Catholic Church Changed Teaching On Slavery?

I’ve been having a difficult time. I stumbled on some articles that claim that the Catholic Church changed its position on slavery. Also I’ve heard of this book by a Judge Noonan that is said to argue very well about this claimed change. I have looked at the Encyclicals of Pope Nicholas V (Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex) and as far as I understand, the Pope is not teaching that slavery is correct. He is saying that the Spanish are allowed to enslave the Indians. Another thing is that the Bulls are directed only to one person King Afonso of Spain. It could be concluded, if I’m correct, that the Bulls permission to allow immoral slavery, is more a lapse on the part of the Nicholas V than on the Church. Is this a correct understanding?

Can you be more specific on ‘some articles’? The internet abounds with anti-Catholic rhetoric that specialize in taking papal statements out of context.

FYI…Pax Christi

Therein lies a tale. But before we consider it, we should be clear about what we mean by slavery and the real story of the Catholic Church’s position on it. As used here, “slavery” is the condition of involuntary servitude in which a human being is regarded as no more than the property of another, as being without basic human rights; in other words, as a thing rather than a person. Under this definition, slavery is intrinsically evil, since no person may legitimately be reduced to the status of a mere thing or object and thus become capable of being the property of another person. This form of slavery can be called “chattel slavery.” (There are other ways in which the term can be used, such as in reference to biblical slavery, where slaves were regarded as property but nonetheless as bearers of human rights.)

However, there are circumstances in which a person can justly be compelled to servitude against his will. Prisoners of war or criminals, for example, can justly lose their circumstantial freedom and be forced into servitude, within certain limits. Moreover, people can also “sell” their labor for a period of time (indentured servitude).

These forms of servitude or slavery differ in kind from what we are calling chattel slavery. While prisoners of war and criminals can lose their freedom against their will, they do not become mere property of their captors, even when such imprisonment is just. They still possess basic, inalienable human rights and may not justly be subjected to certain forms of punishment-torture, for example.


What about the charge that the Catholic Church did not condemn slavery until the 1890s and actually approved of it before then? In fact, the popes vigorously condemned African and Indian thralldom three and four centuries earlier-a fact amply documented by Fr. Joel Panzer in his book, *The Popes and Slavery. *The argument that follows is largely based on his study.

Sixty years before Columbus “discovered” the New World, Pope Eugene IV condemned the enslavement of peoples in the newly colonized Canary Islands. His bull *Sicut Dudum *(1435) rebuked European enslavers and commanded that “all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen 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 [the] Canary Islands . . . 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.”

A century later, Pope Paul III applied the same principle to the newly encountered inhabitants of the West and South Indies in the bull *Sublimis Deus *(1537). Therein he described the enslavers as allies of the devil and declared attempts to justify such slavery “null and void.” Accompanying the bull was another document, Pastorale Officium, which attached a latae sententiae excommunication remittable only by the pope himself for those who attempted to enslave the Indians or steal their goods.

When Europeans began enslaving Africans as a cheap source of labor, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was asked about the morality of enslaving innocent blacks (*Response of the Congregation of the Holy Office, *230, March 20, 1686). The practice was rejected, as was trading such slaves. Slaveholders, the Holy Office declared, were obliged to emancipate and even compensate blacks unjustly enslaved.

Papal condemnation of slavery persisted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pope Gregory XVI’s 1839 bull, In Supremo, for instance, reiterated papal opposition to enslaving “Indians, blacks, or other such people” and forbade “any ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade in blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse.” In 1888 and again in 1890, Pope Leo XIII forcefully condemned slavery and sought its elimination where it persisted in parts of South America and Africa.

Despite this evidence, critics still insist the Magisterium did too little too late regarding slavery. Why? One reason is the critics’ failure to distinguish between just and unjust forms of servitude. The Magisterium condemned unjust enslavement early on, but it also recognized what is known as “just title slavery.” That included forced servitude of prisoners of war and criminals, and voluntary servitude of indentured servants, forms of servitude mentioned at the outset of this article. But chattel slavery as practiced in the United States and elsewhere differed in kind, not merely degree, from just title slavery. For it made a claim on the slave as property and enslaved people who were not criminals or prisoners of war. By focusing on just title servitude, critics unfairly neglect the vigorous papal denunciations of chattel slavery.

The matter is further muddled by certain nineteenth century American clergy-including some bishops and theologians-who tried to defend the American slave system. They contended that the long-standing papal condemnations of slavery didn’t apply to the United States. The slave trade, some argued, had been condemned by Pope Gregory XVI, but not slavery itself.

Historians critical of the papacy on this matter often make that same argument. But papal teaching condemned both the slave trade and chattel slavery itself (leaving aside “just title” servitude, which wasn’t at issue). It was certain members of the American hierarchy of the time who “explained away” that teaching. “Thus,” according to Fr. Panzer, “we can look to the practice of non-compliance with the teachings of the papal Magisterium as a key reason why slavery was not directly opposed by the Church in the United States.”

Yes, I’m aware of the article. What I am having difficulty with was that before the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church allowed slavery under “just-title”. Since Vatican II however, the Church prohibits all slavery. Is this not a change in teaching?

Here is the article that I’ve looked at.

I always thought that the teaching of the Catholic Church was unchangeable. But I cannot seem to shake off the fact that there was a definite change of teaching on this issue.

There is also a quote from Blessed Pius IX, I cannot find it yet, from the Congregation of the Holy Office that says that Slavery is not contrary to Natural Law. I don’t think anyone today would doubt that it is. So I am just extremely confused.

I would not say that the teaching changed. It was more of a clarification. Did you read the Gaudium et Spes?

It seems like the document is clarifying more so than changing anything.

Additionally I don’t believe that is an infallible document. So it should be treated as such. You can use it for guidance, but you should not accept it as 100% guaranteed infallible truth.

Here is another thread i found on the topic of Gaudium et Spes.

Please understand. I’ve been going through a hard time. As of recently, I’ve been troubled by accusations from the opponents of the Church and her teachings that she has modified some of her teachings. I’ve done some research on the issues from which the accusations arise (i.e, religious freedom, usury and slavery). Based upon this research, I cannot come upon a conclusion whether the Church did change teaching or did not. This has consequently lead to doubt in the Magisterium of the Church, which I am at this time trying to maintain faith in.

If the Church did change her teachings, then she did err and can err even as I speak.

You may be getting taken on a wild goose chase here. instead of trying to address some vague accusation have the person who is making the accusation cite which two church documents are allegedly in conflict. Then you can research the differences here. beware of them taking two statements from unrelated circumstances and try to claim a conflict.

For instance there is a difference between someone being an indentured servant for a brief period of time in exchange for transit to America in the 1800’s, and someone forced into involuntary servitude with out hope of regaining their freedom as an alternative to their family starving.

**There is also a quote from Blessed Pius IX, I cannot find it yet, from the Congregation of the Holy Office that says that Slavery is not contrary to Natural Law. I don’t think anyone today would doubt that it is. So I am just extremely confused. **

Check that web site, the Catholic Encyclopedia. In the next to last paragraph Pius IX is mentioned, but the article deals with the entire history of the papal denunciations of slavery. So far as I know, no pope ever defended slavery as a right. If somewhere along the way a pope actually owned slaves, that would still not be consistent with the teachings of the Church, but rather a sign of the unworthiness of the man who sat in Peter’s chair.

What I recommend is that you oblige anyone who says things about papal pronouncements to produce the specific passage … and without ellipses. Then go to the original document, which can usually be found, and read for yourself to see if the quote is faithful to the original or a distortion of it.

Atheists often misquote Darwin by leaving out words that Darwin actually used … especially the word** Creator**.

The following web site includes all the encyclicals of every pope and specifically Pius IX in English.

If the quotes are said to be found in documents outside the encyclicals, demand the name of the document, then Google it.

Good luck. :thumbsup:

Perhaps reading it again more carefully might help. There’s a big difference between “Chattel Slavery” and “indentured servitude” for example, and even where there were servants the Church has ALWAYS taught the dignity of the human person and their rights. That’s why abortion will be fought by the Church till the end of time so long as it persists.

You’re on solid ground, so you mustn’t doubt just because they can’t understand. You must also remember the cultural context of when different kinds of slavery were going on, like the Romans during the Apostle’s time is nowhere near the same context as you have today in America. It’s just not the same thing, so why compare?

On human rights, the article mentions how St. Paul spoke that there’s no one who is a slave or free before Christ because we’re all the same. That equality has never been contradicted. Also, one of the conditions for teaching infallibly is that the bishops must speak in union with the Pope, and clearly those who defended slavery were speaking only for themselves (because the Popes had already said that you can’t violate human rights, which ALL human beings possess).

Biblical servitude always implied that the slave had human rights, unlike what was seen in the US and other places (chattel slavery) where the person was not only property but not seen as human, they had NO rights at all.

If your opponents have “proof” to back up their claims, ask them for a specific citation and then you can look at the context, as opposed to the pretext. :wink:

Here is a good article from a Christian publication:


Image of God, post #7
As of recently, I’ve been troubled by accusations from the opponents of the Church and her teachings that she has modified some of her teachings. I’ve done some research on the issues from which the accusations arise (i.e, religious freedom, usury and slavery). Based upon this research, I cannot come upon a conclusion whether the Church did change teaching or did not.

  1. It is vital to get to know and to understand that Christ’s Church has 3 levels of teaching, only two of which are infallible, and therefore irreformable, and that She also declares disciplines or laws.

  2. Doctrine can develop, without contradiction, and this is the case with religious liberty, usury and slavery. “Modification” is not necessarily contradiction. Now if the Church is being falsely accused of contradiction, please state precisely in what way with quotes, so that the refutation can be clear. Lancer has already helped you.

The Magisterium of Christ’s Church is incapable of teaching error because His Magisterium has Christ’s authority and the Holy Spirit’s protection from teaching error.

See my post from the other slavery thread here.

Given that the “institution” of slavery has changed–in Roman and Greek society, slaves could earn their freedom; Israelite slavery (for Israelites) was not supposed to last beyond seven years unless the slave accepted it–it is quite possible that the stand changed. Furthermore, as some posters noted, doctrines can develop.

Consider the two editions of the Universal Catechism (CCC)–the first accepted (grudgingly) capital punishment; the second is more strongly worded that, practically, capital punishment in modern societies should be exceedingly rare, since other forms of punishment are adequate.

For slavery–the development of permanent forms of slavery, that lasted across generations without hope of freedom would seem to require a re-evaluation of our position. More, a greater understanding of the effects of slavery on both owner and slave, as well as development of other ways to relate–corporate employment, long-term leases, a money economy rather than a barter-based one–all make slavery a different question now, and in the last century or so, than in the Roman Empire and Medieval era.

Great precision is necessary here. Slavery is not actually contrary to natural law, if understood in the strict sense of one person possessing the labor of another. The attendant evils of slavery are many, however. Thus no one has a right to deny family life to another, nor enslave someone born free. The Popes always encouraged the elimination of slavery, and absolutely condemned its more extreme forms. But on the other hand, much of the economic and social system of the Ancient World was based upon slavery. It could not simply be abolished overnight. Hence we have St Paul saying “slaves obey your masters…” The precipitate elimination of one evil can sometimes lead to a greater evil. I believe the Decree of the Holy Office mentioned was regarding the US Civil War. The Church has generally regarded war, which results in the deaths of innocent people and is nearly always intrinsically harmful to the common good, as being a greater evil than the toleration of other social ills.

On the other points: The exact doctrinal nature of the post Vatican II position on Religious Liberty is debatable, but it is worth noting that the decree of vatican II definitely states that it leaves intact the traditional doctrine. Usury is the lending of money for interest when the money itself is nonproductive. With the development of joint stock corporations in the late 17nth Century and the rise of capitalism therefrom, a different type of money lending developed with is not usurious as such. On the other hand, the present state of affairs in which credit card companies can command 30% interest on what resemble nonproductive loans, does look a lot like usury. But then again, the Popes have been very critical of this kind of 'unbridled capitalism", it’s just that their social teaching is ignored in the US.

The facts need exposure, since this has been a favourite misconception. In Ephesians 6:5, 8 Paul is often quoted eagerly, but very seldom ver. 9: “Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him.” This equality before God encouraged the early Church to convert slaves – Pope Callistus (d. 236) had been a slave. With the demise of the Roman empire, the embrace of those in slavery continued and only ordination to the priesthood was denied.

Priests urged owners to free their slaves, and by the seventh century there was considerable evidence of unions of free men and female slaves. In 649 Clovis II, king of the Franks, married his British slave Clotilda. After his death, Clotilda campaigned to halt the slave trade and to redeem those in slavery. On her death she was declared a saint by the Church.

By the ninth century Charlemagne opposed slavery and the pope and many influential clerics strove for the freedom of slaves. During the eleventh century both St Wulfstan and St Anselm campaigned to remove the last vestiges of slavery from most of Christendom.

Dr Rodney Stark: “The theological conclusion that slavery is sinful has been unique to Christianity (although several early Jewish sects also rejected slavery).”

While Christian theologians could develop St Paul’s understanding of God’s will concerning slavery, such a development was and is essentially precluded in other faiths, except as heresies. “Of the major world faiths, only Christianity has devoted serious and sustained attention to human rights, as opposed to human duties.”
[See *The Victory of Reason, Random House, 2005, p 29-31].


Abu, Thanks for posting. Dr Stark’s books are a very valuable resource.

Slavery is indeed contrary to Natural Law. If that is not so, then perhaps you could explain Chief Justice Lord Mansfield’s judgement in Somersett’s case -

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.

Note how Lord mansfield dinstinguishes between ositive law and ‘other reasons’. Positive law, of course, simply refers to man made law, or ceven custom.

Furthermore, if slavery is not contrary to Natural Law, why is it then that one of America’s most famous Natural Law jurists, Thomas Jefferson, used Natural Law arguments to fight the insitution of slavery from as early as 1784? In 1814 he stated *“There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.”
Furthermore, if slavery is not contrary to Natural Law, why is it that Roman Law, as codified by the Byzantine Emporer Justinian states that freedom is a Natural Law right? The code says “Wars arose, and in their train followed captivity and then slavery, which is contrary to the law of nature; for by that law all men are originally born free.”

Slavery was an artifact of wars of conquest long before Justinian wrote the Natural Law rule and was further cemented in European history by the notion of villeinage, which was near slavery. However, no law other than customary law has stated that slavery was an institution protected by anything other than the rules of war and custom. Even the earlier Laws of Hammurabi has strict rules as to the granting of freedoms to slaves whose position originally emanated from war.

Slavery is “against natural law”.

“Nature having made no slaves, all men have an equal right to liberty”

  • Pope Alexander III, 1159

“Not only the Christian religion, but nature herself, cries out against slavery” - Pope Leo X, 1513

James Bowden writes of Leo:

"…Pope Leo X declared against slavery at a very early stage of its existence, and he did so under somewhat extraordinary circumstances…Leo X was one of the most learned of the popes, and, doubtless was fully aware that, mainly by the voice of the Church, slavery had been extinguished in western Europe…"

A couple of Popes on the subject of slavery. Opposition to slavery was not a product of V-II
We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, 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.
[RIGHT]Pope Paul III, Sublimus Dei, 1537[/RIGHT]

  1. And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen 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.
    [RIGHT]Pope Eugene IV, Sicut Dudum, 1435[/RIGHT]
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