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Pope of infallibility set for beatification

NCR Staff

Elena Mortara remembers being in the Rome synagogue in April 1986 when Pope John Paul II made his momentous visit, believed by historians to be the first time a pope set foot in a Jewish place of worship since the days of St. Peter. He stirred hearts that Sunday by condemning “anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and by anyone.”

The words had special resonance for Mortara, the great great niece of Edgaro Mortara, who in 1858 was removed from his Jewish family in Bologna, Italy, by authority of Pope Pius IX. The 6-year-old boy had been secretly baptized two years earlier by a Catholic maid who feared he was dying. Because the pope still ruled central Italy as a secular monarch, the pope’s police were able to seize the boy and bring him to Rome for a Catholic upbringing. Edgaro’s fate became a cause célébre, the Elián Gonzalez case of its day, but despite international pressure and pleas from the family, Pius refused to return the child.

Mortara, who teaches English literature at the University of Rome, told NCR she’d like to ask John Paul a simple question: How does he square his repeated condemnations of anti-Semitism with his decision to beatify Pius IX on Sept. 3?

“We were baffled when we heard of it,” Mortara said in an Aug. 17 interview, insisting that she spoke not just for herself but also for 11 Mortara descendants. “We never thought this could happen.”

The Mortaras are using the media spotlight afforded by the beatification to call for repeal of a provision of church law that allows a child in danger of death to be baptized without the parents’ consent.

Declaring someone “blessed” is the final stage before sainthood. The Mortaras are not alone in their bewilderment as to why John Paul II would choose Pius IX (reigned 1846-1878) for the honor. Pius IX’s conduct toward Jews coupled with his ironclad opposition to modern culture and his inflation of papal power has made him perhaps the most controversial beatification of Wojtyla’s reign. Theologians affiliated with the journal Concilium have denounced it, as has a council of European Catholic historians. Catholic journals in the United States, including America and Commonweal, have been sharply negative. B’nai B’rith and the World Jewish Congress have predicted it will aggravate tensions between Catholics and Jews.

Pius does have defenders -- not least Pope John XXIII, who will be beatified alongside him and three other men Sept. 3, and whose devotion to his controversial predecessor has been repeatedly splashed across the Vatican press in recent weeks. In 1959, for example, John wrote: “I think always of Pius IX of holy and glorious memory; and imitating his sacrifices, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization.”

Still, the beatification has vexed at least three constituencies:

• Jews and sympathetic Catholics, for whom Pius IX remains the “kidnapper pope” because of the Mortara affair. As the secular monarch of Rome, Pius also enacted an 1862 law prohibiting Jews from testifying against Christians in civil or criminal proceedings, barring them from owning real estate and forcing them to pay a tax for upkeep of a “house of catechumens” whose aim was to convert Jews. He forbade Jews from leaving their quarter of the city after dark.

• Italians, for many of whom Pius IX remains the “vampire of the Vatican,” as he was dubbed by revolutionary firebrand Giuseppe Garibaldi, because of his opposition to national unification. Pius IX was determined to cling to the Papal States, territories in central Italy over which he ruled, which he once likened to “the robe of Jesus Christ.” When Rome fell in 1870, Pius refused to recognize the new Italian state and forbade Catholics to vote or otherwise participate in civic life.

• Progressive Catholics who remember Pius IX as an opponent of freedom of conscience, speech and press, and as the papal absolutist who wrung a declaration of infallibility out of Vatican I. This aspect of his reputation is best expressed in his legendary reply when a bishop argued that the doctrine of infallibility was not in church tradition: “I am tradition!” the pope thundered back.

The controversy over the beatification thus touches on some of the fiercest debates in contemporary Catholicism: relations with Judaism, church/state ties and the role of the papal office.

A telling omission

Visitors to an Italian post office this fall will notice ads for a stamp collection commemorating John XXIII. The smiling, roly-poly pontiff has lost none of his charisma 38 years after his death. In conjunction with his beatification, the postal system -- along with virtually every T-shirt and postcard peddler in town -- is rushing to cash in.

In a telling omission, the post office is not hawking any stamps for Pius IX, the longest-reigning pope in church history.

The case for John XXIII’s beatification seems, by the traditional criteria, a slam-dunk. A miracle has been approved. There is a lively cult surrounding John XXIII, as anyone who walks down the stairs under St. Peter’s basilica to visit his tomb can see. In terms of “heroic virtue,” Vatican language for personal goodness, the pope’s humility and gentle humor is the stuff of legend.

There is likewise an approved miracle for Pius IX, but matters are murkier on the other points. Curial officials insist there is a cult, but Jesuit historian John O’Malley asserts in the Aug. 26 issue of America that Pius IX is largely forgotten, even in his home region of Italy. There seems scant evidence of devotion in Rome. An employee at the basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, where Pius IX is buried, recently told NCR that apart from organized events he has never witnessed anyone come to pray at the pope’s crypt.

As for “heroic virtue,” no episode looms larger than the Mortara case. Pius himself felt no regrets: “I am his father, too,” he once said, “and what I have done for this child, I had the right and the duty to do; and if the same thing happened I would do it again.”

Mortara eventually converted to Catholicism, adopted the name “Pius” in honor of the pope and was ordained a priest. He traveled widely in a largely unsuccessful effort to convince Jews to convert. (He asked, and was refused, financial support from New York’s Archbishop John Corrigan). He died in Belgium in 1940.

The story is the stuff of drama, and it’s headed for Broadway. Playwright Alfred Uhry, best known for “Driving Miss Daisy,” is preparing a work based on the book The Kidnapping of Edgaro Mortara by Brown University scholar David Kertzer. It is scheduled to debut next year.

The Vatican position is straightforward. Pius IX lived in an era in which the concept of religious liberty was just taking shape, officials argue, and he sincerely believed that a validly baptized Catholic could not be raised as a Jew.

Swiss church historian Markus Ries of the University of Lucerne, however, doesn’t believe this exonerates Pius.

“The significant point is that the legal emancipation of Jewish people was in progress,” Ries said. “The pope was in opposition to the human rights standards of his own time.”

Ries belongs to a group of European church historians that adopted a statement against the beatification at a July 13 and 14 session in Innsbruck, Austria.

Mortara himself was devoted to Pius IX. He was among the first witnesses to give evidence in the process for beatification, which began in 1907. Elena Mortara, however, regards use of this defense of Pius’ conduct as cynical.

“They removed him from the family and kept him segregated in a totally Catholic environment precisely because they knew his education would determine what he became,” she said. “To justify even today their conduct on the basis that he became what they programmed him to be is just incredible.”

The bottom line, according to Pius IX’s defenders, is that it is unfair to pillory him on the basis of 21st-century sensibilities. Ries, however, says this misses the point: “Even if the conduct of Pius IX must not be measured by standards of our times, a beatification has to be,” he said.

An ecclesial monarch

For many Italians, Pius IX is an unpopular figure because he was their final obstacle to national unity. It is among the ironies of modern Rome, a city seemingly so dominated by its Catholic ethos that a cannon is fired at noon every day to celebrate the 1870 Italian victory over the pope.

Italy is also at the forefront of Europe’s strong anti-death penalty sentiment, and the fact that Pius IX ordered executions in an era when other European governments were phasing them out has stirred opposition.

For Catholics elsewhere, however, it is Pius’ legacy inside the church that is most controversial. “He constructed a paternalistic system … under whose authoritarian actions innumerable Catholics have had to suffer for a long time,” the recent Concilium statement said. It was signed by a host of prominent Catholic theologians, including Fr. Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx of Holland, Fr. Hans Küng and Fr. Johann Baptist Metz of Germany, and Americans Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and María Pila Aquino Vargas.

In this critique, two points loom especially large: the “Syllabus of Errors” of 1864, and the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870.

In the “Syllabus”, a collection of contemporary “errors,” Pius IX condemned 80 propositions. Among them were:

• All people are free to embrace and profess that religion that, guided by the light of reason, they shall consider true.

• The church ought to be separated from the state, and the state from the church.

• The Roman pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.

Many theologians see the “Syllabus” as a closed door to modern culture from which Catholicism only began to recover at Vatican II. For Pius’ defenders, such as Alessandro Gnocchi and Mario Palmaro in their recent book These Formidable Popes, the syllabus was prophetic. Perhaps the pope was overly negative on certain points, they say, but his core argument was correct: If the state, not the church, becomes the supreme source of values, chaos follows. In that sense, Gnocchi and Palmaro believe, Pius anticipated the 20th-century horrors of fascism and communism.

As for infallibility, the Concilium group said the doctrine has led to a suffocation of theological thought and a lop-sided distribution of authority. Gnocchi and Palmaro, however, insist that the declaration was “the best defense against the centrifugal forces that battered against the bark of Peter in the second half of the 19th century.”

Pius also expanded the power of the papacy by insisting that religious communities move their headquarters to Rome, and that national seminaries be built here, so that the Vatican could exercise direct control over religious orders and the future leaders of local churches.

Papal sanctity

It’s a rare thing for a pope to be declared a saint. If Pius IX and John XXIII advance, they will join only two other pope-saints in the last 300 years: Pius V (who reigned 1566-1572) and Pius X (1903-1914).

For many, this has raised the question of “why now?” Pius IX’s case has been awaiting action since 1986, suggesting some reluctance inside the Vatican. Some observers believe Pius IX inherited the spot slugged for Pope Pius XII before the furor unleashed in part by John Cornwall’s book Hitler’s Pope.

Many critics have also suggested that by beatifying Pius IX in tandem with Pope John XXIII, the Vatican is in effect “balancing the ticket,” putting forward in John a pope loved by liberals and in Pius an icon of Catholic conservatism.

An official of the Congregation for Saints told NCR that in examining a pope, motives and means are what counts, not results. “It doesn’t mean he had to be right all the time,” the official said.

There is little question that Pius IX was deeply spiritual. He declared the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and consecrated the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Every evening he made a confession, then spent time in adoration before a tabernacle. Sometimes he dressed as a simple priest to visit Rome’s poor.

There are Catholics today who recall Pius fondly. North American College in Rome, widely considered the West Point of the American church, is throwing a party to celebrate the beatification. Pius was the pope under whom the college opened, and its current rector, Msgr. Timothy Dolan, praised him to NCR as a “very hands-on founder.”

Yet for Elena Mortara, none of that offsets the damage that she believes the beatification will cause.

“My great-grandmother Ernesta, Edgardo’s sister, cried out in her delirium as she lay dying in 1927, ‘They are taking my children away!’ ” Mortara recalled. “Lots of older Italian Jews remember their mothers and grandmothers telling them to be careful of tricky baptisms by strangers, who would then force them to leave their families.”

“That culture of fear, further justified by less well-known cases, took a long time to heal,” she said. “This tears open that old wound.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000