Did the Church Support Slavery

Tuesday, May 06, 2003



The conservatives often imply that the magisterium cannot err even when they are not invoking a solemn definition through their extraordinary authority. A case in point is Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, where the Vatican position is that the ordinary papal magisterium has witnessed to a truth possessed by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

The progressives point out that the both the ordinary papal magisterium and the ordinary and universal magisterium have supported slavery, condemned all loans at interest (which would shut down our banks), condemned Galileo on the grounds of a universal consensus that the earth is the center of the universe with the sun orbiting it, and so forth.

To this charge, progressives are continually asked to supply the proof, particularly for slavery. My question to the conservatives is this - why aren't any of you defending these teachings and putting them into practice?


The Third Lateran Council of 1179 imposed slavery on those helping the Saracens. The legitimacy of slavery was incorporated in the official Corpus Iuris Canonici, based on the Decretum Gratiani, which became the official law of the Church since Pope Gregory IX in 1226:
24. Cruel avarice has so seized the hearts of some that though they glory in the name of Christians they provide the Saracens with arms and wood for helmets, and become their equals or even their superiors in wickedness and supply them with arms and necessaries to attack Christians. There are even some who for gain act as captains or pilots in galleys or Saracen pirate vessels. Therefore we declare that such persons should be cut off from the communion of the church and be excommunicated for their wickedness, that catholic princes and civil magistrates should confiscate their possessions, and that if they are captured they should become the slaves of their captors. We order that throughout the churches of maritime cities frequent and solemn excommunication should be pronounced against them. Let those also be under excommunication who dare to rob Romans or other Christians who sail for trade or other honourable purposes. Let those also who in the vilest avarice presume to rob shipwrecked Christians, whom by the rule of faith they are bound to help, know that they are excommunicated unless they return the stolen property.
Note that this is an Ecumenical Council! Surely, this is a far more "authoritative" proof that the ordinary and universal magisterium supported slavery than the local synods (Nimes, Orange, and Laodocia) cited to support the ban on women priests.

However, even Ecumenical Councils contain matters that are not considered infallible doctrine. Just as the law of celibacy for ministerial priests and passed at the Second Lateran Council is a discipline, rather than a dogma, so too, canon 24 of Lateran III is a disciplinary matter.

The point, however, is that an Ecumenical Council not only takes for granted that slavery is acceptable, but imposed slavery as a punishment for sin. It is important to note that if slavery is so bad as to be considered a punishment, one cannot argue that the slavery supported by the magisterium was less cruel than later slavery!

Instead, one must either accept infallibly that slavery is God's will, or recognize that the magisterium does make errors when creating disciplines or making judgments with ordinary authority rather than extraordinary authority.

Indeed, some conservatives accept that Ecumenical Councils use "sloppy language". One conservative layperson argued with me that in the case of the canon regarding the ordination of deaconesses at the Council of Chalcedon (canon 15), the Church was being "sloppy".

But maybe the conservatives think that three synods outweigh a single Ecumenical Council due to number.

At lower levels of authority, the ordinary magisterium also supported slavery in the following instances:

    - The local Council at Gangra in Asia Minor, in 362 AD, excommunicated anyone telling a slave to despise his master or withdraw from his service. The same decree is repeated in a Council under Pope Martin I in 650 AD!

    - The ninth Council of Toledo in 655 AD imposed slavery on the children of priests.

    - The Synod of Melfi under Pope Urban II in 1089 imposed slavery on the wives of priests.
Still not convinced the Church supported slavery? Consider the following quotation from the Apostolic Constitution written by His Holiness, Pope Nicholas V, on January 8, 1455 ("Apostolic Constitutions" carry more authority than an "Apostolic Letter", and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was issued as an Apostolic Letter):
We (therefore) 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,...
The full text can be read at this link: Papal support for slavery

Note, as well, that Pope Nicholas seems to congratulate Henry, infante of Portugal, for "slaughtering" non-Christians and imposing forced conversions on "negros" and other peoples!

As late as June 20, 1866, the Holy Office (now called the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a statement that said:
"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.
Are the conservatives absolutely sure that we want to consider every authoritative word of the Pope's infallible?

Certainly, there were Catholics opposed to slavery long before the Vatican supported them. In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization?, Tomas Cahill suggests that Saint Patrick of Ireland may have been the first person in history to condemn the institution of slavery, and there were Catholics opposed to race based slavery even in the fifteenth century. However, it was not until Pope Leo XIII finally condemn slavery in 1890 in Catholicae Ecclessiae that the Vatican was clearly opposed to slavery. Leo was further confirmed at the Second Vatican Council came along and lumps slavery in the same paragraph with abortion and other grave evils as an offense against human dignity (GS 27).

However, the point that the progressives make is that prior to 1890, those Catholics who opposed slavery were often looked at as radical dissidents opposed to teachings of Popes and Ecumenical Councils. There is a role for loyal opposition in the Church?

Often, the voice of the progressive may be mistaken, but just as often, he or she may be calling the Church to authentic Spirit led renewal and reform! When the progressive is mistaken, the conservatives are offerred an opportunity to research and clarify their own position, which helps doctrine develop in clarity. When the progressives are right, the conservatives should not be too quick to shut down discussion with appeals to blind obedience to authority.

If you found this topic interesting, you may like to read the following:

Is the Church a Divine Monarchy?
What is Infallibility?
How Does Doctrine Develop?
The Primacy of Conscience
Is the Church Like a Political Party?
Papal Infallibility?

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 3:36 PM

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