Papal Teaching on Slavery
To see a cuckoo’s egg tradition in action we will analyse the Church’s past teaching on slavery. For, believe it or not, for more than 1500 years Church leaders upheld as Catholic teaching that slavery was a legitimate institution — no, worse: that slavery was an institution actually willed by God!
In 1866, the Vicar Apostolic of the Galla region in southern Ethiopia asked the Congregation for Doctrine: “Is slavery in harmony with Catholic doctrine?” It should be remembered that at the time slavery had already been abolished in Great Britain and all its dominions, in the USA, in Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and most other civilized countries. In spite of this, the Congregation answered with an emphatic ‘Yes’.
“Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons . . . ”
“It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given, provided that in this sale, purchase, exchange or gift, the due conditions are strictly observed which the approved authors likewise describe and explain. Among these conditions the most important ones are that the purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue or Catholic faith of the slave who is to be transferred to another’s possession.”
In other words: though one should protect the life, virtue and faith of the slave, slavery as such is (a) in harmony with natural law, that is: human nature as created by God; and (b) in harmony with divine law, that is: with God’s will as revealed in Scripture. The present teaching of the Church is — thanks be to God! — different. Vatican II declared every form of slavery as being “contrary to God’s intent” and the Church endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which rejects all slavery as contrary to human nature. The new official Catechism of the Catholic Church states the principle.
“The seventh commandment [= you shall not steal] forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity.” (no 2414).
If this is Church teaching now, how then did the endorsement of slavery retain a place in Catholic teaching till the end of the nineteenth century? The answer is: it was implanted as a cuckoo’s egg.
Spotting the elusive parent cuckoo
The origin of the spurious tradition was Greek philosophy and more specifically one of its prominent heroes: Aristotle (384 – 322 BC). Aristotle’s ideas influenced the Church Fathers in a general sort of way. But it was in the Middle Ages most of all that he was ‘rediscovered’ by the Church so that his opinions were cast in concrete by Church law and doctrine.
Aristotle drew his conclusions from observations. He taught that slavery is natural because some people seem by nature destined to be slaves.
“That person is by nature a slave who can belong to another person and who only takes part in thinking by recognizing it, but not by possessing it. Other living beings [= animals] cannot recognize thinking; they just obey feelings.However, there is little difference between using slaves and using tame animals: both provide bodily help to do necessary things.”
Aristotle then proceeds to describe a slave’s position and it is truly terrifying. A slave is no more than ‘a tool of his master’. Together with the wife and the ox, a male or female slave is a householder’s indispensable beast of burden. He or she should be kept well — for simple economic reasons. But slaves have no right to leisure or free time. They own nothing and can take no decisions. They have no part in enjoyment and happiness, and are not members of the community.
For the same reason Aristotle also justifies wars to capture new slaves. For some people ‘are by nature destined to be ruled, even though they resist it’; like wild animals that need to be tamed. He even says that all foreigners to some extent belong to this category.
“That is why the poets say: ‘It is correct that Greeks rule Barbarians’; for by nature what is barbarian and what is slave are the same.”
It was also Aristotle, by the way, who taught that it is inherent in human nature for a woman to be dominated by a man. Slaves, tame animals and women fit in roughly similar categories.
“It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.”
The prevailing cultural tradition saw society as layered in higher and lower forms of human being. Women were inferior to men by nature. Barbarians were inferior to Greeks by nature. Slaves were slaves because they were inferior by nature. The New Testament message contrasted sharply with this by a revolutionary new vision. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither free nor slave, neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Unfortunately, this original vision of universal equality and freedom was soon obscured by Christians themselves. What happened, to make a long story short, is that Christians almost from the beginning lacked the spiritual enlightenment and will of character to break with the existing social systems. Instead of reaffirming people’s new freedom in Christ, they gradually fell back into an acceptance of the pagan world views of their own culture.
Aristotle’s teaching on slavery was quoted implicitly and explicitly by the Fathers of the Church. It did not stay there. Through the collection of laws known as the Decree of Gratian (Bologna 1140), they entered into the official law book of the Church. St. Aquinas, the leading theologian of the Middle Ages, followed Aristotle. He agreed to all the pagan views, with just a dash of holy water. Slavery, he said, is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is the consequence of sin by a kind of ‘second intention of nature’. He justified slavery on these titles: enslavement imposed as punishment; capture in conquest; people who sold themselves to pay off debts or who were sold by a court for that reason; children born of a slave mother.
But surely the Fathers of the Church and the great theologians of the Middle Ages would not base Christian teaching on the writings of a pagan philosopher? The answer is: yes and no. They didn’t and they did. For the pagan arguments were presented under scriptural colours. Remember the cuckoo’s trick of imitating eggs . . . ?
Theologians were convinced slavery belonged to Catholic doctrine. It was manifestly contained, they thought, in the Word of God. “It is certainly a matter of faith that slavery in which a man serves his master as a slave, is altogether lawful. This can be proved from Holy Scripture.” We can only uncover their misjudgment by looking at the texts they quoted.
The Old Testament took the institution of slavery for granted. Israelites could be enslaved by other Israelites as penalty for theft, to pay off debt, by purchase from a foreigner, and by sale of a daughter by her father. These kind of texts became the source on which canon lawyers and theologians constructed the four ‘just titles of slavery’ as mentioned in the instruction of the Holy Office quoted above: capture in war, just condemnation, purchase, exchange and birth — the child of a slave mother was automatically a slave! But such Old Testament laws are invalid now.
Paul had clearly shown that the Old Testament Law had been abrogated. The principle of equality in Christ of Jew and Greek, slave and free, man and woman, had been clearly enunciated. The Old Testament arguments were really not scriptural at all; they were Greek cultural ideas disguised as biblical proofs!
But did Jesus not condone slavery? Did he not teach slavery in more than one parable?
“Suppose one of you has a slave who returns from the fields after ploughing or minding the sheep, will he say to him: ‘Sit down now and have your meal’?
Will he not more likely say: ‘Get my supper ready. Tidy up and serve me while I eat and drink. You yourself can have your meal afterwards’?
Will he be grateful to his slave for doing what he was told?
In the same way, when you have done all you have been told to do, say: ‘We are only slaves. We have done no more than our duty’.”
Fathers of the Church, theologians and Popes have used such Gospel passages to prove that slavery is willed by God. Jesus himself, they said, accepted slavery. Jesus gave examples from slavery which show that he took the subordination of slaves for granted, they said. What is more, Jesus admired the service of submissive and humble slaves. Therefore, slavery is something beautiful that is not contrary to God’s will!
Now here we have to be careful. Yes, Jesus at times adduced the example of slavery to make a point. Jesus based his parables on everyday life and slavery was a reality people were familiar with. But it is not legitimate to conclude from his alluding to slavery in a parable that he endorsed slavery. The examples which Jesus adduces from everyday life, often contain abuses that he does not condone: the unjust steward who cheats, the thief who breaks in at night, the man who finds a treasure in a field, then buys the field without disclosing its value, and so on.
Again we find that the medieval acceptance of slavery was read into Jesus’ words. To my knowledge, no one ever claimed that tampering with one’s boss’s accounts is alright because Jesus praised the unjust steward. And no one has asserted that burglary is allowed when it is done at night. The egg of slavery, however, got the colouring of Jesus’ teaching.
The what about the Pastoral Letters? Don’t they command slaves to be resigned to their condition?
“Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eye-service as just pleasing people, but in singleness of heart, pleasing the Lord. Whatever your task work with commitment, as serving the Lord and not human beings.”
The argument is invalid because, in these letters, the authors address the immediate situation of their audiences, in which social slavery was a fact. Deducing general principles regarding slavery from the text goes beyond their intended scope. The Apostles do not discuss slavery as such, but only the practical question: “How does a Christian behave in this particular context?”
But were no voices raised in protest? You may ask.. There were. They were brutally squashed, however, by the brutal efficiency of the cuckoo chicken.
In the Early Church Paul’s principle of ‘no free, no slave . . . we are one in Christ’ was put into practice by some communities. St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa in present-day Turkey, advocated the total abolition of slavery. “To own people is to buy the image of God”, he taught. He records that in his cathedral slaves were released from their bondage on the day of Easter “according to the custom of the Church”.
Gregory (335 – 394) was a distinguished Church leader in his time. He took part in the Council of Antioch and wrote famous books such as the Creation of Humankind, Great Catechesis, and the Life of Macrina. With regard to slaves, Gregory pleaded for Christians to listen to their consciences.
“You condemn a person to slavery who by nature is free and independent, and so you make laws opposed to God and to his natural law. For you have subjected to the yoke of slavery a person who was made precisely to be lord of the earth and whom the Creator intended to be a ruler, thus resisting and rejecting his divine precept. Have you forgotten what limits were set to your authority? God limited your ownership to brute animals alone . . . ”
Gregory adduces many other arguments. Slaves can be seen to be equal to their masters as human beings. What price could ever buy human freedom? His prophetic voice and that of others were not heeded. The fat cuckoo hatchling of profitable cultural enslavement made sure it held the nest for itself.
Another chance for the genuine Catholic doctrine of human freedom came with the discovery of overseas colonies in the 16th century. The Catholic Kings of Spain and Portugal had an important role to play in this. Again the question arose in the minds and hearts of some conscientious Christians: May we just legitimately enslave these nations? Is slavery truly in harmony with God’s will? The Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who had ministered to slaves in Peru, argued that slavery should on principle not be tolerated. He presented his case to the King who organized a consultation.
It resulted into debates at Valladolid, then the court of the Spanish King, in the years 1550 and 1551. On the side of slave hunters stood the traditional theologian Bishop Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, on the side of the Indians Bartolomé de las Casas.
Letter of Bartholomew de las Cases to Emperor Charles V (1527) in which he writes: “The capture of the Indians by Spanish masters is against the law of God and your Majesty is compelled by divine precept and law to declare them free”.
Quoting Aristotle — are we surprised? — , Sepúlveda contended that the Spanish were engaged in a just war of conquest. Moreover, he said, the Indians are barbarians who deserve to become slaves. And Jesus himself approves of slavery and so does Paul.
De las Casas on the other hand, who had been a missionary in Peru, maintained that the Indians were human beings, as much created in God’s image as Spaniards. They possessed a high culture, he said, and slavery was against the spirit of the Scriptures. He also rejected the authority of Aristotle, ‘a gentile burning in hell, whose doctrine we do not need to follow except in so far as it conforms with Christian truth’.
Here are some of De las Casas’ pleadings:
“Our Christian religion is suitable for, and may be adapted to all the nations of the world, and all alike can receive it. No single person may be deprived of his liberty; or enslaved on the excuse that he is a natural slave . . . Are these Indians not people like us? Do they not have rational souls? Are we not obliged to love them as we love ourselves?”
Such appeals were not welcome to the slave traders and their colonial overlords. Small wonder that the slave traders won the day. The same happened to later Catholic theologians and bishops who fought for the true Catholic doctrine of freedom for all. In the 18th century they were: Abbé Raynal and Abbé Grégoire in France, and in the 19th century Johann Sailer, Bishop of Ratisbon in Germany.
Then what about the Popes? Did they not steer the Church away from slavery? The answer is: they did not. They too believed and taught that slavery was part of Catholic doctrine.
Bonding by the foster parents
Understandably perhaps, popes consider themselves first and foremost guardians of Tradition. And Tradition is judged by what has been done in the Church throughout the centuries, without examining the credentials of the practice. It is as if Church leaders in this way become ‘bonded’ to the practice, not unlike hosts birds are bonded to the cuckoo chick.
In 362 AD a diocesan council at Gangra in present-day Turkey excommunicated whoever dared to encourage a slave to despise his master or escape from his service. Although this was a purely local event, it was a dangerous precedent. In 650 AD, acting on this precedent Pope Martin I condemned people who taught slaves about freedom or helped them escape.
A number of Church Councils imposed slavery as a form of punishment. It was used with a twisted sense of justice against priests who transgressed the new law of priestly celibacy. The ninth council of Toledo in Spain (655 AD) imposed permanent slavery on the children of priests — how could these poor boys and girls be held responsible for their father violating a rule of Church discipline? The Synod of Melfi under Pope Urban II (1089 AD) inflicted unredeemable slavery on the wives of priests. Again, a cruel kind of misguided justice that betrayed every human right under the sun. But in terms of ecclesiastical bonding, it added weight to presumed Tradition. The Church itself imposed slavery. So it can be done. So it must be right!
The legitimacy of slavery was incorporated into official Church law from the first collection under Gratian (1140 AD). Then in 1454, through the bull Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V authorized the king of Portugal to enslave all the Muslim and pagan nations his armies may conquer. Pope Alexander VI extended this license to the king of Spain (1493 AD): permitting him to enslave non-Christians of the Americas who were at war with Christian powers. The two major Catholic colonial empires thus acquired a blanket Church sanction for capturing the local natives and employing them on their estates as slaves.
When the facts of slave labour and of especially the slave trade from Africa began to filter through to the Vatican chambers in Rome, Popes began to express their concern. This was good. The Popes began to criticize the exploitation of the native peoples. But unfortunately, they did not examine the principle of slavery itself. Thus Pope Paul III, in 1537, condemned the indiscriminate enslavement of Indians in South America. But when challenged, he confirmed ten years later that both clergy and laity had the right to own slaves. A century later, in 1639, Pope Urban VIII again raised his voice against unjust practices against the natives, but did not deny the four ‘just titles’ for owning slaves. Pope Benedict XIV condemned the wholesale enslavement of natives in Brazil — without denouncing slavery as such, nor the importation of slaves from Africa.
This was to continue till 1866 when, as we have seen, the Holy Office under Pius IX still declared that slavery as such was not against human or divine law . . . What was wrong with these Church leaders? Were they heartless creatures who were not moved by the plight helpless slaves continued to endure in so many countries? They answer is that they were caught by their misguided awe for this solid ‘Tradition’ — which we know to be a cuckoo chick, but which they saw confirmed in the writings of the Fathers, the decrees of Church councils, the sanction of previous Popes. They did not stop to think: what is the basis for all this? How could such an anomalous, un-Christian practice be tolerated in the Church in the first place? They were not prepared to listen to the prophetic voices raised by conscientious people in the Church.
The official Church, including the magisterium, has now – finally – come to the recognition that slavery is against basic human rights and ‘contrary to God’s intent’. It comes too late for the millions of slaves in previous centuries whose lot could have been alleviated by correct Christian teaching! But at least Church authorities should draw a number of lessons.
The so-called ‘tradition’ that was thought to endorse slavery and on which the magisterium based its justification of slavery: all those quotes from Fathers and Popes, proved, in fact, to have been spurious, and contrary to the real Tradition handed down from Christ. It had been a cuckoo’s egg tradition. The true Tradition that came down from Christ and the Apostles was contained in the principle of fundamental equality for all, enshrined in the universal baptism of Christ applied to men and women, slave and free alike (Galatians 3,28). Only this valid Tradition was truly biblical!
The Church’s position was claimed to be scriptural. Now we know that the biblical texts were quoted illegitimately. Their interpretation went beyond the inspired and intended sense. They were cuckoo’s eggs masked under a biblical veneer.
If all the Bishops of the world would have been asked, two hundred years ago, whether slavery is allowed by God, 95% of them, including the Pope, would have said: “Yes, slavery is allowed”. Yet, in spite of their number, they would all have been wrong. Common opinion does not make informed, collective teaching.
But even if Popes and their advisors can make mistakes, what right does it give me to challenge them in public?
Readings from the Women Priests web site
The true Tradition must be scriptural
The Church made similar mistakes regarding the taking of interest and the blanket condemnation of homosexuality
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