Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Of Course, Mr. Hitchens, Of Course!

How Stupid Can Religion Be?
by Charlie Leck

A Case Study:
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
by David Kertzer

Zealots, such as Pope Pius IX and dozens of
contemporary Christian fundamentalist radicals,
give religion a very bad name and cause most of
the reasonable people of the world to turn away
from faith. Stop it Pat Robertson! Stop it all of you!

In a powerful new, best-selling book, God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens bemoans the fact that religion is manmade. Of course it is! This is no great revelation, Mr. Hitchens. Of course religion is manmade! Religion is man’s response to his faith in God. Do not blame God for poor and imperfect religion! God has nothing to do with it!

That being said, I am constantly stunned by the stupidity of most religious expression. There are so many extreme examples of bad religious expression – within Christianity and every other organized religion in the world – they would weary us in trying to present the case studies. And people of faith wonder why so much of the world is uninterested in their silly expressions that they try to sell as deep faith.

Let me present only one powerful example. Don’t confuse it with a charge against the Roman Catholic Church; for no faith and no institutional church is immune from these same chanrges.

Last year we had the opportunity to see the extraordinary new Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. What a thrill. I cannot imagine that there is a finer theatre complex in the world than this extraordinary facility.

We saw the play, Edgardo Mine, by Alfred Uhry. It is based on an extraordinary work of non-fiction by David I. Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The dramatic presentation so moved me that I stopped at the theatre’s gift shop on the way out and purchased Kertzer’s book. I gave it nearly full attention over the next few days even though Thanksgiving Day was fast approaching and I had many chores to accomplish in order to get ready.

As absolutely devastating in power as the play was, I quickly discovered that it told only a fraction of the miserably stupid story of just how spectacularly evil religious zealots can be.
Did I really need such additional evidence in a world where revolutionaries kill hundreds of innocent people in the name of their god and bring such wretched agony to the families of those murdered? Could I not see such stupidity in my contemporary world when a president of my own nation can refer to an invasion and occupation of another nation, half-way around the world, as ‘a crusade?’

What more evidence do I need than that presented in my own nation by evangelical zealots who claim that their own path to salvation is indeed the only one and that they are guaranteed eternal life while those who do not believe as they shall not realize those rewards? What unharnessed and vile stupidity!

In 1858, Pope Pius IX actually ordered the kidnapping of a Jewish child. The great, pompous, religious leader of the Universal Catholic Church, demanded that this six year old boy be taken from his parents and brothers and sisters and that he be brought into the sanctuary of the Holy Catholic Church.

Oh that I had time and space to explain the complex historical background in which this dastardly event took place. I can only sketch it out for you.

The Pope, at that point in history, also saw himself as a divinely appointed King. His kingdom did not amount to much, but world concepts were still fairly limited in those days and a guy who held sway over a few provinces in Italy could delude himself with the idea that he really had a vast kingdom. The Kingdom of Pope Pius IX amounted to a crescent of a few hundred miles, extending from just south of Rome over to the Adriatic Sea and up to and including the important city of Bologna. It did not, however, include Florence or any of Tuscany or Milan, Genoa or Venice. Neither did it include Sardinia or the vast area south of Rome, including Naples and Sicily.

As well, Pope Pius IX was being heavily pressured to give up his claim to state sovereignty and concentrate on his more divine duties as the ruler of the church universal. This pope was more than a big egoist and he resisted these pressures. The last thing he needed was an intense amount of negative notoriety in the world press. Nevertheless, that’s what he got from the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

Excuse me my Roman Catholic friends, but I must say it loudly. This guy was a jerk even though Kertzer says he may have been “the most important pope in modern history.” [74] Except for the Apostle Peter himself, Pius IX reigned longer than any other pope in history. This is attributable to the extremely young age at which he was coronated as both King and Holy Father. At the age of 53, Father Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti came into his office at a time when there were “new currents sweeping Europe, the movement away from the old regimes of autocrats and noblemen toward a system of nations based on constitutional rule and the separation of Church and state.”

I mustn’t burden you with more history and I must go back to the story at hand, regarding the kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. How did such an incredible incident take place? It all springs from the superstitions and falderal that religion can create and sprinkle on the heads of its unquestioning adherents.

Edgardo Mortara was the innocent son of Momolo and Marianna Mortara. They lived in the Jewish sector of great city of Bologna. Momolo was a somewhat successful businessman and the family was certainly able to afford a servant to help with the care of their large family of children. As an infant, Edgardo took on a serious fever and fell seriously ill. His mother watched over him for hour after hour. One evening, exhausted, she was taken away by Momolo so that she might rest. The servant girl, a Christian, was put in charge of watching over the child. During her watch, the girl noticed that the child was growing worse and that death was both imminent and certain. In a panic, thinking the child was destined to go to eternal punishment in Hell, the girl reached into a nearby basin of water and baptized the child exactly as she had heard the priests do in her own little church. When morning broke, so had the child’s fever. Edgardo’s mother was ecstatic at her son’s recovery and proclaimed it a miracle. Naturally, the servant girl attributed the miracle to her own alert and holy actions.

Now, unfortunately for the Mortara family, their servant girl was a bit of a wench and she dabbled in sex quite indiscriminately. Her lovers often included one or more of the soldiers from the company appointed to protect the Pope’s limited empire. She readily told the soldiers the story of the great miracle she had performed. The account slowly spread from the soldiers to the holy priests and eventually to the Pope himself.

Of course, any Catholic rube could now see that it was unjust to allow Edgardo to continue to live outside the confines of the faith. He had to be removed from the evil that surrounded him and he had to be brought inside the church itself. The great miracle made that all so evident to Pope Pius IX. And so, he ordered that the child be removed from the family and that he be brought into the protection of the church.

Unbelievable fiction? No, it is unfathomable non-fiction.

The little child is kidnapped. He is hidden within the church and is raised there for the rest of his life. His entire family is left to grieve and mourn forever over its lost child. The boy grows to become a priest, believes he has been saved from eternal damnation and lives out his life in Austria, France and Belgium.

The incredible and shocking event set in play the final stages for the Catholic Church as ruler of any secular state. The press clippings were not good. Protests extended far beyond the Jewish community and arose throughout Europe and, eventually, in America. The empire of the Catholic Church would soon collapse, Italy would be reunified and the papacy would retreat into the Vatican.

Uhry’s play is magnificent. It portrays the agony of Momolo and Marianna so dramatically. Though the play also makes it clear that the leaders of the church believed ardently in what they were doing, Uhry also raises the question about the stupidity of irrational religious faith and doctrine. Uhry is a master story-teller, as evidenced by the success of his previous dramas, including Driving Miss Daisy. However, as good as the play was that night at the Guthrie Theatre, Kertzer’s extraordinary book is more compelling and dramatic and tells the story to its awful end.

Kertzer enables us to follow poor Momolo through his time in jail, through his trial for murder and then on to his death only a month after his acquittal of the charges. We also follow Edgardo through his training and eventual ordination as a priest.

“Known as a scholarly man – reputed to preach in six languages, including the notoriously difficult language of the Basques, and to read three others, Hebrew
among them – Father Mortara dedicated his life to spreading the faith, singing the praises of the Lord Jesus Christ, and traveling throughout Europe, going where he was most needed. As a preacher he was in great demand, not least because of the inspirational way he was able to weave the remarkable story of his own childhood into his sermons. As he recounted it, his saga was the stuff of faith and hope: a story of how God chose a simple, illiterate servant girl to invest a small child with the miraculous powers of divine grace, and in so doing rescued him from his Jewish family – good people but, as Jews, on a God-forsaken path.” [295]
As for Marianna Mortara, the story is sad enough to break the reader’s heart. She had been charged as a conspirator in the murder for which Momolo was accused. I refer you to Kertzer’s extraordinary book if she want to read further about the murder accusation and the trial of Momolo and Mariana Mortara. All of the years from the time her son was kidnapped were difficult for the poor mother. Her mental health grew poor and she was subject to a great deal of irrational madness.

Marianna died in 1890 with several of her children, including Father Pio Edgardo, at her bedside. She had made a kind of peace with her son and she was at peace with him. Such was not the case for Edgardo’s siblings. They developed and retained a deep, abiding dislike, bordering on hatefulness, for their brother. As Marianna lay dying, her son, the priest, attempted to persuade his mother to convert to the Christian faith in order to save her soul, but, to the end, she declined.

Father Pio Edgardo Mortara would die in a Belgian abbey where he had lived for many years. He was 88 years old. In only a matter of weeks following his death, soldiers of the Nazi Reich would stream into Belgium and begin rounding up those of Jewish blood in order to purge Europe of this wicked and weakened race.

The entire case is little known in Italian history. It has been relegated mainly to the narrow focus of Jewish scholars concerned with the persecution of Jews by the Catholic Church. Church historians have ignored the case because of the embarrassment it causes and the memories it rekindles. Yet, there is a wealth of original source material documenting the story in great detail and Kerzer has dug deeply into that documentation.

In this one place I recommend both the play by Uhry and the extraordinary book by David Kertzer. Be assured that Kertzer’s work it careful and scholarly. He doesn’t take short cuts. His logic is precise and accurate. His sources are tested and well noted. Kertzer leads the reader carefully and precisely through the entire story with no confusion as to the time-line or the steps taken to get to where one is going.

No comments:

Post a Comment