Glad You Asked: Did the Catholic Church condone slavery?

On this episode of the podcast, Alessandra Harris talks about the history of the Catholic Church’s stance on slavery.

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When Catholics argue about the more controversial teachings of the church, it’s not unusual for someone to try to shut the conversation down by reminding everyone that debate is pointless since the church never changes. If you don’t like a specific doctrine, well, too bad, since it’s not going anywhere. The Catholic Church is the living repository of revealed truth so it’s always been right and isn’t going to change—or so the argument goes. So, for instance, when it comes to something gravely evil like slavery, the church must have always opposed this practice—right? 

But what to do about those passages in scripture, from doctors of the church like Thomas Aquinas, or even from earlier official documents, that seem to support slavery? Did the church actually condone slavery at some earlier point, then change its teaching later?

Our guest on today’s episode is going to talk about the history of the Catholic Church’s stance on slavery. Alessandra Harris is a novelist, essayist, and racial justice advocate. Her fiction books include Blaming the Wind, Everything She Lost, and Last Place Seen (all from Red Adept Publishing). In 2024, she published her first nonfiction book, In the Shadow of Freedom: The Enduring Call for Racial Justice (Orbis Books). Harris has contributed extensively to U.S. Catholic, as well as to Black Catholic Messenger, America Magazine, The Revealer, Grotto Network, Critical Theology Journal, Catholic Worker, and National Catholic Reporter.

Learn more about this topic and read some of Harris’ writing in these links:

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Emily Sanna: And I’m Emily Sanna, the managing editor of U.S. Catholic. We’ve discussed a lot of church history on past episodes of the podcast, and some of our topics have been pretty lighthearted. Today, though, we are going to address a more sobering question. Did the Catholic Church condone slavery?

Rebecca: Catholics tend to have a broad range of views on this topic. I’ve seen arguments that the church must have always opposed slavery, since the church has (theoretically) always been on the side of truth and justice. I’ve heard people say that Catholics were on the forefront of opposing slavery in the Americas.

Emily: But then there are others who point to passages in scripture, or teachings of Thomas Aquinas, that seem to support slavery—and who will say “yes, actually, the church did say slavery was okay—and therefore slavery must not be intrinsically evil.” But, of course, we know slavery IS intrinsically evil.

Rebecca: But what are the historical facts? Did the church actually, at one time, support something as objectively gravely evil as slavery? And did the church change its teaching later? Our guest on today’s episode is going to talk about the history of the Catholic Church’s stance on slavery.

Emily: Alessandra Harris is a novelist, essayist, and racial justice advocate. Her fiction books include Blaming the Wind, Everything She Lost, and Last Place Seen. In 2023, she published her first nonfiction book, In the Shadow of Freedom: The Enduring Call for Racial Justice

Rebecca: Harris has contributed extensively to U.S. Catholic, as well as to Black Catholic Messenger, America Magazine, The Revealer, Grotto Network, Critical Theology Journal, Catholic Worker, and National Catholic Reporter.

Emily: Alessandra, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Alessandra Harris: Thanks for having me.

Rebecca: So to start, we should maybe go back to the earliest of the early church. What was slavery like at that time when Christianity began? And how was it different from the approach to slavery that emerged later on in the era of European colonization?

Alessandra: I had an opportunity a few years ago to have a conversation with Dr. Catherine Murphy, who is a professor of New Testament at Santa Clara University. And she was informing me that at that time in the Roman Empire, one in four people were enslaved. So it was actually a very widespread and brutal practice. People who were enslaved could be sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and of course there was a social stigma attached with being enslaved. And Jesus even tells parables with people who are enslaved. If you read the New Testament and substitute the word servant for slave, then you will see how widespread it is. And some of the parables will even be somewhat disturbing where the slave ends up being beaten or tortured or something like that.

But the difference between slavery in the time of Jesus and the time of early Christianity and then what would emerge during the transatlantic slave trade was that it was race-based from the 1400s on. So people were enslaved because they were African or people of African descent. And that was one of the big differences.

Emily: So did the early church have a stance on slavery and enslaving people?

Alessandra: Well, there are people who are enslaved mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, but like Jesus, the disciples never directly condemn or praise it. And then in the New Testament letters, you do have Paul who stresses the spiritual equality and spiritual freedom that Christianity gives its believers. And he says that that’s more important than physical freedom.

And in the New Testament letters, there will be a description of how master-slave relationships should work in Christian households. So there is a presumption that there are going to be Christian households that have slaves. And there are two verses in the New Testament, household codes that are directed towards enslavers, that are telling them how to treat the people of the enslaved justly and fairly. But there are 19 directions toward the behavior of the enslaved, including commands for the enslaved to be obedient to their masters, submissive, and accept their enslaver’s authority. So you do come across slavery, and it is a practice that is condoned in the New Testament.

Rebecca: So later on when the practice of race-based enslavement of people began, when people were kidnapping and trafficking people, how did the Catholic Church respond to that?

Alessandra: So when Portugal did come to the Catholic Church to ask for permission to conduct the slave raids, where they would go onto the coast of Africa and they would physically capture and then bring back Africans who they had kidnapped and forced them into slavery, Pope Nicholas V basically in 1452 legitimized this Portuguese slave trade with the papal bull Dum Diversas. And then in 1455, the papal bull Romanus Pontifex gave Portugal the right to enslave all Africans south of Cape Bojador on the coast of Western Sahara. And then in 1493, this permission was extended to the Kingdom of Spain in two bulls and it gave them the right to any land and any people that they discovered in the Americas.

Emily: So eventually, of course, there was this whole economic network where the wealth of white people hinged on their practice of enslaving other people. Were there any consequences for Catholics who participated in the slave trade or who enslaved people?

Alessandra: Well, like I said, the Catholic Church embraced slavery, both in theory and in practice, and four different popes all confirmed or renewed that slavery was okay. So priests, religious orders, laity, even popes enslaved people or gave people as presents. And the church stood by as three of the five major countries that dominated the slave trade. Portugal, Spain, and France were predominantly Catholic. The Society of Jesus alone owned 20,000 enslaved people. So there were no consequences because the church condoned it and practiced it.

Rebecca: So when did the Catholic Church actually get around to condemning slavery?

Alessandra: So in 1839, Pope Gregory issued a papal bull publicly condemning the transatlantic slave trade after it had been in existence for almost 400 years. But many people argued that he only condemned the slave trade, the practice of capturing Africans and transporting them through the Middle Passage to the Americas. So at that time, people even in America said this does not apply to the domestic slave trade and to the fact that we have so many people who live here or who have been born into slavery for centuries. They said that what Pope Gregory said did not apply to them and he did not issue any further guidance saying that they were wrong. So it wasn’t until 1888 that Pope Leo condemned not merely the transatlantic slave trade, but also the practice of slavery. But at this time, slavery was already legally abolished in the Christian world.

Emily: So you have a new book, In the Shadow of Freedom, that talks about how even after the church did condemn slavery, it still upheld a lot of the racist structures that were connected with enslaving people. Can you give a couple examples from your book?

Alessandra: Sure. Well, so I’m going to give you an example that’s not in my book, and then I’ll give you an example that is in my book. In The History of Black Catholics by Cyprian Davis, he writes about what he calls one of the tragedies of American church history. And he talks about how the bishops had met after the end of the Civil War to discuss the evangelization of the freed Black American population. And at that time, the Protestants were making great progress evangelizing the newly freed African Americans. And the question was specifically, would they be able to establish a pre-elect apostolic who would be tasked with the spiritual care of African Americans? And Rome actually approved of the idea. And they wanted one person to be responsible for coordinating the efforts for Black Americans to be baptized and educated and embraced in the Catholic Church. However, there were bishops who objected to this, and in the end, the council fathers rejected the notion of an ecclesiastical coordinator or a prefect apostolic, and nothing new was created to deal with the situation of evangelizing Black people on a national scale.

And many people say that’s probably one of the reasons why the Black Catholic population is so small to this day. And specifically in my book, I also talk about how even though there were Catholic people who were against slavery, they still held very racist views about Black people. And those racist views and the belief in white supremacy, that white people were inherently superior to Black people is what led to many of the Jim Crow segregation laws and that Black Catholics often had to be in a gallery or a side part in the church and they’d have to be last to receive communion. Sometimes communion would run out by the time they got to it, and just the Catholic white people believed in segregation and wanted the races to be separate because they still believe black people were inferior.

Rebecca: So despite all of this, there are a lot of people who will say that the church has never condoned slavery, that the church was on the forefront of opposing slavery because, you know, slavery is bad and the church is supposedly always right. What’s a good answer to someone who would argue in this way?

Alessandra: Well, I would encourage them to read Father Christopher Kellerman’s book, All Oppression Shall Cease, so they can really like investigate this question and find the truth for themselves. Because in both his book and an America magazine article, Father Christopher discusses how the Catholic Church itself, Pope Gregory and then Pope Leo kind of created this narrative that the Catholic Church had always been against slavery. So that’s one of the reasons why we believe that because that’s something that the popes themselves and the church themselves have told us. But unfortunately, that’s not true. And I think that people have to learn the history themselves to really make a decision and a determination.

Emily: So you’ve just laid out these centuries of codified racist papables and policies. Do you think, is there hope for the Catholic Church to really become a tool of liberation, or is the racism kind of too ingrained?

Alessandra: Well, I think that what I’d like to see with the Catholic Church is a reckoning with its past and reparations for what the church has done. One of the things that does give me hope, and I talk about this in my book in the chapter about lynching and its evolution into the death penalty, is that the Catholic Church in 2018 changed its stance on the death penalty. And it now says that it’s inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person. So I think if the church can change its stance on the death penalty, and I know some people think that that is controversial, but I think that if it can change its stance and if it can be open to the truth, then it can also do that when it comes to matters of race relations. But I think that it has to really be open to the truth about its history in order to really reckon with that history, make reparations and change going forward.

Rebecca: So on the subject of the church changing, there are a lot of Catholics, especially the traditionalist ones, who will say things like, you know, the church is never wrong, the church has never changed, and therefore if the church said that slavery was okay back then, that’s probably because they think slavery is not intrinsically evil. What’s a good response to this argument?

Alessandra: Well, I think it’s just, again, that if people have a better understanding of the history and how I believe that when the Catholic Church first said that Portugal could conduct the slave raids and enslave people, they said that that could only be done for people who weren’t Catholic or people who weren’t Christian. And what we see happening over the centuries is that people converted, people who were enslaved converted to Christianity, converted to Catholicism and were still enslaved for the rest of their lives and their children were enslaved. So the question is, is that reality what the Pope actually wanted when he said that that slavery was OK? Or were they envisioning a world where people would be enslaved and then be evangelized, become Christian? And then, so I think we have to kind of look at the motives and the reality. And I think we have to say the reality is that slavery did exist, that the church did bless it and condone it and participate in it for centuries, and it later changed its stance to say it was wrong. So I think that that’s the reality that people have to grapple with.

Emily: Alessandra, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Alessandra: Thank you so much for having me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.