In the last post (part 4, here), the Portuguese slave traders (around 1452) were able to avoid condemnation for enslaving African blacks. They needed only to assure the Pope that these people were Muslims, “enemies of Christendom” and supposedly prisoners of war. It was a lie, but the ruse took advantage of one of the few remaining accepted justifications for enslaving a human being. Forty years later, the slave trade got a boost when Columbus discovered the new world, opening up even greater opportunities.
Then, in 1686, a definitive statement on unjust slavery was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation of the Holy Office (the Roman Inquisition). Had it been heeded, the transatlantic slave trade in Africans would have come to a halt and new world slavery abolished. The Holy Office ruled that it was forbidden to enslave innocent blacks (who had harmed no one), nor was anyone permitted to buy or sell them. Further, those who held these blacks in slavery were required to set them free, as well as make compensation to those freed slaves.
The teaching was clear, but by the year 1686 the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was a money machine. The Holy Office held little worldly power over Catholic nations. No one listened. Of course—unlike in 1452, when everybody in Europe was still Catholic—Protestant slave traders were even less likely to care what the Vatican had to say about slavery. Hundreds of years would pass before Western civilization would be ready to abolish African slavery.
In 1789, the new U.S Constitution would provide that the United States could not restrict the importation of slaves until 1808. In 1807, the British parliament abolished the empire’s Atlantic slave trade. That same year, the U.S. Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, effective in 1808. Soon after, most European countries outlawed the slave trade.
The Slavery Abolition Act later abolished slavery itself throughout the British Empire in 1833. Of course, none of this would hinder the owning or trading of slaves within the United States, which only ended after the American civil war.
The half-century leading up to the civil war saw the rise of a substantial political movement for the abolition of slavery, mostly in the free northern states. Catholics were seldom involved in the movement, in part, because the abolitionists were virulently anti-Catholic and partly because the American bishops refused to support abolition without direction from the Vatican.
Most of the American Catholic discourse on slavery grew out of the 1839 Apostolic letter by Pope Gregory XVI, In Supremo apostolatus. The pope wrote the letter to “turn away the Faithful from the inhuman slave trade in Negroes.”
The pope ordered “that no one in the future dare to bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples” and warned “faithful Christians” against giving aid to those involved in “that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks . . . are, without any distinction and contrary to the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and sometimes given over to the hardest labor.”
This is as close as the Pope came to condemning the owning of slaves. Many commentators—both now and in the past—insist that the Pope thereby condemned the institution of slavery itself. Perhaps he did mean that.
The American bishops, however, read the document as condemning the slave trade, but not the actual owning of slaves. [Note: While Catholics were a small minority in the pre-civil war United States, the ranks of slave-owners—especially in Maryland and Louisiana—included both Catholic laity and clergy.] In the 1840 Council of Baltimore, the bishops discussed the pope’s letter and accepted it unanimously. “[T]hey all regarded the letter as treating of the ‘slave-trade,’ and not as touching domestic slavery.’” John E. England, Letters to the Hon. John Forsyth on the subject of Domestic Slavery, (1844).
It seemed that if the pope had intended to reject the owning of slaves, he would have said so. Based on how clearly and explicitly earlier popes had ordered the freeing of Canary Island and Native American slaves, the bishops may have expected a similarly plain and unambiguous condemnation, if that was Pope Gregory XVI’s intent.
Whatever the pope’s intent, the encyclical In Supremo was the strongest censure against slavery that would issue until after the U.S. Civil War and after most western governments had outlawed slavery altogether.
In his 1890 letter to the bishops, Pope Leo XIII made the first explicit papal condemnation of the institution of slavery. This came in the form of praise for the efforts of earlier popes who had “made every effort to ensure that the institution of slavery should be abolished where it existed and that its roots should not revive where it had been destroyed.” While the earlier popes had “gradually and prudently” made efforts to “ease and abolish” slavery, Pope Leo was the first to attack the entire institution of slavery itself.
Our modern evaluation of slavery came in 1965, in the Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) in which the Church strongly condemned slavery itself as a sin that poisons human society and dishonors God; and condemns it without reservation:
“[W]hatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, 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 poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”
For thousands of years, human slavery persisted, ignoring contrary voices, and pushing back violently against any serious opposition. The United States willingly sacrificed three-quarter million dead in its Civil War and thereby resolved the issue within its borders.
The story is even more perplexing from the Christian viewpoint. The principles that call out slavery as an affront to both God and our fellow men were present from New Testament times and earlier. And yet the caution of the Church and the scriptures checked the growth of any coherent Catholic abolitionist movement. Instead, for almost 2000 years, the West settled for trimming back the scope and harshness of slavery, without taking the final step.
Perhaps Western slavery could have ended sooner, but still, it did end. Human slavery is just one in an ancient list of violations of human dignity and freedom that has lost its approved, legal status in much of the world. And freedom progressed.