The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862
(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Without a doubt, the biggest shock in years in the world of “social conservative” intellectuals was the publication, this February, of Romanus Cessario’s defense of Pius IX for forcibly removing six-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish parents in 1858, and raising him as a Christian. Cessario defends Pius not on “it was a different time” grounds, but absolutely, affirming the general principle.
Serious doubts about religious freedom and liberal democracy have been growing for some time among some people in the insular and deeply self-satisfied intellectual world of what used to be social conservatism. As doubts about religious freedom and liberal democracy have grown, the aptness of the label “conservative” has shrunk, for no one who wants to induce a catastrophic social revolution in order to overturn the 700 year political tradition that provides all our public moral language and shared moral universe ought to be called conservative.
Cessario’s folly has brought matters to a head by revealing what is really at stake in these growing doubts. Centuries ago, it was possible to govern out of authoritative traditions because social worlds were by and large epistemically isolated from one another. As a result, traditions were not much recognized as the social conventions they were. Traditions were not “traditions,” they were simply the wisdom of elders.
But once modernity makes us aware of how socially contingent traditions are – makes us aware of them as traditions – they are no longer authoritative. To impose them on the recalcitrant is merely an act of brute force. Today there is no governing out of traditions, there is only one social group ruling another.
There is no space to enter here into the details of how Cessario’s choice to pick this particular fight in this particular way smacks strongly of anti-Semitism or, for that matter, how the Mortara case can be related to the perfectly legitimate general debate over the validity of religious freedom and constitutional democracy. Of all political forms, liberal democracy has the least right to avoid responsibility for making a case for itself or tell its critics to shut up and go away. As I remarked to a friend during the Cessario blowup, every liberal’s business card should say “Justify Your Social Order – Ask Me How!”
The real Higgyworthiness of Cessario’s article is the desire it reveals, on his part and that of his allies, to eat their cake and have it, too – to defend the enforcement of religious laws on those of other religions, and then pose as champions of the downtrodden whose opponents are the real oppressors. Cessario emphasizes the global opprobrium heaped on Pius IX and on Catholics, especially traditionalists, today, comparing both to the Diocletian martyrs. Steven Spielberg is apparently working on a Mortara film, which Cessario expects to be anti-Catholic; hence the need to instruct the faithful about the Mortara case preemptively.
Cessario has attracted some defenders, but also a much, much larger number of sympathetic commentators who might be described as anti-anti-Cessario (links here). They’re not yet prepared to admit that their position logically entails Cessario’s, but the one thing they do know is that Cessario’s critics are defenders of “bourgeois society,” which is to them a sort of Anselmic being than which nothing worse can be conceived.
There is no question that Catholics continue to face widespread bigotry; readers of JPGB may recall some of the many occasions we’ve had to discuss that bigotry. But you can’t have it both ways. If you ought to be protected, so should everyone else. To take Jewish children by force and raise them as Christians is BSDD; to defend such acts and then paint yourself as the oppressed party is paradigmatic PLDD.
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