‘Non possumus’ (Thoughts about ‘Kidnapped’)

Note: Be sure to tune in tonight, Thursday, July 11th at 8 PM Eastern, to EWTN for a new episode of the Papal Posse on ‘The World Over.’ TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal and contributor Fr. Gerald E. Murray will join host Raymond Arroyo to discuss the excommunication of Archbishop Viganò, further Latin Mass restrictions (projected to come later this month), as well as other developments in Rome and the U.S. Check your local listings for the channel in your area. Shows are usually available shortly after first airing on the EWTN YouTube channel.

Some years ago, Steven Spielberg speculated about making a film about Edgardo Mortara, a Catholic priest who as a boy in 1858 – a 6-year-old Jewish boy – was forcibly taken from his loving parents in Bologna and raised as a Catholic in Rome.

In the 21st century, it is difficult to understand why a pope – in this case, Pius IX – would have tolerated the seizure of a Jewish child for any reason, let alone on the flimsy assertion made by the Mortara’s illiterate, teenage Catholic housekeeper that, when she overheard the infant Edgardo’s parents praying in Hebrew over his crib, she feared for the infant’s imminent death and secretly baptized him.

Mr. Spielberg decided not to make the film, so we cannot know what sort of movie he might have produced, but it would almost certainly have been superior to (and likely more even-handed than) Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s Kidnapped (Rapito in Italian), which is, generally, anti-Catholic and, specifically, slanderous about Pio Nono, as Pius IX was affectionately known.

To quickly summarize the story’s outline (historical and cinematic): It was years after the surreptitious baptism that the housekeeper – by now dismissed by the Mortaras – confessed what she’d done, and word of it reached Bologna’s ecclesiastical inquisitor. The law then in force in the Papal States stipulated that all Catholic children must have a Catholic education, so the inquisitor sent the civil police (carabinieri) to the Mortara home. They seized the boy, and he was spirited off to Rome and, quite literally, into the loving arms of the pope.

Edgardo got that Catholic education – very much under the pope’s direction – from the elementary grades through seminary and ordination to the priesthood.

But slanderous? Yes, because it’s likely Pius knew of Edgardo’s seizure only after the fact. The Holy Office (aka the Inquisition) based its decision to take the boy on a 1747 papal bull of Benedict XIV, Postremo mense, that specifically addressed the baptizing of a Jewish child, in periculo mortis, without parental consent and authorizing the forcible removal of the child from the home – even though Judaism was the only religion officially tolerated in the Papal States. Papal power was supreme then, even civilly.

Kidnapped does not address the frequency with which the issue came up in Italy, but it was common enough that Jewish families had to be very careful in employing Catholic housekeepers and often, upon a housemaid’s termination, demanded notarized statements that no baptism had occurred.

Kidnapped flatly blames the pope, and – putting aside the facts above and any truly 19th-century context – presents Pio Nono as the kidnapper and, accordingly, a monster.

Now, whenever you read a work of history – even if the author is an admired historian – you know you are getting only a part of the story. This is true too of filmmakers who mix fact and fiction, as in Ridley Scott’s 2023 biopic, Napoleon, excoriated by historians – especially in France – for the film’s inaccuracies, most especially a scene in which Bonaparte unleashes cannons on the pyramids at Giza, a visually stunning scene, but one that never happened.

Given the worldwide decline of education in history, there may be many in France who saw Scott’s film and believed what they saw. Later, some, we hope, were corrected by those historians.

In any case, there are few in France, Italy, America, or anywhere else who know much about Pius IX, and I suspect Mr. Bellocchio was depending on that. Because . . .

We’re all his patsies! By that, I mean dupes for Bellocchio’s scheme; patsies from the Italian pazzi, meaning fools, lunatics, or – more in the American context – suckers.

How do we know what’s true? Maybe Pio Nono was the fulminating brute Bellocchio gives us. Kidnapped is the sort of movie that may only be fully judged by knowing the actual history.

Failing that. . .who are we to judge?

Well, if Kidnapped ever gets a wide release, which I doubt, Catholic historians will comment and then we may have a better idea of who Pio Nono really was.

But it requires no PhD in Vatican Studies to know certain things about him. For instance: He was pope between 1846 and 1878, the longest reign since St. Peter; his papacy came during one of Europe’s most turbulent eras – the revolutions of 1848 and after, which led to the end of the Papal States; in 1854, he promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception; and he called the First Vatican Council in 1868 and therein proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility.

And one might add that in 2000, St. John Paul II beatified Pius IX. Was Karol Wojtyla a pazzo?

The Italian rendering, Pio Nono, may seem fitting for a man famous for saying, “Non possumus” – We cannot – a phrase not infrequently used by him and other 19th-century and early 20th-century popes, who confronted the sweeping secularism rising in Europe and beyond.

An argument might be made that the Vatican had long violated Christ’s separation of Caesar and God; that the Vicar of Christ ought never to have been a civil authority. But Pius IX, though he was the last, certainly was not the first. Nor the worst.

In any case, we must not forget, as Mr. Bellocchio seems to (a title-card epilog notwithstanding), that Fr. Edgardo Mortara loved his spiritual father and served the Church with love and loyalty throughout his long priesthood. He died in 1940 at the age of 88.

Mortara’s would certainly be the longest-ever case of Stockholm Syndrome, were he so traumatized by his abduction and browbeaten by his catechists that, like Pio Nono, he became a “prisoner of the Vatican.” That’s not credible.

Of course, it’s understandable that his story was, at the time, an international sensation, one that stoked the flames of anti-Catholicism nearly everywhere – not least in America. Fr. Mortara even joked that his abduction had become “more famous than that of the Sabine Women.”

And one must be sympathetic to the concerns of Jews today about elevating Pio Nono to sainthood.

But I think it comes down to G.K. Chesterton’s observation:

You cannot be just in history. Have enthusiasm, have pity, have quietude and observation, but do not imagine that you will have what you call truth. Applaud, admire, reverence, denounce, execrate. But judge not, that ye be not judged.


Not that you’ll likely find it at “a theater near you,” but Kidnapped has no MPAA rating. If it did, it would probably be PG-13. I’ll add that the cinematography by Francesco Di Giacomo is first-rate.


You may also enjoy:

+ James V. Schall, S.J. The Immaculate Conception

George J. Marlin and Brad Miner America’s (Reluctant) First Cardinal

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.