Stephen Fry: Slavery and the Catholic Church


  • Paula

    Another reason to love Stephen Fry!

  • JohnMWhite

    This is the debate where he tag teamed with Hitchens, isn’t it? It was incredibly one-sided. Widdecome could not contain her hatred and derision for anybody who did not offer her faith immediate, fawning adoration and respect, but she and her partner offered essentially nothing outside of “nuns do some nice stuff for some people sometimes”. Even I could have made a better argument in favour of the church than that. They were essentially pissing into the wind, and given that Widdecome admits she doesn’t have the magic antenna god requires in his priests, that could only have been unpleasant for her.

  • Sunny Ng

    I remember this. This was from that Intelligence Squared debate — Hitchens & Fry vs. Onaiyekan & Widdecombe on “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” I still have a recording of this debate, it’s one of my all-time favorites!

    If there’s anyone of you who haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching it.

  • Kacy

    Of course this isn’t going to convince a Catholic because they’d simply find some minority saint who did condemn slavery, even if he was mocked by his peers for doing so. Then the true Catholic will say, “See the Church has ALWAYS been against slavery.” This is what they do. They pick and choose from the tradition, and throw out the popes, saints, and theologians who offend their current sensibilities.

    • http://optus owen

      Mr Fry knows that his own family were involved in slavery.Who the hell was running the slaveships and the auctions?Jews thats who and Rabbis kept slaves aswel.The Pilgrims,Quakers etc all owned slaves and slaves even bought themselves slaves once freed

      • Custador

        Stephen Fry’s ancestors were Eastern European Jews and Britons. If you feel you can provide evidence that specifically points to them as slave owners, I’m sure he’d love to see it. Now can you please explain to me how it would have any bearing on the validity of Stephen Fry’s views and opinions either way?

  • Schaden Freud

    Ah, this is a good one! You’re either infallible, or you’re not. The two are mutually exclusive – you can’t have that cake and eat it.

    • UrsaMinor

      The RCC has that covered too. Their official position is that the Pope is infallible, except when he isn’t.

      • trj

        And when the Pope has made an infallible statement it’s still open to interpretation afterwards. The RC Church in modern times has been busy washing its hands of the categorical Unam Sanctam bull.

      • Nox

        “Their official position is that the Pope is infallible, except when he isn’t.”

        Case in point.

        At around 16:45 of the debate this line is from, Widdecome defends the catholic church’s handling of pederast priests by saying no one else knew raping children was wrong (what?), so we can’t blame the catholic church for not knowing that.

        In defence of catholicism she literally says, “Of course, Christopher Hitchens is right. And who could possibly dispute with him, that the abuse of children, of innocent children, is one, in fact it is the worst offence that anybody can commit. Of that no doubt. But again he seems to think, that the catholic church, should have had some unique insight, which demonstrably was lacking in society as a whole. Do not expect the catholic church somehow, when that was the state of knowledge at the time, to have acted in a unique and completely different way.”

        19 minutes later she tells the audience how christianity (the 10 commandments) lays out a perfect blueprint for a moral society, and suggests no one would have thought of not killing or stealing if the church didn’t tell them.

        Fry’s comment (around 45:20)(he wasn’t responding to either of these directly, but he sort of was) (the question was about the churches position on homosexuality) was a wonderful response to this doublethink, “Well, I’m afraid it simply does. It does condemn it. It calls it, the official word is disorder. But it was refined by the current pontiff, Ratzinger, who called it a moral evil. But on the other hand, we must remember, as the point was made, that the church is very loose on moral evil. It’s because although they try to accuse people like me who believe in empiricism and enlightenment, of somehow, what they call moral relativism, as if it’s some appalling sin, where what it actually means is thought. They, for example thought that slavery was perfectly fine, absolutely okay. And then they didn’t. They thought until the year 2000, that a baby went to limbo, causing unbelievable distress to parents whose child died. Unbelievable distress. And then with the wave of a hand and the stamp of a seal, it was no longer true. Something that had been eternally, or at least true for 2,000 years, suddenly wasn’t. Because the truth is complicated, it’s hard. And what is the point of the catholic church if it says ‘Well we couldn’t know better because nobody else did. Then what are you for?”

  • Norm

    I suppose if it is looked at in context of the time when the catholic church was the “other party”if you like, now we have rep/demo,labor/liberal ,then they had the church/monarchy.So slavery would have been an important part of their economy which people will use any justification to keep.Now we have third world economy’s to give us products and lifestyles that we couldnt otherwise afford and we justify it by saying,well they have an income they otherwise wouldnt have.So in hindsight its obvious,i wonder what is considered ok now will future generations mock us for?

    • JohnMWhite

      Actually we could afford those products just fine before the manufacturing jobs were exported to third world countries. That there are precious few jobs left bar hawking stuff made overseas in Walmart is why we can’t afford them now. An autoworker in Detroit in the 50s could make a decent enough living to own a house and send their children to college. Also, the ‘other party’ examples you give aren’t very good since they are effectively the same party operating on the same principles, with minor ideological differences. But the main point is that you cannot excuse the Catholic Church for clinging to slavery for the sake of economic convenience. They are either the source of moral guidance and listening to god’s will, or they are not. If they either didn’t know better or could not do better, they are useless as moral guides. That’s the exact point of the OP.

      • Norm

        While its true a large percentage of manufacturing jobs have gone off shore things are now much more affordable.The average house size has more than doubled and the standard of living in western culture cannot be compared to the 50s let alone 200 years ago,so no you carnt now sit on your high horse and realisticly judge what would now be considered a primitive society. The catholic church is “A” source of moral guidance,not the absolute source,thats why we have different denominations,people come to different conclusions about the same thing which is great.One of the things i love about God is that He is creative and allows us to be as well.Oh ,the “other party”example is perfect,especially when you summed it up so well with,”same principals,minor differences”,describes the two party politics we have today to a T.

        • Mogg

          Is the doubling of house size actually a useful thing, though? And if I someone can’t afford to house and educate their children anymore due to stupendous costs for the basics which can make life stable or better for them, is it much good to them that they can afford a new television or pair of runners? Do the people in factories overseas cound as slaves to our western lifestyle? For that matter, is corporate wage slavery in the west slavery, exploitation or just how things are?

          If God were involved with any of these churches, Catholic or otherwise, and really wanted to give moral guidance, surely he would have been a bit clearer. I don’t buy the idea that slavery or pederasty were ever small enough sins that ‘creative ethics’ would be given too much rein by a righteous, holy, all-powerful being with a keen interest in how his creations are behaving.

          • UrsaMinor

            I have to admit, I’m more than a little puzzled by the train of thought evidenced in this thread. The Bible is very clear in its support for the institution of slavery, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is not a moral evil in Christian scripture. Arguing about whether the RCC knew or couldn’t know that slavery is wrong is nonsensical. Their own holy book says it’s OK. The real question is, why do Catholics reject slavery today?

            • JohnMWhite

              That’s precisely the point being made – the Catholic Church (and pretty much all other denominations except Quakers, so don’t bother continuing to hide from it, Norm) were in favour of slavery and justified it using their holy text and traditional doctrinal background. That they only changed their mind when society around them did so shows that neither their text not their church is any kind of system to pin one’s morality on. Though Catholics in particular are a bit different as they take Papal authority much more seriously than Biblical authority, so one would think a pope would have said something long, long ago (like the first one, who was directly made pope by Jesus, a man who condoned slavery and told slaves to obey their masters) if the church actually had reason to be against using people as property and farm implements.

              If allowing people to be enslaved for centuries until public opinion finally shifted is god ‘being creative’, frankly, fuck your god, Norm. And look at what he’s done to you. You have completely shut off your conscience and outsourced it to a being that wrote down that it approved of slavery and wrote down that it will torment most of humanity for ever and ever.

            • Robert King

              @UrsaMinor –

              The Bible is certainly tolerant of the institution of slavery, but every reference to slavery that I’m aware of either A) describes it as part of the normal environment, or B) places some limitation on slavery. It is true that the Bible nowhere condemns slavery outright, but I can’t see it as “supporting” slavery. There is a huge difference.

              What I know of European history is similar: Christians tolerated the institution of slavery in the Mediterranean world until the fall of Rome, at which point slavery dissolved into serfdom, with laws slowly shifting toward defending the rights even of serfs. Then the “Age of Exploration” opened up new territories and strange populations who looked rather different, and slavery came back with a vengeance, driven by economic (rather than religious) motives.

              At that point, there was a great deal of dispute within the Catholic Church (I’m not as familiar with Protestant Church history) over the status of native populations and over the institution of slavery. For the most part, the bishops just wanted to keep their heads down and not get in any more fights with kings or nation-states. They’d had plenty of conflict already, and the problem seemed very far from home. However, when the question was brought up for authoritative decision, the decision was clearly that slavery is bad and should be abolished. See Pope Gregory XVI’s In Supremo Apostolatus.

            • Sunny Day

              So let me get this straight, Telling someone how to play baseball isn’t actually being supportive of baseball? ?

              What’s it like on your planet?

            • Nox

              “The Bible is certainly tolerant of the institution of slavery, but every reference to slavery that I’m aware of either A) describes it as part of the normal environment, or B) places some limitation on slavery.”

              Leviticus 25:44-46 (normally I use KJV for these, but let’s try the catholic version this time)
              44 “Slaves, male and female, you may indeed possess, provided you buy them from among the neighboring nations.
              45 You may also buy them from among the aliens who reside with you and from their children who are born and reared in your land. Such slaves you may own as chattels,
              46 and leave to your sons as their hereditary property, making them perpetual slaves. But you shall not lord it harshly over any of the Israelites, your kinsmen.

              That does place some limitation on slavery. Specifically it says that the christian god approves of slavery, and has no problem whatsoever with the buying and selling of humans, as long as you don’t enslave certain people.

              This would be an example of god not having any special insight into morality. As for your other claim that the catholic church has never claimed that they or the god they claim to speak for have some special insight, See Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor.

            • Johan

              @Robert King

              Do not covet your neighbors female slaves nor his male slaves certainly sounds supportive.

          • Kodie

            I do actually understand what Norm is saying. Whose neck are we stepping on to get whatever we want and how morally superior to slave-holders should we feel about it?

            • JohnMWhite

              You’re right, but it’s a distraction from the actual point being discussed. We’re not the ones claiming infallibility and to be the bedrock of moral teaching while just muddling along and accepting a pretty horrendous situation because it’s economically more comfortable.

            • Kodie

              It’s distracting from the point about homosexuality.

            • UrsaMinor

              Well, we actually have two questions here:
              1. Are we morally superior to the slaveholders of yore?
              2. Is the Bible a reliable guide to morality?

            • Kodie

              I can’t ever think of just one thing. If slaveholding is wrong, the church should have gotten a message from god instead of waiting for society to catch up and demonstrate it to them. I have an appointment, so I can’t really elaborate, but if Norm wants to say this or that about outsourced manufacturing, he shouldn’t frame it in the form that it’s wrong but we still do it; he should explain what the church has gotten the message from god and is trying to stop us from doing it. If it’s immoral, it’s up to all of us to fix it, but if the church claims better and more god-given morals, they should try to be first instead of waiting to see what everyone else does like an insecure teenager.

        • Nox

          The catholic church does not just claim to be a source of moral guidance. If the catholic church is not the source of moral guidance (let alone if they are a horrible source of moral guidance), then a central part of what catholicism claims is not true.

          • Robert King

            Actually, no. The Catholic Church claims that most of morality is accessible to reason, generally under Natural Law theory. There is a fairly small portion of morality that falls under direct revelation, mostly an augmentation in the direction of mercy (“love your enemy”) or intention (“whoever is angry with his brother is a murderer”). The 10 commandments are seen as a revealed “reminder” of natural law (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2070ff). If you consider religious obligations as a part of morality (“Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you”), then those would be considered revealed aspects morality as well.

            The Catholic Church claims to be the final authority on moral questions, but not the only or absolute source of all morality. Certainly it has never claimed to make people moral, in the sense of mechanically forcing people to behave or become morally better. It has always taught that each person has responsibility for his/her own actions.

        • Brian K

          I see Norm might be one of those people on the Far Right of the Republican Party who argue that the Confederacy and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade were wonderful and part of God’s Plan because JESUS.

          Plus, that immigrant woman who mopped the floor in your fast food joint? Minimum Wage so you are the same as the Slave Traders!

          • Brian K

            One does have to admit that the Catholic Church was (although much more weakly during the current and preceding popes) one of the few international institutions questioning the current economic system. Some kudos are earned for that. So…I will agree with Norm there.

            • Norm

              My whole point is that it is very easy to sit back and look at history and see the faults. We all often know what is the right thing to do in a certain situation and sometimes choose not to do it,we weigh up the odds and do what benefits us,from a personal level right up to a national level.Change starts with us and the challenge for us all is to be a better person than we otherwise would be.The bible sums it up like this,”love your neighbour like you love yourself”.

            • Kodie

              Obviously there’s no god, though, Norm. What challenge to be better people than we would otherwise be? What is this “otherwise”? If people believed in god and worshipped him and tried very much to be better people and yet still justified slavery, how come the church didn’t notify them, or god, or anything? They went to war to defend their right to own slaves. Young men died feeling pretty righteous about it. Where was god whispering in their ear to stop them from making an egregious mistake? Why couldn’t they let the slaves free? And then why did it take so long after slavery was abolished in the US for black people to have all the same rights as white people? And why is there still racism now? Why aren’t all these Christians getting the message? Why are they stuck in their prejudices 150-ish years since slaves were considered whole 100% people and not property?

              God’s not telling them anything when they pray, that’s why.

            • Brian K

              All of your arguments are based on human reason and human social development, Norm. Like Kodie points out, there is no room for “God” anywhere in your argument. An All-Knowing, All Powerful, All-Good God should be able to get the message “slavery is bad” out to his people, no? But instead, we have a Bible which warns against future heresy and changes to the doctrines therein. Because, in black and white in the text, slavery is still a good thing, violators of the Sabbath are to be stoned, sinners will face eternal suffering and torment… And, lest we forget, the Chosen People are to murder every single person in “their” territory.

  • RickRay1

    Another killer for the RC Church is the documentary: “Deliver Us From Evil”. It is a few years old but still applies today. It can be viewed at

  • TC

    See also the Mormon church and its “continuing revelation”.