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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Popes Opposed Slavery against Dissenters

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Medallion from 1787 Wedgwood Anti-slavery Campaign

We often think that dissent from the Holy See and the teaching Church is a new phenomenon. However, just as the land of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” silences any reference to God in her schools and promotes the mass murder of the unborn in the womb, so too did our land, and even her Catholic citizens, dissent from papal admonitions against slavery. Catholic churchmen held large parcels of land and like their Protestant fellows, maintained the institution of slavery. The Maryland colony first founded as a haven for Catholics would later facilitate in Baltimore Harbor a central commercial trade in slaves. People were bartered as nothing more than animals or property. Personhood was denied. Human rights were trampled upon. The rights of landowners and the “choice” of European stock immigrants were made preferential over the needs and wants of people kidnapped from the African shores.

Slavery as practiced by the Jews or later by Christians in the ancient world did not compare to it. Slaves were taken from conquered peoples and indentured servants would be used well into the colonial period of America. After a period of service, and even restitution, such slaves were freed. However, we are the ones (European colonialism) who invented perpetual racial slavery– a foul business that could be passed on from generation to generation. Families could be separated. Torture and death could be implemented without any care or worry about censure. Great Britain would renounce slavery many years prior to the Civil War (ended 1865) when the issue would be forced in the United States. Here is the irony. If the Revolutionary War had gone the other way, blacks would have known freedom many generations earlier.

  • 1778 – Slavery outlawed in Scotland.
  • 1807 – British slave trade outlawed.
  • 1833 – All British slaves freed.

Reserving ourselves to the Catholic community, it must be admitted that Catholics often catechized and had their slaves baptized. However, the churches would be segregated and later their schools. It is interesting that Cardinal O’Boyle in Washington, DC would order the desegregation of parochial schools in the 1950′s prior to similar efforts by the federal government. But, past injustice must not be excused because of later enlightenment.

Today many of our people and liberal Catholic theologians and bishops argue for abortion, artificial contraception and active homosexuality. They are the spiritual heirs to the Catholic dissenters on the matter of slavery.

Pope Eugene IV ordered that black slaves be freed in the Canary Islands back in 1435. Columbus was not even born yet! He demanded that “these peoples are to be totally and perpetually free” (Sicut Dudum). Slaveholders who refused the order were excommunicated.

Indians from the New World would be brought to the Pope with the absurd question as to whether or not they were human beings. It was hoped that if the Holy Father deemed them subhuman or animals, that this would legitimate the slave trade and the confiscation of their lands.

Pope Paul III (1537) condemned slavery in the New World, saying, “The Indians and all other peoples … who shall hereafter come to the attention of Christians … are not to be deprived of their liberty and their possessions” (Sublimis Deus).  While in regard to the mistreatment of Native Americans, this condemnation of slavery was absolute.  Slavers were rebuked as minions of the devil and rationalizations for slavery denounced as without any value.  Pastorale Officium  imposed automatic excommunication for any who tried to enslave the Indians or take their possessions.

The Holy Office of the Inquisition responded to a question on March 20, 1686 about the practice of enslaving innocent blacks.  The Church rejected such actions and argued that they had to be freed and restitution made for the injustice against them.

The later popes spoke with one voice. Pope Gregory XVI (1839) stipulated that no one should “dare to bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or enslave Indians, Blacks, or other such peoples” (In Supremo). He decried the traders for their “sordid gain” and the slave trade as an “inhuman traffic.”  Even the defending of such slave trade was ordered forbidden.

Nevertheless, the Catholic bishops met in Baltimore in 1840 and contended that the Pope was only condemning the slave trade, not domestic slavery in the U.S.  Is there a similarity between the position of the bishops (for which Bishop John England was a major spokesman) in 1840 and the position of certain Churchmen today in excusing U.S. military intervention around the world or pampering pro-abortion Catholic politicians here at home?

Toward the end of the nineteen century, Pope Leo XIII, the great pope who wrote about the dignity and rights of workers, also deplored the remnants of slavery in Africa and parts of South America.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (a Catholic and former seminarian) argues from natural law that the situation of slavery in America and abortion today are analogous– both strip human beings of personhood, liberty and life.

Where is the prophetic voice? What will future generations, if a culture of life should supplant one of death, think of this generation and her leaders– civil and religious?

This topic is revisited in many ways.  It would also regard how we treat the immigrants.  Some would invite them to work here but deprive them of the benefits given our citizens.  The rise of labor unions and Catholic social teaching responded to the needs and rights of American laborers.  Further, what about the sweat shops where workers are exploited so that we might buy cheaper goods?  Many of the identical concerns attached to slavery are encountered here.

I would direct readers to Fr. Joel Panzer’s excellent book, The Popes and Slavery. Those who would fault the Church on this question would have to further impugn the apostles and Christ.  However, Christianity, while it did not eradicate this social institution, did create a new mindset in its regard.  One had to share the faith with servants and treat them in a manner that would recognize them as brothers and sisters in the Lord.  There are numerous documents from Popes and churchmen, and even in the journal of the much maligned Christopher Columbus, that spoke of a temporary bondage so that civilization and faith might be shared with the pagans. This is not to make excuses for what we know today as repugnant; but the Church and faith is given to us in human history and culture, not purely as something from outside.  Those well-versed in historiography would appreciate what I am trying to say.  The Bible and the Church were not privy to an immediate, complete and definitive Christian Anthropology.  The truth required time and reflection.

It is untrue that the Church was silent on the evils of certain forms of slavery until after the Civil War.  As I said before, American “chattel” or “traditional” slavery would not pass the moral litmus test of the Church.  However, there were other forms of servitude.  Our country also saw the employment of indentured servants.  After the debt was paid or the contract satisfied, the servant was given his freedom.  Such would be a form of “slavery,” would find a parallel with prison chain gangs and prisoners of war.

Slavery under pagan Roman law was brutal and stripped the person of basic rights.  While Christianity did not eradicate the institution, believers were rightfully conflicted and challenged as to how the institution might be maintained.  The treatment of individual slaves necessarily changed and the seed which was the spirit of the Gospel would work toward its eventual abolition. All men were reckoned children of God and brothers and sisters to one another, regardless of social standing or class.  Given St. Paul’s command that slaves should obey their masters, it was argued by many authorities that certain forms of slavery or servitude were in accordance with natural law.  Distinctions were made about voluntary and involuntary servitude.  Immoral acts could not be required of anyone, even a slave.  Temporary versus perpetual slavery was debated and delineated.  Chattel slavery was condemned for treating the human being as an animal and not respecting personhood.  The master was also morally obligated.  He had to clothe, shelter, and feed the slave.  He had to give him a Christian upbringing.  The servant could not be tortured, killed or given inhuman working conditions.  The master could not separate families. I am not saying that everyone followed the rules; but there were rules. Indeed, given that the rules for Christians were so often broken, later moralists rejected the whole notion of slavery as justifiable, either with natural law or with the spirit of the Gospel.  Slavery had to be abolished if people were to have genuine freedom and a sense of self-respect.