The Popes and Slavery

Author: Pat Bartos

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 Church.

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 book.

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 papacy.

"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 this country."

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 explained.

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 today."

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 said.

"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."

Father Panzer hopes readers will look with pride on the Church when they learn of all the popes' unwavering denunciation of racial slavery.

"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 Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

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