The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery
The problem wasn't that the leadership was silent. It was that almost nobody listened.
July 1, 2003
Some Catholic writers claim that it was not until 1890 that the Roman Catholic Church repudiated slavery. A British priest has charged that this did not occur until 1965. Nonsense!
As early as the seventh century, Saint Bathilde (wife of King Clovis II) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all slaves; in 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. That the Church willingly baptized slaves was claimed as proof that they had souls, and soon both kings and bishops—including William the Conqueror (1027-1087) and Saints Wulfstan (1009-1095) and Anselm (1033-1109)—forbade the enslavement of Christians.
Since, except for small settlements of Jews, and the Vikings in the north, everyone was at least nominally a Christian, that effectively abolished slavery in medieval Europe, except at the southern and eastern interfaces with Islam where both sides enslaved one another's prisoners. But even this was sometimes condemned: in the tenth century, bishops in Venice did public penance for past involvement in the Moorish slave trade and sought to prevent all Venetians from involvement in slavery. Then, in the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas deduced that slavery was a sin, and a series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537.
It is significant that in Aquinas's day, slavery was a thing of the past or of distant lands. Consequently, he gave very little attention to the subject per se, paying more attention to serfdom, which he held to be repugnant.
However, in his overall analysis of morality in human relationships, Aquinas placed slavery in opposition to natural law, deducing that all "rational creatures" are entitled to justice. Hence he found no natural basis for the enslavement of one person rather than another, "thus removing any possible justification for slavery based on race or religion." Right reason, not coercion, is the moral basis of authority, for "one man is not by nature ordained to another as an end."
Here Aquinas distinguished two forms of "subjection" or authority, just and unjust. The former exists when leaders work for the advantage and benefit of their subjects. The unjust form of subjection "is that of slavery, in which the ruler manages the subject for his own [the ruler's] advantage." Based on the immense authority vested in Aquinas by the Church, the official view came to be that slavery is sinful.
It is true that some popes did not observe the moral obligation to oppose slavery—indeed, in 1488 Pope Innocent VIII accepted a gift of a hundred Moorish slaves from King Ferdinand of Aragon, giving some of them to his favorite cardinals. Of course, Innocent was anything but that when it came to a whole list of immoral actions. However, laxity must not be confused with doctrine. Thus while Innocent fathered many children, he did not retract the official doctrine that the clergy should be celibate. In similar fashion, his acceptance of a gift of slaves should not be confused with official Church teachings. These were enunciated often and explicitly as they became pertinent.
During the 1430s, the Spanish colonized the Canary Islands and began to enslave the native population. This was not serfdom but true slavery of the sort that Christians and Moors had long practiced upon one another's captives in Spain. When word of these actions reached Pope Eugene IV (1431 to 1447), he issued a bull, Sicut dudum. The pope did not mince words. Under threat of excommunication he gave everyone involved fifteen days from receipt of his bull "to restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands…These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money. Pope Pius II (1458 to 1464) and Pope Sixtus IV (1471 to 1484) followed with additional bulls condemning enslavement of the Canary Islanders, which, obviously, had continued. What this episode displays is the weakness of papal authority at this time, not the indifference of the Church to the sin of slavery.
With the successful Spanish and Portuguese invasions of the New World, enslavement of the native peoples and the importation of Africans ensued, and some slavers offered the rationale that this was not in violation of Christian morality, as these were not "rational creatures" entitled to liberty but were a species of animals and therefore legitimately subject to human exploitation. This theological subterfuge by slave-traders was artfully used by Norman F. Cantor to indict Catholicism: "The church accepted slavery…in sixteenth-century Spain, Christians were still arguing over whether black slaves had souls or were animal creations of the Lord." Cantor gave no hint that Rome repeatedly denounced New World slavery as grounds for excommunication.
But that is precisely what Pope Paul III (1534 to 1549) had to say about the matter. Although a member of a Roman ecclesiastical family, and something of a libertine in his early years (he was made a cardinal at twenty-five but did not accept ordination until he was fifty), Paul turned out to be a very effective and pious pope who fully recognized the moral significance of Protestantism and initiated the Counter-Reformation. His magnificent bull against New World slavery (as well as similar bulls by other popes) was somehow "lost" from the historical record until very recently. I believe this was due to the extreme Protestant biases of historians, who may also have been scornful of the pope's predicating his attack on the assumption that Satan was the cause of slavery:
[Satan,] 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 has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians of the West and the South who have come to our notice in these times be reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking in the Catholic faith. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions they would scarcely use with brute animals.
Therefore, We…noting that the Indians themselves indeed are true men…by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples—eventhough they are outside the faith…should not be deprived of their liberty or their other possessions…and are not to be reduced to slavery, and that whatever happens to the contrary is to be considered null and void. (My italics)
In a second bull on slavery, Paul imposed the penalty of excommunication on anyone, regardless of their "dignity, state, condition, or grade…who in any way may presume to reduce said Indians to slavery or despoil them of their goods."
But nothing happened. Soon, in addition to the brutal exploitation of the Indians, Spanish and Portuguese slave ships began to sail between Africa and the New World. And just as overseas Catholic missionaries had aroused Rome to condemn the enslavement of Indians, similar appeals were filed concerning imported black slaves. On April 22, 1639, Pope Urban VIII (1623 to 1644), at the request of the Jesuits of Paraguay, issued a bull Commissum nobis reaffirming the ruling by "our predecessor Paul III" that those who reduced others to slavery were subject to excommunication. Eventually, the Congregation of the Holy Office (the Roman Inquisition) even took up the matter. On March 20, 1686, it ruled in the form of questions and answers:
It is asked:
Whether it is permitted to capture by force and deceit Blacks and other natives who have harmed no one?
Whether it is permitted to buy, sell or make contracts in their respect Blacks or other natives who have harmed no one and been made captives by force of deceit?
Whether the possessors of Blacks and other natives who have harmed no one and been captured by force or deceit, are not held to set them free?
Whether the captors, buyers and possessors of Blacks and other natives who have harmed no one and who have been captured by force or deceit are not held to make compensation to them?
Nothing ambiguous here. The problem wasn't that the Church failed to condemn slavery; it was that few heard and most of them did not listen. In this era, popes had little or no influence over the Spanish and the Portuguese since at that time the Spanish ruled most of Italy; in 1527, under the leadership of Charles V, they had even sacked Rome. If the pope had little influence in Spain or Portugal, he had next to none in their New World colonies, except indirectly through the work of the religious orders. In fact, it was illegal even to publish papal decrees "in the Spanish colonial possessions without royal consent," and the king also appointed all of the bishops.
Nevertheless, Urban VIII's bull was read in public by the Jesuits in Rio de Janeiro, with the result that rioters attacked the local Jesuit college and injured a number of priests. In Santos a mob trampled the Jesuit vicar-general when he tried to publish the bull, and the Jesuits were expelled from Sao Paulo when word spread of their involvement in obtaining the bull. Even so, knowledge of the antislavery bulls and the later ruling of the Inquisition against slavery was generally limited to the clergy, especially the religious orders, and thereby had limited public impact.
Of course, the Spanish and the Portuguese were not the only slavers in the New World. And even had they been published far and wide, papal bulls had no moral force among the British and the Dutch. Thus it must be noted that the introduction of slavery into the New World did not prompt any leading Dutch or English Protestants to denounce it.
However, even though the papal bulls against slavery were hushed up in the New World, the antislavery views of the Church did have a significantly moderating effect in the Catholic Americas by means of the Code Noir and Código Negro Español . In both cases, the Church took the lead in their formulation and enforcement, thereby demonstrating its fundamental opposition to slavery by trying to ensure "the rights of the slave and his material welfare," and by imposing "obligations on the slave owners, limiting their control over the slave." As Eugene Genovese put it: "Catholicism made a profound difference in the lives of the slaves. [It] imparted to Brazilian and Spanish American slave societies an ethos…of genuine spiritual power."
The prevalence of antireligious, and especially anti-Catholic, bias in histories of slavery is well exemplified by the "discussion" of the Code Noir in the Columbia Encyclopedia (1975) entry for Louisiana: "[T]he Code Noir, adopted in 1724,provided for the rigid control of their [slaves'] lives and the protection of whites. Additional provisions established Catholicism as the official religion." And that's it! Not the slightest acknowledgment of the many articles designed to protect slaves. Granted, it was not an emancipation proclamation, but neither was it the Code of Barbados.
As an additional instance of the antireligious bias among contemporary historians, consider that in his discussion of the Code Noir, Robin Blackburn wrote of the "pretended official policy of encouragement of slave marriages in the French colonies," only to end his sentence with the remarkable admission that it had "limited but not negligible results. He then cited a document from Martinique reporting that half of the slaves of marriageable age were married. Since, given the gender distribution of the slave population, this would have equaled marriage rates in France at that time, it would seem that it was sufficient that support for marriage be "pretended."
Equally remarkable is the fact that so many distinguished historians of slavery barely mentioned the Code Noir and ignored the Código Negro Español so completely that it does not even appear in the indexes of their well-known works.But if many historians have paid little or no attention to these Church-inspired codes, virtually no one has even mentioned the Code of Barbados (under any name), except for the few historians specializing in slavery laws, and several who wrote specifically about the history of slavery in Barbados, although the code was observed in the entire British West Indies. I suggest that the Code of Barbados would have received considerable attention had it been produced by Catholics rather than by Protestants.
But perhaps the most revealing omission from all discussions of New World slavery, and especially of the enslavement and mistreatment of indigenous populations, concerns the Jesuit Republic of Paraguay. For more than 150 years (1609-1768), the Jesuits administered an area more than twice the size of France, located south of Brazil and west of the territory ceded to Portugal by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). Here, a tiny group of Spanish Jesuits (probably never numbering more than two hundred) founded, protected, educated, and advised a remarkable civilization encompassing at least thirty "Reductions," or communities, of Guarani Indians. Not only did arts and industry flourish in the Jesuit republic (cities with paved streets and impressive buildings, symphony orchestras, printing), but a valid attempt was made at representative government. Their purpose in founding the republic, as explained by the Jesuit superior Antonio Ruiz de Montoya in 1609, was to Christianize and "civilize" the Indians so that they could be free subjects of the Crown, equal to the Spaniards, and thus to "bring about peace between the Spaniards and the Indians, a task so difficult that, since the discovery of the West Indies more than a hundred years ago, it still has not been possible."
The republic flourished, but rather than becoming the basis for equality and peace, its existence offended many colonial officials and planters, and provided a tempting plum for expropriation. Nevertheless, the Jesuits managed to forestall and outmaneuver these opposed interests for several generations. But then things began to go sour. The first step in the downfall of the republic came in 1750 when the Portuguese and Spanish signed a new treaty, redividing South America along natural boundaries.
As a result, seven of the Reductions fell within Portuguese jurisdiction. Ordered to turn these settlements over to civil authorities, the Jesuits resisted and appealed to the Portuguese and Spanish Crowns to have the Reductions spared. But their opponents were too strong and too unscrupulous, planting rumors and false evidence of Jesuit conspiracies against both Crowns. So in 1754 the Spanish sent troops against the seven Reductions from the west, while the Portuguese advanced from the east. Both forces of European troops were defeated by the Indians, who were quite well trained in military tactics and had muskets and cannons.
Although the Jesuits had not participated in the battles, they were blamed as traitors and in response were expelled from Portugal and all Portuguese territories in 1758. Soon additional plots against the Jesuits succeeded in Spain as all members of the order were arrested early in 1667 and deported to the Papal States. In July, colonial authorities were ready to move against the Jesuits in Latin America, and the roundup began in Buenos Aires and Cordoba. But it wasn't until the next year that Spanish troops moved against the final twenty-three Reductions and seized the remaining Jesuits, whereupon even very sick and elderly fathers were tied to mules and transported over mountains in bad weather, many to their deaths. Thus were the Jesuits expelled from the Western Hemisphere. Soon their republic lay in ruins-defeated and looted by civil authorities. Disheartened by their mistreatment and the loss of the Black Robed Fathers, the surviving Guaraní drifted away, many into the cities.
Of course, among the few historians to deal with the Jesuit republic are some who harp against colonialism and Catholicism, condemn the "fanatical" Jesuits for imposing religion and civilization on the "gentle" Indians, and denounce Jesuit efforts to sustain a republic as cruel paternalism and "ruthless exploitation.
But even if one were to accept the most extreme version of these claims, one is still faced with sincere and effective efforts by the Jesuits to protect the Indians against the planters and colonial authorities who wished to reduce them to servitude or to eradicate them entirely. To have constructed an advanced Indian civilization in this historical context was quite an extraordinary feat. Moreover, the antagonistic historians at least tell about this significant historical event, while most other historians have simply ignored it.
I was able to find only two books on the subject in English written during the past thirty years, one of them translated from Portuguese and both now out of print. So far as I could discover, the only acknowledgment of the subject in the Encyclopedia Britannica was this single sentence under "Paraguay, History of": "During most of the colonial era, Paraguay was known chiefly for the huge Jesuit mission group of 30 reducciones." We are not even told what "reducciones" are. As for the major works on New World slavery, all of which have bitter (and often anti-Catholic) things to say about the enslavement and abuse of Indians in Latin America: complete silence.
In contrast, considerable attention has been paid by historians to the fact that not all of the Catholic clergy, including not all Jesuits, accepted the claim that slavery was sinful. Indeed, sometimes in the midst of slave societies, clergy themselves kept slaves—during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Jesuits in Maryland were slave-owners. Other clergy were very confused about the issue. For example, the Dominican Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566) waged a bitter and quite successful campaign against enslaving Indians, during which he proposed that slaves be brought from Africa instead. Later he came to deeply regret this proposal and expressed doubt as to whether God would pardon him for this terrible sin.
It must also be acknowledged that the Church did not, usually, confront governments head-on over the issue and attempt to force an end to slavery. Granted that popes had threatened excommunication, but in practice the Church settled for attempting to ameliorate the conditions of slaves as much as possible. Thus the Church was unrelenting in its assertion that slavery was only a condition of service, and that those enslaved remained fully human and retained their full equality in the eyes of God.
As the prominent Italian Cardinal Hyacinthe Gerdil (1718-1802) put it: "Slavery is not to be understood as conferring on one man the same power over another that men have over cattle…For slavery does not abolish the natural equality of men…[and is] subject to the condition that the master shall take due care of his slave and treat him humanely."
As already mentioned, it was in this spirit that the first article of the Código Negro Español required all masters to have their slaves baptized and specified serious penalties for masters who did not allow their slaves to attend mass or celebrate feast days. In contrast, the Church of England usually did not recognize slaves "as baptisable human beings." Both views had a profound effect, not only on those in slavery, but on attitudes toward manumission and especially toward ex-slaves.
What is clear is that the common assertion that the Catholic Church generally favored slavery is not true. Indeed, as will be seen, when American Quakers initiated the abolition movement, they found kindred souls not only among other Protestants but among Roman Catholics too.
If monotheism has the potential to give rise to antislavery doctrines, why did Islam not turn against slavery too? Indeed, why does slavery persist in some Islamic areas, while having only recently been discontinued in other Muslim nations in response to intense pressure from the West?
To answer this question, we must recognize that theologians work within definite intellectual limits—not just any conclusion is possible given particular cultural materials. For example, it would be quite impossible for Jewish, Christian, or Islamic theologians to deduce that God takes no interest in human sexual behavior. The revealed texts simply will not permit such a conclusion. Nor could Christian theologians deduce that Jesus favored polygamy, at least not without an additional revelation. The fundamental problem facing Muslim theologians vis-a-vis the morality of slavery is that Muhammad bought, sold, captured, and owned slaves.
Like Moses, the Prophet did advise that slaves be treated well: "[F]eed them what you eat yourself and clothe them with what you wear…They are God's people like unto you and be kind unto them." Muhammad also freed several of his slaves, adopted one as his son, and married another. In addition, the Qur'an teaches that it is wrong to "compel your slave girls to prostitution" (24.33), and that one can gain forgiveness for killing a fellow believer by freeing a slave (4.92).
As with the Jewish rules about slavery, Muhammad's admonition and example probably often mitigated the conditions of slaves in Islam as contrasted with Greece and Rome. But the fundamental morality of the institution of slavery was not in doubt. While Christian theologians were able to work their way around the biblical acceptance of slavery, they probably could not have done so had Jesus kept slaves. That Muhammad had owned slaves presented Muslim theologians with a fact that no intellectual maneuvering could overcome, even had they desired to do so.
Rodney Stark is professor of sociology and comparative religion at the university of Washington. This article is an excerpt from his book, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark is this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:
Read our review by David Neff
Read an extended interview with Rodney Stark
Buy the book online
|Subscribe to the FREE CT Newsletters|
Get CT headlines direct to your mailbox!
| RSS Feed RSS Help|