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Discussion on the Popes and Slavery

Discussion on the Popes and Slavery

based on correspondence in the Tablet, 7th and 13th of December 1998

Objection. The Popes did condemn slavery

You are wrong in saying that the Popes taught that slavery was allowed. They did not. The Popes condemned slavery. Read, for instance, Sublimus Dei by Paul III in 1537. This is what he says:

“To all faithful Christians to whom this writing may come, health in Christ our Lord and the apostolic benediction. The sublime God so loved the human race that He created man in such wise that he might participate, not only in the good that other creatures enjoy, but endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face; and since man, according to the testimony of the sacred scriptures, has been created to enjoy eternal life and happiness, which none may obtain save through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is necessary that he should possess the nature and faculties enabling him to receive that faith; and that whoever is thus endowed should be capable of receiving that same faith. Nor is it credible that any one should possess so little understanding as to desire the faith and yet be destitute of the most necessary faculty to enable him to receive it. Hence Christ, who is the Truth itself, that has never failed and can never fail, said to the preachers of the faith whom He chose for that office 'Go ye and teach all nations.' He said all, without exception, for all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith. The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God's word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith. We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect. By virtue of Our apostolic authority We define and declare by these present letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, which shall thus command the same obedience as the originals, that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.”

Reply. Some Popes condemned indiscriminate slavery. But they upheld the principle of slavery.

You miss the point when you remind us that various popes have condemned the indiscriminate enslavement of Africans and American Indians by the colonising powers of the day. The same Pope Paul III whose letter of 1537 you quote, confirmed in 1548 that both the laity and the clergy have the right to own slaves. Popes like Paul III did not condemn slavery as such, merely the way native slaves were acquired. In fact, they acknowledged four so-called “just” titles for acquiring slaves: by the right of conquest, genuine non-Christian prisoners of war could be enslaved; criminals could be legitimately condemned to slavery; slaves could be bought from their legal owner, including a child from its father; and children born from a woman who was a slave were automatically slaves for life. These titles were upheld in church law and reaffirmed again and again by moral theologians and popes alike.

As recently as 20 June 1866, the Holy Office declared in a statement signed by Pope Pius IX that “it is not contrary to the natural or divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given, provided in the sale, purchase, exchange or gift, the due conditions are strictly observed which the approved authors describe and explain”. Note that the justification was based both on philosophy (natural law) and on Revelation (divine law). The point here is that the Holy Office, supposedly the guardian of Truth, was defending a practice that was both humanly degrading and theologically wrong.

Then, as now, Rome appeals to “natural law”. Aristotle deemed slavery natural for some people, and medieval scholars agreed, including Thomas Aquinas - the same theologians who are so much praised in the recent papal encyclical Fides et Ratio. Though slavery was said to be contrary to the primordial state of nature as enjoyed by Adam in paradise, it was judged to be natural in our present condition. The condemnation of contraceptives is similarly based on an outdated philosophical understanding of marriage.

The Holy Office held slavery to be in harmony with Scripture (Lev. 25:39-55; 1 Pet. 2:18; Lk 17:7-10; Col. 3:11-22; 1 Tim. 6:1-10). Moreover, the Holy Office could point to many sources that would seem to document a solid tradition: Fathers of the Church (Augustine, Ambrosiaster), Iocal church councils (Gangra, AD 362; Toledo, AD 655), ancient church laws, popes and theologians. They relied on what they considered an unbroken and universal tradition in the Church - just as now they rely on a similar supposed “universal tradition” in their rejection of the priestly ordination of women.

In 1866 most countries had already abolished slavery and the tide of public opinion had swung decidedly against any toleration of it. No doubt this was one of the “signs of the times” Vatican II speaks about, but discounted as one of those “trends of our age” decried in Fides et Ratio. Also, in 1866, when the Holy Office publicly invoked God’s law to sanction slavery, a whole succession of theologians had already bravely denounced it, anticipating the true Catholic teaching and tradition as now enshrined in the Second Vatican Council.

The truth of the matter is that the magisterium has constantly been behind the times: in the question of taking interest on capital loans; on the earth circling the sun; on evolution; on the authorship of Scripturc; on democracy, trade unions and ecumenism. Whatever modern reality cropped up, Romc first got it wrong. Does it not pursue the same path now by banning contraceptives, optional celibacy and the ordination ot women?

John Wijngaards


John Wijngaards



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