40 Myths About the Catholic Church–Slavery

The inspiration for this post comes from another post on twitter.  Someone called @Shaithis1404 posted this:

obviously being christian you support slavery, like Jesus did!

[Note:  Don’t click on this twitter link.  Seems that Shaithis1404’s account has been suspended.]

This idea, that Christians, especially Catholics, support slavery is a bizarre one.  Throwing Jesus into the mix is even more bizarre.  Let’s start there.

The Bible uses the Hebrew term “ebed” to refer to slavery, but it doesn’t exactly translate that way.  It can mean slave in the way we think of the word, or it can mean servant or hired worker.  In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he sends Onesimus, a slave (ebed) to his master, Philemon.  He urges Philemon to treat Onesimus as “a beloved brother in Christ.”   Even the fact that Philemon had allowed Onesimus to travel with Paul is a good indication that the people of the time considered slavery to be something different from our concept today.  Tradition tells us that Onesimus was eventually set free and both he and Philemon became saints.

If the first-century “slave” was just an employee, even one who was “owned” by his master, the feelings about slavery were certainly different than they are today.  Did Jesus support slavery?  He may not have supported it as much as He accepted it as a normal part of life in those ancient days.

So what about our twitter comment that Christians support slavery.  I don’t think I have to explain how ridiculous that statement is.  I’m a Christian and I don’t support it.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Christian and you probably don’t support it either.  That alone makes the writer’s “logic” flawed.  But what about the Church?  Does she support slavery?  Did she ever support it?

Let’s be honest here.  Yes, at one time the Church supported slavery.  At least she accepted it.  It was part of the culture and the Church, at least for the most part, did not condemn it.  In fact there were even some Popes who were slave owners!  In light of what we know today that may seem like a huge mistake.  But they didn’t know what we know today.  Slavery was part of society.  One ancient Catholic who did condemn slavery was Saint Patrick.  Having been a slave himself, it should be no surprise that he didn’t think it was such a great idea.  Patrick lived way back in the fifth century, so Catholic opposition to the owning of other human beings isn’t just a modern concept.

In 1435 (62 years before Columbus sailed to America) the Spanish captured and enslaved the Canary Islands.  Pope Eugene IV wrote to Bishop Ferdinand  demanding that the Canaries (Canary Islanders?) be set free immediately.

In 1537 the Spanish had turned their attention to Latin America and were making slaves of the locals.  This time it was Pope Paul III who told the Spaniards to knock it off.  Paul didn’t just condemn the slavery of the Indians, but all slavery.

Jumping ahead to more recent times, Pope Gregory XVI issued the Bull In Supremo Apostolatus, in 1839 condemning the slave trade.  Southern slaveholders tried to say that Gregory was condemning the slave trade, but not slavery itself.  Nice try.  Meanwhile, while slavery was common in the South, it was also alive and well in Ireland.  Irish citizens had been enslaved by first the Vikings, then the British for centuries.  Irish clergy urged Irish immigrants in the US to oppose slavery.  The Bishop of New York suggested that the Irish mind their own business.  It’s worth noting that during our Civil War the Vatican never recognized the Confederacy.

It’s pretty clear that the Church today condemns slavery.  I’d like to say that all Catholics agree, but these are the same Catholics who support abortion and artificial birth control.  Let’s just say that no intelligent person, Catholic, protestant, or otherwise, believes that it’s a good thing to own or be owned by another human being.  It’s also a fact that slavery still exists in some parts of the world.

To end this discussion, here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say:

The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.” CCC 2414

 

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2 Responses

  1. A very nicely sanitized synopsis….. But inaccurate
    In 1866 the Vatican issued a statement that slavery was not against divine law….22 years later after Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last country to do so, did the Vatican declare slavery immoral
    Check your references

    • The 1866 document you refer to is called Instructio Number 1293. It was not about “slavery” as we think of it today. The word used was servitude and dealt with three types of servitude: (1) penal servitude; (2) indentured servitude; and (3) the servitude of prisoners captured in just wars. The Instructio declared that these types of servitude were not against divine law. Many Popes prior to Pius IX issued statements condemning buying and selling human beings.

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