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  • A Necessary Bondage? When the Church Endorsed Slavery

    by T. David Curp

    In this Crisis Magazine classic, historian T. David Curp takes an honest look at the Church’s record on slavery, and explains why it isn’t all good.

      
     
    Current questions and values can so distort our study of the past that we enact our own version of the "cadaver synod." In this infamous trial, held in Rome in the ninth century, Pope Stephen VII exhumed, vested, and placed the corpse of Pope Formosus, his predecessor, on trial for heresy. Finding the defense insufficiently convincing, Pope Stephen’s court convicted the corpse, stripped it of its vestments, and threw it into the Tiber.
     
    If we believe that our tradition grants rights and even a voice to the dead, we must not discriminate against people due to the accident of their deaths. Even when our concerns are urgent — perhaps especially then — our exploration of the past must be a real and respectful questioning, neither assuming guilt nor playing favorites.
     
    Few Catholics are so naïve as to insist that all of the Church’s sons and daughters throughout history have been pure or conformed to our contemporary understanding of right conduct. As we study the past, we confront not only individual Christians who have sinned but teachers and pastors of the Church — the very guardians of Sacred Tradition — who held views and propagated ideas that we now know are wrong. The entanglement of the people of God with slavery is one particularly clear case.
     
     
    The Biblical Witness
     
    Slavery’s biblical pedigree has made it a peculiarly difficult institution for Christians to resist. In the Old Testament, the most notable statement about slavery occurs when Noah condemns Ham and his descendents to perpetual servitude: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers" (Gn 9:25).
     
    Sadly, this verse has been particularly influential in the development of racialized slavery, since Christians and even some Muslims eventually identified Ham’s descendents as black Africans. In later laws regulating slavery in the book of Exodus and in Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land, the Scriptures describe a society as dependent upon slave labor as any other in the ancient world:
     
    If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom.
     
    If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, "I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free."
     
    If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever (Ex 21:2-6).
     
    While slavery here is "voluntary" to the degree that a male Jewish slave may leave his master, the element of coercion implied in the retention of his family is significant. Slavery is regulated in the Old Testament, but there’s no sense therein that God disapproves of the institution per se.
     
    The New Testament, too, is without anything like a formal condemnation. There is, however, more tension between the institution and meaning of slavery and the vision of humanity implicit in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christianity proposes the radical spiritual equality of every human person, as both slaves of sin and heirs of redemption. To most Greco-Roman thinkers (with a few exceptions among the Stoics), slavery was not simply a socioeconomic condition but a state of absolute spiritual inferiority. Aristotle considered certain men natural slaves, and Roman law offered the chilling definition of a slave as "a talking tool." Though slaves in the Roman Empire could improve their social condition and become freed men, there was always a taint associated with their former status; the law mandated that they grovel whenever in the presence of their former masters as a sign of their ongoing inferiority.
     
    In this context, the proposition that "in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" was religiously quite radical — even if it took more than a millennium for Christians to recognize its full social dimensions.
     
    While encouraging slaves to love and obey their masters — even abusive masters — the New Testament presents this as an opportunity for imitation of Christ (Col 3:22-25, Eph 6:5-8). Certainly, the most famous instance of apostolic confrontation with slavery occurs in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Therein, Paul encourages Philemon to receive back a runaway slave, Onesimus, who has converted to Christianity while working with the apostle. The language of Paul’s exhortation to Philemon is personal and urgent and carries with it a burden of guilt that would cheer any nagging mother: Paul dwells at some length on what he has done for Philemon in bringing him the Faith, on Paul’s own love for Onesimus, and on the depth of Onesimus’ conversion. While Paul never explicitly commands Philemon to free the slave, the implication is there:
     
    Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to both you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary (Phlm 1:8-14).
     
    This is both touching and frustrating — according to tradition, Philemon did free Onesimus, and both were eventually recognized as saints by the Church. From our perspective, it seems that Paul missed an opportunity to attack the institution of slavery openly. Given that the Church received Philemon as inspired Scripture, Paul’s ambiguity effectively blocked the early Fathers of the Church from denouncing slavery outright. St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on Philemon, considers Paul’s sending Onesimus back to his master a sign that slavery should not be abolished. While Paul’s silence is understandable — identifying Christianity with slave revolt in the Roman Empire would have been the fast track to corporate suicide — it nevertheless had great consequences in the history of the Church.
     
    And so, we’re left with the question: Why were the obvious social implications of the gospel on the matter of slavery so seemingly unfruitful for almost a thousand years, and why would the end of the Middle Ages see an even greater expansion of the institution — in no small part encouraged by Catholic societies and leaders?
     
     
    A Harsh Reality
     
    It’s worth emphasizing here that the Christian teaching of the past was frequently otherworldly: It was first and foremost a religious message concerned with achieving salvation, and the ekklesia as "a gathering of those summoned" had the worship of God as its main purpose. The earliest Christians didn’t concern themselves overly with social issues.
     
    Consider Augustine: Theologically, the influential African was deeply aware of both the limitations of human freedom and the futility of worldly power and polities. He observed how deeply wounded human nature was by sin and taught (in terms sharpened by his polemics with the rigidly moralistic Pelagians) that there were limits on most Christians’ capacity for moral achievement. Taken together, this put a brake on too-ambitious efforts at social reform, which any program of the abolition of slavery would certainly have entailed. When Augustine reflected upon slavery as an institution, he saw it, like so much else in this life, as both the product of sin and a thing so thoroughly ingrained in social life as to be all but ineradicable.
     
    But while Augustine formulated his theology amid the collapse of the Roman Empire, Thomas Aquinas developed his ideas of a Christian polity and the place of slavery within it at a time when almost all of Europe was self-consciously Christian and the Church had great power.
     
    In 13th-century Europe, while slavery had not entirely disappeared, it was at low ebb. As a result, Thomas’s teaching on slavery reflects the exuberance of a medieval Christendom whose clergy and theologians rightly believed that they were in a position to regulate the social conduct of individuals and guide the development of society.
     
    Slavery, for Thomas, was a human amendment to the natural law, meant to benefit some at others’ expense. The limitations Thomas proposed sought to protect the personal bodily integrity of the slave, the right of the slave to marry or remain a virgin, and the slave’s relationship with his/her spouse. While his views on the rights of slaves have generally been considered naïve, they nevertheless reflect an attempt to synthesize Christianity with the best science of its day (Aristotelian philosophy) and a contemporary social reality in which slavery still retained a stubborn hold in Christian society.
     
     
    The Muslim Threat
     
    Theology worked hand-in-hand with Christendom’s strategic imperatives to expand slavery among Christians at the dawn of the modern era, and even led the papacy to grant religious approval to slave-taking.
     
    In the 15th century, Islam, spearheaded by the Ottoman Turks, expanded throughout the Mediterranean world. Militarily, the Ottomans were the strongest single power in the region — they employed cutting-edge technology, vast material resources, and brilliantly organized armies to wage jihad against Christendom. The soldiers, both ghazis (Muslim holy warriors) and janissaries (slave soldiers, many of whom were recruited in the 16th century by the devshirme, or tithe on Christian children who were then turned into soldiers and instilled with a fanatical devotion to Islam) provided a powerful backbone to the growing empire and confronted Christianity with a set of military, political, and economic dilemmas.
     
    The conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1453 was just one in a string of Ottoman victories that would continue for more than two centuries. They and their vassals landed in Italy, engaged in slave-taking raids from Gibraltar to Moscow, and smashed one Christian state after another. The Ottomans enjoyed a high degree of political and religious unity under the government of the House of Osman, whose leaders styled themselves "the shadow of God on Earth." Dynastic rivalries and religious disunity in Christendom allowed the House of Osman to build temporary alliances with Christian states and successfully play one power against another. By successfully encircling much of Europe from the East, the Ottomans were in a position to restrict, tax, and regulate almost all of Christendom’s limited but important trade with the East — filling the coffers of "God’s shadow on earth" and enabling the Ottomans to continue to wage holy war.
     
    This is the context in which occurred the growth of slavery among Christians and the support granted it by the papacy.
     
    Portugal, led by a series of able Crusader kings beginning with Prince Henry the Navigator, recognized the danger of expanding Muslim power. In the face of this superior force, Christians had to find ways to both outflank the strength of their enemies and strike them unexpectedly. By voyaging along the coast of Africa, the Portuguese sought to circumvent (quite literally) the growing Ottoman monopoly on trade with the East and also to find the mythical Christian African king, Prester John, whom they hoped would be an ally against militant Islam.
     
    Throughout their travels the Portuguese engaged in trade — including slave trade. This new source of wealth provided by the exchanges enabled Prince Henry and his successors to fund further explorations and to support broader military efforts to fight Ottoman expansion. (A similar vision of gaining wealth to wage Cruzada against the Ottomans eventually fueled Columbus’s search for a short-cut to Asia.)
     
    The papacy endorsed Portuguese — and eventually Spanish — slave-taking out of cruel necessity. Popes Eugenius IV and a later successor, Sixtus IV, both condemned Portuguese raids in the Canary Islands in the mid-15th century in places where Christians already lived. But these condemnations came within the broader context of papal support for a Portuguese crusade in Africa that did include slave-taking.
     
    Eugenius IV and his immediate successor issued a series of bulls, including Illius Qui (1442), Dum Diversus (1452), and Romanus Pontificus (1455), that recognized the rights of the monarchs of Portugal and eventually Spain to engage in a wide-ranging slave trade in the Mediterranean and Africa — first under the guise of crusading, and then as a part of regular commerce. As Pope Nicholas authorized the Portuguese in Romanus Pontificus:
     
    We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit….
     
    The occasional papal pronouncements against slavery earlier in the 15th century and later in the 16th century sought to regulate particular abuses, but they did not deny Spain and Portugal the right to engage in the trade itself. All of these bulls were issued just prior to and after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — a calamity so traumatic that, according to Crusade historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, it launched the papacy on a 70-year effort to retake the former capital of eastern Christendom. As Pope Pius II lamented in 1460, these attempts were rarely greeted with enthusiasm:
     
    If we send envoys to ask aid of sovereigns, they are laughed at. If we impose tithes on the clergy, they appeal to a future council. If we issue indulgences and encourage the contribution of money by spiritual gifts, we are accused of avarice. People think that our sole object is to amass gold. No one believes what we say. Like insolvent tradesmen we are without credit.
     
    The Ottomans’ advance on Europe, in addition to its general destructiveness, also saw Muslims taking thousands of Christian slaves each year through piracy, conquest, and the devshirme tithe. As a result, the pontiffs of the day were in no position to refuse Portugal and Spain — two of the few great Christian powers enthusiastic about crusading — the opportunity to develop their economic power in whatever way they saw fit.
     
    Far from being an innocent bystander, or merely silently complicit, the papacy fully participated in the expansion of the European slave trade. This was not a product of greed, but of a thoroughly rational and tangible fear of the consequences of not using every available means to defend a rapidly contracting 16th-century Christendom.
     
    Divorced from the context of a Europe under a tightening Ottoman siege, papal engagement with the slave trade would appear to confirm the worst prejudices of secular critics. Placed within its historical environment, however, what we confront is the lay faithful and their shepherds accepting a real evil — slavery — to avoid their own subjugation to militant Islam.
     
     
    Slavery in Context
     
    For the Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries, slavery was not an abstract issue. Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian Catholics had coped for centuries with Islamic aggression that had resulted in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Christians. Further, condemnations of slavery were not merely pro forma for a Catholic Church that had created two religious orders in the 13th century — the Trinitarians and the Mercederians — for the purpose of redeeming Christian captives.
     
    Nevertheless, tragically, slavery was part of the dirty war that Islam and Christianity waged against one another for centuries throughout the Mediterranean. In the 15th century it appeared that Islam, led by the Ottomans, was on the verge of final victory.
     
    But even if the circumstances mitigate some of the guilt of Rome’s involvement in slavery, it’s a scandal nonetheless. And while the fear — perhaps even the necessity — for Christians to fight this war was real, its sad legacy remains with us.
     
    History demonstrates that our earthly pilgrimage is rarely a straight line to a happier, progressive future; moral advancement is hard-won and easily lost. That the world finds it difficult to see Christ in the Church isn’t simply a result of sin’s blinders. Too often our own grievous faults and failures have become obstacles themselves. We do no service to Christ or His Church by refusing to acknowledge it.
     


    T. David Curp is an assistant professor of history at Ohio University, where he teaches the contemporary history of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of
    Crisis Magazine.
    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Joe H

      It is worthwhile to note, though, that the Popes never condoned the enslavement of the natives of the Americas, and as far as I know, actually condemned that practice. The Pope Nicholas quote, after all, mentions Saracens and “other enemies” of Christ. Primitive indigenous people weren’t seen as such – or am I wrong?

      While slavery of any kind offends our modern sensibilities – and it rightly should – there is a difference between taking slaves in the context of war, and chattel slavery, which is done purely for super-profits.

      Slavery still exists today, by the way. Google “Free the Slaves” if you want to know about it.

    • Rimshot

      “We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit

    • Charlotte

      This isn’t a teaching of moral principle, but a prudential judgment about the application of moral principles, which is not infallible. Consider it fair warning to those who want to make prudential judgments matters of infallibility.

    • MarkF

      All, this article has enough right in it to make it worthwhile reading, but enough wrong in it to also make it problematic.

      As far as slavery in the ancient world goes, he’s on more sure ground. Certainly the early Church was too small to be drawn into being a movement whose primary purpose would have been a slave revolt. But he very wrong, and I can’t overstate this when he condemns the early Church for being “frequently otherworldly: It was first and foremost a religious message concerned with achieving salvation.”

      This is how we are supposed to be today. This is what Christianity is all about. This is one of the problems with the liberal wing of the Church. It reduces the gospel of Christ down the level of doing good. Jesus never started an orphanage. His apostles never founded any hospitals. The only charity they seemed concerned about was for the persecuted Church in Jerusalem. So am I one of those fogeys who sees the Church just as a place to pray, a place that is divorced from action in the world? No. Jesus and St. Paul both said it: the law can be summed up in two commandments, to love God above all else, and to love your fellow man as you love yourself. But lets be clear about this, we probably can’t have the love of our fellow man if we don’t love God. And the reverse is even tougher to swallow in this age of liberal Christianity – that all the doing good, all the work for the poor counts for nothing if it is not done out of love of God. The love of God comes first.

      Now, I am perfectly ready to believe that there are many people out there working in charitable work who on the surface, or even in the recesses of their heart, will admit to no love of God. They might seem to be atheists, or indifferent to religion. God knows their hearts, not me. He might see in them his true spirit more than he sees it in me or in anyone else. I can’t judge what I don’t know. Certainly many people will be very surprised to be in heaven, and many people will be surprised to find out they aren’t.

      But as a matter of what to preach, we must follow the gospel: put the love of God first, and let that love flow to others. The Our Father makes it radically clear that our relationship with God is based on how we treat both other people and how we treat ourselves. Too often now we hear sermons that tell us not to be bothered with our own sins, that divorce and remarriage are OK, that homosexuality is not a sin and has no victims, that adultery is just a human failing and is no big deal. My hard experience will this is that when our own hearts are darkened with sin, that we won’t be very charitable to others because that connection to God has been broken. Personal morality is most definitely linked to charity; the one causes the other. We who hold to this message in this society are labeled as hypocrites or worse.

      On a practical note, look at the health or lack thereof of Christian groups that have put aside “divisive” issues of personal holiness and have instead become worldly in their total concern for earthly concerns. I’m talking about the Episcopals, the Methodists, etc. Their numbers are in a free fall to the point where their ability to help the poor is being reduced almost to meaninglessness. On the other hand those groups who are “other-worldly” have enough life in them so that they can conduct large amounts of help.

      Back to slavery. I don’t know what the writers sources are for the start of the African slave trade. He focuses on the one Papal bull that gave support to the Portuguese and Spanish slave raids that were part of the campaign against Islam. In war at that time, captives had two choices, to be killed or to be taken as slaves. The Popes chose to endorse the latter. And as he points out, by the 15th century the Popes had little influence.

      He’s very wrong to call the latter Papal bulls against the African slave trade and slavery in the New World as “occasional papal pronouncements against slavery.” The Popes spoke out time and again against slavery in the Americas. It was Catholic South America where slavery ended first, not Protestant North America. The Popes spoke. The bishops and people did not listen. Check out this link for the real story. http://www.cfpeople.org/Apolog…1a003.html

    • FJ

      Charlotte, you simply say it is a prudential judgment without offering any reason why that is so – if you could expand i would appreciate it, since Joe H does bring up a good question.

    • Geoffrey Miller

      How to recognize what is and isn’t infallible

      If it has always been taught by the Church as a matter of faith or morals, it is infallible. If it is a solemn definition, it is infallible.

      Ex., you are reading two Encyclicals. The first Encyclical reads:

      Venerable Brethren, the red dogs runs at night. The cow jumped over the Moon. Jesus Christ is God. Little Jack Horner sat in a corner. Women may not be ordained to the priesthood.

      In this document, the only parts which would be infallible would be the lines “Jesus Christ is God” and “women may not be ordained to the priesthood” because these have always been taught. This is teaching at the level of the Universal Magisterium, which is infallible.

      The second Encyclical reads:

      By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that X, Y, Z. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith. And, by the way, the red dog runs at night.

      Notice the explicit “we define” here? Notice that it is addressed to “anyone,” not just to members of the Latin Church or of the Eastern Churches, etc.? Notice the penalty in place for non-acceptance of what is being said (if you don’t believe this, you have fallen away from the Catholic Faith)? By these marks, you can know that infallible teaching is being expressed.

      In this document, X, Y, and Z are infallible, but not “the red dog runs at night.” This is teaching at the level of the Extraordinary (or Solemn) Magisterium, which is also infallible and is to be accepted “de fide.” (Note: Protestants and uneducated Catholics who ask blankly, “Is Enclyclical X infallible?” need to recognize that a 100-page Encyclical may be written that is not infallible in any way, or has 10 paragraphs that are infallible, or 1 sentence that is infallible, etc.). This sort of exercise of the Solemn Magisterium is very rare, but very necessary when clarity is needed over a teaching that has always been taught, but whose details haven’t been strictly defined.

      All other teachings are owed obedience as long as they do not lead to a loss of Faith, harm the Church, impede the salvation of souls, lead to an evil, etc.

      Summary:

      Always been taught and believed: infallible

      Solemnly defined by Pope or Council: infallible

      Other teachings: fallible, but owed religious assent unless they prove harmful, lead to sin, etc.

    • Rimshot

      Tanks Geoff & co.

    • Tim Shipe

      One of the things I looked at during my exploration of the Catholic Church as opposed to the Orthodox Churches,during the time of my decision to make a definite conversion- was the fact of a fast developing Catholic social doctrine while the Orthodox had nothing to compare.

      The seeds for the social doctrine and with it the condemnation of such things as slavery- are easily found in Christ’s teachings throughout the New Testament- one cannot easily love one’s neighbor as oneself and simultaneously enslave him. But we humans- especially collectively in a given society- are quite slow- we learn things and develop hardearned virtues and then succeeding generations neglect historical analysis and go off the deep-end in a repeat of some past mistake or they make some brand new mistake and call it good- see embryonic stem cell research.

      While Rod Dreher was making his public conversion over to the Orthodox, I tried to get word to him- consider the importance of CAtholic social doctrine- how it totally follows the line of developing the seeds of doctrine set by Christ to be empowered and encouraged to truly love our neighbor in a global village type of world that we are now living in.

      Of course, the social doctrine contains many prudential judgments and advice- but as I was taught by Dr.Schreck at Franciscan U.- the Papal Encyclical teachings are to be followed with our religious assent- for Catholic to reject out-of-hand all-or most- of that economic and political arena guidance from our Hierarchical sources just seems so patently dangerous to any ability for the Church to be One in an incarnational sense- where there can be such a thing as a unique Catholic voice and vote in a democratic society. For this Catholic convert, it wasn’t the beauty of the Catholic liturgy versus that of the Orthodox Churches that convinced me that the Catholic Church was the one Jesus intended for His People ultimately- it was the social doctrine and all that concern for the poor and the vulnerable that seemed so in keeping with the witness of Christ in Scripture and with my own socially-concerned personal conscience. For if whole peoples are being oppressed or are hungry for clean water or decent food- am I being a truly good Christian if I send only my prayers from my comfortable abode from my superpower Nation? I have answered that one for myself in my own conscience and I find the Catholic social doctrine exceptionally helpful and inspiring.

    • Charlotte

      Charlotte, you simply say it is a prudential judgment without offering any reason why that is so – if you could expand i would appreciate it, since Joe H does bring up a good question.

      Sure. Prudence is the virtue that’s used to determine what particular action ought to be done or not done. It tells us how to apply principles to specific circumstances. It’s also called practical wisdom, (as opposed to theoretical wisdom), which I prefer because in everyday language, the term prudence has other connotations.

      Of course some acts are intrinsically evil and can never be apporved, like abortion. Other actions are usually wrong, but not intrinsically evil, like taking someone’s liberty or wealth agaist their will. If these were intrinsic evils, prisons and fines would be immoral. The pope made a practical judgment that slavery in these circumstances was in the same catagory as just imprisonment or financial penalty, rather than seeing it as theft and kidnapping. This practical judgment was not infallible.

    • Thomas More

      Not all slavery is the same. I think the problem with this article is that it assumes that the slavery endorsed by the Popes was the same as our slavery here in America, chattel slavery.

      The author notes that Jewish slavery was voluntary, but that for some their families could be retained but who were slaves in these times? Mostly those who are captives of war. Plus, how many people here in America work their whole lives for a company so that their family can eat and have benefits, if you think about it today

    • Thomas More

      Here is the actual text of section 1 of the 13th Amendment: “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

      So, although we have a knee jerk reaction to this issue due to our cultural sensitivity and guilty for the type of slavery we engaged in, clearly, not all slavery is equal.

      As St. Robert Bellarmine explains in De Laicis, his treatise on Civil Government, from which our founders got the phrase consent of the governed, when a war is fought the sovereign acts as judge against the opposing side and therefore can punish those who engage in war against him. I would imagine that this punishment could take the form of slavery, just like our Thirteenth Amendment, which I don’t see anyone complaining about being immoral.

      Overall, I must criticize the tone of this article: (1) It starts out with a shocking scene with little explanation of context and it has clearly confused and scandalized a new Catholic for that reason; (2) It then warns against using current cultural context to judge the past, but then equates the papal bulls allowing for slavery of enemies in war to other forms of immoral slavery; (3) It does little to explain the seeming schizophrenia of the papacy of condemning one form of slavery and endorsing the other; (4) It does not attempt to reconcile what it argues is the immoral mistake of the Church regarding slavery and the doctrine of infallibility, once again risking scandalizing the “little ones” and (5) It does not discuss the status of lawful slavery today in the 21st century to put the punishment of Saracens with slavery into context.

      The problem with judging the past is that we are too quick to assume the same words mean the same thing; we apply our cultural context to their cultural context. Let us not only be careful in judging one another today, but let us not be quick to judge the dead either, which is also for God alone. This isn’t to say we can’t point out where people have gone awry and done evil, but that we must carefully examine such issues before making such judgment.

      To say the least, there is much in this article that is lacking in terms of historical and cultural context and much that is lacking in the explanation of the different types of slavery in the past and why people where placed into slavery. Additionally, it does not address legally accepted slavery today that no one is challenging like in the Thirteenth Amendment.

      This article’s relatively careless approach to this issue is I believe harmful to the faith as newish catholic’s response shows. It is alarmist in tone and does little to reconcile it proposed statements regarding the immorality of slavery, the endorsement of the papacy of immoral slavery and our belief in the infallibility of the pope and the church regarding faith and morals.

      Next time please reconsider publishing articles of this type.

    • David Curp

      Mr. More,

      Some of the issues you raised came up the first time that Crisis published this article – there were complaints in particular that I was equating Papal authorization of the slave trade with racialized slavery – in the next couple of posts I will reproduce my replies to objections like your own – the nub of it comes as to whether every instance of slavery/unfree labor is so specific that we cannot make valid generalizations – can we discuss serfdom in the Middle Ages, or do we have to have detailed knowledge of every kind of labor contract from Iceland to the Vistula. Even more importantly, do we have shifting criteria of complexity – seeking ever more refined definitions when dealing with the Church and being content with broader generalizations when understanding the actions of secular forces. But first, below are my replies to similar questions several years ago…

      I agree that slavery as practiced and experienced by Catholics during the development of the transatlantic slave trade did not begin as a racialized phenomenon, though race eventually further tainted the slave trade. Racial criteria as such were not very strong in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries; the same Portuguese who enslaved Africans in Western Africa (and made the kinds of nastily ethnocentric remarks you will see below) happily collaborated with Coptic Christians to fight militant Islam in Eastern Africa and educated and ordained African clergy from other territories in sub-Saharan Africa. Even when Catholics began associating race with slavery, their racial criteria were never as binary (black = slave) as those that prevailed in English colonies, and so the racial angle was not as crucial to Latin American slavery.

      I am not, casually or otherwise, dismissing those papal pronouncements Mr. X cites against particular instances of enslavement. What I dismiss as ahistorical is the notion that these papal pronouncements amount to a broader Papal opposition to

    • Ben
    • Joe H

      Mr. Crup,

      It seems to me that if you are going to advance this thesis, there are some specific Papal documents you need to explain more clearly. While you claim that those of us who object to your account of history are sometimes guilty of projecting modern notions of racism onto an era where they did not yet exist, the documents I have read, assuming the translations into English are accurate, would seem to condemn chattel slavery such, with or without specific theories of race.

      First there is Pope Eugene IV’s bull, “Sicut Dudum” (1435), which clearly condemns the enslavement of the natives of the Canary Islands. If you look at the rest of the encyclicals condemning slavery that follow, it is clear that this sets a precedent for the future. I don’t know why you dismiss it by stating,

      “But these condemnations came within the broader context of papal support for a Portuguese crusade in Africa that did include slave-taking.”

      Clearly the Popes saw a difference between these two types of slavery, as have most scholars. More on that below.

      Next we have Pope Paul III’s “Sublimis Deus” (1537). It reads,

      “by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples – even though they are outside the faith – …should not be deprived of their liberty… Rather they are to be able to use and enjoy this liberty and this ownership of property freely and licitly, and are not to be reduced to slavery”

      Yet about the “16th century”, when this was written, you have this to say:

      “The occasional papal pronouncements against slavery earlier in the 15th century and later in the 16th century sought to regulate particular abuses, but they did not deny Spain and Portugal the right to engage in the trade itself.”

      The text from the document I quoted above says nothing about particular abuses. Indians and all other peoples (presumably including indigenous sub-Saharan Africans) outside of the faith are not to be reduced to slavery, and this is decreed “By our Apostolic Authority” – it doesn’t get more serious than that, does it?

      Then we have Gregory XIV’s “Cum Sicuti” (1591), Urban VIII’s “Commissum Nobis” (1639), and Benedict XIV’s “Immensa Pastorum” (1741). I haven’t been able to find the full text of each of these but the relevant quotations are often cited on websites dealing with the issue, and the idea is quite clear – slavery, the slave trade, all of it, is sharply condemned. It makes no sense, furthermore, for the Popes to have condemned the uprooting of indigenous people and their reduction to slavery, while remaining silent or complicit in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, i.e. the capturing of Africans from the Sub-Sahara, non-Muslim regions of Africa. After all, those indigenous people were not so different than the Indians of the Americas.

      In the end, I find your historical narrative to be a little confusing at best. We can draw a moral line between slaves taken in warfare, and indigenous peoples reduced to slavery. As far as I know historians have always made a distinction between classical (or ancient) slavery, and chattel slavery. The enslavement of the Saracens and “other enemies of Christ” captured in battle would seem to be a holdover of this classical slavery.

      You wrote in your original article,

      “Far from being an innocent bystander, or merely silently complicit, the papacy fully participated in the expansion of the European slave trade.”

      When you say “European slave trade” you seem to muddy the waters between taking prisoners of war as slaves, and invading indigenous territory for the sole purpose of rounding people up to sell them into slavery. By failing to make this clear distinction, by grouping everything under the heading of “the slave trade”, you imply that the Papacy condoned the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when there is no evidence to suggest that. At the very least you need to be more careful. When you say “slave trade”, to most people, that means a very specific thing.

    • Peter Freeman

      I realize the main thrust of this paper is a discussion of the early modern slave trade, and I don’t have any particular problems with how that is addressed.
      I did want to jump in with some comments on Hebrew slavery, though, just for fun.
      First, my understanding is that it is debatable whether we should even be using the English word “slave” in these translations, since our modern concept of slavery would have been foreign to the original authors. Early English translations use “servant.” Hebraic slavery did not bring with it the same sense of disenfranchisement and social death that accompany our modern ideas of slavery.
      Second, it’s worth considering how the “coercion” of Hebrew slaves (what else should I call them at this point) is perhaps misleading. If a slave marries a woman and has children, should he be allowed to go free once his tenure as a slave is up? Rather, obliging him to stay with his family is a means of protecting the slave woman and her children.
      Likewise, if you read on in Exodus, you will see that female slaves are never to be released. My students always guffaw at this as misogynistic, but consider the damage this would do to the women in a society where a master could take his slave as a wife or concubine. By “coercing” female “slaves” into permanent servitude, the law actually coerces the master to see that the woman is cared for perpetually. Otherwise, masters could buy female slaves and then dispose of them once the master grew tired of her. Furthermore, it should be noted that female Hebrew slaves that had been purchased for marriage had a right to leave the house of their master if he at some point refused her her marriage rights (i.e. sex).
      It’s true that the Bible was used as a defense for slavery in history, but it’s also arguable that this was due to poor reading of the Bible.

    • Jessica

      for Curp’s paper to be regarded as worthy of inclusion on a website or in a journal. Curp might begin by marshalling the Papal statements against slavery: issued in T1435, 1493, 1497, 1537, 1591, 1639, 1686, 1741,1839, 1866, 1888, and 1890.

      Curp might also consider that even where slavery obtained, Catholics were forbidden to do anything in connection with such a slave which would lead to a detriment to his life, his morals, or his Catholic faith. Masters also had to instruct their slaves in the Catholic faith, treat them according to Christian charity, and not interfere with their marriage rights and duties.

      He might also have compared the situation of French slaves (governed by these restrictions on the treatment of slaves) to those under English enslavement, where a far less humane policy was enforced.

      Finally, Curp might also consider the fact that American bishops, dominated by “Americanism,” disobeyed Vatican proscriptions against slavery.

      All this information is easily available and should have been included. Cf. “The Popes and Slavery” (Alba House, 1996).

    • Brian

      When I read the life of St. Peter Claver, the Slave of the Slaves, I was educated as to the degree of depravity the slave traders of the seventeenth century were capable of. If Cartegena had been under a just Catholic governorship the “traders” in human traffic ought to have been arrested and executed for murder, both the ships’ owners and captains. These men were so utterly wretched in what they were doing that no Catholic society should have tolerated their presence. Better still, the captains and crew ought to have been shackled together and sent out to sea without a pilot. One third of the slaves died in the squalid heat below deck, shackled together,diseased unto death, lying in their own excrement,the living chained with the dead. When the living emerged from their hell on the sea, they were half-crazed, having lost their minds in a box pit of horror, for one, two, even three months. That was Peter Claver’s first concern: to restore their sanity with sweets, liqueurs, and a face full of compassion.

    • Kevin J Jones

      Chesterton, Belloc, and Regine Pernoud have popularized the idea that medieval slavery was pretty much gone in Europe where it had elevated to serfdom or even a free, happy peasantry.

      This isn’t quite the case. See Glenn W. Olsen’s on-line review of Pernoud’s Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths in the Winter 2003 University Bookman.

    • Joe H

      Olsen writes,

      “We find internal slave markets in France itself in the early Middle Ages, and slaving on the edges of Europe in every century.”

      The question would remain for us, however: was this sort of slavery ever condoned by the Papacy? Or was it done in spite of it?

      Also, there is a difference between a slave and a serf. Even if there were slaves, as we understand them, in the Middle Ages, it is still the case that the vast majority of people were serfs or peasants.

      It’s also still the case that there were ways for a serf to win their freedom, ways that were never made available to chattel slaves.

      And finally it is still the case that serfs, even if they were tied to the land, lived in a society that recognized dozens of feast days freeing them from work, bound their masters to care for them to some minimal degree, was run by a Church that believed its duty was to serve the poor (and it did).

    • Eric Bohn

      In fact the enire aim of servitude in the Jewish tradition was different than that of other societies. Hebrew slaves were not slaves at all. They entered into a sort of contract (really covenant) with their masters in payment for wrongdoing, or some debt that they owed. As a covenant relationship, masters were required to respect the individual rights and freedoms of their servants, and to treat them as potential equals since that is what they would become when their period of service came to an end.

      Modern texts do indeed hide this distinction when they refer to this institution as slavery rather than servitude.

    • Arthur Biele

      Part 1

      Throughout their travels the Portuguese engaged in trade — including slave trade.

    • Arthur Biele

      I will narrow the cost of lives to the Spanish Colonies, though it was equally so for the Porteguese colonies in Brazil.

      Columbus and his crew, landing on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. On that Island, Columbus wrote of the natives of the Bahamas, a people who called themselves Taino:

    • Arthur Biele

      I will narrow the cost of lives to the Spanish Colonies, though it was equally so for the Porteguese colonies in Brazil.

      Columbus and his crew, landing on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. On that Island, Columbus wrote of the natives of the Bahamas, a people who called themselves Taino:

    • Steven Newcomb

      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).

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