Jesus, Paul, the Catholic Church & Slavery


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Here is an interesting except from a book review by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. in First Things. The whole article (which I recommend reading) is a fascinating window into the sophisticated nature of Catholic theology. (Emphasis mine)

‘Slavery was practiced by almost every known society until modern times. Throughout the biblical era, Noonan shows, slavery was taken as a given, although the Israelites practiced rather mild forms of slavery and did not permanently enslave their compatriots. Jesus, though he repeatedly denounced sin as a kind of moral slavery, said not a word against slavery as a social institution. Nor did the writers of the New Testament. Peter and Paul exhort slaves to be obedient to their masters. Paul urges Philemon to treat his converted slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ. While discreetly suggesting that he manumit Onesimus, he does not say that Philemon is morally obliged to free Onesimus and any other slaves he may have had.

For many centuries the Church was part of a slave-holding society. The popes themselves held slaves, including at times hundreds of Muslim captives to man their galleys. Throughout Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages, theologians generally followed St. Augustine in holding that although slavery was not written into the natural moral law it was not absolutely forbidden by that law. St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin were all Augustinian on this point. Although the subjection of one person to another (servitus) was not part of the primary intention of the natural law, St. Thomas taught, it was appropriate and socially useful in a world impaired by original sin.

The leaven of the gospel gradually alleviated the evils of slavery, at least in medieval Europe. Serfdom did not involve the humiliation and brutality people today ordinarily associate with slavery. Moral theologians recognized that slaves, unlike mere chattels, had certain rights even against their masters, who no longer had over them the power of life and death, as had been the case in pagan antiquity.

For St. Thomas, slaves (servi) had the right to food, sleep, marriage, and the rearing of their children. Provision had also to be made for them to fulfill their religious duties, and they were to be treated with benevolence. With the conquest of the New World and the enslavement of whole populations of Indians and Africans, theologians such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Cajetan began to object to the injustices of subjecting conquered peoples and of engaging in the lucrative slave trade. Some prominent Catholics of the early nineteenth century, including J.M. Sailer, Daniel O’Connell, and the Comte de Montalembert, together with many Protestants, pressed for the total abolition of slavery.

Throughout this period the popes were far from silent. As soon as the enslavement of native populations by European colonists started, they began to protest, although Noonan gives only a few isolated examples. Eugene IV in 1435 condemned the enslavement of the peoples of the newly colonized Canary Islands and, under pain of excommunication, ordered all such slaves to be immediately set free. Pius II and Sixtus IV emphatically repeated these prohibitions. In a bull addressed to all the faithful of the Christian world Paul III in 1537 condemned the enslavement of Indians in North and South America. Gregory XIV in 1591 ordered the freeing of all the Filipino slaves held by Spaniards. Urban VIII in 1639 issued a bull applying the principles of Paul III to Portuguese colonies in South America and requiring the liberation of all Indian slaves.

In 1781 Benedict XIV renewed the call of previous popes to free the Indian slaves of South America. Thus it was no break with previous teaching when Gregory XVI in 1839 issued a general condemnation of the enslavement of Indians and Blacks. In particular, he condemned the importation of Negro slaves from Africa. Leo XIII followed along the path set by Gregory XVI.

Although the popes condemned the enslavement of innocent populations and the iniquitous slave trade, they did not teach that all slaves everywhere should immediately be emancipated. At the time of the Civil War, very few Catholics in the United States felt that papal teaching required them to become abolitionists.

Bishop John England stood with the tradition in holding that there could be just titles to slavery. Bishop Francis P. Kenrick held that slavery did not necessarily violate the natural law. Archbishop John Hughes contended that slavery was an evil but not an absolute evil. Orestes Brownson, while denying that slavery was malum in se, came around to favor emancipation as a matter of policy.

In 1863 John Henry Newman penned some fascinating reflections on slavery. A fellow Catholic, William T. Allies, asked him to comment on a lecture he was planning to give, asserting that slavery was intrinsically evil. Newman replied that, although he would like to see slavery eliminated, he could not go so far as to condemn it as intrinsically evil. For if it were, St. Paul would have had to order Philemon, “liberate all your slaves at once.” Newman, as I see it, stood with the whole Catholic tradition. In 1866 the Holy Office, in response to an inquiry from Africa, ruled that although slavery (servitus) was undesirable, it was not per se opposed to natural or divine law. This ruling pertained to the kind of servitude that was customary in certain parts of Africa at the time.

No Father or Doctor of the Church, so far as I can judge, was an unqualified abolitionist. No pope or council ever made a sweeping condemnation of slavery as such. But they constantly sought to alleviate the evils of slavery and repeatedly denounced the mass enslavement of conquered populations and the infamous slave trade, thereby undermining slavery at its sources.

In A Church That Can and Cannot Change, Noonan gives only a few glimpses of this complex history. He correctly notes that the Catholic magisterium in past centuries never made an absolute condemnation of slavery as such. But he contends that John Paul II reversed the traditional teaching. In support he quotes a statement of John Paul II in 1992. Speaking at the infamous “House of Slaves” on the Island of Gorée in Senegal, from which innumerable slaves had been exported, he declared: “It is fitting to confess in all truth and humility this sin of man against man, this sin of man against God.” Noonan adds: “What this confession did not remark was how recently the sin had been discovered.” But if we look up the quotation, we will find that the pope is here speaking of the slave trade, which had repeatedly been condemned. Far from changing the doctrine, John Paul is explicitly reaffirming the position of Pope Pius II, whom he quotes as having declared in 1492 that the slave trade was an enormous crime, magnum scelus.’

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University.

source



Categories: Catholic, Recommended reading, Slavery

10 replies

  1. They can’t say slavery is evil because their Holy Book permit it, Leviticus 25 :44. “‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. It is still a far cry from islamic slavery with total control over the slave and no freedoms or rights guaranteed to him.

    There was no need for Jesus to address specifically the matter of slavery because it is against the golden rule which is not obligatory in Islam except from Muslim to Muslim.

    Like

    • “It is still a far cry from islamic slavery with total control over the slave and no freedoms or rights guaranteed to him.”

      No

      “There was no need for Jesus to address specifically the matter of slavery because it is against the golden rule”

      Not sure if i understand your point, So the OT was against the golden rule, or is that a new covernant vs old covenant kind of thing when clearly jesus was quoting leviticus?

      Liked by 4 people

    • @ Erasmus

      “total control over the slave and no freedoms or rights guaranteed to him.”

      Sometimes I think you just fire in the dark and hope for the best:

      Liked by 4 people

    • “There was no need for Jesus to address specifically the matter of slavery because it is against the golden rule which is not obligatory in Islam except from Muslim to Muslim.”

      Oh, I see. So Jesus just implied that he was against slavery but deliberately kept his mouth shut and hoped people would just figure it. And yet no one did…not until one brave man with the intellect to figure it out came along and set the matter straight for everyone. That man is…drum roll…Ignoramus.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Full control in the Bible:
      Luke 12:47 “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Also raiding with the sole purpose of kidnapping to hold to ransom and make slaves is also forbidden in the bible.

    Not so in Islam.

    Like

    • Jesus, though he repeatedly denounced sin as a kind of moral slavery, said not a word against slavery as a social institution. Nor did the writers of the New Testament. Peter and Paul exhort slaves to be obedient to their masters.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. “Also raiding with the sole purpose of kidnapping to hold to ransom and make slaves is also forbidden in the bible.

    Not so in Islam.”

    Raiding the enemy during a war and taking captives for ransom is perfectly legitimate, unless of course we do things the Yah-way (get it? 😉 ): kill everyone.

    As for slavery the Yah-way:

    “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” (Leviticus 25:44)

    “There were still people left from the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these peoples were not Israelites). 21 Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these peoples remaining in the land—whom the Israelites could not exterminate[i]—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day. 22 But Solomon did not make slaves of any of the Israelites;” (1 Kings 9:20-22)

    If you can’t kill all the foreigners, then enslave them and make them work! That’s the Yah-way!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I understand how you come to your conclusions, but if the popes condemned the slave trade, the logical consequence is to free those enslaved. I mean, sins against “Thou Shalt Not Steal” require satisfaction for the wrong done. For instance, if one were to steal people from their homeland to be enslaved, it would be necessary to bring them back. Slavery does not fit in with Catholic teaching. The closest thing they had to it in the Middle Ages was serfdom, which, I grant, is unjust. The Middle Ages were not perfect, but still. The thing is, any baptized person has the right to receive the other sacraments. Imagine if one’s slave becomes a priest. If one wishes to go to Mass, he goes to his slave. If one wishes to have his sins forgiven, he goes to his slave. If one wishes to get married, he goes to his slave. That said, not all Catholics actually follow their faiths and they never did.

    Like

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