The National Catholic Reporter published, in 2018, an incendiary article directed at Fr. Romanus Cessario, a brilliant Dominican who is currently a professor at Ave Maria University. Michael Sean Winters found much to complain about in Fr. Cessario’s article (Non Possumus) on the extraordinary life of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy baptized when his life was in danger and who was taken to be raised as a ward of Pius IX, the beloved Pio Nono.
It must be kept in mind that Fr. Cessario was not merely writing an article on Mortara but rather writing a book review. Along the way, he inserted Catholic Church teaching to show that what happened was not objectively wrong or horrifying. During this time, the pope still retained temporal authority in the Papal States, which included the city of Bologna, where the Mortara family resided. When young Edgardo was severely ill, his Catholic nanny secretly baptized him. Due to the existing laws in the Papal States, which included raising someone Catholic who had been validly baptized, Mortara was removed from his Jewish family to be brought up according to his Catholic faith. He was later ordained a priest and sent to Spain.
I can understand how most people would not understand this situation. On its face, it appears that the Inquisition kidnapped a Jewish boy and forced him to live a faith he did not understand at first. However, Winters seems to believe just that (Fr. Cessario's Edgardo Mortara Essay is Inexcusable). He actually uses the word “kidnapped”, as if the Catholics committed some crime. Winters shows abysmal ignorance of the fundamental issues at stake here, as Edgardo was a Catholic. A short summation of the facts might be that a Catholic boy was removed from a Jewish home and raised in his faith. What is the big deal?
The bad press this incident received when it happened came mainly from those already hostile to the Church, such as characters in the Risorgimento movement and many prominent American newspapers. Fr. Cessario points out the hypocritical nature of those condemning the Pope and the Inquisition, saying that the same people who tried to accuse the Catholics of kidnapping tried themselves to kidnap Mortara from his seminary. Interesting. Similarly, the European governments expressing such moral outrage were simultaneously supporting Islamic regimes that forcibly castrated Christian converts. This is where Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:3-5 would apply.
Fr. Cessario also makes a strong argument based on the indelible character left on the soul at Baptism. He quotes the Catechism, saying: “Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark of his belonging to Christ” (CCC, 1272). Analogous to a cattle brand in the Old West, the validly baptized are marked forever as a Catholic, thus “[consecrating] the baptized person person for Christian worship. Because of the character Baptism cannot be repeated” (CCC, 1280). Winters rejects this basic sacramental theology, also claiming that Pius IX could have changed the laws if he wanted. Why would the pope change a law requiring Catholics to be brought up as Catholics? The faulty logic is staggering.
Winters claims he agrees with Cessario in his quotation of St. Paul: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Winters tries to argue that this should be for the Jews as well, but Paul would not agree with him there. Earlier in the chapter, he wrote: “What Israel was seeking it did not attain, but the elect attained it; the rest were hardened, as it is written: ‘God gave them a spirit of deep sleep, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day’” (Romans 11:7-8). This suggests that due to their rejection of Jesus, the Jews were prevented from coming to him as easily as the Gentiles, as Paul says in verse 11. Is Winters ignorant of this, or is he ignoring it to prove his point? To avoid this article sounding like a Church Militant-style diatribe, I will give him the benefit of the doubt.
To begin his article, however, Winters does sound like he writes for Church Militant: “Dominican Fr. Romanus Cessario, professor of systematic theology at St. John's Seminary, associate editor of The Thomist, senior editor of Magnificat, and general editor of the Catholic Moral Thought series at the Catholic University of America Press, should be sacked. Not permitted to retire early. Not permitted to resign. He should be sacked and sacked publicly.” Not content with this, though, Winters attacks the suck-up appeasement article written by R. R. Reno, editor of First Things (Judaism, Christianity, and First Things). Admittedly, Reno sounds like Neville Chamberlain, trying to make everybody happy and only making a fool of himself. Much like Casaroli-style detente, it fails in the end.
Reno tries to appeal to the emotions of his reader by telling of his Jewish wife and children and asking his reader to imagine Jewish gendarmes coming to take them away. Nice try, Rusty. Telling another story of his acquaintance, he asks: “Had I betrayed the Lord by commending the natural good of the family over the truths of my own faith?” All he needs to do to find his answer is open his Bible: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Sometimes it might hurt and be very inconvenient to follow Jesus, but what is more important: pleasure on earth, or eternal life? Winters calls Cessario’s article “ridiculous and offensive”, but that should apply to Reno’s piece, at least as far as the “ridiculous” is concerned.
Winters implies that the problems in the Church arise from Reno and those he publishes (not all of whom are the conservative, traditional Catholics WInters seems to assume) applying “a singular a priori theological principle to the exclusion of other theological principles”. Well, that doesn’t seem true. Cessario approached his article from historical, theological, philosophical, and legal angles, under a larger Thomistic umbrella. That sounds pretty wholistic. Maybe Winters didn’t pick up on that, though, as he was probably reading it only to criticize rather than learn.
In his final paragraph, Winters says, “Only a failure to recognize the human dignity of our Jewish brothers and sisters can account for the crime then, or for Cessario’s attempts to excuse it now”. Actually, Winters here fails to recognize the good of the soul outweighs the good of the body, for as Jesus said, “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matthew 10:28).
A brief scan of Winters' latest articles shows that complaining about the unmasked and unvaxxed and the TLM and associated pet issues is up to the usual number. I do not understand how someone can spend an entire journalistic career perpetually complaining about “the other side”, but I suppose that can be found in both camps (again: Church Militant). When approaching stories like this, all we need is the facts, untainted by any partisan polemic, which is exactly what Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP, did, and Michael Sean Winters did not.