The Role of the Roman Catholic Church in Slavery

Some historians argue that if churches had used their power, the Atlantic slave trade might have never occurred. By the same logic, others argue that the Catholic church and Catholic missionaries could have also helped to prevent the colonization and brutality of colonialism in Africa. However, history shows that the Catholic church did not oppose the institution of slavery until the practice had already become infamous in most parts of the world. In most cases, the churches and church leaders did not condemn slavery until the 17th century. The five major countries that dominated slavery and the slave trade in the New World were either Catholic, or still retained strong Catholic influences including: Spain, Portugal, France, and England, and the Netherlands.

Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.- Pope Pius IX

HISTORY

The actions of the Catholic church towards slavery proved to be insincere. History shows that the first extensive shipment of black Africans that would later become known as the Transatlantic slave trade, was initiated at the request of Bishop Las Casas and authorized by Charles V in 1517. Ironically, Catholic missionaries such as the Jesuits, who also owned slaves, worked to alleviate the suffering of Native American slaves in the New World. While showing mercy to Native Americans, the church placed some books critical of slavery on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Holy Office between 1573-1826. Capuchin missionaries were excommunicated for calling for the emancipation of black slaves in the Americas .

At various points the Catholic church would appease its followers and their conscience by trying to find a middle ground. Because Catholics considered baptized slaves in full communion with the Church, as opposed to some non-Catholic colonies, masters could not kill a slave without facing murder charges. If able, slaves had a right to purchase their freedom, referred to as an act of manumission. Slaves could not be worked on Sundays or on the thirty Catholic feast days, guaranteeing some days of leisure. Slaves could also join lay Catholic fraternal organizations alongside free blacks. All of these protections, perhaps, provided slaves in Catholic territories with a degree of protection from the harshness of the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Amazingly, Catholic Bishops would publicly condemn slavery but privately allowed it to continue in colonies that economically enriched the church.

Finally, in 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that forced slavery was an infamy that dishonored the Creator and was a poison in society.

CATHOLIC CHURCH TIMELINE OF CRITICAL POINTS IN HISTORY

YEAR CHURCH’S POSITION
362 AD The local Council at Gangra in Asia Minor excommunicates anyone encouraging a slave to despise his master or withdraw from his service. (Became part of Church Law from the 13th to 20th centuries).

 

354- 430 AD St. Augustine teaches that the institution of slavery derives from God and is beneficial to slaves and masters.

 

650 AD Pope Martin I condemns people who teach slaves about freedom or who encourage them to escape.

 

1179 AD The Third Lateran Council imposes slavery on those helping the Saracens.

 

1226 AD The legitimacy of slavery is incorporated in the Corpus Iuris Canonici, promulgated by Pope Gregory IX which remained official law of the Church until 1913. Canon lawyers worked out four “just titles” for holding slaves: slaves captured in war, persons condemned to slavery for a crime; persons selling themselves into slavery, including a father selling his child; children of a mother who is a slave.

 

1224- 1274 AD St.Thomas Aquinas defends slavery as instituted by God in punishment for sin, and justified as being part of the ‘right of nations’ and natural law. Children of a slave mother are rightly slaves even though they have not committed personal sin!

 

1452 AD Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas on 18 June, 1452. It authorizes (King) Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any “Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers to perpetual slavery.The same pope wrote the bull Romanus Pontifex on January 5, 1455 to the same Alfonso. As a follow-up to the Dum diversas, it extended to the Catholic nations of Europe dominion over discovered lands during the Age of Discovery. Along with sanctifying the seizure of non-Christian lands, it encouraged the enslavement of native, non-Christian peoples in Africa and the New World.

 

1493 AD Pope Alexander VI authorizes the King of Spain to enslave non-Christians of the Americas who are at war with Christian powers.

 

1494 AD Pope Alexander VI, in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, divides the known New World between the two countries. As there was a need to locate a group to work in areas where the supply of indigenous labor was insufficient, to sustain their colonies, Spain and Portugal imported Africans.

 

1500- 1850 AD Twelve million Africans arrived in the Americas to toil as slaves. The vast majority of these slaves worked in the Catholic colonies of Spain and Portugal

 

1548 AD Pope Paul III confirms the right of clergy and laity to own slaves

 

1866 AD Pope Pius IX declares:
Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.

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