Slavery, II (And the Church)

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Slavery is here understood to signify a social and economic institution in which one human being is the legal property of another, or, as the condition of such a human being who is thus become a res non persona, a human chattel without rights or privileges.

For the understanding of the Church's attitude to slavery and for balanced judgment on the morality of slavery, two things must be kept in mind: the Church's attitude toward social questions in general, and the fact that slavery has existed under different forms.

The Church was born into a world in which slavery was universally accepted as a social and economic institution pertaining to the very structure of society, just as today the system of remunerated employment is taken for granted. As in modern society no one would be likely to contemplate seriously the abolition of the existing system, so neither did it occur to Christians of the early Church to advocate the abolition of slavery. The Church did, however, from the beginning, urgently insist on the mutual rights and duties existing between masters and slaves, just as in our times she emphasizes the mutual rights and duties of employers and employees. God became man and founded His Church, not in order to usher in a new social, economic, or political order, but rather to change the hearts of men according to the prophecy of Ezekiel: "I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart, so that they will live according to my statutes, and observe and carry out my ordinances" (Ez 11.1920). The Church took men and society as she found them and did her utmost to transform them. Thus St. Paul wrote to the Galatians: "For all you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free-man; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3.2728; see also 1 Cor 12.13; Eph 5.9; Col 3.2224; 1 Pt 2.28). An instructive concrete case of Paul's conception of things, and of the Church's constant attitude ever since toward the master-slave relationship, and later to the employer-employee relationship, is afforded by Paul's one-page letter to Philemon.

Different Forms. The term "slavery" did not always have the odious connotation that it has today. The history of slavery shows that two quite distinct forms of it have existed side by side, depending for their distinction less upon juridical institution than upon the virtue of the owners. In the form known as symbiotic slavery, master and slave worked together for their mutual good as human beings. In this form there was, on the part of the slave, fidelity, devotedness, and willing service, all in keeping with true human dignity; and, on the part of the master, kindness, respect, and even true charity, while between master and slave there often existed real friendship. The slave was part of the household and was treated as such from the moment he came into the service of his master until he died. The second historical form of slavery has been called parasitic, and in this form the master or owner exploited the labor of the slave for his own private advantage and pleasure. In this form there was inhumanity, brutality, and vice in both masters and slaves. Slavery in this form was obviously diametrically opposed to the spirit of Christianity and, as such, was always condemned by the Christian Church.

The first form of slavery the Church never opposed directly, but sought rather to transform it from within. The idea of one human being belonging to another as a piece of property was always repugnant to the Christian concept of human dignity. By changing the minds of men, masters and slaves, and legislators, the Church contributed efficaciously, although indirectly, to the total dis-appearance of slavery in the strict sense in all Christian lands before the 13th century.

It can be said that some men are naturally disposed, not indeed to be slaves, that is, to be the property or chattels of other men, but to serve, that is, to work under direction for their own good and for the common good of all. Moreover, in the Christian view of things, work and service are noble activities fully in keeping with true human and Christian dignity. Christ Himself came on earth to do the will of His Father (Jn 4.34; 6.8; Heb 10.7,9) and to be obedient unto the death of the cross (Phil 2.8) out of love for His Eternal Father and out of love for mankind (see St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae 3a, 46.2). St. Thomas maintained that a life of free service in this sense would have been part of human life in the state of original justice before the fall (ST 1a, 96.3); but in no wise would a life of penal servitude (ibid., ad 1 and art. 4), which was regarded by him and by many of the Fathers of the Church as a consequence of sin (see St. Augustine, Civ.19.15). St. Augustine makes the same point with regard to work: from being a glad and even effortless sharing in God's creative activity, it becomes as a result of sin a painful toil and labor (Gen. ad litt. 8.8). St. Thomas's teaching that between master and slave strict justice could not exist (see ST 2a2ae, 57.4, and passim) has been frequently grossly misinterpreted through being understood out of its true historical and doctrinal context. Historically, slavery in the strict sense no longer existed in Christian lands in the time of St. Thomas. Doctrinally, St. Thomas was trying to explain that the virtue governing the master-servant relationship is not mere justice but something greater, for the simple reason that between master and servant there are mutual rights and duties that last as long as the relationship remains. By insisting precisely on these mutual rights and obligations, the Church was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery in the strict sense, transforming it gradually into a state of noble service on the part of the inferior and of conscientious care on the part of the superior or master. She insisted over and over again on the inalienable right of man to freedom, to guide his own life, to marry, to enter religion, and to take Orders. She insisted that servants should be given free time to attend to their own lives and families, and forbade, for instance, at the Council of Auxerre in 578 all unnecessary work on Sundays (c.16, J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 9.913). On the other hand, she condemned most severely those who, under one pretext or another, incited the servants to revolt against their masters (see c.3 of the Council of Gangres in the middle of the 4th century, Mansi 2.1102). Instances of such legislation could be given without number.

The Slave Trade. The great geographical discoveries by Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries brought in their train the recrudescence of slavery so that the problem of the morality of slavery and enslavement again became acute. After a brief period of hesitation and uncertainty, caused by inaccurate information on conditions in Africa and the two Americas, and by a desire to avoid greater evils, the Church unreservedly condemned colonial slavery, and every type of slave trade, as inhuman and immoral. The slave trade as such was not something new. It had been practiced long before Christian times and the Church, from the beginning, regarded it as immoral. Numerous documents attest to the fact. The following are easily accessible. In 873, John VIII wrote to the rulers of Sardinia exhorting them and ordering them to restore freedom to slaves bought from the Greeks (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 668). In 1537, Paul III excommunicated those who enslaved the Native Americans and confiscated their property (Denzinger 1495). In 1838, Gregory XVI condemned all forms of colonial slavery and the slave trade, calling it inhumanum illud commercium (Denzinger 2745-46). In a letter to the bishops of Brazil (May 5, 1888), Leo XIII recalled the Church's unceasing efforts in the course of centuries to get rid of colonial slavery and the slave trade and expressed his satisfaction that Brazil had at last abolished it (Acta Leonis XIII, 8, 169192). From the 15th century Catholic missionaries, theologians, and statesmen never ceased to strive for the abolition of ignominious traffic in human beings. During the French Revolution, at the instigation of a Catholic priest, the Abbé H. Grégoire, the National Assembly in 1794 decreed the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in all French colonies. In 1890, Cardinal lavigerie founded the antislave league of France for combatting of slavery and the slave trade on an international basis. In a radio message to the workers of Spain, March 11, 1951, Pius XII stated succinctly the Church's constant attitude to slavery in all its forms. "The Church," he said, "never preached social revolution, but everywhere and at all times, from the letter of Paul to Philemon up to the great social teachings of the popes in the 19th and 20th centuries, she did her utmost to see that consideration was taken more of man himself than of economic and technical advantages so that all men might have the possibility of living a life worthy of a Christian and of a human being" (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1951, 214). Today the Church still spares no effort to save men from the crypto-slavery of the modern industrial world.

See Also: las casas, bartolomÉ de.

Bibliography: h. a. wallon, Histoire de l'esclavage dans l'antiquité, 3 v. (2d ed. Paris 1879). j. hÖffner, Christentum und Menschenwürde (Trier 1947). m. lengellÉ, L'Esclavage (Paris 1955). a. katz, Christentum und Sklaverei (Vienna 1926). l. hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Philadelphia 1949); Aristotle and the American Indians (London 1959).

[c. williams]

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Slavery, II (And the Church)

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