EWTN Catholic Q&A
Catholic Church and Slavery
Question from James on 06-17-2007:

I was watching a movie recently which made two accusations against the Catholic Church. The movie was a comedy and I know is not to be taken seriously. However, when serious accusations are levied like this I know some (especially non-Catholics)will think they are true.

One was that the the Church contributed to the Holocoust by not resisting Hilter. I know history has exonerated the Church a dozens times on this one.

The other was that that the Church "remained silent" during the slave trade in America. This one had me wondering. What was the official reaction of the Church during slavery? Were there any official pronouncments or papers issued by the Pope(s) during this period?

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 06-24-2007:

The Church has historically always been opposed to slavery. Christianity first developed in an empire that not only promoted and accepted slavery as a legitimate part of the fabric of Roman life but had a complex set of laws and customs governing the practice.

Christian teachings, however, laid the groundwork for the transformation rather than the obliteration of the practice: first by emphasizing the fair recognition of mutual rights and obligations between master and slave and then by the spread of the doctrine of equal worth and commonality of all people who have accepted Christ. An example of the former concept was given by St. Paul in his Letter to Philemon in which he seeks to reconcile Onesimus a runaway slave and now a Christian and his master Philemon, a Christian in Phrygia. The latter teaching is given magnificent expression by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians (3:27-28). By example and by gently preaching, the Church was able to create an atmosphere within the empire that made the institution of slavery morally unacceptable, in a manner similar to the program against the savage sport of gladiatorial combat.

Slavery underwent a rebirth after the demise of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and the conquest of Europe by the so-called barbarian peoples, many of whom kept slaves or engaged in slave trade. Once again, the Church worked indirectly to end the institution through the efforts to evangelize these cultures. Christian doctrine had a civilizing influence that combined with the manorial system to eradicate slavery almost completely by the 1200s. In the place of slaves developed the social class of the semi-free serf with its own characteristics and limitations.

After centuries of European decline, slavery erupted once more as the result of the extensive discoveries made by Spain and Portugal in the New World. When it became a matter of terrible commerce to seize native peoples and carry them off to work on plantations, in mines, or elsewhere, the slave trade became a worldwide industry, with sources for the brutal business found in Africa and the Americas. Contrary to long-held misconceptions, the Church was an outspoken enemy of slavery over the centuries, from popes and cardinals to missionaries and theologians.

In 1537, Pope Paul III in response to the common enslavement of the Indians and the ruthless seizing of their territory excommunicated those persons who took part in the slave trade among the Native Americans. The Jesuits in the Americas were much feared and hated by Spanish government officials because of their efforts to protect the rights of the native peoples. Pope Urban VIII in 1639 condemned all forms of slavery, and it was common practice for popes and some Christian princes and prelates to devote money to the purpose of buying galley slaves to free them from their servitude.

The 19th century was a particularly active period for the Church against the slave trade. Pope Gregory XVI in 1838 wrote to the bishops of Brazil to commend Brazil on having at long last outlawed slavery. Of lasting importance was the founding of the Anti-Slavery League in France by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1890 whose Congregation of the White Fathers (Missionaries of Africa) has long labored to end slavery in Africa, often at great personal risk.

The Church continues to fight slavery of all kinds in the modern world, especially in Africa where there is a flourishing slave trade in central and northern Africa.