Alright so here's a question that probably won't win me any friends but I'd like to hear some other perspectives on this.

Is slavery inherently immoral?

That is, is it always wrong to hold another person in bondage and reap the benefits of their labor? I understand that in the U.S. and elsewhere this issue is deeply intertwined with racist ideology and slaves were rampantly abused and even killed in huge numbers. Clearly this situation was wrong and slavery as it was practiced in the United States (slaves having no legal rights and being regarded as subhuman) should have been, and thankfully was, abolished.

But what about other forms of slavery, such as that which was practiced by Native Americans, where prisoners of war are held in captivity for a period of time and then either released or allowed to join the community? What about that proscribed by Mosaic law? What about that practiced by the ancient Romans and Greeks? I don't see anything to suggest that Jesus and his Apostles condemned the institution of slavery that was clearly part of their society.

In the first chapter of Philemon St. Paul even seems to have written about returning a slave to his master. Paul tells the master to receive him as "more than a slave, as a beloved brother" but in regards to freeing him, he explicitly says that "I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will." If slavery in and of it self were immoral, wouldn't St. Paul have compelled him?

A few other verses from the New Testament which also mention slavery similarly fail to condemn its practice.

Ephesians 6:5-9 "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. 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."

1 Timothy 6:1 "Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers."

So I guess what I'm asking is whether it's really slavery in itself that's wrong or if its the abuse and denial of human dignity that usually goes along with it.

Citations from the Church Fathers and conciliar documents and so forth would be much appreciated.


Slavery is inherently wrong. This is distinct from selling your actual labor.

Slavery involves ownership of the human being itself, often its children, etc. It is dehumanizing (see the pronouns?) and totally incompatible with Catholic theology. Many slave-based societies actually referred to slaves as conscious property or the like.


I’m interested in hearing the answers on this from those who are more learned than I. The Scripture passages you quote certainly seem to imply an approval of, or at least a lack of moral outrage about, slavery. But yes the Church believes that it is inherently wrong.


From the CCC:

“2414 The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason - selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian - lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.””


Chattel slavery, slavery that treats a person as livestock, is inherently immoral because it dehumanizes the person. Also the enslavement of a free person can be a very grave injustice.

On the other hand, the word “slavery” could be applied to other arrangements such as indentured servitude or putting prisoners of war or other prisoners to work. These are not necessarily intrinsically evil, though they also have potential for abuse.



The doctrine the same then as it is now

The Church has always taught the evil of slavery and worked to abolish or reduce it. This began with the Apostles, who condemned the slave trade among every other kind of injustice: “For slave traders and liars and perjurers…[are] contrary to sound doctrine.” 1 Timothy 1:10. St. John condemns the slave trade in Revelation 18:13. In 230 A.D. a document containing rules for pastors asserted that Church money should be used “[to] redeem slaves and captives and prisoners.” (See the Didascalia Apostolorum) In 380 A.D. the Apostolic Constitutions asserted that Church money should be collected “[for] the deliverance of slaves.”

These canons were reconfirmed in 625 A.D. at The Council of Rheims (Canon 17), which banned the enslavement of free persons and excommunicated anyone who tried it. In 844 A.D. the 2nd Council of Verneuil (in Canon 12) declared that when Church funds are not set aside for ransoming slaves or are misappropriated, “captives are defrauded, and the good name of all is smirched by this fault.” In 1092 A.D. the Council of London commanded (Canon 27): “Let no one dare hereafter to engage in the infamous business, prevalent in England, of selling men like animals.” These anti-slavery Church laws were in effect throughout the middle ages and remained into modern times. They were only replaced when the Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1918.

The doctrine’s impact in the middle ages

After the time of Constantine and during the barbarian invasions, the Roman empire was transformed from an economy based on slavery to an economy based on feudalism, which doesn’t have as many moral problems as slavery. During this time, mass-emancipations were performed by the Church and by individual wealthy Christians. St. Melanie (383 - 439 A.D.) is one example where a Christian woman inherited slaves from her pagan father and released them all instead of keeping them. St. Eligius too (588-660 A.D.), because of his great wealth, was able on more than one occasion to ransom all the slaves who arrived in the slave market, by fifties and hundreds at a time. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries religious orders were founded with the mission of ransoming and caring for slaves – the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians are examples of this.

In 533 A.D. Emperor Justinian promulgated a general law “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” which included the principle, “Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, against nature, subjecting one man to the dominion of another.” The establishment of this principle at the imperial level seemed to promise the crafting of anti-slavery laws at the regional level throughout the Roman empire. But the effect was limited by barbarian invasions, which occurred during the fourth through sixth centuries and brought a renewal to the pagan culture that wouldn’t give up its slaves. By converting the barbarians the Church began to make progress once again, but then the came the Islamic religion, which permits slavery, and through trade with the Muslims the country of Spain began to give slavery a more permanent stronghold within the Roman empire, and many of the Spanish church’s bishops began to overlook it and keep silent.

Now it must be observed that as Catholics we do not claim that our bishops are unable to sin or that they will always preach in perfect opposition to injustice. What we claim is that our doctrine has always been against slavery, not that all of our bishops have always been faithful to that ideal. The Church’s doctrinal stance is made clear by the moral opposition to slavery contained in the New Testament and in several of the Early Church Fathers, and in the emancipations funded by wealthy Christians and Church monies, and in the canon laws which encouraged these emancipations, and in the religious orders founded to assist slaves in gaining freedom, as is mentioned above. The positive impact of these things was very fruitful and in fact transformed the Roman empire. But slavery was never completely abolished because perfect obedience to Christian principles has never been found either in civil law or among Church leaders.

In the Renaissance period there were popes who condemned slavery because it is an offense against natural law and there were popes who approved slavery out of corrupt political interests. In the former class were Popes Pius II (1462 A.D.), Paul III (1537 A.D.), Urban VIII (1639 A.D.), and Benedict XIV (1741 A.D.). In 1815 A.D. the Congress of Vienna, at the urging of Pope Pius VII, began the suppression of human trafficking throughout Europe. This resulted in the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 which prohibited slavery throughout the expansive British empire.

From all this it should be clear that Catholic doctrine is completely opposed to the institution of slavery and has always prohibited it from being done, and it should be recognized that our modern laws on the subject have a lot to do with the Catholic influence throughout the centuries.


If you grab those passages mentioned and interpret them under the entire context of the Bible you will see that slavery is inherently wrong. Remember you can’t grab one sentence in the bible and exclude it from the rest.


or ritualistically murdered.

maybe you should do a little more research.


In addition to what I wrote above, it is important to mention the changing meaning of “slave” through the centuries. In Latin the word is “servus,” from which we derive both our words “servant” and “serf.” As the Roman empire transformed into a feudal system, “servus” came to mean “serf” rather than the classic slave, and thus it made its way in an acceptable form into Catholic literature.

One thing that the serfs had in common with slaves was that their labor was used to benefit another: the lord, who was not the same as a master, because he did not have absolute rights over his serfs, and his serfs had rights against their lord. Serfs could accumulate property without limits, as long as they paid their lord his due (taxes, fees, etc). It was not unknown for a serf to become financially richer than his lord, and to buy his own freedom.

In the 1800s, the Church declared, with reference to serfdom, which in Latin goes by the same name as slavery, these words: “Slavery * itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery * and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. For the sort of ownership which a slave-owner has over a slave * is understood as nothing other than the perpetual right of disposing of the work of a slave for one’s own benefit - services which it is right for one human being to provide for another. From this it follows that it is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave * to be sold, bought, exchanged or donated, provided that in this sale, purchase, exchange or gift, the due conditions are strictly observed which the approved authors likewise describe and explain. Among these conditions the most important ones are that the purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue or Catholic faith of the slave who is to be transferred to another’s possession.” (Holy Office, Instruction 20, June 1866) At first glance this passage appears to contradict the Catechism, which says: 2414 The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason - selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian - lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.” However, the contradiction is only apparent. The form of slavery which the Holy Office was referring to in 1866 was serfdom, in accordance with the change in meaning of the word “servus”. And it explicitly says that the rights of the serf must be maintained and he must not be deprived of liberty unjustly. The Catechism agrees with this by saying that men may not be bought, sold or exchanged “in disregard for their personal dignity” – there is a way to exchange men in a way that respects personal dignity.

This actually happens quite frequently. At my job, sometimes I am required to work for another company, e.g. when my company ships bad parts to another company, I am sometimes sent to sort out the good parts and the bad. On contract my presence and my labor are exchanged to the other company for a temporary period, but this is not contrary to my dignity. Authentic serfdom, in respect of peoples’ rights, reflects this kind of dignified exchange of persons, where serfs maintain their personal freedom, within limits, and their ability to own and accumulate property, a basic human right.

Another point that should be considered is that some people are justly deprived of liberty and put to forced labor, and this includes people in prison. The 13th Amendment on slavery in the U.S. Constitution explicitly makes an exception for the imprisonment of criminals and permits them to be put to forced labor. This is not contrary to dignity, provided they are not overworked, because they have to be in prison anyway, and they might as well be contributing to society by their strength.

Anyway all of those points need to be considered in understanding that, properly understood, the Church has always condemned slavery (in its modern sense), but permitted a type of serfdom (which is a form of slavery) when the rights of the serf are respected and his dignity maintained.

I hope that helps. God bless!****


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.

“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.”
See: *A Matter of Justice *By Mario Derksen

There existed the practice of various types of slavery before the 15th century. However, it was not until the 15th century, and with growing frequency from the 16th to the 19th centuries, that racial slavery as we know it became a major problem. It is this form of servitude that is called to mind when we think today of the institution of slavery, and is the type which was to prevail in parts of the New World for over four centuries.

The Magisterium condemned from the beginning the colonial slavery that developed in the newly discovered lands.


I disagree with this point. You choose to continue your free will employment by complying with your employer’s request that you travel and render direct assistance to other companies. You are legally free to quit your job at any time.

If this is not the case, please let me know who your company is, as we could use some help around the house and plan on coming into some cash soon - we might wish to purchase you. (This paragraph intended primarily as humor. :slight_smile: )

This is in stark contrast to situations where people are required to provide labor on threat of (often physical) judicial punishment.



Thank you for giving such a well thought out response! You bring up a good point about the original meaning of the Latin word “servus” and the difference in the way we commonly understand the word “slave” today. “Serfdom,” or “servanthood,” as we know it, is clearly what the biblical authors were referring to in the passages I quoted. That settles it, I need to start studying Latin!


Why do you make that suggestion?


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