Is the act of owning a person immoral?

I posted this on another page of the forum but had no reply.

The Bible gives pretty specific statements regarding keeping slaves. It states you may buy slaves (with an emphasis that if you do buy them, you are to buy them from nations around you), and that you can buy temporary residents and other people born in my country, and that I can pass them on to my children as inherited property to make them slaves for life. It only seems to cut a deal with fellow Israelites, specifying that I must not rule over them “ruthlessly”. It also tells me how I can arrange that a slave gets married and even in the rare situations where I am to let my slave go free, I would still be able to retain the newly-wed couple as property.

(Leviticus 25:44, and others)

I don’t see how such a situation could possibly be moral. In fact, legislating it as Leviticus does seems to be at the very least tacit approval of slavery. If the United States currently had laws in place identical to the ones given in the passage referenced above, we could surely state that such laws were absolutely immoral.

Is there anything in the usual texts that states you shall not ever own a person as property? I believe this is something we can agree to universally be the case; owning a person as property (justified simply by that person being for sale) is an immoral act and anyone condoning such a thing is an immoral person.

Do you agree that it would be an immoral act to buy a human being and own them for life? If so, where in scripture do you draw such a conclusion from, if at all?


  1. 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.

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 27.

“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 people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator”

Spe salvi

Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within. What was new here can be seen with the utmost clarity in Saint Paul’s Letter to Philemon. This is a very personal letter, which Paul wrote from prison and entrusted to the runaway slave Onesimus for his master, Philemon. Yes, Paul is sending the slave back to the master from whom he had fled, not ordering but asking: “I appeal to you for my child … whose father I have become in my imprisonment … I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart … perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother …” (Philem 10-16).

Pope Francis

Then there is the statue itself of the Immaculate Conception. First, the body appeared, then the head, then the head was joined to the body: unity. What had been broken is restored and becomes one. Colonial Brazil had been divided by the shameful wall of slavery. Our Lady of Aparecida appears with a black face, first separated, and then united in the hands of the fishermen.

So we can agree that the act is immoral.

Would you agree that the act of owning another person (buying them as you would a chair or desk lamp) is always immoral, and always was immoral? Could such a thing have EVER been moral?

Does the Bible offer anything backing it up? That is, if we take the Bible at face value, could we consider what is written there and actually argue that slavery is immoral? If not, where could such a determination come from?

Whose morality are we using as a touchstone?

Did the OT Jews think that certain types of slavery were moral?


Does the Catholic Church now think it was/is moral?


Does the Church believe that the Jews thought that certain types of slavery were moral?


Considering your answers, do you believe morality is objective or subjective?

I follow the objective morality of the Catholic Church.

That’s an interesting distinction. You do not follow the objective morality of the Bible, then?

According to Jewish understanding, which is based on both the Written Law and the Oral Law, the institution of slavery referred to in the Hebrew Bible had its specific limitations compared to slavery practiced in modern times. Even more important, however, is the idea that in order to most effectively abolish slavery, it has to be accomplished gradually rather than abruptly so that all of society can become mindful of its evils.

The Church distinguishes between doctrines and disciplines; doctrines being those parts of the law which derive from the Divine Law or Moral Law and cannot be changed, added or abolished, while. disciplines are regulations of human origin and can be modified to fit the time period and people being governed.

The Bible also tells us that it is forbidden to mix two different fibers in clothing. Catholics recognize this as a disciplinary part of Mosaic Law, and when Jesus came to fulfill the law, the Church He established chose not to reinstate this discipline. The same for kashrut laws, such as prohibition of eating pork or shellfish. The Church makes her own laws of fasting and abstinence, the kashrut laws were debated and solved in the Early Church as can be read in Acts of the Apostles.

When you take the OT and NT together, one must be read in the context of the other. A hermeneutic of continuity is required. They appear to contradict each other in the matter of kashrut law, but when we understand parts of Mosaic law as disciplinary, we see how the Church has the authority to change these parts. The Church has no authority to change Divine Law. As a counter-example, those hoping for a change in the doctrine on homosexual acts will be disappointed, because this is firmly rooted in Divine Law and has nothing to do with an outdated view of the world, nor is it limited to a certain place and time; it is a universal truth.

What many people fail to understand is that the Scriptures contain many types of writings. In the time of Leviticus and the Hebrew nation, there were divine commands and there was also civil legislation commingled with it to form the entirety of the national laws of the people as they formed a nation and governmental structures.

Remember, for example, that Moses permitted divorce for several reasons, as Jesus tells us, it was not a divine command. In the same way, Jewish society regulated an existing institution in the world: slavery/servitude. Christianity did much the same thing in the Roman/Greek culture in which if found itself ascending-- regulated and eventually eradicated.

The Catholic Church wrote the New Testament and Christ fulfilled the Old Testament.

I think everyone is talking around your question and not addressing it. You want to know, basically, what changed, if anything. At one time, we have slavery allowed. Now we have condemnation of slavery. Here is how I have reconciled these two.

We sin gravely when we fail to give anyone the human dignity that they are due. Look at the qualifiers from Pope Leo, “in the presence of so much suffering,” and Gadium et Spes “whatever insults human dignity.” This is the evil of sin. It is not strictly gravely immoral just to restrict freedom. We do so justly when one is convicted of a crime. Their freedom is restricted. They may even be forced to do something. Inmates can be viewed as slaves of the state. Yet we do not think this gravely immoral. In another sense, all people were once considered a slave, in that they had to obey any thing the king or lord ordered. Christianity offered a new perspective saying that despite one’s lot in life, there was an equality in Christ. We also find this in the Mosaic law that offered a celebration in which all slaves were to be freed. If we go back to the time of the OT, we find that slaves were not a class, as the become in modern slavery. There was no sense that slaves were less people than others. Slaves were, by and large, voluntary slaves who sell themselves. By the time we get to the NT, we find the word for slave to also mean servant. Therefore, when Abraham owned slaves, he could be a moral slave owner. Philemon in the New Testament could be a Christian slave holder as long as he understood Onesimus was a brother as well as a servant.

Somewhere, I think with the advent of world travel, slave trade became a matter of kidnapping, which is always gravely immoral. Then the people who are different are viewed as a human-like animal. This is the immorality. My view is that the word “slavery” represents significantly different relationships.

We are supposed to treat one another as we ourselves want to be treated,
as Jesus said. So, slavery is immoral but authority over others is not, as we
need governance and order.

Many things in the Old Testament were not continued in Jesus.

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