Friday, January 19, 2018
In part because of the upcoming Steven Spielberg movie, and in part because of Fr. Romanus Cessario's review in First Things of Edgardo Mortara's memoir, and in part because of the renewed interest on the part of a number of accomplished scholars and thinkers (Deneen, Legutko, Vermeule, etc.) in the nature, foundations, and future of liberalism, there has been a boomlet of 21st century digital debate over the Edgardo Mortara case. The case was hugely important in 19th century America in shaping perceptions not only of the Church and the papacy but also of Catholic schools and, it's fair to say, by shaping American anti-Catholicism it also shaped American church-state law. Today, it also tees up questions about political theology and theory, the nature of the sacraments, the anti-Semitism of many Catholics, the natural rights of parents, Italian nationalism, etc.
On the one hand, it seems pretty strange -- and, perhaps, more than a little regrettable (Matthew Franck, in this piece, calls it a "needless quarrel")-- that this case (which, in my view, has to be judged, as Rusty Reno put it at First Things, as a "stain on the Catholic Church") is the topic of the moment. Yes, the evidence as I understand it is that Mortara came to love Pope Pius IX and his own vocation to the priesthood and, yes, as Fr. Cessario wrote, "baptism configures a person to Christ, leaving something permanent in the one baptized." Still - it was both immoral and illegitimate for the relevant authorities to take him away from his parents. It was, among other things, as Robert Miller explained, an abuse of state power. (I've seen some comments on Twitter criticizing Miller for framing his critique of the Mortara case in terms of "statism." The complaint seems to be that Miller is reducing or conflating the wrong of unjustly taking Mortara from his parents to/with a libertarian critique of government action generally. I don't think that's what Miller was doing at all. "Statism" is a thing, after all -- it's not "constitutional governments promoting the common good" -- and it's bad.)
I'm inclined to agree with Franck that "Pius was wrong in the Mortara case—grievously so, as Miller’s main argument demonstrated—for venerable Catholic reasons he should have understood even in his own day, reasons having no connection with the modern liberal project that the integralists (rightly or wrongly) attribute to the anti-Christian secular enlightenment." That is, I think it's important to note that the reasons Pope Pius was wrong are not simply that he didn't play by Rawls's (or any other left-liberal) rules; it's not (I hope!) the case, as Pat Smith charges, that the basis for criticisms of Mortara's removal is merely "comfortable, bourgeois liberalism" or a timid and naive attachment to Murray, Maritain, Dignitatis humanae, etc.