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Slavery: The Amendment of an Infallible Catholic “Moral” Doctrine

"If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema."

Pope Pius IX, First Vatican Council (1869-1870), Session 3, Chap. 4, Canon 3

Would you not agree that if it could be corroborated that an "infallible" doctrine, concerning a matter of "faith and morals", has indeed been amended/ changed by the Church ... then any and all doctrine "can" be ammended, if deemed just and appropriate, by the Teaching Authority of the Church?

Slavery and the Catholic Church

Father John F. Maxwell, "Slavery and the Catholic Church" (1975):

"Since the sixth century and right up until the twentieth century it has been common Catholic teaching that the social,economic and legal institution of slavery is morally legitimate provided that the master's title of ownership is valid and provided that the slave is properly looked after and cared for, both materially and spiritually. This institution of genuine slavery, whereby one human being is legally owned by another, and is forced to work for the exclusive benefit of his owner in return for food, clothing and shelter, and may be bought, sold, donated or exchanged, was not merely tolerated but was commonly approved of in the Western Latin Church for over 1,400 years."

There are numerous passages in the Old Testament that justified slavery while at the same time stipulating the need to ensure their humane treatment and the conditions for their eventual liberation; such as found in Exodus 21:1-11, Leviticus 25:47-55, Deuteronomy 23:15-16.

In times past, slavery was considered lawful under 4 so-called "just titles" (circumstances):

  1. Capture in war,

  2. Punishment for crime,

  3. Obligation for debt, and

  4. Persons selling themselves into slavery, including a father selling his child; or children of a mother who is a slave.

There are those who seek to excuse the Church’s culpability in condoning slavery by saying that the Church “did not intend to endorse authoritatively any specific instances of slavery, but only the principle that slavery could be justified as the lesser of evils in certain circumstances".

Let’s take a look at some of the historic chronological facts concerning the Church’s position on this contemplable and despicable issue.

  • 100-150 AD: The earlier Latin "Doctrina" and the later Greek version called the "Didache" provide a moral exhortation for masters and slaves, in section 4, emphasizing that God is no respecter of a person's status but is impartial. (E.J. Goodspeed, "The Apostolic Fathers", p. 6, 7, 13)

  • 340 AD: The apostolic moral teaching on slavery under the conditions of pagan Roman law was converted into local Church law at the Council of Gangra in Asia Minor:

    "If anyone, on the pretext of religion, teaches another man's slave to despise his master, and to withdraw from his service, and not to serve his master with good will and all respect, let him be anathema." (Canon 3. C.J.C. Decreti Gratiani, II, C.XVII, Q.IV, c.37)

    That decree made by the Council of Gangra later became part of the Western Church's collections of canons and continued to be quoted for a further 1,400 years.

  • 370 AD: St. Basil provides a presentation of St. Paul's "moral theology" of slavery in his Ethics, showing the slaves' duty of obedience for the glory of God to their masters in all matters which exclude the infringement of God's moral laws, and the masters' obligation to be considerate towards their slaves.(Rule 75, c.1 and c.2, Migne Patr. Gr. 31, 856)

  • 400 AD: St. John Chrysostom in his introduction to his homilies on Philemon teaches that it is most fitting for slaves to remain in servitude; he is afraid that opponents of Christianity might say that its introduction would be revolutionary if slaves could be taken away from masters, with violent consequences. (Migne Patr. Gr., 62, 703-4)

  • 426 AD: St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, Chapter 15:

    "... for it is understood, of course, that the condition of slavery is justly imposed on the sinner."

    St. Augustine teaches that the institution of slavery is derived from God and is beneficial to slaves and masters."

  • 600 AD: Pope St. Gregory I accepts that all men are equal by nature but that a hidden dispensation of providence has arranged a hierarchy of merit and rulership, in that the differences between classes of men have arisen as a result of sin and are ordained by divine justice. (Expositio in librum B. Job, L.XXI, c.15, MPL 76, 203-4)

  • 636 AD: St. Isidore of Seville summarizes this explanation of the justice of the institution of slavery under divine providence. Those whom God perceived where not fit for freedom. He more mercifully inflicted with slavery. A slave's capacity for doing wrong must needs be restrained by his master's power. To be submissive as a slave is better than to be proud as a free man. (Sententiae, L.III, c.47, Migne Patr. Lat. 83, 717)

  • 655 AD: The Ninth Council of Toledo decreed that the penalty of enslavement was to be imposed, not on the priests who offended against clerical celibacy but on their offspring who would remain permanently in slavery to the Church. (Canon 10; Mansi 11, 29; C.J.C. Decret. Grat. II, C.XV, Q. VIII, c.3)

  • 1089 AD: Pope Urban II, Synod of Melfi, enforced clerical celibacy by granting to secular princes the power to reduce the wives of clerics to slavery. (Canon 12; Mansi 20, 724; C.J.C. Decret. Grat. I, D.XXXD, c.10)

  • 1179 AD: The third General Council of the Lateran imposed enslavement as a penalty for any Christian who was captured while providing the Saracens with materials for repairing their galleys or even piloting them for financial gain. (Canon 24. CJ.C. Decret. Greg. IX, L.V, t.VI, c.6.)

  • 1226 AD: The legitimacy of slavery is incorporated in the "Corpus Iuris Canonici", promulgated by Pope Gregory IX which remained the official Canon Law of the Church until 1913. Canon lawyers worked out four just titles for holding slaves: slaves captured in war, persons condemned to slavery for a crime; persons selling themselves into slavery, including a father selling his child; children of a mother who is a slave.

  • 1224-1274 AD: St.Thomas Aquinas defends slavery as instituted by God in punishment for sin, and justified as being part of the ‘right of nations’ and natural law. Children of a slave mother are rightly slaves even though they have not committed personal sin.

  • 1418 AD: Pope Martin V authorizes a crusade against Africa in 1418 and this coupled with a later bull (1441) sanctioned the Portuguese trade in African slaves

  • 1435 AD: Pope Eugene IV condemns the indiscriminate enslavement of natives in the Canary Islands, but does not condemn slavery as such.

  • 1454 AD: Through the bull Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V authorizes the king of Portugal to enslave all the Saracen and pagan peoples his armies may conquer.

  • 1493 AD: Pope Alexander VI authorizes the King of Spain to enslave non-Christians of the Americas who are at war with Christian powers. (Bulls Eximiae Devotionis and Inter Caetera both dated May 3, 1493)

  • 1537 AD: Pope Paul III’s bull “Sublimus Dei” condemns the indiscriminate enslavement of Indians in South America but did not and did not condemn the transatlantic slave trade.

  • 1548 AD: Pope Paul III confirms the right of clergy and laity to own slaves.

  • 1639 AD: Pope Urban VIII denounces the indiscriminate enslavement of Indians in South America, without denying the four ‘just titles’ for owning slaves.

  • 1741 AD: Pope Benedict XIV condemns the indiscriminate enslavement of natives in Brazil, but does not denounce slavery as such, nor the importation of slaves from Africa.

  • 1839 AD: Pope Gregory XVI condemns the international Negro slave trade, but does not question slavery as such, nor the domestic slave trade.

  • 1866 AD: The Holy Office in an instruction signed by Pope Pius IX declares: 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".

An Infallible Catholic "Moral" Doctrine Starts To Change

  • 1888 AD: Pope Leo III condemns slavery in more general terms, and supports the anti-slavery movement.

  • 1918 AD: The new Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope Benedictus XV condemns ‘selling any person as a slave’, but tere is no condemnation of ‘owning’ slaves, however.

An Infallible Catholic "Moral" Doctrine Is Amended

  • 1965 AD: The Second Vatican Council defends basic human rights and denounces all violations of human integrity, including slavery (Gaudium et Spes, no 27, 29, 67).

“One of the important factors which undoubtedly delayed the final official correction of this common teaching until 1965 was the overriding influence of the principle of continuity of doctrine. Popes, Bishops, canonists and moralists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could not easily accept that a moral doctrine which had been commonly taught for over 1,400 years could possibly be mistaken.” - Father John F. Maxwell, "Slavery and the Catholic Church" (1975)

"Wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it. Right is right even if no one is doing it." - St. Augustine


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