The Mortara family was Jewish, and lived in Bologna, then a city of the Papal States.

Catholic teaching holds that baptism completely transforms a person. He is “born anew” or “born again” Jn 3:3. Because this sacrament was given by Rabbi Yeshua himself, even Pope Pius IX said that his hands were tied, he could not alter it.

Baptism also opens the door to eternal life. Once a person is baptized he is irrevocably part of Rabbi Yeshua‘s family, just as circumcision welcomed Abraham and his descendants into God‘s family. Gen 17:1314.

Papal States law held that, to protect a child’s immortal soul, if death appeared imminent a Catholic nanny caring for a small Jewish child was required to baptize the child. Once baptized, Papal States law held that the child was irrevocably a Catholic.

So Papal States law prohibited a Jewish family from hiring a Catholic household servant or nanny to prevent this situation from arising. If there were no Catholic living in the house there would be no baptism and the Jewish child would remain with his parents under Jewish law.

Observant Jewish families, however, found it convenient to hire Catholic household servants because they were not subject to Jewish law. The Jewish families could hire pagan household servants, but in the Papal States Catholics were far more numerous than pagans so many Jewish families simply hired Catholic nannies anyway, the moral equivalent of driving without a safety belt.

Jewish families blamed the Catholics for adhering to their own law when the rabbis could as easily have made a narrow exemption in Jewish law for Jewish household servants in the Papal States.

Edgardo Mortara grew up a Catholic and was ordained a priest.

First, the Church does not support kidnapping. Your source was correct about that. Kidnapping is the illegal abduction of a person. The Church denounces kidnapping in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong (CCC 2297).

Even in the case of Edgardo Mortara, he was not kidnapped from his parents. Because his parents were unable and unwilling to raise him as a Christian, he was legally removed from their home based on the laws of that time and place. It would be analogous to a modern state choosing to remove a child from a home where it was determined that the parents were not fit to raise him. We might argue with whether or not the state made an accurate determination of parental fitness, but we could not justly accuse the state of kidnapping.

In the case of Edgardo Mortara, he was baptized by a Christian servant in his parents’ home when the servant believed he was dying. Because baptism is ordinarily necessary for salvation, canon law even today provides that a child in danger of death may be baptized without his parents’ consent:

An infant of Catholic parents, indeed even of non-Catholic parents, may in danger of death be baptized even if the parents are opposed to it (canon 868 §2, Code of Canon Law).

When Edgardo survived his illness, it became known that the child had been baptized. By law of the papal states, which was the secular authority of the place in Italy in which the Mortara family lived at the time, a baptized child could not be raised by unbaptized people, even his own parents. The concern was that a Christian be raised to believe and practice as a Christian, something unbaptized parents or guardians could not do. In the Mortara case, his parents were told that the child could be returned if they converted to Catholicism, but they chose not to do so.

Now, the thing to remember is that in the nineteenth century, churchmen were working under a more restricted understanding of sacramental and pastoral theology. They believed sincerely that a baptized child who was not raised Christian was in serious danger of eternal damnation. Their actions in the Mortara case reflected that understanding. They were doing the best they could with the knowledge that they had to protect an innocent child from going to hell. Today, sacramental and pastoral theology has progressed to the point where, with a child in those circumstances today, the Church would not advocate removing the child from his parents. We now understand that so long as the child and his parents acted rightly according to the truth that they understood, we can trust that God will take that into account and act mercifully in their regard.

Today, all that would be done would be that the parents would be notified of the baptism so that if they or their child eventually chose to enter the Church, it would be known that, in the child’s case, a conditional baptism for the sake of establishing a sacramental record would need to be performed.

First Things April 2018 makes several points relating to Fr. Edgardo Mortara that deserve some comment. I run Second Exodus (, an orthodox Catholic site that specializes in the Church’s Jewish origins, and appreciate the opportunity to clarify.

Now let’s turn to page 69, where we find confusion over supersession theology. The rabbis have understood for centuries that the Torah is divided into moral and ceremonial law. Jewish moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:2-17; Deut 5:6-21). These are fully incorporated into Catholic law and also natural law by being published in the Catechism Part Three, Section Two. That section runs from § 2052-2557, occupying about 18 percent of the entire Catechism. St. John Paul II, in Fidei Depositum, declared the Catechism a “sure norm for teaching the faith.”
However, Jesus did not continue the Torah’s ceremonial laws for his followers. He first addressed the kosher laws: “Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him” Mk 7:14-15.


He declared, “But you shall seek the place which the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there; there you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock; and there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you” Deut 12:5–7. All that God intended continued to bind the Jews until AD 70, on the Ninth of Av, on Roman Emperor Vespasian’s orders, his son Titus destroyed the Second Temple by burning it to the ground. Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.*

* 10:16: The vision was to prepare Peter for his reception of Cornelius the Gentile and his household into the Church; cf. also Acts 15.
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), Ac 10:9–16.