The story of Elian is Dickensian in its cruelties, for it containsstorms at sea, the death of a young mother, the fustian posturing oflawyers and government officials--and the boy himself all but lost in theblack hole of political manipulation.
It does not make Elian's tale less sad to recall a similarsensational case that, with a different cast of characters, occurred inthe mid-19th century.
In 1858, Pope Pius IX--whose huge black coach pulled by farm-sizewhite horses was often spotted by the young Henry James as it rumbledacross the ancient Roman stones--had a 6-year-old boy, Edgardo Mortara,kidnapped from his parents' home in Bologna and brought to live with himin the Vatican.
Pio Nono, as he was known, could order such an action because atthat time the papal states still existed, Bologna fell within them, andthe police were, in fact, in the pope's service.
Pio Nono, who reigned for 42 years, later managed the declaration ofpapal infallibility through the first Vatican Council. He had no doubtsabout what he did or how he did it.
This dramatic episode took place after the pope heard that aCatholic woman had baptized Edgardo when he was ill during his firstyear of life. The papal investigators in Bologna believed the woman andthe police removed him from his home.
As told by David Kertzer in his remarkable book, "The Kidnapping ofEdgardo Mortara" (Knopf, 1997), the officials gave his parents noexplanation for this extraordinary action. While they tried on their ownto find out what happened, the pope announced Edgardo would be raised asa Catholic.
Against an explosion of international publicity, the parents traveled to Rome to retrieve their child but were allowed only to visit him and were not permitted to take him home.
The pope took the view somewhat parallel to that taken by those whoclaim that Elian should not be returned to his father because theenvironment is too hostile. The Vatican newspaper suggested that, werehe returned home, the boy would be forced to renounce the faith, notmentioning that it had been forced on him.
Playing one of the most insidious of anti-Semitic charges, thearticle's author asked, "Would it seem right and generous to place thisinnocent boy on this cross?" This question resonated with the hatefulrumors that Jews crucified Christian boys.
The pope justified himself by claiming, as he would in later issuinghis notorious Syllabus of Errors, in which he condemned everything hethought modern, including freedom of conscience, that he was taking astand against the ways of the secular world. He resisted all entreatiesfrom concerned Catholics and others who wanted the boy back with hisparents.
When a foreign minister told the pope that the modern world wasanxious for the boy's being re-united with his parents, Pio Nonoreplied, "What you call the modern world is simply Freemasonry."
The pontiff told a journalist sympathetic to him that the trouble overEdgardo was caused by "the freethinkers, the disciples of Rousseau andMalthus."
The pope rebuffed every delegation and ridiculed every argument aswhen he scribbled on the bottom of a letter from a Catholic protestinghis actions, "...doesn't know his catechism."
He turned away foreign delegations, including the distinguishedEnglish Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, rationalizing thecriticism as uniting him with the misunderstood Jesus.
How did it come out? How will it all come out for Elian Gonzalez?
These are intertwined questions because the factors and forces arrayedin both cases are so similar: a parent seeking redress, a powerful stateresisting, if not shrugging off, all criticism. And what of fatherhoodand its rights and what, in the long run, will help or harm the boy? Andwho will claim political triumph and how hollow may it seem viewed laterin a better light?
The pope raised the boy, often surprising crowds by opening his redcloak to reveal the child hiding in its folds. He felt vindicated whenEdgardo became a priest--when the pope got that dangerous thing, what heprayed for.
A few years later, another Jewish boy was baptized in Rome and keptfrom his family. This stirred the embers of the Mortara kidnapping and,according to some historians, contributed to the uprisings that strippedthe pope of his territories and temporal power in 1871.
"It is not good," John Henry Newman wrote at the time, "for a popeto live 20 years (in office)."