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Thursday, June 27, 2013

How can the Church claim to have the charism of infallibility--wasn't the Church wrong at one point about slavery? Didn't popes once endorse slavery? Now the Church condemns it.

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

I recently read this question on Catholic Answers "Quick Questions":

According to theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, infallibility of the pope is untenable because no human perception of truth can be stated in a manner that lacks error or inadequacy. All ideas must be open to revision. Besides, the Church has erred repeatedly. Example: slavery. (By the way, is this woman Catholic?)

No, she is not Catholic, but she still carries the label because it gives her legitimacy. She is about as extreme a feminist fanatic as I have ever heard about. (Other professors at Boston College note that she won't allow men to enroll in her classes.) Her first point really is silly. Ask any mathematician whether the truth of an equation contains "error or inadequacy." A correct equation is completely true, with no admixture of error. And if such truth is possible in math, it must be possible in other things. As to her "example," infallibility applies only to formal teachings on matters of faith and morals. The Church never taught that slavery was good, only, as Paul noted, that, in a society in which slavery is accepted, the slave should be obedient to his master.--Karl Keating, Catholic Answers

Regarding the original question above, at least the latter part of the question "the Church condemns it", is correct. From Vatican II:   "Whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery . . . the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed . . . they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator" (Gaudium et spes 27; cf. no 29).

Regarding the first part, "didn't popes once endorse slavery", well, that part is incorrect.

No pope has ever endorsed slavery.

However, this must be understood with some nuance.  There have been no teachings from the Church/Chair of Peter/Papal Office that endorsed slavery.  Yet it is true, sadly, that there have been indeed some popes who owned slaves.  It is also true that there were popes who sired children with their mistresses, murdered people, stole, bore false witness.  In short, every single one of the 10 commandments has probably been broken by a pope.  Mortal sinners, a bunch of them!  (And, I would be remiss if I didn't add:  a whole lot of them were saintly, holy men living lives of intense prayer and service.)

Yet not a single heinous sinner of a pope has ever proclaimed, using the Chair of Peter, a false teaching.  So while they may have engaged in adultery, not a one ever penned an encyclical asserting that adultery was now moral. They may have lied and cheated, but none of them ever proclaimed that lying and cheating is permissible.

As Jesus said:  The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;  therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.—Matthew 23:1-3. That is, do what the Pharisees, yet sinners,  tell you because of their position of authority, even if they say and do sinful things themselves.

Incidentally, when discussing slavery it must be acknowledged that there are different forms of slavery.  Slavery in the ancient world (i.e. Biblical times) 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. --from a previous 3 Minute Apologetics blog.

And the above question regarding slavery is often presented as a way of intimating, "The Church may also be wrong about this teaching _____________{fill in the blank with whatever unpalatable, unlikable Church teaching the presenter may wish to dismiss}."  That, I think, is the real reason slavery is often brought up.  It is a means for a person to be able to argue that the current teaching he finds distasteful may also change.

For more in-depth study visit these websites:

Catholics Come Home

Catholic Bible online

Catechism of the Catholic Church online

"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. Actually Catholic Answers is incorrect. Biblical slavery was not such that a person was eventually free. Here is the Catholic NAB Bible in Leviticus 25:44 onward:

    " 44
    * The male and female slaves that you possess—these you shall acquire from the nations round about you.p
    You may also acquire them from among the resident aliens who reside with you, and from their families who are with you, those whom they bore in your land. These you may possess,
    and bequeath to your children as their hereditary possession forever. You may treat them as slaves. But none of you shall lord it harshly over any of your fellow Israelites.


    Quite simply, the Church can be incorrect in writing when She does not use infallibility. Here is Pope Nicholas V in Romanus Pontifex granting Portugal the right to enslave BUT in a non infallible's online free....go to the middle of the 4 th large paragraph:
    " We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso -- to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery."

    Pope Nicholas V was wrong in written form. But John Paul II was not correct that slavery of a perpetual kind is always evil because Leviticus 25 is from God and it granted perpetual slavery to the Jews.
    The answer is context not antiquity. If you have a culture with mostly tents and no buildings ( ancient Israel and modern primitives in the Amazon), slavery is their form of prison for both criminals and debtors who can't pay and captured soldiers in war. If nomad cultures were not allowed slavery, then such people would kill all criminals, debtors and captured soldiers. Slavery in nomad cultures prevented the greater cruelty of execution for minor infractions etc. John Paul was right in saying that slavery in our context of developed countries is immoral but he was incorrect in calling it intrinsically wrong. It is wrong or right by context as Leviticus 25 demonstrates.

    1. Thanks for your comments, bill.

      In response to your comment that Catholic Answers is wrong, that prompts 2 questions:

      -where did CA say that slaves could be freed?
      -where does your example from Scripture say that slaves could never be freed?

  2. AA,
    Your question A. ( where did CA say that slaves could be freed?) I now see you not they said it (that slaves could be freed) in your blue text: " Slaves in Roman and Biblical times could own property, run businesses, earn their freedom.."
    Your question B. ( where does your example from Scripture say that slaves could never be freed?). ....verse 46 "...
    and bequeath to your children as their hereditary possession forever."

    The basic point ( which don't miss) is that Church written documents are not infallible always though this belief is rampant on the Catholic internet. Ludwig Ott wrote " Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" which was consulted by most priests in the mid 20th century on dogma matters. The Intro to it deals with degrees of certitude in section 8....see last paragraph which avers quite logically that not all papal teaching even on morals is irreformable ( free on line now).
    For example, Pope Leo X condemned Luther's saying that burning heretics was against the Holy Spirit ( Exsurge Domine, art. 33 condemned). Now the whole Catholic Church agrees with Luther in that section 80 of Splendor of the Truth condemns "coercion of spirit" and " torture" as evils. Pope Leo X was not only wrong in the view of John Paul II but in the view of Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom and Cyprian of Carthage all of whom opposed killing heretics which Aquinas disagreed with and agreed with Leo X and probably fed the later Leo's view.

    1. Ah, very good then.

      The emphasis in my text should be on the word "could". That is, they "could" be freed. They "could" run businesses". They "could" own property.

      And I also would emphasize the word "may" in your Scripture verse. As in, one's children "may" inherit slaves.

      But not necessarily so.

    2. Regarding Ex Surge,article #33 is addressed rather eloquently here:

    3. Regarding your comment that not everything written by popes is considered infallible, I give that a hearty "amen!"

      However, infallibility ought not be the shibboleth by which we judge whether we are bound by the statement.

      We are bound to give religious assent to all teachings proclaimed with authority by the Church, whether they are infallible or not.

      As such, the proclamations written by Pope Nicholas V were neither infallible, nor authoritative to all the faithful.

  3. I've seen the Exsurge Domine explanation ( scenario 2). But Leo X could have easily said that false prophets were killed in the OT but are not killed in the NT....he didn't and he excommunicated anyone who agreed with Luther latae sententiae at the end of Exsurge Domine...pretty stiff punishment for being simply wrong in this way but not that way.. Exsurge Domine is simply non infallible because it does not cite the Bishops as a whole for cotestators but instead cites scholars and Cardinals.
    But again, the basic point is that non infallible documents do not need defenses of logic at all...because defending every non infallible document leads people to think that we see Popes as pan infallible whenever they write and that is not Catholic Dogma. The more apologists defend every non infallible document...the more we are implying to the world that Popes are constantly infallible and that is not Catholicism.

    1. I think given the climate of the 16th century it may have been necessary for Pope Leo X to threaten (and enact) excommunication for anyone who agreed with Luther.

      Today, not so much. Different times.

      And we are certainly agreed that some documents proclaimed by popes are not infallible. (Did you know that there is an encyclical on Dante? I am certainly free to go through my entire life as a Catholic without ever having to give religious assent to what the Church teaches on Dante.)

      However, we are not agreed that "non infallible documents do not need defenses of logic at all." Any objections posed by others to Catholicism are in want of defense, even if it's a simple, "This was not an authoritative text, and here's why..."

  4. Then we should see way more of your final suggestion which I agree with totally. Adieu.

    1. With all due respect, I think the Catholic apologetics realm is big enough to address all sorts of objections. What we choose to focus our efforts on "way more of" one thing over another is a matter of preference. *shrug*