On Romanus Cessario, Non Possumus, and Theological Marxism

To defend the Catholic Church’s kidnapping of a six year old child is certainly a brave move; ridiculous, but certainly brave. But hey, what else would you do when a Jewish child is baptized in secret by his Christian nanny when he was sick (for fear of eternal damnation should he have died)? Why, knock on the parent’s door, and take him of course. This is precisely what Pope Pius IX and the Catholic Church did in the case of Edgardo Mortara in 1858. And this, according to Father Romanus Cessario, was “divine providence“.

Cessario is a professor of systematic theology at St. John’s Seminary, associate editor of The Thomist, senior editor of Magnificat, and general editor of the Catholic Moral Thought, so I’m acutely interested in how this idea will be received in these circles, as well as the Catholic Church at large. I, for one, agree with Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter that such a defense is “inexcusable”. The kidnapping (yes kidnapping), of Edgardo was certainly sad according to Cessario, but there is an infinitely higher calling at play:

“No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds. But the honor we give to mother and father will be imperfect if we do not render a higher honor to God above. Christ’s authority perfects all natural institutions—the family as well as the state. This is why he said that he came bearing a sword that would sunder father and son. One’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ’s claim.”

And the finale of Cessario’s logic? “Those examining the Mortara case today are left with a final question: Should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” At this point, we’d have to take to recap some of his definitions. “Putative civil liberties”, of course, would be smallish things like not kidnapping children from their parents. “Faith”, of course, would be Cessario’s particular flavor of Catholicism (I’ll label “Cessario-ism”) to which such an action represents the beatific vision of Christ. I’m careful to separate “Cessario-ism” from Catholicism, as I have a hunch most Catholics would repulsed by Cessario’s 1850’s papal logic – that such an action represents the Christ-filled actualization of the Church.

Perhaps Cessario would find such liberals unChristlike in their repulsion of his proposition. After all, “one’s judgment of Pius will depend on one’s acceptance of Christ claim.” One not need be so imaginative to be repulsed, whether it be Catholic, Christian, or irreligious thinkers like my friend Adam Lee. After all, it’s a familiar idea found in Marxism; in this case, a theological marxism where the end justifies the means, because the kidnapping of Edgardo ensured eternal salvation.

Go figure, a theology of throwing kids in the baptismal fount against their or their parent’s will/knowledge to ensure salvation; and of course, a salvation that only Catholic servitude would offer. But wait! Edgardo later became and priest and was immensely grateful of the Catholic Church and specifically Pope Pius IX, whom he felt should be a saint. And so rests the apologia of Cessario’s theological marxism.

As Adam correctly notes, it’s quite common for victims to adopt the ideology of their kidnappers. Brainwashing, guilt, and indoctrination are powerful psychological forces. The majority of victims of human trafficking return to their perpetrators. Should their embrace of their captivity be suggestive of anything but brainwashing, guilt, and indoctrination? Now, for Cessario, Catholic trafficking is just plain good theology (one that Christ demands); his apologia proudly embraces the forced baptism and human trafficking that ensued. And we can rest assured in the apologia, the means and the end – for it was only through such actions that Edgardo would achieve salvation for which he was later grateful. If this theology or rationality sounds repulsive, have no fear, it repulsed the world back in 1858. For the international outcry to return Edgardo, non possumus, Latin for “we cannot”, was Pope Pius IX’s reply. For Cessario, this was “piety, not stubbornness” as there was much more than the “human element” to consider.

In keeping with the theme of defending human trafficking, let’s return to Cessario’s logical finale: “should putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith?” As Cesario is from Boston, I’m sure he’s quite familiar with the Catholic Church’s active cover-up of priest pedophilia; Boston and Archbishop Bernard Francis Law the eye of the storm. In the famous Boston Globe’s Spotlight team’s report, we see the archdiocese appealed having to release the Church’s inner workings. Even further, we see how the law afforded cover-up with clergy being exempt from laws to report incidence of sex abuse to police for prosecution. Raping children, as the Spotlight team reported, could simply be viewed “as a sin for which priests could repent rather than as a compulsion they might be unable to control.” And so the logic goes (and went), don’t prosecute the priests, just have them repent and transfer them to another parish. Then, when pressed for records, just grease the Appeals Court. I’m sure many of these priests and bishops held the same logic that there was more than the “human element” to consider. After all, when weighing out things like rationality, honesty, and the basic human right not to be raped, why should “putative civil liberties trump the requirements of faith”? Just silence victims, shuffle the priests to other parishes, and keep the baptisms coming. Amen?

Perhaps Cessario should take look closer at Aquinas that reason is the “preamble” to faith (ST, Ia, q. 2, a. 2). Certainly, faith ultimately “surpasses the capacity of reason” (like trust in anything without certainty), but “truth that the human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith” (Contra Gentiles). With Edgardo’s forced baptism and kidnapping, the higher calling, and Cessario’s apologia, on what does such a Christology like rest I’d like to know? Common sense? Definitely not there. The greater Catholic Church? Doubtful. Aquinas? Even more doubtful. Mere Christianity? Definitely no solace here. In Christ Himself? Forced baptisms and human servitude in His name – blasphemy.

And so Cessario’s apologia, in reason or in Christ? Non possums, we cannot.

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