sound they are, these young Christian writers say, whenever someone discourses on the Mortara case with anything but shock and horror, you may rest assured that he or she is actually just playing at orthodoxy to impress his or her friends.

There is also a sense in many of the reactions—just a brief word about this, as it is not an enthralling subject, though it goes along with poisoning the wells—that a clear expression of Catholic orthodoxy is somehow unkind. In other words, a statement that Pius IX did nothing wrong is seen not only as performative orthodoxy but also as unkind. Perhaps it is in this case; we cannot speak for every Twitter power user. Nevertheless, it is deeply worrying to see orthodox views characterized as insincere and unkind, not least because there is no end to that sort of thinking. Moreover, as a dear friend of ours is given to saying: every dispute about tone conceals a substantive dispute. The allegation of insincerity or unkindness seems especially apt to conceal such a substantive dispute. Perhaps it does not in this case; as we said, we cannot speak for every Twitter power user. Nevertheless, it seems to be a strong current in this debate.

Of course, theological imprecision and poisoning the wells are necessary in this argument because the real motivation for the reaction to the Mortara case is comfortable, bourgeois liberalism. However the Twitter sages phrase it, this is what they mean: in a liberal society, in 2018, the Church ought not go around taking children from parents. Pius IX’s actions strike at two crucial components of bourgeois liberalism: low-stakes religious pluralism and the family as the only building block of society. Consequently, to take a position on the Mortara case other than horror that Pius IX would do as he did is to take a position against pluralism and the inviolable family. Of course, liberals fail to recognize that pluralism tends toward ostracizing believers who believe too strongly. Moreover, they fail to see that the state is already enormously intrusively involved in families through the child welfare apparatus, which is no less intrusive than Pius IX’s gendarmes. The liberal state is no less intolerant and intrusive than Pius IX. However, liberalism presents itself as a perfectly neutral option, and, therefore, its intolerance and intrusion are frequently disguised as the rational, necessary actions of an impartial adult.

Moreover, precisely because liberalism presents itself as perfectly neutral and free of ideological content, it relies entirely on the will of electoral majorities to implement juridical provisions. That is, the will of the majority—or their representatives—becomes the neutral, inerrant viewpoint. Consequently, the intrusiveness and intolerance of the liberal state really represent the tastes of the majority. And electoral majorities require dissensions in the body politic; it is, therefore, necessary for those who wish to represent the people’s will to create and maintain those dissensions. None of this actually means that the liberal state is all that interested in protecting the rights of minorities. Consider the United States: it has existed for over two hundred and thirty five years as a liberal state. For how many of those years has it adequately protected the rights of minorities? More could be said on this point, but it is worth noting that adopting an attitude of horror at the Mortara Case misunderstands the situation of minorities under liberalism.

Nevertheless, because the Mortara case implicates some of the most cherished liberal values, it is worth considering as people begin to think about a post-liberal world. Cessario’s review moves in that direction, and we think it sets up the parameters of an interesting and fruitful discussion along those lines. And despite thinking that the reactions we saw today are not uniformly cogent (or even coherent), it is worth noting that some of those reactions point toward lines of discussion that are useful for considering the Church’s posture toward liberalism today. This, then, is the value of the Mortara Case as we see it: as a situation where some of the issues confronting serious Christians today intersect and require serious thought.