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Letter to Women


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.”[9]


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”[10]  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.[11]


          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.”[12]


          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.”[13]


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.”[14]


          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.[15]


          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  .  .  .  ?


Egg mimicry


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.”[16] 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![17]  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’.”[18]


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.[19]


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.”[20]

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.

Nest-mate eviction


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 .   .   .  ”[21]

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.[22]


  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?”[23]


          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.[24]


          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.[25]


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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