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First Things Bombshell Stirs Up Catholic Web

A recent piece at First Things by Fr. Romanus Cessario dredges up the 19th century case of Edgardo Mortara living under the Papal States. Born to a Jewish family, as an infant Edgardo became ill and his nanny secretly baptized him without parental consent (which is not necessary to acquire in cases of near-death emergency, according to canon law). After having recovered from his illness, Pope Pius IX arranged for the child to be removed from his home and raised and educated by the Catholic Church, given that he was now a Christian rightfully due a Christian education.

Such a story understandably rankles anyone of a modern, liberal disposition, with no conception of the necessity to baptize in emergency or the spiritual duties of the Church to the baptized, no recognition that parental rights and "religious freedom" rights are not absolute according to the Church, and no understanding of the superiority of the spiritual realm to the temporal. And even for those with a longer historical view, or with an appreciation for the Catholic Church's teachings with respect to baptism, the case is still one that brings up legitimate prudential questions. Whether, for instance, even if it was canonically and legally justifiable (which it seems to have been), the removal of Edgardo from his home was the most just course of action or whether there might have been other alternatives.

Fr. Cessario presents a strong defense of Pius IX's actions in taking in Edgardo and raising him. (It is notable that Edgardo himself grew to be a Catholic priest himself who declared that Pius IX was a saint.) That full-blown, committed libcaths (and leftcaths) would be appalled by this (both the ordeal and Cessario's defense of the Pius IX) is hardly surprising. That conservative Catholics like Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson, themselves liberals, would be (as they were) is also to be expected. But that ostensibly trad-ish pundit types like Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Rod Dreher—who are well aware of the dismal side of liberalism if not committed opponents of it—would be similarly appalled is a nice distillation of our thesis that friendliness with liberalism, even when somewhat ideologically guarded against it, ultimately leads to capitulation.

Not that this single case—complicated as it is—is itself the decisive indicator of one's commitment to opposing liberalism, but just how one responds to it can act as a telling litmus test. Dreher, in a bout of typical histrionics, makes it quite plain that the supernatural good of union with Christ and the salvation of a soul, and a subsequent education in accordance with that ontological reality (given Catholic doctrine) absolutely pales in comparison to the earthly good of parental rights and consent:

Those lines are shocking. The Church “offered” to compel a Jewish child baptized without his consent or the consent or knowledge of his parents to receive a Catholic education against the will of his parents? Some offer. And God “kindly arranged” for this child to be taken from his Jewish parents and raised by the Church?

This is monstrous. They stole a child from his mother and father!

This is the very same man masquerading as so completely committed to the vision and values of Christ's kingdom that he is deadset on undertaking a "limited withdrawal" from enmeshment in the liberal order, and indeed declaring it a necessity for all Christians to do so. Even if you make the prudential case against removing the child from his parents (despite having canon law and state law on your side), as many more subtle and sober critics of Pius IX do on this matter, they still tend to recognize the great good of baptism and being raised in the Church, rather than death-dealing error, and that these goods have to be weighed against parental rights and natural justice in this particular case (even if the latter should win out). Dreher is too emotionally attached to liberalism and absolute parental rights to even acknowledge the dilemma exists. Instead: it is monstrous, full stop, with nothing apparently even hanging in the balance. With friends like liberalism who needs a new Benedict?

This weepy mood even prompted Rod to explicitly pledge fealty to one of liberalism's most cherished shibboleths: "one of [liberalism's] great achievements was to separate Church from State, so that men like Pius IX and his clergy could no longer do things like what they did to the Mortara family." A fitting epitaph for Dreher's pretensions to having any illiberal bona fides. Nothing, of course, is more pernicious and anti-Christian in liberalism than the notion that the State occupies a neutral, autonomous realm of governance, which owes no allegiance to Christ and his Church, and which is free to operate according to merely natural principles of reason and prudence (in the best case scenario), unsullied by any supernatural commitments. If he acquiesces to this, of all things, it becomes difficult to imagine just what his "limited withdrawal" is from. Whence does he think persecution of orthodox Christian belief and practice in the public square—the chief impetus in formulating the Benedict Option—comes from if not the principle of Separation of Church & State? It is baffling. Rod might want to stay home on the feast day of Sts. Constantine and Helen, on which his own Church authoritatively sings praise to the cooperation, the non-separation, of Church and State.

Meanwhile, Ross (after responding to the article by saying "apparently I'm not an integralist", implying one untoward outcome can defeat the case for some social system) here misses the point people are making when pointing out that it's a strange, fringe case. The point is to counter the many unwarranted overreactions assuming that the unsolicited baptizing and "kidnapping" of Jewish babies under an integralist state would be some normative, regular occurrence. Those defending Pius IX's actions are implicitly admitting that such circumstances could arise again, but are rightly noting they would necessarily be rare given the combination of outlier circumstances that needed to correspond to bring about such a case. Ross assuming they are embarrassed to defend it, or are afraid to make it a "test case of integralism," is contradicted by the very fact that they are defending it as a legitimate action, theologically and morally, under an integralist state.

The volatility of this particular case and the responses to it can't be divorced from the (theological) Jewish Question. It impinges on broader questions of ecumenism and the nature of the relationship between Christians and Jews. It's well worth remembering that the Vatican has recently declared that Jews shouldn't actively be converted and baptized at all, much less without parental consent under strange circumstances that one time in the Papal States. While the document on the Vatican website (which states that the Church has no institutional mission to convert Jews) has no magisterial weight, the fact that it's on the Vatican website, prepared by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, is itself significant. Having already softened its approach to ecumenism at Vatican II, in documents like Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae—which marked a departure from the historic position of the Catholic Church on the matters of the Jews and religious liberty—sliding into even greater laxity in its attitude toward these issues is not out of the question.

The question of whether the Catholic Church is even being consistent with its own patrimony aside, it's clear that many of the vehement reactions to Fr. Cessario's article in the conservative pundit sphere have been driven by a close familiarity with Jews, who are many of their colleagues and bosses. In response to a backlash for publishing the piece, editor R.R. Reno recounts that he is even married to a Jewish woman:

My wife is Jewish. When I got married, I knew that my children would be Jewish. This was so not because my wife wanted them to be, and not because I had decided it was OK, but because God had made a covenant with the people of Israel.

In clearing himself of harboring any personal prejudice or animus in his decision to run the piece, Reno inadvertently admits to holding a profoundly heretical understanding of the Old Covenant which (apparently?) in his view continues to this day. What relevance the covenant with Israel (fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His Church, as the New Testament and the Fathers and the entire Church have always taught) could possibly have in the decision, as a Christian father, to allow your children to be raised in a Christ-denying false religion is anyone's guess. But this just illustrates the delicate nature of the problem in post-Vatican-II Catholicism, which has courted just such misunderstandings and contradictions through its ecumenism.

As you may have noticed, I haven't even delved into the heart of the debate which is something like integralism vs. liberalism vs. liberal accommodationism: which is best and most consistent with Catholic teaching? Needless to say, I think liberalism is an abomination and integralism is, at the very least, a much more promising path for Catholics to follow. That ground has been, and is being, well-tread by the Catholic liberals and illiberals among themselves. While you should pay attention to that debate, as it's important, keep in mind some of the dynamics broiling underneath the surface: an emotional attachment to liberalism, attitudes shaped by post-Vatican-II ecumenism, personal relations with Jews, and a historically novel Christian appraisal of Judaism. It's often these that are truly determining what is transpiring before you.

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