Question About Slavery

Question About Slavery October 26, 2011

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.

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