Debemus: In Defense of Fr. Cessario, Bl. Pius IX, and the Catholic Faith

by Frater Asinus


Despite its having taken place in 1858, the so-called “Mortara Affair” has recently caused much debate to erupt in Catholic circles. This recent debate was occasioned by Fr. Romanus Cessario’s book review in First Things, Non Possumus,” which examines a newly released translation of Fr. Edgardo Mortara’s memoirs. Mortara was the child of a Jewish family living in the Papal States in the city of Bologna. As an infant he fell ill, and the doctors were convinced that he was about to die. The Mortara’s maid, Anna “Nina” Morisi, a Catholic woman, baptized Edgardo, without his parents’ knowledge. Some years later, when Edgardo was six years old, officials were made aware of Edgardo’s baptism. Accordingly, they went to the Mortaras to assure that their son Edgardo was educated in accordance with his baptism. The Mortaras refused to allow him to be educated at a local boarding school, so instead, Edgardo was taken and essentially raised under the care of Pius IX himself. In his review, Fr. Cessario defends Pius IX in his handling of the Mortara Affair.

This debate has been so intense that it has even garnered the attention of those outside the Church, including prominent outlets like The Atlantic and Vox. Many others have weighed in on the discussion, and almost all of the responses have been critical of Fr. Cessario and Bl. Pius IX: the charges include anti-Semitism, ignorance of the proper effects of baptism, and failure to understand the relationship between grace and nature. What is most unfortunate about these critiques (or, in many cases, attacks) is that most miss the point entirely. Virtually every response to Fr. Romanus Cessario’s book review brings in the claims of insensitivity and understands the event in terms of anti-Semitism. Even the estimable Archbishop Chaput has caved to this flawed understanding of the affair. There is an important and interesting discussion to be had concerning the Mortara Affair, but not when facile and unfounded charges of anti-Semitism dominate the discourse. The historical record makes clear that Pius IX can hardly be seen as some menace to the Jewish population under his care as head of state. He actually relaxed a number of laws restricting Jews in the Papal States. But more importantly, as expressed in The Atlantic, this debate is not about the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people. As we shall show, the boy was not seized because Pius IX had a desire to persecute the Jews, but rather, because the boy had become a Catholic, in virtue of his baptism. In order to understand why this is the case, we must delve deeply into theological questions about grace, nature, and the sacraments. But this first error regarding the case, this accusation of anti-Semitism, is so pervasive and dangerous, it sadly forces this author to write anonymously.

The second most prevalent error arises from the deficient categories applied by classical liberalism of “conservative” and “liberal.” There are claims of a culture war inside of the Catholic Church, and “traditionalists” like Cessario are seen as the “hardcore conservatives,” pushing back against the liberals. This interpretive lens is likewise insufficient, and misses the important and interesting questions that pertain to this affair. The Atlantic makes an admirable attempt to understand the matter in these terms, and very helpfully does not cast the current debate in terms of anti-Semitism. Ultimately, however, this discussion has nothing to do with liberalism vs. conservativism, and everything to do with the reality of the sacrament of baptism.

Indeed, it is only when the question centers on grace and nature that the debate becomes an interesting and fruitful one. This question is the substantial focus of this article. Many Catholic critics of Cessario’s Non Possumus insist that both Cessario and Bl. Pope Pius IX misunderstood the relationship between grace and nature. Exemplary among these criticisms is Nathaniel Peters’ diatribe (it is hard to describe it as anything else) wherein he proclaims authoritatively:

The principles that Aquinas identifies are correct. While he is addressing the baptizing of Jewish babies, his arguments apply with equal vigor against the seizure of secretly baptized Jewish babies. Those who object to the Mortara case are not pitting “putative civil liberties” against the requirements of the faith, or failing to realize that the baptized must put Christ before their family. Nor are they simply moved by human feelings. Rather, they are rightly objecting to the violation of the natural order instituted by God that takes place when a young child is severed from his parents for the sake of his catechization. It is not a denial of the realities of baptism to say that the sacramental order should not violate the natural law.[1]

We shall leave aside the fact that Peters seems to think he is disputing with some wet-behind-the-ears graduate student, and assumes that Fr. Romanus Cessario (who has been awarded the rare, Dominican Sacrae Theologiae Magister, (S.T.M.), the highest theological degree there is) had not considered the relationship between the sacramental order and the natural law. Perhaps, had he had more respect for Fr. Cessario’s training and erudition, he might have proceeded with a little more caution and not stumbled into such clear error.

Peters’ error lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between grace and nature. Peters relies on Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the question in his Summa Theologiae. In both places where Thomas treats of the matter (II-IIae q. 10 a. 12 and III q. 68, a.10) he is answering the question of whether the children of non-believers (and in particular, Jews), ought to be baptized against their parents’ will. In both instances, Thomas (rightly) gives an emphatically negative response. He states that doing so would violate the natural rights of the parents.[2]

What Peters fails to note in his argument is what Thomas says in the sed contra of II-IIae q. 10, a. 12:

Injustice should be done to no man. Now it would be an injustice to Jews if their children were to be baptized against their will, since they would lose the rights of parental authority over their children as soon as these were Christians. Therefore these should not be baptized against their parents’ will.

The reason we do not baptize is because the baptism would in fact effect a loss of rights of parental authority (ius patriae potestatis) of the Jewish parents. This text, therefore, actually upholds the position of Bl. Pius IX and Fr. Cessario, but this bears some explaining.

Yes, it is true that grace perfects nature; but it is also true that nature does not measure or limit grace. Accordingly, we can see at least two ways in which a thing can be perfected by grace. In one way, a thing is perfected inasmuch as it has a complete form, and the form is perfected according to its nature in all of its powers and operations. In this way, we see grace perfect the soul through infused virtues, gifts, fruits, etc. In another way, something can be perfected as an imperfect nature, or substance. In such cases, the perfection or completion of the thing actually causes that thing to pass away –either simply, or in a certain respect. For example, motion (in the Aristotelian sense), since it is an imperfect kind of being, is perfected in rest, which causes the motion to cease to be –that is, to pass away. Thus a seed is perfected by becoming a flower, since the seed is ordered to the flower. In doing so, however, the seed as such ceases to be and it passes away. (Jn 12:24.) It is in this way that baptism perfects the life of the soul. That is to say, when a man is baptized, the former, imperfect life passes away. Indeed, in the words of St. Paul, “Know you not that all we, who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in his death?” (Rom 6:3.) Likewise, we rise in baptism with a new life and, as it were, a new creation. As St. Paul also says, “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” (Rom. 6:5.) Therefore, we speak of a resurrected soul, that has been given a distinct, indelible character, that marks it as a distinct and new creation.[3] So real is this death and resurrection effected by baptism that in light of it, the Apostle Paul grants what is now called “the Pauline privilege” (cf. 1Cor 7:10-15): the allowance by the Church of the dissolution of marriage between two persons unbaptized at the time of marriage, when one of them has subsequently received Baptism.

This privilege could only be allowed if the death of the baptized is a true death since, as the Apostle states, “For the married woman is bound by law to her husband so long as he is alive; but if the husband should die, she is clear from the law of the husband.” (Rom 7:2.) We see, then, that in baptism, the life of the soul is perfected by making the life pass away and rise again. Consequently, it should not be supposed that all of the privileges of the baptized will simply build upon the natural order, “for the former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21:4.) Consequently, natural relationships are relativized by baptism.

No one thinks that a parent has absolute rights. All believe that the rights of parents have limits. It is universally agreed that there are times that parents can act in a way inimical to the good of their children, and if the case is extreme enough, the state must intervene. The question, then, remains: Was this such a case? As surprising as the answer may be to the modern, classically liberal ear, soaked, as it were, in the honeyed perfume of secularism, the answer from Holy Mother Church is a resounding “Yes”.

As Leo XIII enunciated so clearly in his encyclical letter Libertas, a response to secularist assertions to rights such as “religious liberty,” there is no such right for the Catholic state.[4] While it is true, as Dignitatis Humanae teaches, that secular states which make no claim to holding the truth regarding man’s supernatural end have no authority to unnecessarily restrict the religious practice of its citizens, such does not hold for those states that are informed by faith. Thus, it was not as a leader of the Catholic religion that Pius IX had Edgardo seized, but it was as head of a Catholic state.

Still, it may not be clear that he was justified in taking the boy from his parents. Can it at all be said that his parents were a danger to Edgardo? Indeed, it can. Through his valid and judiciously wrought baptism, Edgardo entered into his inheritance. From that moment, he participated in the very life of the Trinity as true son of The Father in The Son, by The Holy Spirit. Is it not clear, especially in light of the arguments above, that this sonship is more excellent and more important than his natural sonship? Consequently, as soon as Edgardo’s parents refused to allow him to be educated in the Catholic faith (they would not permit him to enter into the local Catholic boarding school) and receive the inheritance that belonged to his sonship, they became his enemies. In a Catholic state, where the privileges and rights of the baptized Catholic are duly recognized, such a state of affairs cannot be allowed: justice must be done to the baptized and his rights vindicated. To allow his parents to continue to deprive him of the inheritance due to him would amount to being complicit in their injustice.

In light of the above, the argument which barely rises to the level of speciousness from Rod Dreher attempting to draw parallels between the abduction and forced conversion of non-Muslims by militant fundamentalist Muslims is laughable in the extreme. Dreher challenges Cessario,

What would Fr. Cessario and those who agree with him say to radical Muslims today who kidnap non-Muslim children, compel them to say the shahada (profession of faith — the Muslim equivalent of baptism), then refuse to return them to their parents because they cannot let a Muslim child be raised by infidels? The jihadist argument is that this is just, and better for the souls of the children.[5]

This manifestly asinine comparison fails to take into account that the facts in the two cases do not match at all. Indeed, the Church has always condemned forced baptisms. The case with Edgardo Mortara is utterly different. Edgardo was baptized as an infant when he was in imminent danger of death, so that he might enter into Heaven. He was not baptized in order to be abducted. Would Dreher propose that the Mortara’s maid have left Edgardo without baptism, even as all were convinced that he was to die? What an awful failure that would have been. Rather, we can say of this pious woman the same thing that Christ said according to the Gospel of Mark of the woman who anointed his head, “And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (14:9.)

It does not follow, even after all this, that Bl. Pius IX acted with perfect prudence in the matter. Indeed, this author, though ignorant of all the particular circumstances, has some serious reservations about the prudence of the act, at least in the manner in which it was done. What is indisputably the teaching of the Catholic Church, always and everywhere, is that Bl. Pius IX acted correctly in principle, both as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and as ruler over the Papal States.

It would be too much to expect an apology from the authors of the ill-conceived (and still more ill-argued) articles that were dashed off in a fit of indignation by the likes of Massimo Faggioli and Michael Sean Winters. Others, like Peters and Dreher, simply make poor arguments and manifest a fundamental misunderstanding of sacramental theology and baptism.

In sum we should make these conclusions clear:

  1. The Mortara affair is not being construed by Cessario (or any other reasonable person) as some sort of paradigm for Catholics to secretly baptize and seize the children of non-Catholics. It was a peculiar and unfortunate turn of events, which happily turned out well for Edgardo Mortara.
  2. Baptism matters. It does, in fact, further relativize familial relations. The baptized belong, first and foremost, to Christ and His Church.
  3. A secular state could not operate in this way. Secular states, as taught by Dignitatis Humanae, must protect religious practice in a way that a Catholic state may not. This does not mean that a Catholic state can force conversions, or anything else of the sort. It does mean that the state must vindicate the rights of the baptized as far as possible.
  4. As rightly observed by The Atlantic, this case has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.
  5. Classical liberal divisions of “conservative” and “liberal,” etc., lead readers to fundamentally misunderstand Cessario’s point, as well as those of us who come to his defense.
  6. This is indeed “a hard saying.” (Jn 6:60.) It is understandable and natural that many would react strongly against a child being taken from his parents’ home. Christ, however, did not come to bring peace, but the sword. (Mt 10:34.) So we must follow the radical truth of the Gospel, wherever it leads.

If this defense is seen as severe, we can only reply “debemus” –that is, we must. We were obligated to provide such a defense, especially when the reputation of two great men (one of whom is a beatus), and the very Catholic faith is at stake. If anything, this current debate has manifested a woeful lack of understanding of baptism and grace by many Catholics, even those who are educated.


[1] (accessed 2/1/2018).

[2] Though, in extremis, that is, in the immediate danger of death, Baptism ought always be given as is the case here.

[3] Cf. Summa Theologiae III, q. 56, a. 2.

[4] For an excellent elucidation of this distinction see Thomas Pink’s article, “Consicence and Coercion” in First Things, (accessed 2/1/2018).

[5] (accessed 2/1/2018)

Frater Asinus is a theologian of the Church.