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A dispute over a papal decision of the 1850s

In First Things, Fr Romanus Cessario wrote a book review which sparked controversy. The book was a newly published memoir by Edgardo Mortara, who was born in 1851.

Mortara was born in the Papal States to Jewish parents. As a baby, he “fell ill and was judged to be beyond recovery by both doctors and parents”. His Catholic nanny secretly baptised him. Then the child recovered, and found himself as a baptised Catholic in a Jewish household.

After the parents refused to send Edgardo to a Catholic school, Blessed Pope Pius IX sent police to take the child from his parents and brought him up in the papal household. (Mortara later became a priest and always defended the Pope’s actions.)

When international protests broke out, Pope Pius said he had had no choice. There was reason in this, Fr Cessario said. “The requirement that all legitimately baptised children receive a Catholic educationwas not arbitrary. Since baptism causes birth into new life in Christ, children require instruction about this form of new life.”

Fr Cessario’s review provoked much anger. At Public Discourse, Robert T Miller called on First Things to retract it. Pius was a “good man”, and he doubtless believed he was doing the right thing. “But the excuses available to Pius are not available to Cessario and the editors of First Things. They ought to know better than to drag up this old nonsense,” Miller wrote. “What could possibly explain such an abrupt and bizarre departure from sound moral principles?”

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