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The teaching authority and slavery

The teaching authority and slavery

362 AD

The local Council at Gangra in Asia Minor excommunicates anyone encouraging a slave to despise his master or withdraw from his service. (Became part of Church Law from the 13th century).

354-430 AD

St. Augustine teaches that the institution of slavery derives from God and is beneficial to slaves and masters. (Quoted by many later Popes as proof of "Tradition".

650 AD

Pope Martin I condemns people who teach slaves about freedom or who encourage them to escape.

1089 AD

The Synod of Melfi under Pope Urban II imposed slavery on the wives of priests. (Became part of Church Law from the 13th century).

1179 AD

The Third Lateran Council imposed slavery on those helping the Saracens.

1226 AD

The legitimacy of slavery is incorporated in the Corpus Iuris Canonici, promulgated by Pope Gregory IX which remained official law of the Church until 1913. Canon lawyers worked out four just titles for holding slaves: slaves captured in war, persons condemned to slavery for a crime; persons selling themselves into slavery, including a father selling his child; children of a mother who is a slave.

1224-1274 AD

St.Thomas Aquinas defends slavery as instituted by God in punishment for sin, and justified as being part of the ‘right of nations’ and natural law. Children of a slave mother are rightly slaves even though they have not committed personal sin! (Quoted by many later Popes).

1435 AD

Pope Eugenius IV condemns the indiscriminate enslavement of natives in the Canary Islands, but does not condemn slavery as such.

1454 AD

Through the bull Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V authorises the king of Portugal to enslave all the Saracen and pagan peoples his armies may conquer.

1493 AD

Pope Alexander VI authorises the King of Spain to enslave non-Christians of the Americas who are at war with Christian powers.

1537 AD

Pope Paul III condemns the indiscriminate enslavement of Indians in South America.

1548 AD

The same Pope Paul III confirms the right of clergy and laity to own slaves.

1639 AD

Pope Urban VIII denounces the indiscriminate enslavement of Indians in South America, without denying the four ‘just titles’ for owning slaves.

1741 AD

Pope Benedict XIV condemns the indiscriminate enslavement of natives in Brazil, but does not denounce slavery as such, nor the importation of slaves from Africa.

1839 AD

Pope Gregory XVI condemns the international negro slave trade, but does not question slavery as such, nor the domestic slave trade.

1866 AD

The Holy Office in an instruction signed by Pope Pius IX declares: Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contary 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".


The turn around

1888 AD

Pope Leo III condemns slavery in more general terms, and supports the anti-slavery movement.

1918 AD

The new Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope Benedictus XV condemns ‘selling any person as a slave’. (There is no condemnation of ‘owning’ slaves, however).

1965 AD

The Second Vatican Council defends basic human rights and denounces all violations of human integrity, including slavery (Gaudium et Spes, no 27,29,67).

Table prepared by John Wijngaards

Data from: J.F.Maxwell, ‘The Development of Catholic Doctrine concerning Slavery’, World Jurist 11 (1969-70) pp. 147-192 and 291-324.

John Wijngaards

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