Question About Slavery

A reader writes:

Comparing what they consider the Catholic Church’s historical toleration of slavery and its intolerance of homosexual marriage seems to be a favorite trope of anti-Catholic combox trolls. I myself have always been puzzled by how the Church finessed the question of slavery prior to the 19th century.

Quite frankly, if I had no other choice but to parrot the following (quoting from the 1917 “Catholic Dictionary”) in an argument about this dichotomy, I would prefer not to enter the argument at all:

To reproach the Church of the first ages with not having condemned slavery in principle, and with having tolerated it in fact, is to blame it for not having let loose a frightful revolution, in which, perhaps, all civilization would have perished with Roman society.

Have you / can you shed better light?

Actually, I think that’s a very grown-up assessment. Slavery, recall, was the absolute universal norm in every single human society from the dawn of time. Expecting the fledgling Christian Church to eradicate it is magical thinking of the highest order–a form of magical thinking often indulged by New Atheists, for instance, who seem to believe that if God was real, he would be performing magic all over the place.

In real life, though, God seems to leave us alone to work things out with our wits quite often and seems to think that it’s largely up to us, ruminating on the implications of the revelation, to work things and do such things as end slavery, discover vaccination, or work out a theory of political equality. Getting angry because God–who is interested in our politics only insofar as it impinges on the mission of getting us to heaven–fails to free slaves appears to be much of a muchness with getting angry because Jesus doesn’t kick out Romans or settle the dispute between the guy and his brother about their inheritance. It would be just like reproaching, say, a population the size of my blog readership for not eradicating war as the absolute universal norm of every human society since the dawn of time. Not the central mission.

To be sure, eradication of slavery (and just war theory, capitalism, civil rights, hospitals, the Renaissance, modern science, and a host of other beneficial side effects will spin off the Christian tradition in the West. Seek first his kingdom and all these things will be added to you. But the point remains nonetheless that they arise from seeking the kingdom.

What is impressive is that the Christian tradition bears within it the seeds of the destruction of slavery by positing that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus. You see the subversion of slavery already at work in the touching little letter of Paul to Philemon, in which he urges that Onesimus be set free for the sake of love. You see it in his command to masters to love their slaves, since they have a Master in heaven. You also see it, by the way, in his command to slaves to love and serve their masters for the sake of Christ who became a slave for us.

Of course, an institution that deeply embedded in human cultures (and universally so) is going to take centuries to root out. But the amazing thing is that Christian civilizations achieve the thing (while slavery is still endemic in those parts of the world untouched by gospel–and rising again in those parts of the world at war with the gospel). This includes our own part of the world, as the Occupiers are trying to point out. That’s but one reason that Rome takes such an empathetic view of those who protest the growing disparity between the economically powerful and powerless: because slavery is still very much an issue. The confusion Catholics feel about how to deal with the radical vision of justice the Church articulates on behalf of the slaves of our current economic system is the same confusion that many in antiquity felt when the Church challenged the immemorial, traditional, and safe system of slavery.

You can see some of the back and forth that Catholics did as they struggled with this issue in David Curp’s terrific essay on the history of the Church’s relationship to slavery: A Necessary Bondage?

It’s quite possible that the day will come someday when people will be asking of the Church why she took so long to advocate absolute intolerance to, say, poverty, war or the death penalty as she now routinely does toward slavery. The answer will be the same: the Church is composed of human beings and it takes us a long time to pluck up the courage of our convictions. Free will is scary stuff and we don’t really want to exercise it all *that* much if its going to rock the boat.

  • Dave G.

    I heard about the Vatican document on a local radio station. I thought the individual on the radio was just blowing some anti-Vatican smoke. Interesting. My first thought is that I’m reminded of a fellow I met on my way into the Church as he was on his way out. Why? He simply said that if you strip away the beginning of life and sex issues, you’ve got a Church looking every day closer to post-war Socialist European values, ideals and perspectives, mirroring the culture that continues to breed its leaders. Without the radical secularism of course. Nothing in this release proves him wrong, that’s for sure. Doesn’t mean he’s right. But does nothing to prove him wrong.

  • Confederate Papist

    Dave, what that guy was telling you has a lot of “if’s, and’s, and but’s” conditions. I cannot pretend I understand the Church’s statement on OWS, et al, but my initial reaction is that I don’t plan to take investing or financial advice from a Vatican official, and it’s not a papal bull anyway.

    • http://deleted Dave G.

      No, it isn’t. And while I don’t think I would say he was completely correct, or that this suggests he was correct in any way, I know there is no way I can use it, as it has been presented thus far, to show he is wrong. Not because the Church has said that people shouldn’t be reduced to figures on a sales sheet. But because of the method and the suggestion being floated to solve the problem.

  • Ron Van Wegen

    The comments in response to the link Mark provides are also very interesting.
    (http://www.crisismagazine.com/2009/a-necessary-bondage-when-the-church-endorsed-slavery)
    Like the Galileo case, there’s far more going on than we realize. Here for instance is the last comment on the page…
    Not for the faint of heart. Remember the dictum though, 100 difficulties do not make one doubt! (Who said that?)

    Comment From Steven Newcomb 12/30/2009 11:56 pm…

    My thanks to Arthur Biel for his many excellent clarifications of the issues discussed in Mr. Curp’s article and in the comments. Papal bulls endorsing “perpetual slavery” of non-Christians(not only “Saracens” but also “pagans” and others categorized as “enemies of Christ,”), were issued to the Portuguese crown in 1452, 1455, 1456, 1481, and then reissued and reaffirmed in 1514 to the Portuguese crown and its successors “permanently.”

    The papal bulls of 1493 also called for the “subjugation” of “barbarous nation” (non-Christian nations) for the “propagation of the Christian empire” (christiani imperii). This applied to any lands “discovered” or “to be discovered” that had “no Christian owner.”

    The papal bulls directed at the Canary Islands and the Guanches were intended to ensure that baptized Guanches were not enslaved. However, the Holy See had decided, after a debate between the crown’s of Castile and Portugual, with the pope serving as arbiter, that the Conquest of the Canary Islands should, as I recall, be awarded to the Crown of Castile, one reason being that this was warranted and justified because those islands had no Christian owner. The brutal and bloody conquest of the Canary Islands under the authorization and sanction of the Holy See is dated from 1402 to 1496, and not one word of condemnation from the Church. Thus, the broader issue is this: Did the Holy See endors and sanction empire and the vicious Christian conquest of originally free and independent non-Christian nations? The obvious answer is, yes!

    In my view, this authorization of Christian conquest and empire is itself a form of slavery because it involves depriving originally free and independent non-Christian nations and peoples the right to continue to remain free of Christian empire and domination, simply because they were not baptized and were not Christians when the Christian invaders arrived.

    This supposed right of Christian supremacy, domination, empire, colonization, and control is never addressed by those who discuss the issue of the Catholic Church and slavery. How in the world can Catholic scholars read the specific language of the bull Dum diversas (and all the other papal decress that reaffirmed the language), which authorized the Portuguese crown “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue” all non-Christians, “reduce their persons to perpetal slavery,” and take away all their possessions and property, both movable and immovable,” and only focus on the issue of slavery? These documents are much more egregious than that. They are part of the semantic construction of a reality, worldview, and mode of behavior that resulted in the decimation and destruction of entire nations and peoples and the theft of their traditional territories and vast “resources.”

    Yet to this day the Holy See has never publicly acknowledged having issued those documents, nor has it ever disavowed or repudiated them.

    The legacy of the papal documents mentioned, including those of 1493 (and the legacy of English crown documents of colonization also based on Christian “discovery”) are still enshrined in U.S. federal Indian law and policy and in the federal Indian law and policy of Canada (the British Crown system) through the fraudulent 1823 case Johnson v. M’Intosh. The ruling was written for a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court by Chief Justice John Marshall. For more on this subject see Steven T. Newcomb, “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,” (2008, Fulcrum).

  • Rick DeLano

    “In my view, this authorization of Christian conquest and empire is itself a form of slavery because it involves depriving originally free and independent non-Christian nations and peoples the right to continue to remain free of Christian empire and domination, simply because they were not baptized and were not Christians when the Christian invaders arrived.”

    >> The war in question had been launched against Christendom by the Ottomans. The nations in question were to have been conquered by one, or by the other. Christendom was fighting for its existence, and we would do (are doing, have done) no differently.

    “These documents are much more egregious than that. They are part of the semantic construction of a reality, worldview, and mode of behavior that resulted in the decimation and destruction of entire nations and peoples and the theft of their traditional territories and vast “resources.” ”

    >> Hmmm. Sort of like has occurred in every war in human history.

    Bottom line: subjugation of conquered peoples was explicitly condoned in the referenced bulls, *in the context of a war for survival against a world power dedicated to enslaving Christians*.

    If the author means to argue that the peoples were unjustly harmed by the fact that Christianity prevailed over Islam, I would be delighted to take the contrary position.

    • Kirt Higdon

      You can’t justify the conquest, murder, looting and enslavement of non-Christian people on the basis that if Christians didn’t do it, Moslems would have. And you certainly can’t justify it on the basis that “we” (I presume that means the Obama-led US regime) are still doing it. These bulls were wrong and outside the scope of papal authority. Bind-on-earth, bound-in-heaven, loose-on-earth, loose-in-heaven refers to pastoral matters within the Church. It does not give the Pope the authority to abrogate the law of God by issuing national licenses for theft, murder and kidnapping.


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