Slavery and the Church, Then and Now

Salvete, omnes!

All right, being (currently) a Protestant, I have currently read/heard very little on the topic of slavery as the Catholic Church understands it. So, please forgive any issues with sources/citations I may have belowI believe there was a(n infallible?) document that came out of the 1860s(?) that stated that slavery was not contrary to natural law (and, thus, not inherently evil?).

I also understand however, that many popes, at least since the 1500s(?) condemned slavery/the slave trade. From what I have read, however, this was because of what the Church apparently perceived as the injustices surrounding the institution of slavery as it existed at and after that time period and that these letters should not be understood to condemn the whole institution of slavery throughout all time/all cultures.

Am I correct in this understanding? Does the Catholic Church now, and has it always, believed that slavery, at least as it is justly practiced, is not inherently evil but that the evils that arose because of the institution especially during the 1500s on onward were enough to incite the popes of these eras to condemn the institution as it currently existed? Then, all forms of slavery are not necessarily wrong, but, slavery under Christian principles is, theoretically, not inherently evil?

More specifically: If a slave is captured from the enemy, say, in war, is subjected to slavery (i.e., involuntary servitude) and he is treated according to standards of Christian justice while in a slave, this is theoretically not an inherent evil?

Be aware that I am in no way advocating any reinstitution of modern slavery here, even on the ground I cited above. Obviously the social situation is completely turned against it because of the abuses suffered by those under it in recent centuries. Plus, modern economic conditions have changed to too great a degree as to perhaps justify it. Thirdly, there today simply exists no real desire for such practices. Fourthly, frankly, our laws prohibit it. Fifthly, modern warfare is not ancient warfare and the former differs markedly now from the latter.

Also keep in mind that–and I believe that the Church and I are in agreement on this point–in no way support racially-based slavery. In fact, I see racially-based slavery, because it dehumanizes a person based on his race, unjustly enslaves and places one human’s humanity/dignity above another as indeed inherently evil.

Further, I am not trying to be provocative here. I am merely trying to understand the Church’s teaching on this subject throughout history.

I guess what’s at the heart of this question is whether the Church considers slavery–defined as involuntary servitude of another as a result of “just” captivity, say, in war as a punishment and/or an alternative to death in war)–as long as it is accompanied by Christian treatment, is not inherently evil in and of itself.

After all, Paul never told all Christians to give up their slaves. He only gave the slave-master relationship a kind of Christian code.

Just looking for clarification. Is this how we should understand the teachings of the Church on slavery throughout time?

Is my understanding the Catholic understanding on this issue? This is really the only way I have found indeed to reconcile what biblical/papal/council pronouncements that, at elast on their surface/taken alone, may appear contradictory.

Let me reiterate that I am not trying to be provocative. I am not trying to condemn the Catholic Church in any way. (In fact, I have been strongly considering “swimming the Tiber” for some time now myself!) I am only trying to come ot a better understanding of the Church’s moral teaching on slavery in its various aspects. This will not only hlep me to come to a better understanding of the Scriptures/tradition/etc., but it will also help me to defend the Catholic Church against charges brought against it, but to do so correctly/properly, not going to one extreme or the other, but taking a balanced approach. Still further, as a classicist by training with an interest in the Graeco-Roman world which was obviously largely built around the institution of slavery, this holds some interest for me so that I can come to a better understand of how I should see their forms of slavery in a properly Christian light.

Thanks, all, in advance.

As I understand it, the teachings of the Church allow slavery in three circumstances. The first is the one you mentioned, where a person is captured during warfare (this presumes, I think, that the war is a “just war” by Church definition) and is made to work for their captures until the conflict is resolved and they are released.

The second situation would be that of an indentured servant, who is working off a debt of some kind.

The third is that of a minor child that is born to someone who is enslaved in one of the previous two circumstances, in order to keep them with their own family.

This is what I remember reading about the Church teachings on slavery, but I can’t remember where it came from. I will see if I can find the source.

Here is a link for an article that lists many statements of the Church on the subject of slavery.

Are these exceptions still taught by the church today, or was this in the past? I guess I could see a justification for the first case but I am not sure how the church could justify the last two options - seems unfair.

I know this is a topic most people don’t want to discuss, but this is one of the arguments used against christianity (whether catholic or non-catholic). I actually just watched a youtube video sent by a friend which showed Sam Harris using the churches’ support of slavery as an attack against religion.

When Westerners think of “slavery” we think of Western-style “chattel” slavery. This practice is intrinsically disordered, and has never been sanctioned by the Church.

In ancient times, “slavery” was often what we would call “indentured servitude.” This is a contract between the “slave” and the “master.” It might be low-impact and short-term, such as a cook agreeing to give a man supper if he will wash the dishes. Or it might be a permanent lifestyle, such as a sharecropper.

Indentured servitude is not morally disordered, provided the arrangement is fair for both parties. Unfortunately, since the “slave” is not in a position of power, the situation is ripe for abuse, where the master can demand a disproportionate amount of service and the slave has little alternative but to agree. Indentured servitude is not intrinsically immoral, but unjust and abusive contracts are.

Of course, the servants can fail to live up to their promises. Our Lord preached a parable about sharecroppers in a vineyard who decided to cheat their master from his just due share of the harvest. In this parable, it was the slaves, not the master, who were evil and unjust.

So, then, what about slavery both in the OT and the NT? Weren’t slaves, even in the OT, often captured in battle? In these cases, does the OT say directly that a slave must be released after the battle is over?

Then, what about the NT? In the Graeco-Roman world, certainly, a slave captured in a particular battle/war would not be released after that battle/war was over. Yet, Paul seems to make no mention of this issue when he deals with slavery in his letters.

So, is our poster understanding this aspect of slavery correctly? If a slave is captured in battle, did the Church require him/her to be returned after the battle/war was over?

I think not, and one reason why is because I think there is a modern punishment that fits that definition and seems supported by the Church – and that punishment is community service.

Community service is, I think, forced upon persons who are legitimately held captive. So long as it is practiced with Christian charity, I think the Church supports it. It may even be permitted in the law of Vatican City.

Although I don’t think its contemporary usage automatically means it is in accord with Catholic teaching, in this case I think it does. Perhaps older generations called forced labor for legitimate prisoners slavery, and we call it community service and make it more “light duty,” but unless I’m missing something I don’t think there’s a fundamental moral difference.

Use the search function. This has been discussed at great length on the forums.

Well, what I was thinking of when I wrote the statement you quoted was ancient Jewish and Graeco-Roman forms wherein those conquered in battle were often captured and enslaved by the victors of that battle.

I respectfully think community services is a bit of a different situation in that these men have been put in jail for breaking civil law, not necessarily for fighting against our nation.

I’m wondering if the former case, so long as it is done justly/with Christian principles in mind, is something condemned by the Church (again, my primary interest here not being anything contemporary but more how I as a classicist should view ancient forms of slavery as I study various civilizations).

With all respect, I have searched this topic already and have read much on it. Still, I think that it hasn’t quite yet covered in precisely this way.

The Church has clarified her teaching on this throughout the centuries because the concept of slavery has changed. (and in my mind, gotten increasingly more depraved) The kind of relationship that Paul was discussing in his letters was probably more like a share-cropping situation, where some Roman nobility of official was given a large amount of land to own, and the people who worked it were obliged to pay him a potion of what they grew or raised. Even the Roman concept of slavery, which was a relationship that was easily abused, is nothing like the more modern concept that we see in American history.

While God allowed divorce, slavery, and polygamy, none of these were positively commanded by God. For instance, in Exodus 21:2, the Sacred Scripture says: “If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years shall he serve thee; in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.” Note here that God is not commanding the Israelites to have slaves (servants). Rather, He is merely implicitly permitting them to have slaves. The verse here talks about the regulation of slaves and therefore is an implicit endorsement of slavery. But this is a far cry from God commanding the Israelites to have slaves. This difference is important because the death penalty, unlike slavery, is firmly commanded by God, not merely permitted.

What is referred to in other translations as “slaves” is more correctly rendered as “servants,” as the Douay Bible has it. When we 21st century people think of slaves and slavery, what comes to mind right away is the horrible atrocities committed by white men against blacks in the United States mostly during the 1800’s. But this is not the kind of slavery we read about in the Sacred Scriptures. God asked the Israelites to treat their servants well. Also, as pointed out in Leviticus 22: 10-11, the servants or slaves had some privileges which even some Israelites did not.

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.

Christ had not condemned slavery and St Paul told slaves to obey their masters (Col 3:22, et al), but with St Paul, the Church revolutionised the status of the slave from the first: (re Onesimus) “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philemon 1:16).

“Under Roman Law the slave was a chattel with no more rights than an animal. His master might seduce, mutilate, torture or kill him without any interference by the law.” [Sir Arnold Lunn, *Is The Catholic Church Anti-Social?, Burns & Oates 1946, p 186, 188].

The Church revolutionised the status of the slave long before there could be any thought of abolishing slavery. The inalienable rights of the slave to marriage and then family were safeguarded from the first by the precepts of the Church, and were later secured by legal enactment in the Theodosian code, which was later revised and classified by Justinian (A.D. 527-565). The law followed where the Church had led. The granting of religious equality to slaves was a silent but tremendous revolution – emancipated slaves were often raised to the priesthood and even to the very Chair of St Peter, Pius I and Callistus I in the second and third centuries. (Ibid. p 187).
[See *The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark, Random House, 2005, p 30].

Slavery (as we understand it today) is identified as intrinsically evil:

Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts:
"Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment,
deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children;…

Source: Veritatis Splendor

Probably most wars against non-Christians were considered “just wars” by the Catholic Church and non-Christians captured in those wars were sometimes subject to perpetual enslavement. According to the Papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 to Afonso V King of Portugal giving him permission to conquer non-Christian lands and enslave their inhabitants:

We weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso – to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit – by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbors, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors.

It’s no secret that galleys in the navy of the Papal States were long maned by Muslims slaves.

A nice summation of the proclamations of popes regarding this issue through history (here) by Father Joel Panzer.

**The Popes and Slavery Paperback – by Joel S. Panzer (Author) **

An encapsulation of some of that information here (also from Fr. Panzer).

Fr. Joel S. Panzer**

God bless.


The false ideas are rebutted by the following.

Let My People Go
The Catholic Church and Slavery
By Mark Brumley

…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”…

…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)…

Nicholas V refers to wars in Romanus Pontifex. Matters of war and imprisonment are prudential teachings, not infallible teachings. [My emphasis].

I read a few interesting statements a few weeks ago, regarding Pope Pius IV during the Civil War. Some argued he sympathized with the Confederacy in his letter to Jefferson Davis. No support of the Confederacy was clear and formal, but some would lead you to believe that this sympathy implied he(Pope Pius) did not condemn slavery. What they gloss over are other interesting facts. The Union was not fighting solely to free the slaves. Lincoln himself would have done everything he could to preserve the Union(North and South) Even If it meant slavery had to remain, he would have chosen that course. Lincoln was not an abolitionist Northern General Ulysses S. Grant could be assumed to have owned slaves from paperwork stating his wife’s family owned some slaves, while Confederate General Robert E. Lee did not own any slaves and only fought for the South because he loved Virginia.

Not sure if we can say any party had it totally correct. Slavery existed in Brazil and the Caribbean, both protestant and Catholic nations. To their credit those nations abolished slavery before we did. No Christian of any faith or denomination could be proud of our history of slavery, or how we mistreated native Americans and indigenous people. My own people were conquered by the Spaniards, but I still thank God they brought the Catholic faith to my ancestors.

I appreciate your sincerity in searching for the History.

In case you may have overlooked a source, please tab on the LIBRARY here on Catholic Answers and select the Encyclopedia and select S and then scroll to Slavery.

As for “swimming the Tiber” also consider what is, I think, THE most essential reasons for becoming a Catholic:

  1. Each of us has an immortal soul. Our destination is either Heaven or Hell for all eternity.
  2. Jesus Christ is indeed the Living Son of God. He cannot lie. He is The Truth.
  3. Consider what Christ said in these passages:

Matthew 16: 15-19
Matthew 22: 36-40
John 6: 51-56
Luke 22: 19-20
John 20: 19-23
John 14: 23-26

Thanks, guys, for all your input.

It had been mentioned, I think in other threads but I believe also here, that some popes prohibited Christians to have other Christians as slaves? If so, when did this start? And, why? If slavery wasn’t, in and of itself, considered inherently evil, why was this prohibition instituted? Also, was this prohibition to be considered an infallible pronouncement or was it made in ways other than those considered to be so, so that, while authoritative, coming from a pope, it wasn’t to be taken as an infallible statement on faith and morals? Did the prohibition arise because forms of slavery were becoming increasingly unjust? What were the conditions under which the prohibition came about? Also, was this truly a prohibition in the truest sense or merely a discouragement of holding Christian slaves?

Slavery, to enslave a person, as we understood the meaning of that word today, is Intrinsically Evil. Pope JP 2 states as much in Veritatis Splendor.

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