ROME — It was the Elian Gonzalez saga of its era. On the evening of June 28, 1858, papal guards raided the home of Momolo and Marianna Mortara in Bologna and abducted 6-year-old Edgardo, one of the Jewish couple's eight children.
The parents bitterly objected, but the guards said they had orders from the Vatican of Pope Pius IX. The church contended that the family's illiterate Roman Catholic maid had secretly baptized Edgardo four years earlier, when he was gravely ill. That made his upbringing as a Jew a violation of canon law requiring the church to take religious charge of any person baptized in the Catholic faith, regardless of the parents' wishes.
Edgardo was isolated at a Catholic boarding school in Rome and adopted by Pius IX, whose refusal to return him to his family defied a Europe-wide outcry that undermined the church's authority. The boy grew up to be a priest, preached about the "miracle" of his conversion and was never reconciled with his grieving parents.
The controversy, which typified Pius IX's open anti-Semitism, all but vanished with his death. But it has sprung back to life with the Vatican's decision to beatify the long-ruling 19th century pontiff, making him a candidate for sainthood.
Having made reconciliation with Jews a hallmark of his own reign, it is Pope John Paul II, paradoxically, who will preside today over the Vatican celebration of Pius IX's "heroic values." With Pius-like stubbornness, John Paul has baffled Jews and other critics by ignoring an international campaign to reverse the decision.
Catholic saint-making is bureaucratic, glacial and often secretive. By agreeing to elevate Pius IX to the status of "blessed," the 80-year-old pope has sown doubt about the depth of his commitment to interfaith healing and revealed the strength of Vatican ultraconservatives now vying within his divided flock to influence his succession.
The process also raises broader questions of why beatifications are meaningful and whether the conduct of saintly role models should be judged against today's mores or those of their own time.
At a recent symposium on Pius IX, Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said: "The church may beatify whomever it wishes. But it must understand that the Mortara case is a wound in the body and spirit of Italian Jews that has yet to be healed."
Defenders Applaud 'Eternal Love of God'
To his conservative defenders, Pius IX's role in the case has been unfairly portrayed, through a contemporary lens, as that of an autocratic ruler violating the rights of a family.
"Pius was not insensitive to claims of parental love, but he was persuaded that even the most profound loves of this world must not stand in the way of the transcendent, eternal love of God for the individual human soul," Catholic commentators Antonio Gaspari and Alberto Carosa wrote last month in the Roman monthly Inside the Vatican.
"He was persuaded that saving this boy's soul was worth braving the criticism of all Europe," they wrote, arguing that Pius IX's energetic propagation of Catholicism in the face of revolutionary anticlericalism made him a towering, martyr-like figure worthy of devotion.
Pius IX does not enjoy a widespread following, even in his native Italy, but remains a complex and controversial giant in church history.
Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti at birth, he became universally known as Pio Nono during the longest papal reign since St. Peter, from 1846 until his death 32 years later.
He gave Catholicism two of its most triumphal doctrines--papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. He lost the Papal States, the Vatican's worldly kingdom, to Italian nationalists but pioneered the modern cult of papal personality.
His infamous "Syllabus of Errors" in 1864 castigated 80 "delusions" of modern thinking, including rationalism, freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. His critics say his stubborn defense of a vanishing world order stunted Catholicism for decades after his death.
Pius IX's treatment of Jews as second-class citizens of the Papal States, which sprawled over much of what is now Italy, was just one outgrowth of the Vatican's doctrine then that Christianity was the one true religion.
He began his reign as a progressive, abolishing the confining walls and gates of the Jewish ghetto in Rome. But his policies hardened after Italian nationalists killed his prime minister in 1848, forcing the pope to flee Rome until French troops could assist in his return two years later.
Citing Jewish support for the nationalists, he reconsigned Jews to the ghetto, stripped them of property rights and barred them from secondary and higher education.
"These measures were acts of self-defense," Gaspari and Carosa wrote in Pius IX's favor. "They prove only that he was a prudent temporal ruler."