Both popular and scholarly opinion often list slavery as a matter on which the Catholic Church has either been not forceful enough or, like usury, has either changed or muted its position. It is often noted that it was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that the Catholic Church categorized slavery as intrinsically evil, meaning that it is evil in every circumstance in an of itself:
“Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”
From: Gaudium et Spes, The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 12/7/1965.
The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church summed up Catholic teaching on slavery by citing the Seventh Commandment against stealing, and quoted the first century letter to Philemon by St. Paul–
2414 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.”
Catholic Christians, after centuries of effort, appear to have got it unequivocally and “officially” right on slavery late in the 20th Century.
While it is true that a formal, unequivocal definition of slavery as always evil took place at Vatican II, the recognition that slavery was very evil goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.
St. John Chrysostom (345-407), said “Slavery is the fruit of covetousness, of extravagance, of insatiable greediness,” and also questioned what price could be put on a human soul (Epist. ad Ephes., Homil. XXII. 2).
We now know from the letter rediscovered by the scholar Johannes Divjak of Vienna in 1975 that the African bishop St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), while elsewhere theologically viewing slavery as a punishment for human sinfulness, as a pastor nevertheless fought the enslavement of his congregation by slave-raiding and human trafficking Galatians (presumed to be an ancient Celtic people from present-day Turkey) in the Roman courts, by ransom, and may have winked when dozens of his parishioners rescued people by direct action from the slave ships. Augustine himself even visited a terrified girl rescued from a slave ship by his church, and described her fear. This letter, referred to sometimes as Divjak letter 10*, is not only one of the earliest first-hand accounts of the African slave-trade and of human trafficking, but shows that Augustine the bishop, despite his late age, was much more pragmatic and pastoral than popular stereotypes of him as an aged authoritarian have previously established. Please see page 470 of Peter Brown’s revised biography of Augustine for another perspective.
Divjak letter 10* not only speaks as one of the earliest African voices on the rampant and illegal slave trade rising like a pestilence during the decline of Rome, but reveals that the Church was fighting this “slave raider” and “human trafficking” form of the African slave trade at its inception.
Augustine’s first mention of the topic in letter 10* is similar to entering a time-machine to see the slave trade begin in Africa:
“There are so many of those in Africa who are commonly called ‘slave dealers’ (mangones), that they seem to be draining Africa of much of its human population and transferring their ‘merchandise’ to provinces across the sea.”
From: Augustine, Letters, Vol. 6 (1*-29*), Fathers of the Church, Vol. 81, trans. Robert B. Eno. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press. Hbk, 1989. ISBN: 0813200814, pg. 76.
It is amazing that such a significant find as Divjak letter 10* has not drawn more general recognition beyond the field of Early Christian Literature. Not only does this letter appear to show that the Church witnessed the earliest days of the African slave trade and human trafficking, but shows that from the beginning the Church opposed the “slave dealers.”
The Wikipedia pages on Christianity and Slavery and the Catholic Church and Slavery list examples and counterexamples of the Church either condemning slavery, or of participating in it. The Dominican priest Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1576) shocked Europe with his vivid condemnation of the enslavement of Native Americans that then led to papal bans on such colonial slavery of indigenous peoples. De Las Casas initially reasoned it appropriate to substitute African slaves in order to protect the Native Americans, but then deeply regretted this position. Unfortunately, his retraction has not widely published until centuries after his death.
According to Joel Panzer’s 1996 book, The Popes and Slavery, the popes condemned slavery in 1435, 1493, 1497, 1537, 1591, 1639, 1686, 1741, 1839, 1866, 1888, and 1890, sometimes in the strongest language, but their bans were greatly ignored, in particular by the North American bishops.
It is therefore unfair and inaccurate for scholars to claim that the Catholic Church’s teaching against slavery was relatively recent when several popes actually condemned it before the Quakers (founded 1648) did. While it is accurate to state that the Church did not unequivocally condemn the slave trade until 1839, arguably did not unequivocally condemn the institution of slavery as such until 1890, and did not condemn absolutely every instance of slavery until 1965, it is also accurate to state that the Church has condemned the most recent forms of slavery for centuries, as each of these new forms have appeared. The Church has both argued about and condemned slavery for the greater part of two millennia.
The Controversy over In Supremo, 1839
The papal condemnation of slavery in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI in his document In Supremo still draws controversy because of the heated if not nullifying response it received from the American Catholic bishops, in particular John England, bishop of Charleston, South Carolina.
In Supremo has been the topic of a rather long-distance scholarly exchange between a priest scholar from Lincoln, Nebraska, Rev. Joel Panzer, and the prominent American Catholic intellectual and federal jurist, John T. Noonan.
Fr. Panzer has maintained that In Supremo condemned both the institution of slavery and the slave trade. Judge Noonan, following Bishop England, maintained it only condemned the latter. Fr. Panzer went right to the Latin in the document to verify that indeed, Gregory XVI did condemn slavery outright in this 1839 document, two decades before the American Civil War. (Fr. Panzer’s text contains an appendix with facing Latin and English versions of the pertinent papal documents on slavery).
Panzer took issue with Noonan’s analysis of the reception of In Supremo in Noonan’s 1993 article (John T. Noonan, Jr., “Development in Moral Doctrine,” Theological Studies 54, December 1993):
The misreading of “In Supremo” that exists among scholars today actually has its roots in the partial rejection of that Papal Constitution by the American Hierarchy over a century and a half earlier.
Panzer, J. S. (1996). The popes and slavery. Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, p. 48.
In his 2005 book A Church That Can and Cannot Change, Noonan dealt indirectly in a footnote with Panzer’s challenge, and maintained from documentary evidence that Bishop England strongly asserted to President Van Buren and to readers of England’s newspaper Catholic Miscellany, that he had it on the direct personal word of the Pope himself that In Supremo did not apply to the United States. In addition, Noonan enveloped his narrative on the development of In Supremo with an interesting tale of how the British ambassadors successfully lobbied the Vatican for the issuance of In Supremo, as part of the British campaign against the slave trade.
Noonan’s response to Panzer, while polished and deft, is substantially feeble in its circumlocution, its reliance on hearsay, and his use of a genetic fallacy. For circumlocution, Noonan did not use the language of In Supremo to refute Panzer’s critique. For hearsay, Noonan in effect stated that Bishop England asserted that Gregory XVI didn’t say what he appeared to have said, and took England’s one-sided account as reliable. For genetic fallacy, Noonan accepted the British lobby-the-pope story as proof of the origin and intent of In Supremo.
History has known many bishops who have made statements in the “I’ve-got-it-straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth-that-what-he-just-said-doesn’t-apply-to-us” genre, or who have managed to assert–and this requires some advanced mastery of ecclesiastical polity–that an authoritative document states exactly the opposite of what it appears to say. One need only look at Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s tangled and artful communication pertaining to a letter from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2004 on questions concerning politicians and Communion to find a similar example. If one enjoys this sort of thing, Cardinal McCarrick appears to have obliged with an encore performance in 2006. Bishops have twisted each other’s words around for centuries, so Noonan’s argument gains little by relying heavily on Bishop England’s numerous protestations to the contrary of the message of In Supremo. Whether Bishop England pulled a Cardinal McCarrick, or Cardinal McCarrick pulled a Bishop England, is for the reader to decide until some independent record of a conversation between Gregory XVI and John England can be documented.
Having known a few lobbyists, I have found few who will not assert that they have moved history, and few in their dotage who are not willing to regale a listener with how they, and not presidents or popes, made things happen. Therefore Noonan’s reliance on the British ambassador’s account does not completely hold sway. A more persuasive story of the origins of In Supremo might have been told by Noonan had the volume of evidence he provided on the British side of this story been at least partially matched by the Vatican side.
Noonan is on stronger ground when he notes that the official subtitle of In Supremo in the official Vatican documents refers to the condemnation of the slave trade. But again, the widespread persistence of this argument may only indicate that certain historians of American Catholicism tend to read titles and subtitles, and not necessarily texts.
As Fr. Panzer notes, the belief that In Supremo condemned only the slave trade, and not slavery itself, thrives within American Catholic scholarship to this day as an echo of Bishop England’s position. Noonan’s restatement of his own position in 2005 does little to undermine Panzer’s observation on this point.
I urge the reader to read the document itself, and decide upon the message of In Supremo by clicking the link in this sentence.
If they have not done so already, it might be appropriate for the US Catholic Bishops to apologize for their support for the institution of American slavery under Bishop England, and put this matter finally and morally to rest.
My above critique of Judge Noonan’s interpretation of the In Supremo controversy takes nothing away from his standing in American Catholicism. He has studied the question of development of doctrine for over 60 years, and it was he whom the University of Notre Dame chose to comment after President Obama’s commencement remarks in the Spring of 2009. Few can match the scope of Judge Noonan’s scholarship.
I do note however, that Judge Noonan missed an opportunity to bolster his own argument on the development of doctrine by quoting Gregory XVI’s In Supremo itself on the subject:
In the process of time, the fog of pagan superstition being more completely dissipated and the manners of barbarous people having been softened, thanks to Faith operating by Charity, it at last comes about that, since several centuries, there are no more slaves in the greater number of Christian nations.
Please note also that Gregory XVI links the development of Charity to the end of slavery. You will find little argument among Christians–let’s hope not–that the development of Charity runs parallel with the development of Faith and of our own understanding of ourselves and our mission as a Church.
One often finds running along with Judge Noonan’s name, on book blurbs and other reviews, the Homeric epithet “impeccable scholarship.” I would agree with the adjectives “impressive” and “useful”–one can learn much from Judge Noonan–but not the adjective “impeccable.”
For Judge Noonan in 2005 offered his readers a very dated view of Augustine on slavery that weakened his presentation considerably. The Divjak letters, known to scholars since 1975, published in English in 1989, and popularized by Peter Brown in 2000 when he felt it necessary to completely rethink his view of Augustine and reissue a new forward to his classic biography based upon such recently discovered documents, evidently did not make their way to Judge Noonan’s desk and into his text. Augustine’s condemnation of human trafficking in North Africa in the early 400s stands up in every way to the passion of De Las Casas’s cries for justice more than a millennium later that so impressed Judge Noonan.
So Augustine himself should have the final words in this blog. Like he has done to many scholars on many questions, it was Augustine himself who had one of the first and at the same time the final words on the subject of development of doctrine:
I am convinced that when he [Moses] wrote those words what he meant and what he thought was all the truth we have been able to discover there, and whatever truth we have not been able to find, or have not found yet, but which is nonetheless there to be found.
Augustine, Confessions, XII, 31, 42; translated by Maria Boulding, OSB, New City Press, 1997.
And some first and final words of Augustine on slave raiding and human trafficking:
“But who resists these traders who are found everywhere, who traffic, not in animals but in human beings, not in barbarians but in Romans from the provinces? Who resists when these people from everywhere and from every side, carried off by violence and ensnared by deception, are led away into the hands of those who bid for them? Who will resist in the name of Roman freedom–I shall not say, the common freedom, but their very own?”
“No one can state satisfactorily how many fall into this same nefarious business because of the incredible blindness and greed and some kind of infection by this disease. Who would believe, for instance, that there is a woman among us here in Hippo who, as a matter of course, lures women from Gidda under the pretext of buying wood, and then confines, beats and sells them? . . . . A young man, scarcely twenty, an intelligent fellow, who kept the accounts for our monastery, was led astray and sold; only with the greatest difficulty was the church able to procure his freedom. . . .
Even if I wished to list all the crimes–just the ones we have had contact with–it would not be possible to do so. . . . There was not lacking a faithful Christian who, knowing our custom in missions of mercy of this kind, made this known to the church. Immediately, partially from the ship in which they had already been loaded, partially from the spot where they had been hidden prior to boarding, about 120 were freed by our people, though I myself was absent. Scarcely five or six were found to have been sold by their parents; of all the others, hardly a person could keep himself from tears on hearing all the various ways by which they were brought to the Galatians by trickery and kidnapping.”
From: Augustine, Letters, Vol. 6 (1*-29*), Fathers of the Church, Vol. 81, trans. Robert B. Eno. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press. Hbk, 1989. ISBN: 0813200814, pp. 79-80.
I offer as a final comment a very sad fact: There are now more slaves on earth than at any time in human history–
The above puts disagreements among Catholics and historians about just when and how did the Catholic Church condemn slavery into sobering perspective. I think all of the writers quoted above would agree that freeing today’s slaves takes precedence.
© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved
Some further links–
Commonweal Magazine Noonan bio–
Arthur M. Hippler’s review of Noonan’s 2005 book–
More on the Panzer-Noonan views on In Supremo.
© Copyright 2010, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved
Tags: Arthur M. Hippler, Bartolome de Las Casas, Benedict XVI, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Catholic Church and Slavery, Gaudium et Spes, Gregory XVI, Human Trafficking, In Supremo, Joel Panzer, Johannes Divjak, John England, John T. Noonan, Joseph Ratzinger, Peter Brown, Popes and Slavery, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom, Theodore McCarrick