How slavery fuels my rage against the Church, yet –

The Popes and Slavery


There have been many accusations recently that the Catholic Church blessed and permitted slavery.  In the bull Dum Diversas Nicholas Vth authorized the enslavement of Africans and the seizure of “all non-Christian lands” belonging to Saracens and pagans and the condemnation of their inhabitants to perpetual servitude. Catholic theologians have reacted with vigour to these accusations.  Nicholas was arbitrating against a very different background than that of the horrors of the triangular trade that were to come later.  There had been a long history during the period of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages when slaves had been often treated humanely, had some civil rights, were frequently seen as loved members of families and not infrequently granted eventual freedom.  For St Paul the word did not necessarily have the ominous ring that it does today.  Papal condemnations of slavery have been frequent throughout many centuries. We might quote for example, and Catholic theologians do, Eugene IV in Sicut Dudum issued in 1435:


“They have deprived the natives of their property or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery (<subdiderunt perpetuae servituti>), sold them to other persons and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them…. Therefore We … exhort, through the sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ shed for their sins, one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed men, barons, soldiers, nobles, communities and all others of every kind among the Christian faithful of whatever state, grade or condition, that they themselves desist from the aforementioned deeds, cause those subject to them to desist from them, and restrain them rigorously.


Or  Paul III in the bull Sublimis Deus of 1537


“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 has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians of the West and the South who have come to our notice in these times be reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking the Catholic Faith. And they reduce them to slavery (<Et eos in servitutem redigunt>), treating them with afflictions they would scarcely use with brute animals.”


Or Gregory XVI in the encyclical In Supremis of 1839



“There were to be found subsequently among the faithful some who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries did not hesitate to reduce to slavery (<in servitutem redigere>) Indians, blacks and other unfortunate peoples, or else, by instituting or expanding the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, aided the crime of others. Certainly many Roman Pontiffs of glorious memory, Our Predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their office, to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those who did such things and a shame to the Christian name.”

Yes these documents are impressive, but they only fuel my rage against the Catholic Church.   For despite their pious talk, the popes consistently connived at the slave trade from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.  Over four miilion slaves were transported from Africa to Brazil during these centuries.  Where were the papal fury, the excommunications and the threats of hell fire against the slave owners of Catholic Brazil?  Where the unsleeping anxiety and the disgust?  Compare this with the disquietude Charles Darwin felt when he visited Brazil during the voyage of The Beagle.  It was the one subject over which he nearly came to blows with Captain Fitzroy.The remembrance’ his son wrote ‘of screams or other sounds heard in Brazil, when he was powerless to interfere with what he believed was the torture of a slave, haunted him for years, especially at night.’ Meeting a charming Irishman called Patrick Lennon, and, very taken with him, returning with him to his plantation, he was appalled to see Lennon turning into a hideous monster when dealing with his slaves.  Lennon would take all the slave women and children from their menfolk and sell them at the market in Rio, even a little mulatto he had fathered himself.  ‘Picture to yourself’ wrote Darwin in anguish, ‘the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children – those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own – torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder!’  So Darwin.  Imagine Jesus’s anguish and rage.

Abraham Lincoln who really did try to do something about it

But it didn’t have to be this way. On their reducciones in Paraguay the Jesuits set a shining example of what a Christian colonization of the Americas could have been like.  They established welfare services for poor Indians, built hospitals and schools, established humane laws and protected the Guarani Indians against the slave hunters.  The wonderful fusions of the native music with the European baroque that they created were memorably recalled in the film The Mission.  How different the history of the European entry into South America might have been.  But none of this was to the taste of the Spanish and Portuguese slave owners.  Charles III expelled the Jesuits from lands controlled by Spain in 1767. The kings of Spain and Portugal persuaded the future Pope Clement XIVth to close down the Jesuit missions everywhere, in return for the cardinals that the kings  controlled voting for him in the coming conclave.  Once elected, Clement duly obliged and abolished the Jesuits altogether in 1773.


To the feebleness of the popes we must add hypocrisy.  How all this fuels my rage against the Church.  Yet despite the abject betrayals of the example of the Church’s founder by those who were supposed to propagate his teachings, this religion is so beautiful and to me so personally meaningful I still want to be a Catholic



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