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Let My People Go

The real story of the Catholic Church’s position on slavery

“I’d like to buy your argument,” replied the professor, “but the facts are other than you assert. How is it that Catholic countries such as Spain and Portugal promoted the slave trade in America, if, as you claim, the Catholic Church actually brought the end of slavery? How do explain certain bishops of the American South defending the practice?”

My zealous Catholic classmate’s argument only served to provoke our European history professor, a middle-aged lapsed Catholic, who now lobbed at my friend what even I—a fellow Catholic and therefore a sympathetic observer—took to be the obvious, crushing rejoinder. My friend gave no reply, except to mutter a few irrelevant observations about Anglo-American Evangelicals and abolitionism. The subject, the professor reminded us, was the Catholic Church and slavery, not Evangelicalism. The Catholics left that undergraduate history class thoroughly trounced.

I said nothing the whole time, vowing to look into the subject when I could. That turned out to be a decade or so later. The matter, I discovered, was more complicated than either my friend or our professor had let on. The Catholic Church’s record on slavery is not the wicked thing the professor suggested. More interesting, though, was the use to which that record was put by many dissenting Catholics to lobby for changes in Catholic moral teaching.

Therein lies a tale. But before we consider it, we should be clear about what we mean by slavery and the real story of the Catholic Church’s position on it. As used here, “slavery” is the condition of involuntary servitude in which a human being is regarded as no more than the property of another, as being without basic human rights; in other words, as a thing rather than a person. Under this definition, slavery is intrinsically evil, since no person may legitimately be reduced to the status of a mere thing or object and thus become capable of being the property of another person. This form of slavery can be called “chattel slavery.” (There are other ways in which the term can be used, such as in reference to biblical slavery, where slaves were regarded as property but nonetheless as bearers of human rights.)

However, there are circumstances in which a person can justly be compelled to servitude against his will. Prisoners of war or criminals, for example, can justly lose their circumstantial freedom and be forced into servitude, within certain limits. Moreover, people can also “sell” their labor for a period of time (indentured servitude).

These forms of servitude or slavery differ in kind from what we are calling chattel slavery. While prisoners of war and criminals can lose their freedom against their will, they do not become mere property of their captors, even when such imprisonment is just. They still possess basic, inalienable human rights and may not justly be subjected to certain forms of punishment — torture, for example. Similarly, indentured servants “sell” their labor, not their inalienable rights, and may not contract to provide services which are immoral. Moreover, they freely agree to exchange their labor for some benefit such as transportation, food, lodging, et cetera. Consequently, their servitude is not involuntary.

The Second Vatican Council condemned slavery (i.e., chattel slavery): “Whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery . . . the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed . . . they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (Gaudium et spes 27; cf. no 29). Unfortunately, what Vatican II said about slavery is of little interest to opponents of Catholicism and Catholic dissenters, except insofar as they think it useful to demonstrate Catholic hypocrisy.

The essential anti-Catholic argument is this: “Catholicism must be false because it once endorsed slavery. The early Church approved slavery, as seen by St. Paul’s command for slaves to obey their masters (Col 3:22-25; Eph 6:5-8). Furthermore, the Catholic Church didn’t get around to repudiating slavery until the 1890s and prior to that actually supported it. That the Church no longer does is fine. But this only proves the malleability of Catholic doctrine. Furthermore, if Catholicism can flip-flop on such an important moral issue as slavery, why not on others of its supposedly unchangeable doctrines, such as as the immorality of contraception or abortion?”

Slavery and the First Christians

But did the early Church endorse slavery? Certainly, the early Christians more or less tolerated the slavery of their day, as seen from the New Testament itself and the fact that after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, slavery was not immediately outlawed. Even so, this doesn’t mean Christianity was compatible with Roman slavery or that the early Church did not contribute to its demise. In that regard, there are a number of important points to be kept in mind.

First, while Paul told slaves to obey their masters, he made no general defense of slavery as such, anymore than he made a general defense of the pagan government of Rome, which Christians were also instructed to obey despite its injustices (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). He seems simply to have regarded slavery as an intractable part of the social order, an order which he may well have thought would pass away shortly (1 Cor 7:29-31).

Second, Paul told masters to treat their slaves justly and kindly (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1), implying that slaves are not mere property for masters to do with as they please.

Third, Paul implied that the brotherhood shared by Christians is ultimately incompatible with chattel slavery. In the case of the runaway slave Onesimus, Paul wrote to Philemon, the slave’s master, instructing him to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother” (Philem. 6). With respect to salvation in Christ, Paul insisted that “there is neither slave nor free . . . you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28).

Fourth, the Christian principles of charity (“love your neighbor as yourself”) and the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would them to do unto you”) espoused by the New Testament writers are ultimately incompatible with chattel slavery, even if, because of its deeply established role as a social institution, this point was not clearly understood by all at the time.

Fifth, while the Christian Empire didn’t immediately outlaw slavery, some Church fathers (such as Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom) strongly denounced it. But then, the state has often failed to enact a just social order in accordance with Church teachings.

Sixth, some early Christians liberated their slaves, while some churches redeemed slaves using the congregation’s common means. Other Christians even sacrificially sold themselves into slavery to emancipate others.

Seventh, even where slavery was not altogether repudiated, the slaves and freemen had equal access to the sacraments, and many clerics were from slave backgrounds, including two popes (Pius I and Callistus). This implies a fundamental equality incompatible with slavery.

Eighth, the Church ameliorated the harsher aspects of slavery in the Empire, even trying to protect slaves by law, until slavery all but disappeared in the West. It was, of course, to re-emerge during the Renaissance, as Europeans encountered Muslim slave traders and the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The Catholic Church and Slavery

What about the charge that the Catholic Church did not condemn slavery until the 1890s and actually approved of it before then? In fact, the popes vigorously condemned African and Indian thralldom three and four centuries earlier—a fact amply documented by Fr. Joel Panzer in his book, The Popes and Slavery. The argument that follows is largely based on his study.

Sixty years before Columbus “discovered” the New World, Pope Eugene IV condemned the enslavement of peoples in the newly colonized Canary Islands. His bull Sicut Dudum (1435) rebuked European enslavers and commanded that “all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of [the] Canary Islands . . . who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.”

A century later, Pope Paul III applied the same principle to the newly encountered inhabitants of the West and South Indies in the bull Sublimis Deus (1537). Therein he described the enslavers as allies of the devil and declared attempts to justify such slavery “null and void.” Accompanying the bull was another document, Pastorale Officium, which attached a latae sententiae excommunication remittable only by the pope himself for those who attempted to enslave the Indians or steal their goods.

When Europeans began enslaving Africans as a cheap source of labor, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was asked about the morality of enslaving innocent blacks (Response of the Congregation of the Holy Office, 230, March 20, 1686). The practice was rejected, as was trading such slaves. Slaveholders, the Holy Office declared, were obliged to emancipate and even compensate blacks unjustly enslaved.

Papal condemnation of slavery persisted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pope Gregory XVI’s 1839 bull, In Supremo, for instance, reiterated papal opposition to enslaving “Indians, blacks, or other such people” and forbade “any ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade in blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse.” In 1888 and again in 1890, Pope Leo XIII forcefully condemned slavery and sought its elimination where it persisted in parts of South America and Africa.

Despite this evidence, critics still insist the Magisterium did too little too late regarding slavery. Why? One reason is the critics’ failure to distinguish between just and unjust forms of servitude. The Magisterium condemned unjust enslavement early on, but it also recognized what is known as “just title slavery.” That included forced servitude of prisoners of war and criminals, and voluntary servitude of indentured servants, forms of servitude mentioned at the outset of this article. But chattel slavery as practiced in the United States and elsewhere differed in kind, not merely degree, from just title slavery. For it made a claim on the slave as property and enslaved people who were not criminals or prisoners of war. By focusing on just title servitude, critics unfairly neglect the vigorous papal denunciations of chattel slavery.

The matter is further muddled by certain nineteenth century American clergy—including some bishops and theologians—who tried to defend the American slave system. They contended that the long-standing papal condemnations of slavery didn’t apply to the United States. The slave trade, some argued, had been condemned by Pope Gregory XVI, but not slavery itself.

Historians critical of the papacy on this matter often make that same argument. But papal teaching condemned both the slave trade and chattel slavery itself (leaving aside “just title” servitude, which wasn’t at issue). It was certain members of the American hierarchy of the time who “explained away” that teaching. “Thus,” according to Fr. Panzer, “we can look to the practice of non-compliance with the teachings of the papal Magisterium as a key reason why slavery was not directly opposed by the Church in the United States.”

Another reason may have been the precarious position of the Catholic Church in America before the twentieth century. Catholics used to be a small and much-despised minority. They were subject to repeated attacks by Protestant “Nativists.” In many ways, the American hierarchy of the day was trying to protect the Catholics immigrating to the U.S. and did not regard itself as in a position to be the leader in a major social crusade.

Does Development Justify Every Change?

For many Catholics today the key question is: Does previous Catholic practice regarding slavery amount to a change of doctrine such as would allow Catholic teaching on other subjects—such as contraception and abortion—to change as well?

The answer: In no way. The Church’s teaching about the dignity and basic equality of all human beings has been clarified to such a degree that any earlier ambiguity about the tolerance of chattel slavery has been eradicated. The Church’s teaching regarding contraception and abortion can also be said to have developed, but not in the direction of approving those practices.

While the Church has never allowed or tolerated contraception, the discovery of the female fertility cycle and birth control pill have led the Church to consider what her traditional teaching has to say about such things. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have declared that contraception is intrinsically evil and have articulated personalist explanations of the Church’s traditional teaching. They have also reaffirmed the teaching of the predecessors Pius XI and Pius XII that a couple can licitly have recourse to infertile times in a woman’s cycle to avoid pregnancy for legitimate reasons. As a result, Natural Family Planning has developed as a moral means of family planning without altering in the slightest the Church’s stand against contraception.

Regarding abortion, the Church has always taught that it is gravely evil at any stage of pregnancy. Since recent advances in science have shown that human life begins at conception, medieval arguments about delayed animation and hominization advocated by some theologians (though never by the Magisterium and which were never thought to justify abortion) must now be rejected. Killing an early embryo is killing a young human being, not an undeveloped pre-human entity. Because of modern developments, the Church’s perennial opposition to abortion is on firmer, not weaker, ground.

Moreover, a development of Church teaching in one area that would now forbid what was once tolerated (chattel slavery) doesn’t imply or require a development in Church teaching in another area (sexual morality) that would allow what has always been forbidden (contraception and abortion). To argue that it does is a non sequitur. 

Does all of this let individual Catholics “off the hook” when it comes to slavery? Certainly not. Those who in invincible ignorance owned slaves and regarded them as mere property did what is objectively evil, regardless of their subjective culpability. Certainly their slaves suffered even if their masters somehow lacked full culpability due to invincible ignorance. And, of course, those who were deliberately cruel to their slaves committed grave sins that stand under God’s judgment.

At the same time, Christianity in general—and Catholicism in particular—contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery and the emergence of a common appreciation for fundamental human rights. Catholics, not Protestants, worked for the abolition of slavery in Latin American countries like Brazil. The Catholic appreciation of natural law—as opposed to the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (when Scripture tells slaves to obey their masters)—has always made slavery less reconcilable with Catholicism than Protestantism. The Church’s consistent teaching that all men are made in God’s image and are called to redemption in Christ has helped give rise to the modern notion of human rights and equality—ideas diametrically opposed to chattel slavery that have led to a great diminishment in its practice.

So my eager Catholic college chum wasn’t entirely wrong, though having some facts in hand would have helped him make his case. If he had, it probably wouldn’t have convinced our erstwhile Catholic professor. But surely it would have given the other Catholics in the class more confidence in their Church.

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