Will Pope Francis Apologize for the Jewish Children Kidnapped by the Church?

The film on Edgardo Mortara is an impassioned cry to stamp out Catholic antisemitism.

By Jules Gomes Published on April 30, 2024

Catholics rightly go ballistic when Boko Haram militants kidnap Christian children in Nigeria and force them to convert to Islam. The Vatican expresses its “strongest condemnation.”

So why do Catholic apologists make excuses for popes who sent armed police to kidnap Jewish children just because a Catholic had baptized them clandestinely without parental consent? And why does the Vatican continue to justify historic papal atrocities?

Why is it that, as with many other cases of righting historical wrongs, it is secular and not Catholic forces that put an end to the abduction of Jewish children by generations of popes?

The Traumatic Tale of Kidnapped

Now, a film based on the archival research of secular historians is recreating Pope Pius IX’s kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy who was secretly baptized by the family’s maid when he was an infant because she thought he was dying.

Italian film director Marco Bellocchio’s movie Rapito (Kidnapped), which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival, was released on April 25 in British cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.

Bellocchio zooms in on the chilling scene of papal para-military police knocking on the door of Momolo and Marianna Mortara in Bologna on the night of June 23, 1858, while the Jewish mother is caring for her seven children.

Marshal Pietro Lucidi and Brigadier Giuseppe Agostini, enter the house and inform the parents that the Inquisitor has ordered them to seize Edgardo, who is now (by Church law) a “Catholic.” The traumatic scene of the parents refusing to surrender their son continues through the night.

Bonajuto Sanguinetti, the Mortara’s 71-year-old neighbor, describes what he witnessed: “I saw a distraught mother, bathed in tears, and a father who was tearing out his hair, while the children were down on their knees begging the policemen for mercy.”

Brainwashed into Catholicism

Elèna Mortara, a historian and great-great-grandniece of the Jewish boy, contends that Edgardo was “brainwashed” by his captors in the House of the Catechumens, the Holy See’s indoctrination center in Rome for potential Jewish converts.

Mortara became a priest, but his abduction proved to be political suicide for Pius IX. The kidnapping became a cause celebre, drawing government protests from France, England, and the United States. It spurred the overthrow of the Papal States by Italian nationalists.

“I paid dearly for your ransom. Your case set off a worldwide storm against me and the apostolic See,” Pius IX would write to Mortara in 1867, as his theocracy was falling apart.

Catholics remember Pius IX as the pope who convened Vatican I and promulgated the hotly contested dogmas of papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception.

Jews remember Pius IX as the pope who locked them again in the ghettos, even persuading Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany to abrogate his new constitution, “otherwise it will open the way to requests for other civil rights for the Jews and for other non-Catholics.”

In a speech in 1871, the antisemitic pontiff called the Jews of Rome “dogs” and said: “Of these dogs, there are too many of them at present in Rome, and we hear them howling in the streets, and they are disturbing us in all places.”

Mortara’s Kidnapping the Rule, Not the Exception

Catholic apologists who twist themselves into pretzels in repeated attempts to defend Pius IX, conceal the fact that the kidnapping which sparked exhibitions, books, and movies (Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating film on Mortara is next) was the rule, not the exception.

David Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews narrates the chilling story of Maddalena Pacifici, from the diocese of Tivoli, who visited Rome’s ghetto to do some shopping. There she met Rachel, a Jewish mother holding her three-month-old daughter, Rosa.

Rachel complained that her baby was always sick. While the Jewish mother went to get the goods that her Catholic client had requested, Maddalena scooped water from the gutter and baptized the baby. Unsure if a baptism with gutter water was valid, she re-baptized the child at a nearby fountain.

When she revealed what she had done to her confessor, he told her to report the baptism to the parish priest. The matter reached Pope Pius VII. On January 10, 1816, the Holy Office ruled that Rosa’s baptism was valid. She was now the property of the Catholic Church.

The Inquisition did not even spare dead children. In Tuscany in January 1820, when a Catholic midwife secretly baptized the newborn daughter of Abraham Castiglione, and the infant died days later, the local priest insisted that the child be buried in the church cemetery.

Under pressure from the Jewish community of Livorno the cadaver was returned to the father. Six months later a church court ruled against Castiglione. The baby’s decomposing body was dug up from the Jewish cemetery and buried in the Catholic cemetery.

Kerzter writes:

In the three and a half years from the middle of 1814 through 1818, Church authorities sent the police into the Roman ghetto on twenty-two different occasions, always at night, to extract Jews by force and take them to the House of the Catechumens. In that brief period alone, the police took seventeen married women, three fiancées, and twenty-seven children. The night hours were a time of fear for Rome’s Jews.

Italian Bishops’ Media Commends Kidnapped

Refreshingly, the Italian Episcopal Conference newspaper Avvenire in an unusually candid review, has acknowledged that Bellocchio’s movie is “unsettling” and “rightly disturbing” with “no polemical aspect in the presentation” but “only the desire for clarity and truth.”

Contrast this with the work of Vittorio Messori, a Catholic journalist-apologist published in Italian in 2005 and published in English by Ignatius Press in 2017, under the title Kidnapped by the Vatican? The Unpublished Memoirs of Edgardo Mortara.

Messori spins the trauma into the propagandist narrative of a six-year-old child who is overjoyed to be snatched from his parents so he can be brought up as a Catholic. Kertzer, as a historian, exposes Messori’s version of the Mortara memoirs as heavily doctored.

The Associated Press reached a similar conclusion after undertaking a comparative study of the Spanish original and the Italian translation — Mortara wrote the original in Spanish.

The AP report “found that anti-Semitic comments contained in the original Spanish had been removed from the Messori translation, including a reference to Mortara having ‘always professed an inexpressible horror’ toward Jews.”

Will Pope Francis Say Sorry?

Unfortunately, the Holy See, even under ultra-liberal Pope Francis, who coauthored a book with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, has never apologized for the papal kidnappings of scores of Jewish children.

On the contrary, Pope John Paul II beatified Pius IX in 2000, putting the antisemitic pontiff on the path to sainthood.

Ironies abound in the Mortara affair. In 1859, a year after the abduction, Pius IX lost most of his territory. In 1860, Fr. Pier Gaetano Feletti, the inquisitor responsible for the kidnapping was arrested and tried. In 1870, Rome fell to the forces fighting for Italy’s Unification.

Edgardo died in Belgium in March 1940. Two months later, German soldiers marched into Belgium and began rounding up all those tainted with Jewish blood.

His baptism may have delivered Mortara from limbo had he died an infant; it would not have saved him from the gas chambers had he lived to be arrested by the Nazis. For according to Hitler’s Nuremberg Race Laws, even baptism could not erase race.

Cardinal Newman famously said: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Catholics reflecting on centuries of systemic antisemitism, endorsed by the popes, need to be reminded that to be deep in history is to cease to be a triumphalist and intolerant Catholic.


Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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