When Pope John Paul II beatifies two of his papal predecessors today in Rome, setting the stage for Pius IX and John XXIII to be canonized, the memory of a 6-year-old boy torn from his mother and father will hang heavy over the ceremony.
On a summer night 142 years ago, a Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara, who had been secretly baptized by his family's Catholic maid, was spirited from his parents by papal guards and brought to the Vatican, where Pius IX adopted him. He was raised a Catholic and later became a priest.
The incident has not been forgotten by the Jews of Rome, where descendants of Mortara's family still live, nor by Jewish organizations worldwide, which have raised a chorus of protest to honoring a pope they consider anti-Semitic.
While the church has defended him as a friend to Jews, a coalition of the world's most prominent Jewish groups - including B'nai B'rith International, the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress and representatives of the three major religious branches of Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Judaism - has strongly denounced Pius IX's beatification to the Vatican.
"Pius IX has been hailed by Vatican officials who are pressing for his sainthood as 'a model of Christian life,'" wrote Seymour D. Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the umbrella group, in the Vatican letter. "But he is the pope who perpetuated centuries-old contempt and hatred of Jews, referring to them as 'dogs' and declaring that 'of these dogs, there are too many of them present in Rome.'"
The Vatican denies that Pius IX, who was commonly known as "Pio Nono," was anti-Semitic. An article published in the Aug. 26 edition of L'Osservatore Roman, the Vatican's official newspaper, said that Pius IX ordered the gates of Rome's Jewish ghetto taken down and stopped the annual practice of forcing Jewish leaders to march in a humiliating procession during Carnival before Lent. It also noted that "More than once he called [Jews] his children," according to a translation by the Catholic News Service.
However, the pope re-established the ghetto and stripped Jews of property rights after a nationalist uprising forced him to flee Rome temporarily.
More than 300 Jews and reformist Catholics protested in Rome yesterday against the beatification. Elsewhere in the city, a group of Catholic traditionalists held a much smaller gathering in favor, arguing that Pius IX did much to strengthen the papacy.
The beatification today - Europe's Day of Jewish Culture, when communities in 16 countries celebrate their history and traditions - stands in stark contrast to the strides the Vatican has made in recent years in vastly improving relations between Jews and the world's largest Christian denomination. That relationship took a leap forward through the actions of the other pope who will be elevated, John XXIII, who was pope from 1958 to 1963.
John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which, in its document "Nostra Aetate", rejected blaming Jews for Jesus' death, condemned anti-Semitism, called the Jewish Covenant with God "eternal and unbroken" and affirmed the Jewish roots of Christianity.
That John Paul II, who has significantly spurred Jewish-Christian relations during his papacy - visiting a synagogue in Rome, praying this year for repentance for Christian sins against Jews and making a historic trip to Israel - would approve Pius IX's beatification at the same time as John XXIII's mystifies Jewish leaders. Beatification is the second step in elevating a person to sainthood.
Jews admire John XXIII for his role in Vatican II and for his actions during World War II, when as papal envoy to Turkey he saved thousands of Jews' lives by helping arrange escapes to Palestine.
"Obviously, the beatification is going to go ahead," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious affairs adviser for the American Jewish Committee. "But it takes away for many in the Jewish community the joy of John XXIII being beatified, who is very popular and beloved by Jews who know his story both before he became pope and afterward. It's a mystery that they're yoked."
Close observers of the Vatican say there's nothing mysterious about it. John XXIII is beloved by church liberals, they say, and Rome needed a conservative counterweight to offset his beatification. There were originally plans to beatify Pius XII, whose papacy spanned World War II, but the criticism of the wartime pope, who failed to decisively denounce the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, caused him to be set aside.
The beatification of Pius IX, whose pontificate from 1846 to 1878 was the longest in history, "can only be seen as a political move, designed to provide a conservative and reactionary counterweight to the beatification of John XXIII," said a recent editorial in the influential British Catholic weekly, The Tablet. "The conclusion is surely inescapable that the beatification of Pius IX is the work of a small group of ultra-conservatives."
If liberal Catholics have a hero in John XXIII, Pius IX represents everything they reject. He was the last pope to preside over the Papal States and an arch-opponent of what he called modernism, issuing the "Syllabus of Errors" to condemn such abuses as the notion of freedom on religion (except for Catholicism). He is the model for the consolidation of papal power and presided over the First Vatican Council from 1869 to 1870, which codified the doctrine of papal infallibility.
"There are so many things he did that are embarrassing today, that the church would clearly reject and would never do today," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly.
Reese doesn't think it's a good idea to canonize popes at all.
"Who are they supposed to be models of sanctity for, other popes?" he said. "I think we have to find people who are models for ordinary Christians in the 21st century, not someone who was even out of step with the 19th century."
But it is the Mortara incident that raises the most emotional objection to Pius IX.
"The knock came at nightfall," is the first line of "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," the 1997 book by Brown University historian David I. Kertzer that brought the largely forgotten case to public attention. He describes in chilling detail how on the night of June 23, 1858, a papal police detail dispatched by the local branch of the Inquisition came to the Mortara house in Bologna, which was part of the Vatican-ruled Papal States before the unificiation of Italy, seeking Edgardo. It was church law at that time that a child baptized a Catholic could not be raised in a Jewish household.
Soon, the Mortara incident became an international cause celebre.
"This had happened many times in the past, but what was different was the question of unifying Italy," Kertzer said in a recent interview with The Sun. "It was taken up by people who wanted to show why the Papal States were an anachronism."
There were protests around the world and in the United States, including Baltimore. It also received major press coverage: the Baltimore American published 31 major articles on Mortara from October 1858 through January of the following year, Kertzer said.
Meanwhile, "with the protest mounting, Pius IX became involved directly and began to regard this boy as his son. And Edgardo, who was 6, began to regard the pope as his father," Kertzer said.
By the time the Papal States fell to the forces of Italian unification in 1870, "Edgardo, who by then was 19 and hadn't seen his parents in a dozen years, had decided to become a priest and didn't want to see them," Kertzer said.
Pius IX's defenders say that it is unfair to judge a 19th-century man by the standards of the 20th century.
"It would have been considered unacceptable, basically a denial of the validity of the sacrament of baptism, to allow the child to be raised Jewish once he had been baptized Catholic," said Robert Lockwood, director of research for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "This is again different to today's sensitivities, but more understandable in the context of the 19th century."
Reich, the president of the coalition of Jewish groups protesting the beatification, rejects that argument.
"They've been saying that, and possibly in the abstract, that may be a logical argument for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints," he said. "Except that this was widely criticized in the 19th century and violates the norms of decency and goodness which personify saints. It's not a new set of standards that's being suggested, but even the standards of the 19th century that are being violated by the pope's elevation of Pius IX to sainthood."
Despite the friction caused by today's beatification, experts on both sides say this will not significantly harm Catholic-Jewish relations.
"The Second Vatican Council made a major institutional commitment, and all subsequent popes, and especially this one, have moved that agenda forward," said Eugene Fisher, an authority on Jewish-Catholic relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The people with concerns should be reassured. The history here is too strong to be challenged."