Saturday, May 07, 2005

Was Catholic moral doctrine on slavery erroneous?

According to an instruction of the Holy Office of the Catholic Church,

"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. It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given. 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." (20, June 1866)
Yet, Vatican II asserted:

"Coming down to practical and particularly urgent consequences, this council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all His life and the means necessary to living it with dignity ... whatever insults human dignity, such as...slavery...where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed." (Gaudium et spes, 27)
Has the Catholic Church reversed here moral doctrine on slavery?

Citing these texts, some assert the Catholic Church was erroneous with regard to her past moral doctrine on slavery, so they conclude that she may also be erroneous with regard to her moral doctrine on other things, like contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, etc. This thesis is especially popular among dissenting Catholics and others who oppose the teachings of the Catholic magisterium.

For example, Fr. Philip S. Kaufman's book Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic argued this thesis:

Fr. Kaufman wrote:

"One of the clearest cases of erroneous moral teaching is the Roman magisterium's authoritative approval of slavery.... there were Popes who worked against slavery, but even they didn't change the official teaching that slavery was moral.... The erroneous doctrine so firmly held and promulgated by the Roman magisterium for so many centuries was implicitly corrected by the Roman magisterium in 1891. However, the correction by Pope Leo was so mute that some of the biggest men in moral theology...still taught the morality of slavery down to the middle of the present century. The common Catholic teaching on slavery was not officially corrected until Vatican II in 1965. [Lumen gentium §27, 29]" (Fr. Philip S. Kaufman, Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic, Crossroad Classic, Reprint edition, September 25, 1995, ch. 3, p. 48)

[Note: Fr. Kaufman cites Lumen Gentium 27, but that document doesn't address slavery at all. I believe Fr. Kaufman meant to reference Gaudium et Spes, 27, which I've quoted above. It is noteworthy that Fr. Kaufman's book does not carry a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of the Catholic Church.]
Likewise, a recent book review in America, a weekly Catholic publication states:

"[John T. Noonan] identifies three areas where change in moral principles has undeniably occurred in the course of church history: slavery, usury and religious liberty.... human slavery ... was regarded as morally acceptable from the time of St. Paul and Philemon down through the fathers of the church and a host of popes and moralists up until its official, long overdue condemation by the Second Vatican Council, which declared slavery to be intrinsically evil." (Hary J. Byrne, America, "A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching By John T. Noonan Jr.," 25 April 2005)
Is Fr. Kaufman, Mr. Noonan and others correct in their thesis? Is slavery a clear case of "erroneous doctrine so firmly held and promulgated by the Roman magisterium?"

The following article which does have the Imprimatur of the Catholic Church (November 3, 1999), disagrees:

Slavery and the Catholic Church

Most of the information found in the above article can also be found in the book,
The Popes and Slavery by Fr. Joel S. Panzer (Alba House, 1996), which like the article above, does have the Imprimatur of the Catholic Church.

The article above rightly distinguishes between the various forms of slavery that has existed throughout human history, stating:

"... there are different forms of slavery. Even though repugnant to our modern sensitivity, servitude is not always unjust, such as penal servitude for convicted criminals or servitude freely chosen for personal financial reasons. These forms are called just-title servitude. The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which brought an end to racial slavery in the U.S., does allow for just-title servitude to punish criminals: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Even today we can see prisoners picking up litter along interstates and highways accompanied by armed guards. Also the 1949 Geneva Conventions allow for detaining power to use the labor of war prisoners under very limiting circumstances (Panzer, p. 3). However, such circumstances are very rare today. During biblical times, a man could voluntarily sell himself into slavery in order to pay off his debts (Deut. 15:12-18). But such slaves were to be freed on the seventh year or the Jubilee year (Lev. 25:54). The Church tolerated just-title servitude for a time because it is not wrong in itself, though it can be seriously abused. The Popes did, however, consistently oppose racial slavery which completely lacks any moral justification."
Another Catholic text on ethics which contradicts the above thesis is from Fr. Martin D. O'Keefe, S.J., Known from the Things that Are - Fundamental Theory of the Moral Life, Imprimatur (1984):

"Slavery presents the risk of moral evil in many ways (chiefly in that it presents the potential for multiple abuse); but one cannot say that, as an institution, it is intrinsically evil.... It is possible for certain forms of slavery to be moral...a life sentence in a penitentiary is a form of slavery, after all. And the sort of indentured service by which the ancestors of many Americans arrived in this country was certainly moral enough, even though in some cases perhaps harsh.... it should also be said that the sort of slavery of blacks that was common in this country in past centuries was morally evil" (Fr. Martin D. O'Keefe, S.J., Known from the Things that Are - Fundamental Theory of the Moral Life, Gonzaga University, 1985,pg. 225)
According to the pope who convened Vatican II, and also the episcopacy present at Vatican II, and the teaching of the living magisterium after Vatican II, the Vatican II council taught in accord with past Catholic doctrines. Vatican II was pastoral, in that it presented historical doctrines of Catholicism in a manner relevant and expedient to contemporary society, but remained in continuity with those doctrines. Dissenting Catholics and others opposed to the teachings of the magisterium would have us believe otherwise, asserting that Vatican II contradicted doctrines of the past. Their argument is unconvincing, however.

According to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI:

"There are many accounts [of Vatican II] which give the impression that from Vatican II onward everything has been changed, and what preceded it has no value or, at best, has value only in the light of Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely PASTORAL council; and yet so many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of super-dogma which takes away the importance of all the rest...The one way in which Vatican II can be made plausible is to present it as it is; one part of the unbroken, the unique Tradition of the Church and of her faith." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, given July 13, 1988, in Santiago, Chile before that nation's bishops)
In Catholic moral theology, the moral licitness of slavery is comparative to capital punishment. There is such a thing as "just capital punishment" according to Catholic doctrine, just as certainly in today's Catholicism as in past Catholicism. Catholic moral doctrine has not contradicted itself. What has changed is the pastoral approach, because of the unjust practical considerations in capital punishment as implemented in contemporary society.

Theoretically, capital punishment is not immoral according to Catholic doctrine. Yet, it's practice is pastorally opposed by the Church because it is rarely justified in practice. Likewise with "just war theory." Theoretically, Catholic doctrine holds that war can be justified under certain conditions. "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. ... a time of war, and a time of peace" (Eccl 3:1,8). Yet, because of the unjust practical considerations in how war is conducted in contemporary society, the Church pastorally opposes war.

There are forms of slavery that are always intrinsically evil (eg. chattel slavery). Yet, there are forms of slavery that are just. For instance, God Himself justly imposed slavery upon the people of Israel by their Babylonian captivity. According to John Paul II, "The Second Book of Chronicles reminds us that the deportation to Babylon was a punishment inflicted by Yahweh on his people for their grave sins, especially that of idolatry. Nonetheless, the period of slavery was meant for their repentance and conversion" (John Paul II, Homily at St Gaudentius Parish , 9 March 1997). According to some theorists, Catholicism has finally, since Vatican II, condemned all forms of slavery as immoral. Even such forms of just-servitude as imposed by God within Sacred Scripture is now considerd immoral by the Church. Can such a thesis be taken seriously?

It seems clear that the theoretical existence of "just slavery" is still maintained by Catholic doctrine, even after Vatican II, though in practice it is opposed to slavery because of the risk to abuse. Three sources I've cited above draw this same conclusion, each of which carry the Imprimatur of the Catholic Church. Thus, similar to to the Church's doctrine on capital punishment, the Church's doctrine on slavery can, in theory, be morally licit, but in practice, it is rarely justified. Certain forms of slavery are intrinsically evil (e.g., chattel slavery) where it is contrary to justice and human dignity. The condemnations of slavery, consistently held by the popes and by Vatican II are a condemnation of chattel slavery in all its forms, not a condemnation of just-title servitude.

According to Catholic author Mark Brumley, in his article entitled Let My People Go (This Rock: July/August 1999),
"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). These forms of servitude or slavery differ in kind from what we are calling chattel slavery. While prisoners of war and criminals can lose their freedom against their will, they do not become mere property of their captors, even when such imprisonment is just. They still possess basic, inalienable human rights and may not justly be subjected to certain forms of punishment-torture, for example. Similarly, indentured servants "sell" their labor, not their inalienable rights, and may not contract to provide services which are immoral. Moreover, they freely agree to exchange their labor for some benefit such as transportation, food, lodging, et cetera. Consequently, their servitude is not involuntary. The Second Vatican Council condemned slavery (i.e., chattel slavery)"

According to the Protestant magazine Christianity Today, "The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery - The problem wasn't that the leadership was silent, it's that almost nobody listened" by Rodney Stark, 7/18/2003:

"Some Catholic writers claim that it was not until 1890 that the Roman Catholic Church repudiated slavery. A British priest has charged that this did not occur until 1965. Nonsense!" (

The article continues to describe the constant opposition to unjust slavery by the popes since ancient times.

So, what of this claim by Hary Byrn of America magazine:

"human slavery ... was regarded as morally acceptable from the time of St. Paul and Philemon down through the fathers of the church and a host of popes and moralists up until its official, long overdue condemation by the Second Vatican Council, which declared slavery to be intrinsically evil"
Is it true? Was human slavery morally acceptable until Vatican II? I don't find this claim to be supported by the evidence of history. Never was chattel slavery considered morally acceptable.

For example, racial slavery began in large-scale during the 15th century and was formally condemned as early as 1435. Pope Eugene IV in 1435 wrote to Bishop Ferdinand of Lanzarote in his Bull, Sicut Dudum:
"...They [the Spanish] have deprived the natives [of the Canary Islands] of their property or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery, sold them to other persons and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them... 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 earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands...who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money... [Panzer, p. 8]
Pope Eugene condemned the kind of chattel slavery practiced in the Canary Islands, calling such deeds "illicit and evil."

Furthermore, a century later, Pope Paul III in 1537 issued a Bull against slavery, entitled Sublimis Deus, to the universal Church. He wrote against the practice of the Spanish and Portuguese who were colonizing South America:
"The exalted God loved the human race so much that He created man in such a condition that he was not only a sharer in good as are other creatures, but also that he would be able to reach and see face to face the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good... Seeing this and envying it, the enemy of the human race, who always opposes all good men so that the race may perish, has thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving word of God from being preached to the nations. He (Satan) has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking the Catholic faith. And they reduce them to slavery, treating them with afflictions they would scarcely use with brute animals... by our Apostolic Authority decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples - even though they are outside the faith - ...should not be deprived of their liberty... Rather they are to be able to use and enjoy this liberty and this ownership of property freely and licitly, and are not to be reduced to slavery..." [Ibid., pp.79-81]
Papal condemnations of slavery were repeated by Popes Gregory XIV (1591), Urban VIII (1639), Innocent XI (1686), Benedict XIV (1741), and Piux VII (1815).

In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued a Bull, entitled In Supremo, which also clearly condemned racial slavery:
"We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples." [Ibid., pp.101]
This shows that unjust slavery is clearly condemned prior to Vatican II, contrary opinions notwithstanding. Dissenting theorists will cite the practice of some, even leaders within the Church as though it proved the doctrine of the Church. This is as absurd as citing adulterous practice of Christians, even pastors, as though it were an indication of professed doctrine.

So why do Fr. Kaufman and John Noonan, et. al., assert a contrary thesis? Because they want it to be true so as to justify their sinful dissent with such moral doctrines of the Church on contraception, etc.

One need only read Fr. Kaufman's book to understand that he has an agenda of opposition to traditional Catholic doctrine. He promotes dissent in the Church for a reason, in the hopes the the Church will change her doctrines into something more agreeable to his erroneous theological perspective. His scholarship is hardly without bias against Catholic tradition. For example, he quotes from Fr. Charles Curran's views on abortion, stating, "in the case of abortion there can arrive circumstances in which the abortion is justified" (Kaufman, 145).

But what of John Noonan? Isn't he a Catholic scholar? MSgr. George A. Kelly, in his book Keeping the Church Catholic with John Paul II, writes about John Noonan:
"Noonan was a good man and a solid scholar. His book Contraception is a classic of its kind and deserves the praise it has received.... Noonan himself affirmed in 1965 that no Catholic theologian had ever approved contraception.... Noonan's brilliant two-hour lecture to [Pope Paul VI's Birth Control Commission] on the opening day highlighted the source of the Catholic teaching which developed from Gospel thinking.... Certainly, as Noonan indicated, the Church erected walls against the family evils of that day, high walls around the sacredness of indissoluble marriage and of the right to life, especially of the unborn. The absolute exclusion of contraception was on of those protective walls." (p. 37-38)
Noonan's research also established Pius XI's solemn statement in Casti Connubii as the capstone of the universal teaching of the church from the very beginning. (Kelly, 34). Nonetheless, Mr. Noonan questions the absolute necessity of this teaching which has forever been Catholic doctrine. He is a friend of Patrick and Patricia Crowley of the Christian Family Movement, public opponents of the teachings of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae against contraception (Kelly, 32). Patricia Crowley stated (1988), "I'll never forgive the Church for Humanae Vitae." (Kelly, 48). John Noonan, the detached scholar of 1964, by 1966 was a central figure in marshalling political forces against Casti Connubii (Kelly, 50). After Humanae Vitae was promulgated, John Noonan held a press conference (Oct 1, 1968) to express the opinion of lay members of the papal commission that Paul VI's opinion was his personal opinion, nothing more (Kelly, 50). Yet, compare this to what Noonan wrote earlier, "Never had it been admitted by a Catholic theologian that complete sexual intercourse might be had in which by deliberation, procreation was excluded." (John Noonan, Contraception, 438). It seems clear that Noonan is the one changing his "personal opinion" as to what was certainly Catholic doctrine, universally held forever and by all since the advent of Christianity. As for the Catholic Church ...
“The teaching Church does not invent her doctrines; she is a witness, a custodian, an interpreter, a transmitter. As regards the truth of Christian marriage, she can be called conservative, uncompromising. To those who would urge her to make her faith easier, more in keeping with the tastes of the changing mentality of the times, she answers with the apostles, we cannot do so." (Paul VI, General Audience, 12 Jan 1972)
Casti Connubili and Humanae Vitae are far from mere "personal opinion" which do not demand Catholic consent. They are papal encyclicals. Before Paul VI, Pius XII asserted the authority of papal encyclicals in this way:
"Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians." (Humani Generis (1950), par. 20).
What is expounded in Encyclical Letters is not mere "personal opinion" as Noonan asserts, but is the ordinary teaching of the Vicar of Christ, which demands consent.

God bless,



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