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


A House Divided

Homily for October 8, 2010

abraham lincolnIf we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

That was Abraham Lincoln speaking on June 16, 1858 about slavery in the United States.

Two years later, Lincoln would be elected President and the southern states would have begun succeeding from the Union.  Three years later, in 1861, Confederate forces would fire on Fort Sumpter and the Civil War would begin. As Lincoln predicted, it would take a great crisis to bring us together.  We would be united again, but only after much bloodshed and the loss of thousands of American lives on both sides.

Lincoln’s reference to a “house divided” comes from the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, which I just read.  Anything divided against itself doesn’t have much chance of surviving, whether it’s a family, a country, a church, or even Satan himself as Jesus points out.

We should take Jesus’ words and Lincoln’s words to heart when we look at what’s going on in the world today.  Have you ever seen more division?  In our own Church there are so-called Liberal Catholics and Conservative Catholics pulling the Church first one way then another.  But in reality, there’s only one Church.  This pendulum has been swinging back and forth for more than 2,000 years.

Even in the earliest years, there was division in the Church.  Paul alludes to it in the first reading.  Some early Christians thought that they had to adhere strictly to Jewish law and some thought Jewish law was abolished with the new covenant.  It became a big issue when Paul and others started converting gentiles.  Did a gentile have to be circumcised to become a Christian?  Did he or she have to follow Jewish dietary laws?  It took the first Church Council, held in Jerusalem in the first century to settle the issue.

What about our country?  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the United States is more divided today than it was even in Lincoln’s time.  There is no civil discourse.  Conservatives and Liberals would rather shout one another down than work to achieve any meaningful solutions.  Meanwhile, our economy is in the dumpster and we live in constant fear of terrorist attacks.  Many people of faith are more concerned with the things that separate us than with the things that bring us together.

So, you and I, as Christian Catholics are left to do what we do best and that’s PRAY!  Pray for peace.  Pray for a return to economic prosperity, not just for the United States but for all the world.  And pray that our country wakes up to the fact that we’ve been blessed by God in ways our forefathers never dreamed of.  We have a beautiful country and abundant natural resources.  We have an attitude, or at least we used to, that with God anything is possible.  But many of our brothers and sisters have turned away from God.  It’s up to us to pray those people back into the fold.

It’s up us to not let the atheists take away our rights to pray, to worship God, and to make our country, one nation, under God, once again.