Edgardo Mortara, Revisited

In the Papal States in 1852, a teenaged Catholic housekeeper named Anna Morisi baptized a seriously ill Jewish baby who she feared would soon die. In fact, that child, Edgardo Mortara, quickly recovered, but was now a baptized Catholic. Unfortuantely, Mortara’s parents were Jewish, and under civil law in the Papal States, were forbidden to raise Christian children.
Since this was in the Papal States, both the Church and State faced a serious crisis. Should they separate the family, causing serious pain and international outrage? Or permit a Baptized Catholic to be raised in ignorance of both his Baptism and Catholicism?

Pope Piux IX decided on the former course of action. In the face of international outrage, the Church decided that the boy should be separated from his family and given a proper Catholic upbringing, and sent in civil authorities to enforce the order. Edgardo, by this point nearly seven years old, was entrusted to Canon Enrico Sarra, rector of the Institute of Neophytes at Saint Mary of the Mountains. Sarra, in turn, ensured that young Edgardo recieved the best Catholic education available. Meanwhile, Edgardo’s biological parents were permitted to see him, but not to take him home with them. Edgardo was warm to them, but as he recounts it, never expressed a desire to go back with them. He felt called by the Holy Spirit. In a somewhat remarkable turn, young Edgardo grew up to be Fr. Pio Maria, a Catholic priest and scholar. He would later present his life story as a witness to advocate for the canonization of the Holy Father, Pope Piux IX.

I’ve always found this case sort of fascinating, because it has so many hard questions. Breaking up a family seems obviously wrong. Lots of those questions are being asked once again, given this recent case. Here are the facts you need to know: Joseph Reyes married Rebecca, and the two had a kid. He converted to Judaism when his daughter was born, and according to Rebecca, promised to raise their child Jewish (although Joseph denies making the claim). Then, the two split up. Joseph reverted to Catholicism, and had their daughter Baptized. He then sent his estranged wife photos of the Baptism, seemingly out of spite. She went to the court.

As with the Edgardo Morara case, the state stepped in. But here, the state stepped in to declare that Joseph couldn’t expose his daughter to any religion but Judaism. He’s since disobeyed the order. He took his now three year-old daughter to Holy Name Cathedral, and was arraigned on charges of violating a court order.

I’ve actually been pretty shocked at the Reyes case. I realize that Joseph Reyes seems like sort of a jerk from the facts, and probably is exposing his daughter to Christianity to (a) spite his soon to be ex-wife, and (b) challenge the legality of the judge’s totally insane order (Joseph’s a 2L at John Marshall Law School). Still… a court order forcing you to raise the daughter Jewish or atheist is just in no way Constitutional. What a strange age we live in!

1 Comment

  1. How was he able have the child baptized if his wife/ex-wife/estranged wife would not agree to the baptism. I thought the Church would not baptize the children of mixed marriages without the permission of the non-Catholic party.

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