Nicholas Lincoln offers an American and Roman Catholic perspective reminding us of earlier papal condemnations of slavery which show the Church’s teaching to have been clear but unheeded for many centuries

The issue and history of slavery are complex. Throughout history, the Church found herself among cultures practising slavery and had to deal with it, an early example being Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. Paul appears to tolerate slavery, but he also warned slave masters that they too have a Master in Heaven who would judge them [Col. 4.1]. However, there are many examples of saints buying slaves and then setting them free; unfortunately there were also Catholics and even clergy, who participated in slavery, and their sins caused scandal to the Church.

Different forms

To further complicate this issue, there are different forms of slavery. Though repugnant to our modern sensitivity, servitude is not always unjust; there is both penal servitude for convicted criminals and servitude freely chosen for personal financial reasons. These forms are called just-title servitude. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which brought an end to racial slavery in the US, does allow for just-title servitude to punish criminals, ‘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.’ Even today we can see prisoners picking up litter along interstates and highways accompanied by armed guards, and the 1949 Geneva Conventions allow for a detaining power to use the labour of war prisoners under very limiting circumstances.

In biblical times, a man could voluntarily sell himself into slavery in order to pay off his debts [Deut. 15.12-18]. But such slaves were to be freed on the seventh year or the Jubilee year [Lev. 25.54]. The Church tolerated just-title servitude for a time because it is not wrong in itself, though it can be seriously abused. The Popes did, however, consistently oppose racial slavery, which completely lacks any moral justification. The best study of their record is in The Popes and Slavery by Fr Joel S. Panzer [Alba House, 1996].

A new evil

Now we usually think of slavery in terms of innocent people who were unjustly captured and reduced to ‘beasts of burden due solely to their race. This form, known as racial slavery, began on a large-scale during the fifteenth century and was formally condemned by the Popes as early as 1435, fifty-seven years before Columbus discovered America.

In 1404, the Spanish discovered the Canary Islands. They began to colonize the island and enslave its people. Pope Eugene IV in 1435 wrote to Bishop Ferdinand of Lanzarote in his Bull, Sicut Dudum, ‘They have deprived the natives of their 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… We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex that, 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…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 any money’ Those faithful, who did not obey, were excommunicated ipso facto.

A century later, the Spanish and Portuguese were colonizing South America. Though far from being a saint, Pope Paul III in 1537 issued a Bull against slavery, entitled Sublimis Deus, to the universal Church. ‘The exalted God loved the human race so much that he created man in such a condition that he was not only a sharer in good as are other creatures, but also that he would be able to reach and see face to face the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good… Seeing this and envying it, the enemy of the human race, who always opposes all good men so that the race may perish, has thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving word of God from being preached to the nations. He [Satan] has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians…be reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking the Catholic faith…

‘By our Apostolic Authority decree we 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’

Pope Paul not only condemned the slavery of Indians but also ‘all other peoples.’ In his phrase ‘unheard of before now,’ he seems to see a difference between this new form of slavery (i.e. racial slavery) and the ancient forms of just-title slavery.

Against the slave trade

Popes Gregory XIV (Cum Sicuti, 1591), Urban VIII (Commissum Nobis, 1639) and Benedict XIV (Immensa Pastorum, 1741) also condemned slavery and the slave trade. Unlike the earlier papal letters, these excommunications were more directed towards the clergy than the laity.

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued a Bull, entitled In Supremo. Its main focus was against slave trading, but it also clearly condemned racial slavery: ‘We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples.’

Unfortunately a few American bishops misinterpreted this Bull as condemning only the slave trade. Bishop John England of Charleston actually wrote several letters to the Secretary of State under President Van Buren explaining that the Pope did not condemn slavery but only the slave trade.

The Popes were so ignored that some people today claim that they were silent. These sins brought great scandal to Christ’s Church. Unfortunately history does repeat itself. Today the majority of Catholics admit to using artificial contraceptives, even though the Popes have condemned contraception.