The Church’s Long History of Condemning Slavery
Catholic Apologetics #19
You’ve probably heard the claim that the Catholic Church and/or Christopher Columbus contributed to the slavery of the Native Americans or the Africans. Such a claim is a bold-faced lie. One of the most erroneous claims I continue to hear about the Catholic Church is that it accepted or even encouraged slavery. This is also a blatant lie.
In 1435, Pope Eugene IV officially condemned the enslavement of the black natives of the Canary Islands. He decreed that all European masters were to free the enslaved within 15 days or face excommunication – the highest penalty of the Church (Sicut Dudum). In that papal bull, the Holy Father stated:
“They have deprived the natives of their property or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery (subdiderunt perpetuae servituti), sold them to other persons and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them…. Therefore We … exhort, through the sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ shed for their sins, one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed men, barons, soldiers, nobles, communities and all others of every kind among the Christian faithful of whatever state, grade or condition, that they themselves desist from the aforementioned deeds, cause those subject to them to desist from them, and restrain them rigorously. And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex that, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their pristine liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands … who have been made subject to slavery (servituti subicere). These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.”
In 1537, Pope Paul III attributed the slavery of the West Indian and South American natives to Satan in Sublimis Deus (June 2, 1537). The Church worked tirelessly to save the souls of the Indians and the natives and, when the allure of gold filled the hearts of avaricious men who arrived in the New World, the Church responded by condemning all attacks and affronts on these people. If we look at the life of St. Turibe, Archbishop of Lima, who traveled around 21,000 miles on foot to preach to the Spanish and Indians and offer the Sacraments, we understand the zeal that the Church had for souls. St. Turibe slept on the bare ground, crossed high mountains, traveled in deep forests, and suffered for years from hunger, all to save the souls of the inhabitants of that land. Indeed, St. Peter Claver, a slave himself, and St. Martin de Porres show us incredible examples of holiness.
Columbus himself was a Third Order Franciscan who labored for the good of souls his whole life. He prayed the Divine Office daily. And it was Columbus, who when he saw the New World being flooded by men who sought only gain and greed, reproached the Spanish Crown with the words, “Your Highnesses must not permit any Spaniard to go to America unless he is a true Christian, for this enterprise had no other aim but the glory of the Catholic religion” (page 10 of the book Garcia Moreno).
Further condemnations of slavery by the Church emerged under Popes Gregory XIV (1591), Urban VIII (Commissum Nobis, 1639), Innocent XI (1686), Benedict XIV (Immensa Pastorum, 1741), and Pius VII (1815).
Pope Gregory XVI powerfully wrote:
“We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort… that no one in the future dares to bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples… We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in these Apostolic Letters” (in Supremo Apostolatus, 1839).
Pope Leo XIII further wrote, “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” (On the Abolition of Slavery, 1888).
Indeed, it can be truly said that no organization worked more for the abolition of slavery than the Catholic Church.
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