Notes on The Mortara Case and the Liberal State

There has been a dust up in the Catholic internet over an article published in the journal First Things, a review of the memoirs of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy who was baptized by his Catholic wet nurse when he was 6 years old, and when this fact was found out, taken from his parents by the Papal States in 1858, to be raised by Pope Pius IX.  The case caused outrage in the press, especially in America, and in other Protestant countries.   One of the things the article reveals is that Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese are making films about this incident, which means it is going to get a lot more publicity in the coming years.  Just a few quick thoughts on this matter.

1) First of all there is something lurking in the background of this row: conservative Catholics, and socially conservative Protestants, Jews, etc., are terrified of what the secular might do to their families over gay marriage and the transgender rights campaign, if they get their wish.  They are not wrong to be frightened, in my opinion.

2) Spielberg’s film will almost certainly be an anti-Catholic hatchet job, and fodder for those who see World War T and other policies as fitting retribution for the crimes committed by Catholics or conservative Christians in the past against minority groups, whether real or imagined.  These two things account for the largely hysterical reaction from some quarters of the conservative Catholic internet.

3) The practice of baptizing non-Catholics was a common in the Papal States at the time, something the Jewish inhabitants of that country knew very well.  In other Christian countries, it was not unheard of to have baptized children whose parents had died or who were deemed unfit by the state, or to have their children be taken away to be raised in the true faith (whether it be Protestant or Catholic). See Orestes Brownson’s review of the Mortara case for examples of this.  At least some of the uproar at the time was due to Protestant concerns about a child being indoctrinated into a false religion, rather than concern for parents’ rights.

4) The assertion that what Pius IX did violated the natural rights of the parents doesn’t hold water.  No government of any kind thinks such rights are absolute (save maybe the old Roman republic?), and all have notions that there are greater goods than the desire of parents to raise their children themselves.  The problem, of course, is that there is wide disagreement on what such goods might be, beyond physical health and well being.

5) The idea that such parental rights are absolute is contradicted by Christian history.  The Church has always defended the rights of children who wished to be baptized against their parents wishes, and there is a long history of the Church canonizing children who disobeyed their parents to follow God (Perpetuua and Felicitas, Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis).  The whole effort to ban clerical marriage by the Latin church in the middle ages was as much about trying to curb in the influence of noble families in the Church as it was chastity, and its injunctions against consanguinity (degrees of blood relationship in marriage–i.e., cousins’ marriage) had the effect of reducing the size and scope of family life in Western Europe, in effect creating the modern nuclear family as we know it.  The Church only became a bastion of “family values” after it had reshaped it towards its ends, and the Industrial Revolution and Romanticism turned it into the emotional center of peoples’ lives in Christian countries.  It is, relatively speaking, a recent phenomenon.

6) Moreover, such an idea is in serious tension with the Gospel itself:  Jesus makes quite clear that family is not the highest form of loyalty in several places in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 10:37-39, 12:46-50, 19:29-30; Mark 3:31-35, 10:29-31; Luke 2:49-50, 8:19-21, 9:57-62, 14:25-27).  Liberal theologians may try and twist this tension to serve perverse ends, but they did not make it up out of whole clothe.  It is baked into the Christian cake from the beginning, so to speak.

7) One may object to what Pius IX did on moral grounds; one could say Pius IX was trying to achieve a good by doing evil, something that Catholic teaching explicitly forbids.  But then, as I indicated above, having the state or the church remove the child from the authority of the parents is not intrinsically evil.  And if baptism really is necessary for salvation, and one’s eternal salvation is the most important thing in life, more important than family, and Christians truly believe this, wherever Christians have power in a given society, such difficult cases will be unavoidable, ultimately.  One can condemn the acts of Pius IX because the specific acts of the case make it immoral, but not the general principle, I think, without seriously undermining belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation.

8) Finally, this is all related to the sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit agreement made by believers in modern society:  the agreement not to do such things in the name of a higher good, at least through the means of the modern state.  There is widespread feeling, usually one of fear, that this consensus is breaking down.  This has been the sort of modus vivendi that has made the modern, liberal democratic state tenable.  As it indeed, it appears to be.

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~ by Alypius on January 11, 2018.

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