Nine years ago last week, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus went on to his eternal reward. Last week also saw First Things, the magazine Fr. Neuhaus founded and led for more than twenty years, publish Fr. Romanus Cessario’s defense of the Vatican’s actions in the infamous Mortara case, in which Pope Pius IX sanctioned the Papal States’ removal of a Jewish child who had been secretly baptized from his parents’ home.

Robert Miller has argued against the Mortara case in terms of statist power. Today, I argue that the natural rights of parents and children, which Catholics hold to be ordained by God, were violated in the name of the Church’s duty to catechize the faithful. More than that, though, Fr. Cessario’s article and the responses to it indicate the problems facing Catholic discourse today.

Fr. Cessario’s Argument

Fr. Cessario begins his defense of the Mortara case with a recounting of its historical context. The Mortaras, a Jewish couple, moved to Bologna, at that time part of the Papal States. The Papal States had regulations separating Christians and Jews. Fr. Cessario writes: “One of these forbade Christians from being employed in Jewish households, precisely in order to prevent situations like the one in which the family now found itself. The Mortaras had ignored this regulation.” Their infant son Edgardo fell ill to the point that his doctors and his parents deemed him beyond recovery. His Catholic nanny, Anna Morisi, baptized him secretly before he eventually recovered from his illness.

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When Edgardo was six, the authorities of the Papal States removed Edgardo from his parents on the grounds that the laws of the Church and of the Papal States stipulated that a person legitimately baptized should receive a Catholic upbringing, even if it meant separation from his parents. While Catholic tradition has long forbidden the baptism of infants whose parents are not Catholic, it makes an exception for those in danger of death. The current Code of Canon Law (which did not exist in the nineteenth century) says that children may be baptized “even against the will of the parents.”

Fr. Cessario argues that these laws are not unreasonable. Citing Thomas Aquinas, he notes that baptism leaves an indelible mark on the soul, and that the Catholic Church has always had the obligation to educate its faithful. Other defenders of the case agree. Baptism changes everything, they argue. It gives the Church new obligations and the faithful the right to receive the formation that will allow baptismal grace to flourish. Fr. Cessario adds that Christ’s authority trumps the claims of family and state: “One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim” that he came to bring a sword separating families (cf. Luke 12:51–53).

Finally, Fr. Cessario frames opposition to the Mortara case—then and now—as an affront to religious liberty as conceived by contemporary liberal states. He concludes: “Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” The Mortara case thus becomes another example of what Christians, especially anti-liberal ones, see as a danger today: the triumph of fake freedoms over real religious bonds.

The Sacraments Do Not Erase Nature, the Natural Order, or the Natural Law

This argument is incomplete in many damning respects. First, laws separating Jews and Christians in the Papal States and other European countries were not benevolent ordinances preventing Jewish children from being secretly baptized. They were anti-Semitic laws designed to stigmatize Jews and prevent their full participation in society. Those laws were wrong, and they violated the dignity of the human person. Instead of defending them, Catholics should feel remorse. And we should be grateful that the Church has come a long way in apologizing for her complicity in such regimes.

Second, while Fr. Cessario extensively quotes Thomas Aquinas on the indelible character of baptism, he passes over Aquinas’s treatment of who should receive baptism. In the Summa Theologiae III q. 68 a. 10, Aquinas directly treats the question whether the children of Jews or others who do not believe in Christ should be baptized against the will of their parents. Aquinas begins with two objections arguing that they should:

Objection 1. It seems that children of Jews or other unbelievers should be baptized against the will of their parents. For it is a matter of greater urgency to rescue a man from the danger of eternal death than from the danger of temporal death. But one ought to rescue a child that is threatened by the danger of temporal death, even if its parents through malice try to prevent its being rescued. Therefore much more reason is there for rescuing the children of unbelievers from the danger of eternal death, even against their parents’ will. . . .

Objection 3. Further, every man belongs more to God, from Whom he has his soul, than to his carnal father, from whom he has his body. Therefore it is not unjust if the children of unbelievers are taken away from their carnal parents, and consecrated to God by Baptism.

Aquinas then notes the medieval Decretals, which forbade the forced conversion of Jews. He answers the question by arguing that children who do not yet have free will are under the care of their parents according to the natural law. “Wherefore,” he continues:

it would be contrary to natural justice if such children were baptized against their parents’ will; just as it would be if one having the use of reason were baptized against his will. Moreover under the circumstances it would be dangerous to baptize the children of unbelievers; for they would be liable to lapse into unbelief, by reason of their natural affection for their parents. Therefore it is not the custom of the Church to baptize the children of unbelievers against their parents’ will.

In his replies to the objections given, Aquinas makes it even clearer that the natural order “ordained by God” binds children to the care of their parents “and it is according to their ordering that things pertaining to God are to be done in respect of the child.” He adds that no one should “infringe the order of the natural law, in virtue of which a child is under the care of its father, in order to rescue it from the danger of eternal death.” For all the importance of the sacraments, they cannot become an excuse for violating natural justice.

Earlier in the Summa, II-II q. 10 a. 12, Aquinas also treats the question of whether the children of Jews and unbelievers ought to be baptized against their parents’ will. With even greater force, he argues against the baptism of Jewish children against their parents’ wishes: “Hence it would be contrary to natural justice, if a child, before coming to the use of reason, were to be taken away from its parents’ custody, or anything done to it against its parents’ wish.” And in his reply to objection 3, Aquinas makes it clear that Christian kings and princes may have civil power over Jews and other unbelievers, but that civil law “does not exclude the order of natural or divine law.” Instead, the Church should wait until children attain the age of reason and can look after themselves, then induce them to faith “not by compulsion but by persuasion.”

The principles that Aquinas identifies are correct. While he is addressing the baptizing of Jewish babies, his arguments apply with equal vigor against the seizure of secretly baptized Jewish babies. Those who object to the Mortara case are not pitting “putative civil liberties” against the requirements of the faith, or failing to realize that the baptized must put Christ before their family. Nor are they simply moved by human feelings. Rather, they are rightly objecting to the violation of the natural order instituted by God that takes place when a young child is severed from his parents for the sake of his catechization. It is not a denial of the realities of baptism to say that the sacramental order should not violate the natural law.

Although canon law allows for the baptism of children near death against the wishes of their parents, should those children recover their health, their baptized state does not justify their removal from their parents’ custody. Canon law should never be interpreted in such a way as to contravene the natural law. The danger of lapsing into unbelief is one that should lead to caution in baptism, not the forced removal of baptized children from their parents. Those who think the seizure of Mortara was just argue that the Church has coercive authority over her members and that Christians should be ready to forsake their families for God. But the Church should not use the state to take a child and forsake his parents for Christ on his behalf.

The State of Contemporary Catholic Discourse

The fact that we still need to debate whether it is permissible for Catholics to seize baptized Jewish children shows the state of contemporary Catholic discourse, at least in more conservative circles. As American society continues to fracture, and as liberal institutions become more hostile to Christianity, religious conservatives are trying to figure out where they stand. Disaffected older academics and despairing young people now reject living out their Christian faith within the framework of liberal democracy and economics. Magazines like First Things publish pieces arguing that Louis IX’s France was a model state and that American Catholics should reject John Courtney Murray and find our nation’s Catholic roots in colonial France and Spain.

We are told that Jacques Maritain was well-meaning but naïve, and that “only humane integralism can supplant [Maritain’s] integral humanism.” What “humane integralism” means has become clearer in the responses to Fr. Cessario’s article. With some exceptions, integralists like Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule tweet in favor of the seizure of Edgardo Mortara. Vermeule claims: “I haven’t heard a concrete, feasible alternative in the Mortara Case for executing the duty to provide a Catholic education,” in part because “The parents were opposed to any Catholic education, no?” Furthermore, he argues, “the child’s rights and the Pope’s duties were” altered by baptism.** Pat Smith, a regular columnist for First Things, argues that “the real motivation for the reaction to the Mortara case is comfortable, bourgeois liberalism.”

R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, seems to agree, in part. He calls the Mortara case “a stain on the Catholic Church” and “all the more repugnant” in light of the Holocaust. Why then publish Cessario’s piece? Given that Catholics are unlikely to kidnap Jews today, Reno argues, the episode forces us to confront “the daunting force of God’s irrevocable decrees.” He calls the Mortara case a violation of the natural dignity of the family, but thinks that Cessario wants to challenge his natural moral sentiments and modern liberal principles. The Mortara case is a kind of discipline we must take to beat the liberalism out of ourselves. As I’ve argued, this is the wrong way to frame the case. Moreover, if you want your readers to get the implications of baptism right, wouldn’t it make sense to publish a piece that does that rather than one that gets them so unhelpfully wrong?

One could make other arguments for publishing Cessario’s piece as well. The framework in which First Things was founded is disintegrating, and the current papacy is sweeping away the generous orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Conservative Catholics need to find new places to stand and explore new avenues for political and theological action. Further still, others have claimed that Fr. Neuhaus defended the Mortara case, based on a throwaway line in a response to a reader’s letter in which Neuhaus denies that there was a papal kidnapping.

Given the gnomic brevity of the statement, it’s hard to draw a strong conclusion about what Fr. Neuhaus thought, but it seems to mean one of two things. Either Neuhaus was being cagey: technically the pope didn’t kidnap anyone, since he upheld the seizure of a child in accord with civil law. Or Neuhaus was wrong, just as he was wrong about whether Marcial Maciel was guilty of grave and wicked crimes.

Regardless of Neuhaus’s thoughts on Mortara, there are some avenues that Catholics should not pursue, not because they run antithetical to the principles on which First Things was founded, but because they are unproductive or dangerous. Unproductive because the frisson of being novel, contrarian, and clever is no substitute for the politics of prudence in a pluralistic society and the sober pursuit of truth; we are not called to intellectual masturbation. And dangerous because, as the Mortara case reminds us, we know from history where this kind of integralism leads when it actually gets the whip hand.

Catholics need not think that our current political and economic order is heaven on earth. Liberal states and free economies have their own dangers and coercive power. We need not parrot old arguments, but when it comes to theories of Church and state that allow for the kidnapping of Jewish children, we should readily say, “non possumus.”

** Author’s note:  I have removed from the original version of this essay a sentence that was unclear in its criticism of Professor Adrian Vermeule. In writing that sentence, I did not intend to accuse Prof. Vermeule of anti-Semitism. I do not believe him to be an anti-Semite. Rather, I meant (and could have said more carefully to avoid being misunderstood) that it is not a good idea for a Catholic intellectual to heavily use a scholar and jurist—Carl Schmitt—who, though once a Catholic, left the Church and became a Nazi, and to then argue in a way that suggests the legitimacy of Pius IX’s seizure of Edgardo Mortara. Because both Schmitt and the Mortara case are tied to arguments that had serious anti-Semitic consequences in history, I thought the optics were very bad. I am, however, happy to retract my initial statement, and I hope that this clarifies the intent of my writing.