Slavery and the Catholic Church


#1

On another forum, I encountered a fellow who said that the Church had erred in It’s doctrine concerning slavery. This is a summary of his points:

  1. The Old Testament condoned slavery.
  2. The New Testament does not condemn slavery.
  3. Early Church Fathers do not condemn slavery some even call it a right.
  4. Early Church documents condone enslavement of enemies of the Church.
  5. Now the Church calls slavery an inherently evil practice.

A summary of my rebuttals is as follows:

The word slavery has always had more than one meaning. Servitude of almost any kind has always been referred to as slavery.

People may choose to work for their food and keep, this is a voluntary form of slavery called indentured servitude. We slave to raise our children. We call ourselves slaves to God. These are forms of slavery that are not inherently evil because they are voluntary and we are not forced to perform immoral actions.

Employment is another form of slavery. In fact, I believe that the original indentured servitude and forced labor of the inhabitants of a land has evolved into what we call employment today.

Another form of slavery not inherently evil is the prison system. Those men incarcerated and sometimes forced to work as a penalty for their crime are in another form of slavery. Therefore slavery imposed as a punishment for sin is also not inherently evil.

The form of slavery which the Church condemns today and has always condemned is that in which innocent people are forcibly removed from their families, cities and countries, treated like animals and forced to work, perform immoral services or are tortured for the pleasure of another. This form of slavery is essentially kidnapping, assault and murder.

Does this make sense to anyone? Is there anything you could add to enhance the argument in defense of the Church’s position on slavery?

Sincerely,

De Maria


#2

Have you ever seen a slave in the Vatacan? Think about it…if the Church had slaves there would be up to the Vatacan’s government, being that it rules itself. However, there are no slaves.


#3

[quote=Dagnarille]Have you ever seen a slave in the Vatacan? Think about it…if the Church had slaves there would be up to the Vatacan’s government, being that it rules itself. However, there are no slaves.
[/quote]

That is another point that the individual made against the Church. He pointed out that the Vatican once held slaves.


#4

The Church never taught dogmatically that slavery was legitimate. Infallibility covers dogmas, not practices. Popes have sinned, or have failed to understand fully the demands of the Gospel (indeed, I’m sure there are many ways in which we still don’t understand what the Gospel asks of us).

The Church’s position has not changed from approval to condemnation, but from grudging acceptance with severe limits to complete condemnation with no exceptions.

Edwin


#5

[quote=De Maria]2. The New Testament does not condemn slavery.
[/quote]

:twocents:
Some people also point out that Jesus did not condmn slavery. My thoughts on that are:
Slavery was not the only injustice Jesus saw in how people treated eachother. Nearly every aspect of life on a sinful Earth (including today) involves some sort of injustice between people. Jesus’ mission was not a mission to change society and fix all these injustices, however much people like Judas wanted him to. Jesus was here to change hearts and teach people how to best live in the society that they had to live in, which happened to include slavery.

But if you change hearts, society will follow. The very first abolitionists in the history of mankind were Christians from Britain. Christians also played a big role in the underground railroad. Jesus did abolish slavery. It just took nearly 2000 years to do it.


#6

I’m amazed that no one has mentioned Philemon yet.


#7

[quote=De Maria] slavery.

Does this make sense to anyone? Is there anything you could add to enhance the argument in defense of the Church’s position on slavery?

De Maria
[/quote]

Who was the first slave? Did the ownership of other human beings begin in the garden of Eden? Was it God’s will or did He allow it because it was what mankind wanted for himself, to own and be owned by each other, excluding God and becoming god of himself?

Were Adam and Eve created slaves to God? Don’t think so or they would not have been given “free will”. Did slavery insue after they sinned? Wasn’t Eve the first slave, of Adam? Genesis 3 “yet your urge will be for your husband and he will be your master.”

Did Jesus free Eve (woman) from her punishment as slave, when He freed mankind from that sin? Haven’t things gotten better, for women, since Jesus came? Is the feminist movement one towards justice for women (even though I think it goes way too far to the left)? Is it an attempt to restore her dignity, equal to man?

Is balance restored when, men and women are treated with equal dignity and respect?


#8

[quote=Timidity]I’m amazed that no one has mentioned Philemon yet.
[/quote]

I have read Philemon and I know that Paul returned a slave to his master. Give me your take on it. Did he condone slavery then or did he condemn it?

Sincerely,

De Maria


#9

Some people also point out that Jesus did not condmn slavery. My thoughts on that are:
Slavery was not the only injustice Jesus saw in how people treated eachother. Nearly every aspect of life on a sinful Earth (including today) involves some sort of injustice between people. Jesus’ mission was not a mission to change society and fix all these injustices, however much people like Judas wanted him to. Jesus was here to change hearts and teach people how to best live in the society that they had to live in, which happened to include slavery.

But if you change hearts, society will follow. The very first abolitionists in the history of mankind were Christians from Britain. Christians also played a big role in the underground railroad. Jesus did abolish slavery. It just took nearly 2000 years to do it.
[/quote]

I like your point of view but I don’t see anything here that will help me defend the Church’s infallibility concerning its historical position on slavery and the current position.

Sincerely,

De Maria


#10

I think this falls under the concept of the development of doctrine- this is a perfect example.

In Biblical times, the Church had a concept of the dignity of man and the evil of slavery- but it didnt lead to a complete repudiation of the practice.

In the church-dominated middle ages, although there were slaves in practice (serfs), no one called them slaves, because they knew that it was wrong.

Particularly in modern times, the Church has achieved the realization of the idea which in Biblical times was just a seed- that slavery is evil.

Never has it been a doctrine though…so I dont see how anyone could make a case that the church has contradicted itself.


#11

[quote=Contarini]The Church never taught dogmatically that slavery was legitimate.
[/quote]

If it wasn’t legitiimate, why did Paul seem to respect it in his letter to Philemon.

Infallibility covers dogmas, not practices.

Good point.

Popes have sinned, or have failed to understand fully the demands of the Gospel (indeed, I’m sure there are many ways in which we still don’t understand what the Gospel asks of us).

Well, I’m trying to prove the infallibility of the Church on this matter, so that kind of shoots me down.

The Church’s position has not changed from approval to condemnation, but from grudging acceptance with severe limits
]to complete condemnation with no exceptions.

Edwin

That puts the Church in the position of once giving grudging approval to an inherently evil condition. If slavery is inherently evil today, then it was inherently evil yesterday and the Church would have erred in its grudging acceptance of anything inherently evil.

Sincerely,

De Maria


#12

[quote=El Católico]I think this falls under the concept of the development of doctrine-
[/quote]

Very true. But we must also look into the fact that society also develops and changes.

this is a perfect example.

In Biblical times, the Church had a concept of the dignity of man and the evil of slavery- but it didnt lead to a complete repudiation of the practice.

Can you give me an example where slavery was considered evil in Biblical times?

In the church-dominated middle ages, although there were slaves in practice (serfs), no one called them slaves, because they knew that it was wrong.

Good point. Serfdom is another form of slavery.

Particularly in modern times, the Church has achieved the realization of the idea which in Biblical times was just a seed- that slavery is evil.

But doesn’t that put the Church in the position of having approved of a mortal sin? Consider this, if a Catholic died in the possession of slaves in the middle ages and before, he could be considered to have died in a state of grace even though he was committing a mortal sin everyday. Possession of slaves is now considered an inherent evil.

At the very least we would say, “the man didn’t commit a mortal sin because he didn’t know that it was an inherently evil concept.” But truth is absolute and this would mean that what was not a sin in the past is now a grave sin.

Developement of Doctrine means that we have a truth and discover more truth within it. If there are not various kinds of slavery, some of them acceptable and one of them a heinous crime, then it seems the Church has reversed itself on this issue.

Never has it been a doctrine though…so I dont see how anyone could make a case that the church has contradicted itself.

I’ll see if I can pull the address to the discussion in the CCF between Little Les and myself. Unfortunately there is some kind of problem with my login and I can’t login to their site right now. CCF Thomas is working on it however. It was around Christmas when we talked. I think we need to develop a clear defense against arguments such as his.

Sincerely

De Maria


#13

[quote=De Maria]If it wasn’t legitiimate, why did Paul seem to respect it in his letter to Philemon.
[/quote]

Accepting something as the legal status quo does not constitute a dogmatic declaration that it’s legitimate.

[quote=De Maria] Well, I’m trying to prove the infallibility of the Church on this matter, so that kind of shoots me down.
[/quote]

If you’re trying to prove the infallibility of the Church, then you have a hopeless task. If you’re simply trying to show that this is not an argument against infallibility, then this is not a problem. Infallibility is a negative charism–it means that the Church will not dogmatize as true something that is error. It does not mean that the Church at any period in her history has a full grasp of the truth. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope, has some good things to say about this.

That puts the Church in the position of once giving grudging approval to an inherently evil condition. If slavery is inherently evil today, then it was inherently evil yesterday and the Church would have erred in its grudging acceptance of anything inherently evil.

But the Church didn’t accept it as good. It accepted it as the way a fallen society was organized. If there was error, it was in practice, not in doctrine, and I don’t think the Catholic Church claims to be infallible in all its practices. Perhaps you can find somewhere where the Catholic Church declared slavery to be morally legitimate, but I don’t know of such a declaration.

The Church has always said that enslaving people (unless they were criminals or POW’s or something) was evil. The Church condemned the slave trade over and over. I don’t think owning slaves (as opposed to enslaving people) is necessarily a mortal sin always and everywhere (I do think it’s always venially sinful at least). But slavery is a horrendous social evil. These are two different things.

Again, truth is one but our comprehension of it grows. Something that is good can never become evil. But something that is intrinsically evil can come to be seen more clearly as evil (rather than as an unfortunate reality in a fallen world), and when that happens the guilt of those who engage in it is much greater.

Edwin


#14

Another point: serfdom as practiced in the Middle Ages was radically different from slavery.

I don’t think the Catholic Church’s position historically was perfect by any means. But the story is not one of complete reversal.

Edwin


#15

[quote=Contarini]Accepting something as the legal status quo does not constitute a dogmatic declaration that it’s legitimate.
[/quote]

Ok, I’ll think about that further.

If you’re trying to prove the infallibility of the Church, then you have a hopeless task.

The individual claimed that the Church had erred and was therefore not infallible. I was trying to prove that the Church had not erred and therefore remained infallible.

If you’re simply trying to show that this is not an argument against infallibility,

Yes. I was trying to prove both. The Church remains infallible because his arguments proved nothing except his ignorance of the subject.

then this is not a problem. Infallibility is a negative charism–it means that the Church will not dogmatize as true something that is error. It does not mean that the Church at any period in her history has a full grasp of the truth. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope, has some good things to say about this.

I’ll look them up.

But the Church didn’t accept it as good. It accepted it as the way a fallen society was organized.

Where do we get this understanding? I don’t see it in either the Bible or the early Church writers.

If there was error, it was in practice, not in doctrine, and I don’t think the Catholic Church claims to be infallible in all its practices. Perhaps you can find somewhere where the Catholic Church declared slavery to be morally legitimate, but I don’t know of such a declaration.

Neither do I. I just logged in to the CCF where I was having this discussion in December and I could no longer find the discussion.

The Church has always said that enslaving people (unless they were criminals or POW’s or something) was evil.

OK. That is what I’m looking for. Therefore there are forms of enslavement which are not intrinsically evil and which are no longer called enslavement.

The Church condemned the slave trade over and over.

Agreed.

I don’t think owning slaves (as opposed to enslaving people) is necessarily a mortal sin always and everywhere (I do think it’s always venially sinful at least).

What of those who were enslaved for prison sentences, like galley slaves?

But slavery is a horrendous social evil. These are two different things.

Agreed.

Again, truth is one but our comprehension of it grows. Something that is good can never become evil. But something that is intrinsically evil can come to be seen more clearly as evil (rather than as an unfortunate reality in a fallen world), and when that happens the guilt of those who engage in it is much greater.

Edwin

Agreed.

Thanks for the valuable input.

Sincerely,

De Maria


#16

The Ratzinger remarks are found in the book God and the World. I just finished a long post to my blog in which I refer to this.

Edwin


#17

A bit sideways on this topic, but
I find it interesting that the scriptural reference to the acts of a slave, is deacon. (serve/servant).

Jesus, himself, said MK 10:

43Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The concept of American slavery, or middle ages serfdom, or galley slave, is an extreme of what slavery has been in the past. Indentured servant is the more biblical view.

Philemon was a runaway slave. His life depended on how his master received him back – for in essence he was legally a thief who stole himself. Perpetual slavery, and the breeding of slaves without recompense was not allowed. (See levitical law).
Nor was the attitude of abuse of slaves enshrined in legislation.

Similar to the plight of women, the OT laws were aimed at limiting the worst potential abuses. Moses would permit a crime (e.g. divorce) in order to prevent a worse one (rape and murder) because he knew he could not stop one without permitting the other.
They had hard hearts.


#18

This is what my notes say about the letter to Philemon. By the way Philemon is the master not the slave.

Paul wrote this letter while in prison in Ephesus or possibly in Rome.He addressed it to Philemon, and certain other members of the church, informing Philemon that Onesimus, the slave who apparently robbed him and then ran away is now a believer in Christ. Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Though runaway slaves could be exectued under Roman law, Paul expresses the hope that, Philimon will recieve him, not as a slave but as a beloved brother(verses15-16). though Paul does not ask outright for Philimon’s freedom, the letter seems to imply that he would like Philimon to free Onesimus so that Onesimus could help Paul preach the gospel(verses 13-14,21)

Paul goes so far as in verse 18 to offer to repay Philemon for anything Onesimus owes him. in verse 16 he says that Onesimus is Philemon’s beloved brother.


#19

The form of slavery which the Church condemns today and has always condemned is that in which innocent people are forcibly removed from their families, cities and countries, treated like animals and forced to work, perform immoral services or are tortured for the pleasure of another. This form of slavery is essentially kidnapping, assault and murder.

—I think there’s a larger issue here of doctrinal consisentcy; the church has always insisted on it; most non-literal readings of the bible have held otherwise. For example, most non-literal readings of the bible see it is not just the history of a people but the history of a set of moral ideas and in particular the idea of God moving from a tribal to a more universal conception. The same applies to slavery. I’m not a scholar, but I’ve just read over references to slavery in the New Testament, particularly from St. Paul in Timothy and Titus. There the advice is for slaves to submit, following in general the advice to submit to all authority since all authority exists in effect by the sufferance if not positive establishment of God. The political/practical reasons for this approach in the early church is pretty obvious - Chrisitian-led slave revolts were troubles St. Paul and his friends could plainly do without. But while one may speculate that St. Paul had a different opinion of slavery on a personal level, there’s no text I know of that in any way suggests that slavery is essentially evil. And St. Paul is surely talking about all slaves, involuntary as well as voluntary. Finally, in order to maintain the kind of doctrinal consistency the church would like one has to twist oneself into 50 kinds of intellectual knots. It’s far simpler and closer to reality to merely follow the evidence of the text. And while it would be wrong to say that the text in any way champions involunary slavery, it certainly did not consider it an important enough abuse to condemn in the face its preoccupation with the coming Kingdom. And that hardly argues for a belief, in the intrinsic pressing evel of the institution.


#20

I posted something on this regarding moral relativism…

Has there ever been a moral absolute?..your questions compel us to ask.


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