The Popes and Slavery
A new book shows that popes opposed slavery since the beginning
and that they were ignored by bishops, clergy and lay people
by Pat Bartos
For 500 years, through pope after pope, the Church has set forth a
consistent, clear and unwavering denunciation of slavery. It
amounts to a striking record of leadership in social justice, yet
one that is known to few people, both within and outside of the
In his new book, "The Popes and Slavery" (Alba House, $8), Father
Joel Panzer pulls together-for the first time -a fascinating
account of this history. From Pope Eugene IV in 1435 protesting
the capturing for slavery of natives of the Canary Islands,
through Leo XIII urging Brazilian bishops to work for the
abolition of slavery, popes have stood together, reinforcing the
condemnations issued by their predecessors.
They march through the centuries- Paul III, Gregory XIV, Urban
VIII, Innocent XI-issuing 10 documents in all. Their opposition
was so strong that several imposed excommunication on those who
would not desist from the sale and oppression of human beings.
Yet many, even today, believe the Church came lately to its
opposition to slavery, according to Father Panzer, now parochial
vicar at North American Martyrs Parish in Lincoln, Neb.
"As I looked into it, I saw the Church has been misunderstood.
From the 1400s on, I found popes had spoken out," he explained in
a recent interview.
Part of the problem was the inaccessibility of many of the actual
decrees and encyclicals of the early popes, often available only
in Latin. This led to faulty scholarship, which in turn led to
charges that the Church had been silent.
Adding to the problem was that these teachings were often
misinterpreted, willfully misunderstood or ignored. "Again and
again, they [bishops, priests and religious orders] simply were
not teaching what the popes taught," Father Panzer explained.
"The Popes and Slavery" grew from Father Panzer's graduate studies
at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., two years ago, and the
appearance of several articles claiming such inaction on the part
of the Church.
It proved the impetus for his academic research and the resulting
short book, published this fall.
In it, he gives a brief biography of each of the popes who spoke
out against slavery, plus a look at the document in the context of
the times. In the appendices, he presents, in both English and the
original Latin, the actual texts.
The book focuses on the centuries beginning with the Age of
Discovery in the early 1400s as Spanish and Portuguese explorers
first encountered new cultures. It takes up the case of "racial
slavery," the then-new phenomenon of capturing native peoples to
sell them into slavery.
This differed greatly from earlier concepts of slavery as
resulting from capture in war and the idea of "just servitude,"
topics that Father Panzer hopes someone will study in a future
In his foreword to the book, Father James O'Connor, a scholar at
St. Joseph's Seminary, writes of the popes: "It is to the glory of
these men that they recognized the evil of slavery and did not
hesitate to cry out against it when so much of the Christian world
was deaf and dumb."
Yet, he adds, the book also points to the limitations of the
"The teaching of the popes on racial slavery was largely ignored
for centuries by bishops, clergy and the laity of the Church. The
efforts of some of the American bishops, previous to the Civil
War, to show how the papal teaching did not apply to the situation
in the United States, is a very sorrowful chapter in the history
of the Church in our country," Father O'Connor writes.
In his 1839 decree "" ("At the Highest Point"), Pope
Gregory XVI wrote that among the faithful were "some who,
shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and
distant countries, did not hesitate to reduce to slavery Indians,
blacks and other unfortunate peoples, or else, by instituting or
expanding the trade in those who had been made slaves by others,
aided the crime of others."
As Father Panzer explained, "The American bishops misinterpreted
this as meaning the Church was against the slave trade, but not
against slavery in practice."
In this instance, he added, "The Church failed to be a leader in
Through his research, Father Panzer was struck by "the consistency
of the popes' efforts to oppose slavery: 'You shall not reduce
people to slavery.' They say this time and time again. It amazed
me, this consistency."
A surprise too was the "consistent disregard for the Church's
teaching," he said.
One positive element of the book is that "it gives a good
historical sense for us today," he said.
With this background of centuries of papal teachings, "we could
make great strides against injustice. If we really listen, we
could improve the plight of the poor, the unborn, women, as Pope
John Paul II has done-that's why I wanted him on the cover," he
According to Father Panzer, Pope John Paul "speaks out against the
culture of death and the way society is going. ' to what
I'm saying,' he keeps saying"-especially in reference to the most
vulnerable. "He makes a great effort to face social-justice issues
In the book's cover photo, Pope John Paul lingers meditatively in
the doorway of a 1780s-era slave house on the historic island of
Goree, off the coast of Senegala, transit point for at least
60,000 of the estimated 12 million Africans taken as slaves.
On that 1992 visit to the West African republic of Senegal, the
Pope praised the area's strong Catholic history. The Pope also
spoke of conflicting emotions at visiting what he called "this
African shrine of black sorrow."
It is "the emotion that one naturally experiences in a place like
this, so profoundly marked by the inconsistencies of the human
heart, the scene of an eternal struggle between light and
darkness, between good and evil, between grace and sin," the Pope
"Goree, the symbol of the coming of the Gospel of freedom, is
also, unfortunately, the symbol of the appalling madness of those
who reduced into slavery the* brothers and sisters to whom the
Gospel of freedom was destined."
The Pope added, "In all truth and humility, this sin of man
against man, this sin of man against God, must be confessed. How
far the human family still has to go until its members learn to
look at and respect one another as God's image, in order to love
one another as sons and daughters of their common heavenly
Father Panzer hopes readers will look with pride on the Church
when they learn of all the popes' unwavering denunciation of
"They were incredibly noble men," he said of these leaders of the
last 500 years. "Even though some of them may not have been
personally upstanding, in terms of leading the Church, [they] were
very strong. It shows that the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church
throughout this period. Even though it was dealing with sinful
people, at times even popes, the Holy Spirit was guiding it. The
teachings were correct."
Bartos writes from Pittsburgh, Pa.
Speaking Out Against Slavery: The Pope
NOT LONG AGO, we learned from our brother Ferdinand, bishop at
Rubicon and representative of the faithful who are residents of
the Canary Islands . . . the following facts: In said islands . .
and other nearby islands, the inhabitants, imitating the natural
law alone and not having known previously any sect of apostates or
heretics, have a short time since been led into the orthodox
Catholic faith with the aid of God's mercy.
Nevertheless, with the passage of time it has happened that in
some of the said islands, because of a lack of suitable governors
and defenders to direct those who live there to a proper
observance of the faith in things spiritual and temporal and to
protect valiantly their property and goods, some Christians (we
speak of this with sorrow), with fictitious reasoning and seizing
an opportunity have approached said islands by ship and with armed
forces, taken captive and even carried off to lands overseas very
many persons of both sexes, taking advantage of their simplicity.
Some of these people were already baptized; others were even at
times tricked and deceived by the hope and promise of baptism,
having been made a promise of safety which was not kept They have
deprived the natives of their property or turned it to their own
use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to
perpetual slavery sold them to other persons and committed other
various illicit and evil deeds against them.
Therefore, we, to whom it pertains . . .to rebuke each sinner
about his sin . . and desiring-as is expected from the pastoral
office we hold-as far as is possible, to provide salutarily, with
a holy and fatherly concern, for the sufferings of the
inhabitants, beseech in the Lord end exhort ... temporal princes,
lords, captains, armed men, barons, soldiers, nobles, communities
and all others of every kind among the Christian faithful of
whatever state, grade or condition that they themselves desist
from the aforementioned deeds, cause those subject to them to
desist from them, and restrain them rigorously.
And no less do we order and command all and each of the faithful
that, within the space of 15 days of the publication of these
letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their
earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once
residents of said Canary Islands and made captives since the time
of their capture and who have been made subject to slavery.
These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be
let go without the exaction or reception of any money If this is
not done, when the 15 days have passed, they incur the sentence of
excommunication , from which they cannot be absolved,
except at the point of death, even by the Holy See or by any
bishop or by the aforementioned Ferdinand unless they have first
given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods
We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one
and all who attempt to capture or sell or subject to slavery
baptized residents of the Canary Islands or those who are freely
seeking baptism, from which excommunication they cannot be
absolved except as was stated above- From ("Not Long
Ago"), by Pope Eugene IV, January 1435
This article was taken from the January 12, 1997 issue of Our
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