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The history of the Church with respect to slavery is not one-sided. Much of the past can be excused with reference to the prejudice of the time. The problem for conservative Catholics is that they wish to argue that the moral values in historic fact propounded by the Ordinary Magisterium are absolute and inerrant. Any Catholic apologetic that acknowledges the Church's past complicity in slavery has to discount such absolutism. While it might be argued that in practice Church authorities may have done the best they could; for the first eighteen hundred years of Christianity they both aided and abetted slavery and taught explicitly the theory that slavery was in accordance with Natural Law.

What is a slave?

Slavery can be categorized into three degrees:
  1. The chattel slave is not a legal person and so has no rights.

  2. This is the slavery of Roman Law.
  3. In the Middle Ages chattel slavery was replaced by serfdom.

  4. A serf enjoyed all his personal rights except for those of
  5. An indentured slave is a person who has sold in advance their entire life's labour to another.

  6. They may have full legal rights outside the limits of the contract into which they have entered.

St Paul

Perhaps St. Paul was justified in having the slave Onesimus sent back to his owner [Phil] because he knew that he would be well cared for. Moreover, the Apostle does rather suggest that Onesimus should be freed. Still, he would have been aware of the typical form of Roman slavery and yet he never suggests that slavery (unlike sexual licence) is unjust or either a symptom or consequence of paganism or idolatry. Neither does he say that is against nature.

Patristic and Scholastic Thought

According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
"Primitive Christianity did not attack slavery directly; but it acted as though slavery did not exist..... To reproach the Church of the first ages with not having condemned slavery in principle, and with having tolerated it in fact, is to blame it for not having let loose a frightful revolution, in which, perhaps, all civilization would have perished with Roman society."
Which is an admission that the Early Church did not condemn slavery in principle and in fact tolerated it.

Chattel slavery was never approved of by the Church. The Fathers regarded all people as equal, in some sense, and refused to regard slaves as without rights and dignity. Slavery was never understood  to be a good thing. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:

"Although the civil law on slavery still lagged behind the demands of Christianity .... nevertheless very great progress had been made. It continued in the Eastern Empire, but in the West it was abruptly checked by the barbarian invasions.... Here again the Church intervened. It did so in three ways: redeeming slaves; legislating for their benefit in its councils; setting an example of kind treatment."
Still, those theologians who considered slavery never doubted that it was legitimate. Their only difficulty was establishing how one person could obtain title over another.

Synodical Teaching before the Twentieth Century

Early councils, such as Gangra taught that slaves must be well treated. However, they also condemned slave rebellions. The following canon was later repeated by Pope Saint Martin I:
"If anyone shall teach a slave, under pretext of piety, to despise his master and to run away from his service, and not to serve his own master with good-will and all honour, let him be anathema." [Council of Gangra]
Moreover, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
"....  the Western discipline does not permit a slave to be raised to the priesthood without the formal consent of his master; nevertheless the councils held at Orléans in 511, 538, 549, while imposing canonical penalties upon the bishop who exceeded his authority in this matter, declare such an ordination to be valid."
Manifestly, these canons legitimatized slave holding. On the other hand, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
"A council held at Rome in 595 under the presidency of St. Gregory the Great permits the slave to become a monk without any consent, express or tacit, of his master."
The legitimacy of "just title slavery" was incorporated into the official body of Canon Law of Pope Gregory IX.
"It is certainly a matter of faith that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture. It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable that just as things which are captured in a just war pass into the power and ownership of the victors, so persons captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors. All theologians are unanimous on this."
[Leander: Quaestiones Morales Theologicae, Lyons 1668 - 1692,
Tome VIII, De Quarto Decalogi Praecepto, Tract. IV, Disp. I, Q. 3.]
The Church ordered the enslavement of criminals at four Oecumenical Councils. The Third and Fourth Lateran, as also the First and Second Councils of Lyons ordered that those who assist Muslims should be enslaved:
"Cruel avarice has so seized the hearts of some that though they glory in the name of Christians they provide the Saracens with arms and wood for helmets .... There are even some who for gain act as captains or pilots in galleys or Saracen pirate vessels. Therefore we declare that such persons should be cut off from the communion of the church and be excommunicated for their wickedness, that Catholic princes and civil magistrates should confiscate their possessions, and that if they are captured they should become the slaves of their captors."
[Third Lateran Council]
The Third Lateran also decreed that certain violent heretics were to be enslaved:
"With regard to the Brabanters, Aragonese, Navarrese, Basques, Coterelli and Triaverdini, who practise such cruelty upon Christians .... on all the Faithful we enjoin, for the remission of sins, that they oppose this scourge with all their might and by arms protect the Christian people against them. Their goods are to be confiscated and princes are free to subject them to slavery." [Third Lateran Council]

Papal and Vatican Teaching before the Twentieth Century

The Medieval Church owned serfs. Slaves were kept at monasteries. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
"At this period the Church found itself becoming a great proprietor. Barbarian converts endowed it largely with real property. As these estates were furnished with serfs attached to the cultivation of the soil,
the Church became by force of circumstances a proprietor of human beings,
for whom, in these troublous times, the relation was a great blessing.
The laws of the barbarians, amended through Christian influence, gave ecclesiastical serfs a privileged position: their rents were fixed; ordinarily, they were bound to give the proprietor half of their labour or half of its products, the remainder being left to them. A council of the sixth century (Eauze, 551) enjoins upon bishops that they must exact of their serfs a lighter service than that performed by the serfs of lay proprietors, and must remit to them one fourth of their rents."

The Church was forced to own slaves, and it was good for them!

In 595, Pope Saint Gregory the Great wrote instructing a priest to buy pagan boys to work on Church estates as slaves. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
"A rumour had reached Rome that the pagan inhabitants of Britain were ready to embrace the Faith in great numbers, if only preachers could be found to instruct them. The first plan which seems to have occurred to the pontiff was to take measures for the purchase of English captive boys of seventeen years of age and upwards. These he would have brought up in the Catholic Faith with idea of ordaining them and sending them back in due time as apostles to their own people. He according wrote to Candidus, a presbyter .... asking him to secure revenues and set them aside for this purpose.

"Gregory to Candidus, Presbyter .... we desire thy Love to procure with the money thou mayest receive [either] clothing for the poor, or [else] English boys of about seventeen or eighteen years of age, who may profit by being given to God in monasteries ..... Further, if you should succeed in getting anything from the moneys accruing to revenue which are called ablatae, from this too we desire thee to procure [either] clothing for the poor, or [else], as we have before said, boys who may profit in the service of Almighty God....."
[Greg., Epp., VI, vii in Migne, P.L., LXXVII.]

There is no evidence in this letter that pope Gregory was thinking that the young adult englismen should be "brought up in the Catholic Faith with idea of ordaining them": though this may have been his motivation, he does not specify it here. Moreover, he clearly had no thought that the young adult englishmen should be freed and allowed to do as they themselves wished!

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

"In 655 the Ninth Council of Toledo decreed that illegitimate sons of clerics in major orders should be held as serfs of the Church....."
In 1189, Pope Urban II ruled at the Synod of Melfi that the wives of priests were to be enslaved. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
".... disabilities of all kinds were enacted and as far as possible enforced against the wives and children of ecclesiastics. Their offspring were declared to be of servile condition .... The earliest decree in which the children were declared to be slaves, the property of the Church, and never to be enfranchised, seems to have been a canon of the Synod of Pavia in 1018. Similar penalties were promulgated later on against the wives and concubines (see the Synod of Melfi, 1189, can. xii), who by the very fact of their unlawful connection with a subdeacon or clerk of higher rank became liable to be seized as slaves ...."
According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
"As a consequence of the wars against the Mussulmans and the commerce maintained with the East, the European countries bordering on the Mediterranean, particularly Spain and Italy, once more had slaves: Turkish prisoners and also, unfortunately, captives imported by conscienceless traders .... this revival of slavery, lasting until the seventeenth century, is a blot on Christian civilization."
Many Medieval popes condemned the enslavement by Muslims of Christians. Several religious orders were organized to redeem such enslaved Christians. There was, however, never any general condemnation of slavery or tied servitude, rather the contrary.

The African slave trade began with the importation of Black slaves into Portugal in the Fifteenth Century. In 1452 Pope Nicholas Vth issued a bull "Dum Diversas" which granted the King of Portugal permission to conquer and reduce to perpetual slavery all "Saracens and pagans and other infidels and enemies of Christ" in West Africa. In 1488, King Ferdinand sent a hundred Moorish slaves to Pope Innocent VIII, who passed them on as gifts to his cardinals and courtiers!

In 1685, the Spanish Government's Council of the Indies reported to the King:

"The can be no doubt as to the necessity of those slaves for the support of the kingdom of the Indies....; and [that] with regard to the point of conscience the trade may continue because of the reasons expressed, the authorities cited, and its long lived and general custom in the kingdoms of Castile, America and Portugal, without any objection on the part of his Holiness or ecclesiastical estate, but rather with the tolerance of them all"
[Elkins: "Slavery" (1968) pp 68-72]
Various popes condemned the slave trade and the racialist enslavement of Indians, but as can be gleaned from the following three texts, slavery itself was never condemned, but rather allowed as lawful and just!
The enemy of the human race .... inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.
We .... consider, however, that the Indians are truly men .... We define and declare .... the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
[Pope Paul III "Sublimus Dei" (1537)]
.... Christians should regard as their brothers their slaves and, above all, their Christian slaves.... they should be more inclined to set free those who merited it; which it was the custom to do chiefly upon the occasion of the Easter Feast as Gregory of Nyssa tells us.
.... there were to be found afterwards among the Faithful men who .... did not hesitate to reduce to slavery Indians, negroes and other wretched peoples .... many Roman Pontiffs .... did not fail .... to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those engaged in the traffic and a shame to the Christian name; they foresaw that as a result of this, the infidel peoples would be more and more strengthened in their hatred of the true Religion. [Pope Gregory XVI "In Supremo Apostolatus" (1839)]

.... how tenderly and with what prudence the Church has cut out and destroyed this dreadful curse of slavery. She has deprecated any precipitate action in securing the manumission and liberation of the slaves .... when, amid the slave multitude .... some .... have had recourse to violence and sedition, the Church has always condemned these unlawful efforts and opposed them .... She taught the slaves to feel that .... they enjoyed a dignity which placed them above their heathen lords, but that they were bound  .... never to set themselves against these, or even to be wanting in the reverence and obedience due to them.

.... the holy Fathers .... point out that the rights of masters extended lawfully indeed over the works of their slaves, but that their power did not extend to using horrible cruelties against their persons.

.... Urban VIII, Benedict XIV, and Pius VII, showed themselves strong asserters of liberty for the Indians and Moors and those who were even as yet not instructed in the Christian faith. The last, moreover, at the Council of the confederated Princes of Europe, held at Vienna, called their attention in common to this point, that that traffic in Negroes .... should be thoroughly rooted out.

And now, venerable brethren ....  it seemed to Us a good, happy, and propitious event, that it was provided and insisted upon by law that .... slaves ought to be admitted to the status and rights of free men .... until those precepts of the laws are carried into effect .... let it be brought to pass that masters and slaves may mutually agree with the highest goodwill and best good faith, nor let there be any transgression of clemency or justice, but, whatever things have to be carried out, let all be done lawfully, temperately, and in a Christian manner. It is, however, chiefly to be wished that .... slavery may be banished and blotted out without any injury to divine or human rights, with no political agitation, and so with the solid benefit of the slaves themselves, for whose sake it is undertaken. [Pope Leo XIII letter to the Bishops of Brazil "In Plurimis" (1888)]

Both the Church and Catholic clergy as individuals owned chattel slaves under U.S. law before Emancipation. Some clergy defended slavery vigorously. During the seventeenth century, Popes Urban VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VII were all involved in the buying of Muslim slaves, while during the eighteenth century, the Church placed many anti-slavery tracts on the Index of Prohibited Books.
The Holy Office in 1866
In 1866 a request for an opinion on slavery was made to the Holy Office in reaction to the passing of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. It responded that:
"Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given. The purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue, or Catholic faith of the slave." [Instruction 20, June 1866]

The Second Vatican Council and its aftermath

The synod condemned all kinds of slavery in a general discussion:
.... everyone must consider his every neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity .... whatever insults human dignity, such as ....  slavery .... where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons .... are infamies indeed .... they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator. [Gaudiem et Spes #27]
The New Code of Canon Law
The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that .... lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard of their personal dignity ...
[Canon 2414]
The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out the contemporary official position.
The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that .... 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]
Pope John Paul II
John Paul II has gone beyond this teaching. He has asserted that slavery (as one of the acts specified in Gaudiem et Spes #27) is intrinsically disordered:
.... there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image .... they are such "always and per se," in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that "there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object". The Second Vatican Council itself .... gives a number of examples of such acts.... [Veritatis Splendor #80]
He then quotes [GS #27]. Later on he adds, approvingly, that:

The Catechism .... affirms that "in economic matters, respect for human dignity requires the practice of the virtue of  temperance, .... of the virtue of  justice ....  and of solidarity .... The Catechism goes on to present a series of kinds of behaviour and actions contrary to human dignity ....  It continues .... [Veritatis Splendor #100]

He the quotes [CCC #2414].


Indenture is still not condemned by the Church, as it is considered to be consistent with Natural Law, though generally inadvisable. Although the Church has often mitigated the effects of slavery, and has refused to treat slaves as chattels, it also:
  1. condemned any attempt by slaves to escape and gain their own freedom;
  2. justified the legal basis of slavery for as long as slavery was a social reality;
  3. and provided the legal and moral basis for the Portuguese slave trade.
John Paul II, has now decisively rejected all forms of buying and selling human beings. Slavery is now a "sin". It is an act "incapable of being ordered to God". This is novel teaching. It is either a contemporary deviation from Sacred Tradition, or a correction of such a deviation in the past.


This document was inspired by an earlier study by Paul Halsall to be found in his "Compedium of Errors" on the Gay Catholic Handbook website.

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