One hundred and fifty years ago this June, the Edgardo Mortara case shocked the world. Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy in Italy, was taken from his family by the papal authorities and raised as a Catholic under the supervision of the pope. This was done under the law in Bologna, then part of the Papal States, after it was discovered that, five years earlier, the boy’s Catholic nanny had secretly baptized the one-year-old child when he fell ill and she feared he was going to die. The law required that this “Catholic” boy receive a Catholic education.
This story, a major sensation at the time that had vast repercussions, has garnered added attention lately because of coverage in First Things, long the country’s premier journal of religion and public life, of the recent publication of an English edition of Mortara’s memoirs. The article in First Things on the new translation got so much attention because the article’s author appeared to be justifying the abduction of the boy by the pope and his police. Or, if “justifying” is too strong of a word, let me say “explaining sympathetically.” Needless to say, this brought some heat on First Things’s editor, who was criticized for publishing the piece.
Without getting into the fight over the Mortara case itself or the questionable article inspired by the memoir, let me quote the opening line of the editor’s response to the criticism of his decision to print the article: “The Edgardo Mortara episode is a stain on the Catholic Church. Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of baptism, forcibly separating a child from his parents is a grievous act. And even if one can construct a theoretical rationale for doing so, as Romanus Cessario [the author of the article] does, it was wildly imprudent of Pius IX to take Edgardo from his parents, given the scandal it brought upon the Catholic Church, a scandal that continues to this day.”
In considering these words, setting aside politics and motivations and so forth, what we have before us is a fundamental issue concerning religious freedom. We have before us the underlying question of whether people have the right to choose and live their faith free from interference by the government or whether the limits of religious freedom are determined solely by judgments of prudence, such as whether encroachments on religious freedom will detract from a state’s international standing. In other words, we have the question of whether people have a right to religious freedom in principle or only in practice when it suits the state.
I take the first view, namely that religious freedom is a God-given, inalienable right. To be sure, this does not mean that the right to religious freedom has no limits. Like with other rights, reasonable limits can and do exist, but the nature and scope of those limits is a subject for another time.
But, today, we see emerging on the right some heavy criticism of classical liberalism and individual rights. For these critics, the problem with classical liberalism isn’t that we’re doing the American experiment wrong, that we’ve lost our way or forgotten the vision of Founders, but that the American experiment is fatally flawed and bound to fail. They reject classical liberalism in principle and especially its emphasis on individual rights. I accept that the individualist tendencies of classical liberalism need to be balanced with other values such as community and authority but not because classical liberalism is itself poison. Indeed, I think all conservatives agree that individual rights are not enough, but the question is whether they are actually the problem. Though it would be overstating things to say that these thinkers constitute a group or a school of thought, the net result of their work is a constellation of figures on the right who, in different ways and for different reasons, variously question political liberty, economic liberty, and religious liberty.
What do these critics of classical liberalism envision: Is their goal to build a newer, better, likely-smaller Christendom, or is the goal to create just enough space to rebuild a Christian culture within a classical liberal order? Do they wish to reground individual rights on a true and sound basis, or do they want to instrumentalize, minimize, and relativize individual rights, which they see an inimical to the common good in the long run? Do they believe in political, economic, and religious liberty not just in prudence but in principle? Do they believe it was wrong for the pope to kidnap Edgardo Mortara or just poor judgment about the consequences? In the end, do they see classical liberalism and Christianity as compatible or incompatible?
(For another take on the First Things article, see this piece in the Jewish Review of Books by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia.)
[Note: This is excerpted, and slightly edited, from a speech I gave recently.]