Sunday, August 13, 2006
The Church and Slavery through the Ages
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One of the most erroneous claims I have heard about the Catholic Church is that it accepted slavery. This is a blatant lie. In 1435, Pope Eugene IV officially condemned the enslavement of the black natives of the Canary Islands. He decreed that all European masters were to free the enslaved within 15 days or face excommunication - the highest penalty of the Church (Sicut Dudum). In that papal bull, the Holy Father stated:
"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 (subdiderunt perpetuae servituti), sold them to other persons and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them.... Therefore We ... exhort, through the sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ shed for their sins, one and all, 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 of each sex that, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their pristine liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands ... who have been made subject to slavery (servituti subicere). These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money."

In 1537, Pope Paul III attributed the slavery of the West Indian and South American natives to Satan in Sublimis Deus (June 2, 1537). Further condemnations emerged under Popes Gregory XIV (1591), Urban VIII (Commissum Nobis, 1639), Innocent XI (1686), Benedict XIV (Immensa Pastorum, 1741), and Pius VII (1815).

Pope Gregory XVI wrote:
"We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort... that no one in the future dare to bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples... We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in these Apostolic Letters" (In Supremo Apostolatus, 1839).
Pope Leo XIII writes, "In the presence of so much suffering, the condition of slavery, in which a considerable part of the great human family has been sunk in squalor and affliction now for many centuries, is deeply to be deplored; for the system is one which is wholly opposed to that which was originally ordained by God and by nature" (On the Abolition of Slavery, 1888)

Even the Second Vatican Council, despite its errors in many other matters, did also condemn slavery in Gaudeum et Spes.

So, if you ever read that the Catholic Church supported slavery, that is plainly wrong.

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