Roman Catholics: The Original Abolitionists

Progressives eagerly remind America of its past of slavery and racism. So much so that The New York Times’ 1619 Project literally dates America that way, defining the country’s start by the year 1619 (rather than 1620 or 1776), with the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia that year. Mobs target statues of everyone from Washington and Jefferson to (curiously) Union generals like Ulysses S. Grant, who defeated the Confederacy before battling the KKK, and even Abraham Lincoln and (most bizarre of all) Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist. Very often, the mob engages in bad history, targeting literal saints who sought to protect natives from persecution, such as Saint Junípero Serra, who is being hunted and torn down throughout California. For a downright chilling display, watch the video of a raging mob in Sacramento blowtorching Serra’s face, spray-painting the statue with obscenities, and then pouncing on it with hammers while cheering, chanting, and cursing in the dark of night.

The problem with mobs, you see, is that they behave like, well, mobs.

We Catholics know this will not stop with Saint Serra. Also in the crosshairs are the likes of Saint Louis, Christopher Columbus (obviously), and who knows who else. Last weekend, one of Serra’s mission churches in California went up in flames, with the cause of the fire not yet known. In the last few days, a statue of Mary was set on fire in Boston and another was vandalized in Brooklyn (among others). As to what Mary has to do with the modern anti-statue-racism movement is anyone’s guess.

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Nonetheless, if the issue is (rightly so) a just condemnation of slavery and racism, and if one is genuinely seeking accurate history, then today’s activists ought to look back in admiration at the impressive track record of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, now is a good time for Catholics to step up with a teachable moment regarding how their Church has long condemned human enslavement. This history goes back to at least 1435, over a half century before Columbus set sail for the New World. This rich record spans from the 1400s into the modern era with Pope Francis.

This record is typically dated to January 13, 1435, when Pope Eugene IV in Florence issued Sicut Dudum, “Against the Enslaving of Black Natives from the Canary Islands.” Regarding the activity on these “said Islands,” Pope Eugene IV stated:

They have deprived the natives of the property, or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery, sold them to other persons, and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them, because of which very many of those remaining on said islands, and condemning such slavery, have remained involved in their former errors, having drawn back their intention to receive Baptism, thus offending the majesty of God, putting their souls in danger, and causing no little harm to the Christian religion.

Thus the Church formally set forth to “rebuke each sinner about his sin” and exhorted “one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed men, barons, soldiers, nobles, communities, and all others of every kind among the Christian faithful of whatever state, grade, or condition, that they themselves desist from the aforementioned deeds, cause those subject to them to desist from them, and restrain them rigorously.”

Not wanting to tolerate any dissembling or excuses, the pope ordered action right away, with a specific timeline. He commanded those responsible under threat of excommunication:

And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free, and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of money. If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself, from which they cannot be absolved, except at the point of death, even by the Holy See, or by any Spanish bishop, or by the aforementioned Ferdinand, unless they have first given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods. We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery.

The order ended with the most positive encouragement to those who obeyed: “Those who humbly and efficaciously obey these, our exhortations and commands deserve, in addition to our favor, and that of the Apostolic See, and the blessings which follow there from, but are to be possessors of eternal happiness and to be placed at the right hand of God.”

Sicut Dudum was short and strong. It was also merely the start of many papal bulls, apostolic letters, and encyclicals condemning the slave trade over the next six centuries.

Two such statements that applied specifically to the Native Americans of the West were Pope Paul III’s Sublimis Deus (May 29, 1537) and Gregory XVI’s In Supremo Apostolatus (December 1, 1839). (Indulge me in an excuse for a quick endorsement: both of these are cited in Robert Reilly’s excellent new book, America on Trial.)

Pope Paul III’s Sublimis Deus was issued the century prior to the arrival of the Mayflower and John Winthrop and his Arabella. What Paul III said is striking. He credited the enslavement of Indians to no less than Satan, the “enemy of the human race”:

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 [that] 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.

This language affirmed the inherent humanity and rights of Indians, regardless of whether they accepted the Christian faith. And as for that exhortation to evangelize, well, sadly, that very ambition is anathema to many modern eyes and ears. Paul III hoped 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.”

Yet it’s precisely this call to evangelize—which the likes of Christopher Columbus embraced, and which fostered saints like Kateri Tekakwitha—that infuriates many modern secular minds. It’s among the charges of villainy brought against Junípero Serra and his missions today. It’s seen not as a commendable act, but as an imperialist imposition of “Western” values against native tribes who had been living in harmony and tranquility and damn near utopia until Christian Europeans descended Torquemada-like with their chains and diseases.

Indeed, the very name of this encyclical would raise the ire of the woke: “On the Enslavement and Evangelization of Indians.” For the Church to have been such a poignant voice against enslavement of Indians might be cause for celebration, but unfortunately the Church undermined such good intentions by seeking to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Indians.

An even more explicit Church condemnation of slavery came on December 1, 1839, with Gregory XVI’s In Supremo Apostolatus (“Condemning the Slave Trade”), over two decades prior to America erupting into Civil War over slavery. It stated: “Placed at the summit of the Apostolic power and, although lacking in merits, holding the place of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who, being made Man through utmost Charity, deigned to die for the Redemption of the World, We have judged that it belonged to Our pastoral solicitude to exert Ourselves to turn away the Faithful from the inhuman slave trade in Negroes and all other men.” It lamented how “these miserable people, who in such great numbers, and chiefly through the effects of wars, fell into very cruel slavery.”

Significantly, this apostolic letter acknowledged that “the Apostles, it is true, exhorted the slaves themselves to obey their masters, according to the flesh, as though obeying Christ, and sincerely to accomplish the Will of God,” even as “they ordered the masters to act well towards slaves.” Even treating slaves well, however, was no excuse to enslave.

This point regarding the Apostles and other biblical figures is crucial to deal with. Notorious Southerners who owned slaves in the 19th century pointed to their Bible in insisting that slavery was a practice once accepted if not blessed by God. Such, however, was not the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Christ’s Church, in its wisdom, rejected the very notion of one human being “owning” another.

Gregory XVI’s In Supremo Apostolatus proceeded to list condemnations of slavery from Church fathers and popes such as Gregory of Nyssa, Pope Pius II (October 7, 1462, letter), Pope Paul III’s Sublimis Deus, Pope Urban VIII (April 22, 1639, letter), Pope Benedict XIV (Apostolic Letter, December 20, 1741), and Pope Pius VII. It then finished:

This is why, desiring to remove such a shame from all the Christian nations, having fully reflected over the whole question and having taken the advice of many of Our Venerable Brothers the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors, We warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor….

We reprove, then, by virtue of Our Apostolic Authority, all the practices abovementioned as absolutely unworthy of the Christian name. By the same Authority We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in this Apostolic Letter.

That’s another strong statement that does the Catholic Church proud.

Still another poignant statement was Pope Leo XIII’s November 1890 encyclical Catholicae Ecclesiae on “Slavery in the Missions.” It likewise listed past Church actions and statements, including some of those previously mentioned. It affirmed:

The maternal love of the Catholic Church embraces all people. As you know, venerable brother, the Church from the beginning sought to completely eliminate slavery, whose wretched yoke has oppressed many people…. This zeal of the Church for liberating the slaves has not languished with the passage of time; on the contrary, the more it bore fruit, the more eagerly it glowed. There are incontestable historical documents which attest to that fact, documents which commended to posterity the names of many of Our predecessors. Among them St. Gregory the Great, Hadrian I, Alexander III, Innocent III, Gregory IX, Pius II, Leo X, Paul III, Urban VIII, Benedict XIV, Pius VII, and Gregory XVI stand out. They applied every effort to eliminate the institution of slavery wherever it existed. They also took care lest the seeds of slavery return to those places from which this evil institution had been cut away. We could not repudiate such a laudable inheritance. For this reason, We have taken every occasion to openly condemn this gloomy plague of slavery.

The Church had indeed. The encyclical then gave special attention to Africa.

Much more could be quoted here. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, of course, condemns slavery (section 2414): “The Seventh Commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason—selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian—lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights.”

And of course, Pope Francis has addressed this issue repeatedly in a modern context, focusing on human trafficking in particular. He has addressed the issue in Laudato Si, Evangelii Gaudium, and, among numerous other occasions, an April 2015 plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences tackling human slavery in the 21st century.

Ironically, among Francis’s commendations of Church figures who combated the mistreatment of those others sought to enslave was his canonization homily for Saint Junípero Serra. In Washington, D.C., in September 2015, Francis said, “Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it. Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us.” That very much flies in the face of the claims of Serra’s persecutors right now.

In sum, what I’ve included in this lengthy piece is a rich record of indisputable documentary evidence of six centuries of consistent Magisterial wisdom, no doubt guided by the Holy Spirit and standing apart and above the currents of the world and the day. This material should be known by Catholics and taught, especially as the mob eyes up our statues. Believe me, they will come. They have done so in the past, and there’s no reason to expect we’ll be spared today.


  • Paul Kengor

    Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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