Slavery

Another seismic shift in Catholic moral teaching and practice concerns slavery, or the state of servitude in which human beings become (or remain) the property of others, available to be bought and sold, deprived of many basic human rights, and often treated with vicious cruelty by their

217 For a cross-confessional study of (mainly) sixteenth-century Protestant, Anabaptist, and Catholic martyrs, see B. S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

owners.218 The Mosaic Law, unfortunately, tolerated slavery, albeit in a mitigated form (Exod. 21: 1—11; Lev. 25: 44—55). In the ancient Mediterranean world slaves formed a large, integral, and seemingly necessary part of the social system. Aristotle had defended slavery as being for the good of both masters and slaves. But under the Roman Empire the latter had little legal protection. Juvenal (d. ¿.140) described a Roman matron who wanted a slave crucified and overrode her husband's objections with the notorious response: 'hoc volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas' (this is my will and my command. If you are looking for a reason, it is simply that I want it) (Satires., 6. 223). By the time of Juvenal the ease with which slaves could be crucified had long since encouraged the gallows humour of that subculture and their vulgar taunt of 'crux' (cross).

Their Jewish heritage, still less the Graeco-Roman society, did nothing to encourage the first Christians to challenge the institution of slavery, but they certainly moderated its worst features. St Paul, for instance, while never condemning the system of slavery as such, declared slaves to be equal to others in the Christian community (Gal. 3: 26—9), and encouraged a loving spirit between masters and slaves—something strikingly exemplified in his letter to Philemon. This letter was written to be delivered by Onesimus, a slave who had run away, made his way to Paul, and become a Christian, and was now returning to his master. Paul expected Onesimus to be received back by Philemon with forgiveness and to be accepted into the local church community as an equal member. Some NT letters contained household rules, including codes of conduct for slaves and masters. A Christian perspective and motivation meant that the former should serve obediently and cheerfully, and the latter should exercise their authority with understanding and loving-kindness: 'Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven' (Col. 4: 1; see Eph. 6: 5-9).219

Christian faith continued to modify dramatically the way slaves were treated. At least a few, such as St Felicity who died with St Perpetua in 203, suffered martyrdom together with their owners. Some male slaves became priests, bishops, or monks. In the fourth century the Emperor

218 For summaries and preliminary bibliographies see 'Slavery', Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church , 1508—9, and H. S. Pyper, 'Slavery', Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, 674-5.

219 On household codes, see H. Moxnes (ed.), ConstructingEarly Christian Families (London/New York: Routledge, 1997); C. Osiek and D. L. Balch, Families in the New Testament World: Households and Household Churches (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1997).

Constantine and in the sixth century Justinian I (see Ch. 1) greatly mitigated conditions imposed on slaves. Across Christian Europe slavery was gradually transformed into the much milder system of serfdom, which itself began to disappear from the fourteenth century. Sadly the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 initiated a new outbreak of slave-traffic and slave-owning. Spaniards, Portuguese, British, and others made slaves of Indians and then brought thousands of slaves from Africa. The resistance of Dominicans such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Jesuit missionaries in Bolivia, Paraguay, and elsewhere, along with condemnations of slavery by Paul III in 1537 (DH 1495) and successive popes, failed to persuade many Catholics into emancipating their slaves and renouncing the lucrative trade. Most regrettably St Augustine, a few other Fathers of the church, and St Thomas Aquinas had theological reasons for tolerating and justifying slavery as a state of life. Their authority made it easier for leading Catholic authors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, e.g. Francisco de Vitoria (d. 1546) and Domingo de Soto (d. 1560), to consider slavery as not incompatible with the natural law and justifiable under certain circumstances.220 Many Christians continued to argue that God had instituted servitude; the cursed children of Ham (traditionally identified as some North African people) were condemned to serve their brothers (Gen. 9: 25—6). The American Civil War (1861—5), which was fought over the issues of slavery and states' rights, brought the issue firmly to the notice of Pope Pius IX. Bishops in the northern states wanted slavery abolished, while some bishops in the southern states continued to support the institution. Pius IX wanted the American bishops to avoid all discussion of the issue; he himself opposed any immediate abolition of slavery and favoured a gradual evolution to emancipation.221 In the USA a constitutional amendment of December 1865 prohibited slavery forever. But the following year in Rome the Holy Office published a statement claiming that slavery and slave-trading, under proper conditions, were not against 'the natural and divine law'.222 As we saw in Ch. 2, the large Catholic country of Brazil maintained the institution of slavery until 1888.

220 See S. F. Brett, Slavery and the Catholic Tradition (New York: Peter Lang, 1994).

221 See G. Martina, Pio IX (1851-1866) (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1986), 483-95.

222 The date for the statement is 20 June 1866; see Collectanea S.C. de Propaganda Fide , i (Rome, 1907), n. 1239, 719; cited byJ. F. Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church: The History of Catholic Teaching Concerning the Moral Legitimacy of the Institution of Slavery (Chichester: Barry Rose, 1975), 78-9.

In the name of the essential equality of all human beings, the Second Vatican Council denounced 'any kind of slavery, whether social or political' (Gaudium et Spes, 29). In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul II called slavery 'intrinsically evil' (no. 80).223 When reflecting on the issue, one can only ask: why did it take Catholic teachers and writers so long to condemn slavery unequivocally? Why did we have to wait many centuries for the moral conscience of Catholics everywhere to reject slavery as an utterly repugnant system? When supporting torture, religious coercion, and slavery, many Catholics conformed to existing social patterns and drew their moral standards at least in part from civil society. In the case of lending money for a just interest, we see an opposite phenomenon: official Catholic teaching down to the nineteenth century stubbornly opposing what many morally sensitive persons had long accepted and continuing to reject as sinful usury any loans of money at interest. Here that official teaching diverged from what the majority of Catholics judged to be morally acceptable in the standards of society. Whatever else they do, these sobering examples from history illustrate the scrupulous care and openness to the Holy Spirit that should guide those trying to discern right from wrong, good from evil. The condemnation of slavery also illustrates what the Second Vatican Council observed about the way in which the Catholic Church has profited from secular developments and what it called 'the voices of our times' (Gaudium et Spes, 44). When they finally and firmly rejected slavery, Catholics and other Christians were influenced by Baron de Montesquieu (1689—1755), a French political philosopher, and some other Enlightenment thinkers who championed individual liberty and other inalienable human rights.

0 0

Post a comment