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Relatives of kidnapped boy ask for rule change

NCR Staff

Relatives of Edgaro Mortara are asking the Catholic church to repeal a rule permitting baptism of infants in danger of death, including children of non-Catholic families, without parental consent.

A spokesperson for the family made the appeal in an Aug. 17 interview with NCR. Mortara was a Jewish boy removed from his family almost 150 years ago because he had been secretly baptized. He was separated from his family at the age of 6 and brought to Rome in 1858 on the authority of Pope Pius IX. The memory of that act is generating controversy ahead of John Paul II’s beatification of Pius IX on Sept. 3.

Canon 868 of the current Code of Canon Law, last revised in 1983, says that for a baptism to be lawful at least one of the parents of a child (or the person who lawfully holds their place) must give consent.

It then adds this exception: “An infant of Catholic parents, indeed even of non-Catholic parents, is lawfully baptized in danger of death, even if the parents are opposed to it.”

Elena Mortara, Edgaro’s great great niece, told NCR, “Normally as Jews we would not make demands of another religion. But because of what our family faced, and because of the unexpected exaltation of Pius IX, we feel we have the moral authority and the duty to address a law that goes against the rights of people to raise their children according to their beliefs.”

The passage was not crafted with issues such as those involved in the Mortara case in mind, according to Fr. John Huels, a highly regarded canon lawyer at St. Paul University in Ottawa.

“The usual situation today for the application of this canon is that one or both parents have abandoned practice of the Catholic faith, but they come from a Catholic family, so one or more grandparents and/or other close relatives are keenly interested in seeing that a child in danger of death gets baptized,” Huels said.

“In that situation, I have always taught seminarians and other students that the priest, or other minister, should advise the grandparent or other relative to baptize the infant secretly. This can only be done if the child truly is in danger of death. The relative should baptize the child himself or herself. The Catholic minister should not, lest there be repercussions if the parents hear about it, for example, a lawsuit against the church.

“If the child’s parents are not Christian, but belong to some other faith, such as Judaism, no Catholic should baptize that child, even in danger of death,” Huels said. “[Baptism] should never be done in violation of fundamental church doctrine on religious liberty. That would be a travesty of the law.”

Mortara believes her family’s experience suggests the canon should be revoked.

“We know,” she said, “there are many Catholics who believe deeply in the values of freedom of conscience and religion. We are calling on them to become protagonists in this battle within the Catholic world.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000