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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Did the Catholic Church support slavery at one time?

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,
         and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

Short answer:  nope.

Long answer:  that the Bible mentions slavery (Ephesians 6:5, for example) and does not specifically refer to it as an inherently evil institution is true.  That is because slavery in the ancient world was a different animal, so to speak, than the relatively modern form of racial slavery that we're familiar with.  Slaves in Roman and Biblical times could own property, run businesses, earn their freedom, and were considered to be inherently worthy of human rights.  It was a form of indentured servitude that, while restricting the liberty of individuals, was of a different quality than that which we think of today. 

Today, when we discuss slavery we mean enslaving an individual who is regarded as nothing more than the property of another, and as a being without inherent human dignity; in other words, as an object rather than a human person. Under this definition, slavery is intrinsically evil, since no person ought to be reduced to the status of a mere object and property of another person.

A common objection to Catholicism that is presented is that the Church did nothing to condemn racial slavery.

However, there are popes who made scathing indictments of slavery.  To wit:  Pope Paul III, who demanded that Christians stop enslaving Indians in Sublimus Dei.

The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God's word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved;
Also, Pope Eugene issued a papal bull, Sicut Dudum, which condemned the enslavement of the people of the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa.
And no less do We order and command 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 said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and 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 money. If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself, from which they cannot be absolved, except at the point of death, even by the Holy See, or by any Spanish bishop, or by the aforementioned Ferdinand, unless they have first given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods. We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents of the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism, from which excommunication cannot be absolved except as was stated above.
Despite this evidence, some critics of the Catholic Church persist in their claim that the Church was silent on slavery.

It is crucial, when considering the Church's history with slavery, to always distinguish between our current concepts of racial slavery, and the "indentured servitude" that often was described as "slavery". The Church condemned unjust enslavement of peoples from the very beginning but it also acknowledged  "indentured servitude."

And just to add some interesting history to the mix, here's a troubling fact I discovered: one of our popes, Pope Innocent VII, apparently accepted the gift of 100 slaves from Ferdinand II of Aragon, and distributed those slaves to his cardinals and the Roman nobility


I suppose one must understand that there have been many vile, repulsive popes in the history of our Church.  Some murdered.  Some were adulterers.  Some, according to the wiki article, also accepted and distributed slaves.  It is troubling, indeed, to read the stories of these men who shepherded the Church, but we must always keep in mind that none of these men ever led the Church astray in their teachings.  That their lives did not reflect the beauty and majesty of the Truths of Christ is shameful, but one ought not confuse the men with the Office of the Papacy.

For more in-depth study visit these websites:

The Popes and Slavery

Catholics Come Home

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15


  1. PR, I did a Google search for "Catholic Answers Slavery" and on the 1st page of results, I find your blog here! ^.^

    But good info here, though, and I appreciate the link for a more in-depth study on "The Popes and Slavery". I was actually not aware how much different slavery was back then, to how it is normally viewed in modern times.

    God bless!

    1. Thanks, suko. It's nice to know that this blog shows up in Google!

  2. Very interesting read! I want to step in and make some counter-arguments.

    1) Even if you want to limit the term of slavery to "indentured servitude," I think you still must recognize the fact that indentured servitude is an evil institution.

    If the Church is God's rock on Earth, then it should be the moral foundation for the people. The question then is "was indentured servitude morally ok in human history? If so, why is it not anymore? Does God's morality change?"

    Now we either have a situation where God & Church endorse slavery/servitude or the Church was wrong about morality.

    I think most people want to say the Church was wrong about morality.

    This is a problem though - the Church is often wrong about morality - so much so that it's hard to defend it as the moral leader of the world.

    Also, you use certain popes and things they say in defense of your argument. However, when popes are presented in opposition of you argument, you dismiss by saying "one ought not confuse the men with the Office of Papacy".

    Surely we can use this line right back at you when you speak of the good things popes of said.

    The Catholic Church consistently fails to be on the front lines of human justice, dignity, and morality. The issue of slavery and its absurdly late repudiation of it is just one of many examples of the Church failing to be the moral leader of the world.

    Is it the spiritual leader? Perhaps. Is it the moral leader? Definitely not.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, tim.

      Firstly, let's acknowledge that racial slavery is INHERENTLY immoral, but indentured servitude, while restricting the basic liberties of the individual, is not inherently immoral.

      Think of it as the difference between mortal and venial sin. While it's true that all sin is an offense to God, can we acknowledge that killing someone is more heinous than flicking one's cigarette butt out the window, yes?

    2. Secondly, God's morality doesn't change, of course. But our understanding of it does develop.

      To wit: God once permitted divorce, but thanks to the New Covenant, we have increased insight as to the nature of marriage.

      As far as "the Church was wrong about morality"--I don't think so. I can't think of any doctrinal teachings in this area where the Church was wrong.

      Can you offer some examples?

    3. As far as your accusation of my "quote-mining" the Popes' condemnation of slavery, perhaps it would be helpful if you offered some contrary opinions popes have made which would demonstrate their endorsement of slavery.

      Remember: we are looking at documents that popes have promulgated. NOT how popes acted in reference to slavery.

      Do you have any documentation that popes endorsed racial slavery?

    4. And finally, regarding the putative failure of the Church to be a moral leader...well, yes and no.

      Men in the Church are sinful. And as such, just like St. Peter, they fail to be moral leaders.

      However, the Church itself has never failed as far as its moral teaching.


  3. I just did some research on ancient Roman slavery. It is the antithesis of what you described, and it appears to have been just as vile back then as it is now. Where did you get your information from??

    1. Could you please cite your sources, January? Where do you get the idea that Roman slavery was "just as vile"?

    2. Sure! Here are two my sources.

      Most of what I've read says that the Greek slaves had it a bit better. Roman with Roman slaves, however, it depended on how educated they were.

      I feel that "vile" is too strong a word to get across what I was trying to say. But it certainly doesn't appear to be as you described. Now, if you don't mind, would you cite your sources?

    3. Certainly: