Rod Dreher, Liberalism and Edgardo Mortara

Rod Dreher, Liberalism and Edgardo Mortara January 10, 2018

Rod Dreher is a man given to strong reactions and this article at First Things seems to have precipitated another one. The article is a defense of an 1858 decision by Pope Pius IX to remove then six-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family.

Mortara had, as an infant, been ill. His parents and doctors believed he could not recover. In response, the family’s Catholic nanny secretly baptized him. The child lived. When it was discovered that he had been baptized a Catholic, papal authorities removed him from the care of his parents to live with representatives of the church in order that the he might receive a Catholic upbringing as the law stated all baptized Catholics should receive.

What has upset Mr. Dreher is the notion that this move was anything other than wholly atrocious. That there is an element of atrocity here can not be denied. Even Romanus Cessario, the author of the article defending the decision acknowledges this, writing:

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.

Still, Mr. Cessario believes Church authorities did the right thing.

I do not.

Surely, some compromise could have been reached in which the child could have received a Catholic upbringing without being removed from the custody of his parents. The reason this didn’t happen are probably complex and bound to the specific historical circumstances of the time, which, no doubt, were complex as history always is.

Nevertheless, the case raises some important questions to which Christians like Mr. Dreher should offer an answer. For example, the nanny who secretly baptized the child did so because she believed what her church teaches about baptism, specifically that it sets the indelible mark and seal of Christ on the baptized, a mark without which admission to eternal life is not possible.

Given this, when she saw the child on the threshold of death she moved to ensure this non-Christian child life eternal? Was this not an act of mercy? Should she, given her Catholic frame of reference, have refrained from this act?

When the child lived, should the Church have refused to intervene given that those involved were convinced a Catholic upbringing was better ultimately for the child? If we agree that removing him from his parents was not proper, what level of intervention would have been acceptable?

Most important here is the claim that baptism creates an ontological change in the baptized. According to church teaching, Mortara was a different kind of creature after his baptism than he was before. There was no going back. What then would have been the right way of dealing with this situation?

The problem with Mr. Dreher’s answer to these questions is his invocation of liberalism.  Mr. Dreher writes:

“For all liberalism’s serious faults — which I regularly catalog in this space — one of its great achievements was to separate Church from State, so that men like Pius IX and his clergy could no longer do things like what they did to the Mortara family.”

A sentimental attachment to liberalism is an undercurrent in Mr. Dreher’s writing. It crops up again and again, as if he still believes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that through it men might learn to live together in way that make these difficult situations avoidable.

Liberalism’s official answer to this situation, of course, is that religion ought to be a wholly privatized and individual matter and, as such, the question of whether one is Catholic or Jewish is entirely irrelevant to the state and the apparatus of power. So long as those involved do not use their religious convictions as grounds for contesting the dominant liberal narrative, the promise is, they will be left alone.

Surely, this is what Mr. Dreher wants, for religious families to be left alone. His notion that that great achievement of liberalism the  “separation of church and state” will somehow ensure this is, unfortunately, naive. Liberalism’s official answers are never the real answers. Liberalism, despite what it claims,  is not some neutral means of governing that imposes no ideological content of its own. It is instead the ascendent form of religious faith in our time, as imposing, but certainly less charitable, than the Catholic church of Pius IX.

The idea that liberalism is somehow immune to the kind of insensitivity the church showed in the Mortara case is obviously false. A perusal of the news makes this clear. A few months ago, the liberal state permanently removed Charlie Gard from the care of his parents through murdering him. Going back several years, let us not forget that it did the same to the parents of Terri Schiavo. This couple in Norway had their children removed for opposing the tenets of Liberalism, the global religion.

Liberalism, contra Mr. Dreher, has not separated church and state, but rather melded them even more closely. Liberalism, in denying that it is a religion or even an ideology with formal content, uses the power of the state to destroy families with greater relish and fervor than was displayed in the Mortara case. And, it leaves in its wake this destruction, not because eternal life is on the line, but only because what is at risk is its own diabolical power.

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