July 29, 2012

Catholic Position on Slavery.

The Catholic Church and Slavery

Therein lies a tale. But before we consider it, we should be clear about what we mean by slavery and the real story of the Catholic Church's position on it. As used here, "slavery" is the condition of involuntary servitude in which a human being is regarded as no more than the property of another, as being without basic human rights; in other words, as a thing rather than a person. Under this definition, slavery is intrinsically evil, since no person may legitimately be reduced to the status of a mere thing or object and thus become capable of being the property of another person. This form of slavery can be called "chattel slavery." (There are other ways in which the term can be used, such as in reference to biblical slavery, where slaves were regarded as property but nonetheless as bearers of human rights.)

However, there are circumstances in which a person can justly be compelled to servitude against his will. Prisoners of war or criminals, for example, can justly lose their circumstantial freedom and be forced into servitude, within certain limits. Moreover, people can also "sell" their labor for a period of time (indentured servitude).

These forms of servitude or slavery differ in kind from what we are calling chattel slavery. While prisoners of war and criminals can lose their freedom against their will, they do not become mere property of their captors, even when such imprisonment is just. They still possess basic, inalienable human rights and may not justly be subjected to certain forms of punishment-torture, for example.


What about the charge that the Catholic Church did not condemn slavery until the 1890s and actually approved of it before then? In fact, the popes vigorously condemned African and Indian thralldom three and four centuries earlier-a fact amply documented by Fr. Joel Panzer in his book, The Popes and Slavery. The argument that follows is largely based on his study.

Sixty years before Columbus "discovered" the New World, Pope Eugene IV condemned the enslavement of peoples in the newly colonized Canary Islands. His bull Sicut Dudum (1435) rebuked European enslavers and commanded that "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 [the] 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."

A century later, Pope Paul III applied the same principle to the newly encountered inhabitants of the West and South Indies in the bull Sublimis Deus (1537). Therein he described the enslavers as allies of the devil and declared attempts to justify such slavery "null and void." Accompanying the bull was another document, Pastorale Officium, which attached a latae sententiae excommunication remittable only by the pope himself for those who attempted to enslave the Indians or steal their goods.

When Europeans began enslaving Africans as a cheap source of labor, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was asked about the morality of enslaving innocent blacks (Response of the Congregation of the Holy Office, 230, March 20, 1686). The practice was rejected, as was trading such slaves. Slaveholders, the Holy Office declared, were obliged to emancipate and even compensate blacks unjustly enslaved.

Papal condemnation of slavery persisted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pope Gregory XVI's 1839 bull, In Supremo, for instance, reiterated papal opposition to enslaving "Indians, blacks, or other such people" and forbade "any ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade in blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse." In 1888 and again in 1890, Pope Leo XIII forcefully condemned slavery and sought its elimination where it persisted in parts of South America and Africa.

Despite this evidence, critics still insist the Magisterium did too little too late regarding slavery. Why? One reason is the critics' failure to distinguish between just and unjust forms of servitude. The Magisterium condemned unjust enslavement early on, but it also recognized what is known as "just title slavery." That included forced servitude of prisoners of war and criminals, and voluntary servitude of indentured servants, forms of servitude mentioned at the outset of this article. But chattel slavery as practiced in the United States and elsewhere differed in kind, not merely degree, from just title slavery. For it made a claim on the slave as property and enslaved people who were not criminals or prisoners of war. By focusing on just title servitude, critics unfairly neglect the vigorous papal denunciations of chattel slavery.

The matter is further muddled by certain nineteenth century American clergy-including some bishops and theologians-who tried to defend the American slave system. They contended that the long-standing papal condemnations of slavery didn't apply to the United States. The slave trade, some argued, had been condemned by Pope Gregory XVI, but not slavery itself.

Historians critical of the papacy on this matter often make that same argument. But papal teaching condemned both the slave trade and chattel slavery itself (leaving aside "just title" servitude, which wasn't at issue). It was certain members of the American hierarchy of the time who "explained away" that teaching. "Thus," according to Fr. Panzer, "we can look to the practice of non-compliance with the teachings of the papal Magisterium as a key reason why slavery was not directly opposed by the Church in the United States."

No comments: