Reckoning with the church’s record on slavery: Our readers respond
In the March issue of America, Christopher J. Kellerman, S.J., explored the Catholic Church’s history with slavery. For much of its history, he wrote, the church “embraced slavery in theory and practice, repeatedly authorized the trade in enslaved Africans, and allowed its priests, religious and laity to keep people as enslaved chattel.” Pope Leo XIII changed the church’s teaching on slavery with his encyclicals “In Plurimis” in 1888 and “Catholicae Ecclesiae” in 1890. The article elicited numerous responses.
Our Catholic history worldwide is replete with the sins of slavery and racism. The first steps in uncovering institutionalized sin are solid research and exposition like this article. Then education. Then public confession and repudiation by each of us as church members because we are the church. First such article on the subject in a Catholic publication that I have ever seen. Thank you.
This is the simple truth about the evils of slavery. It must be acknowledged in order for the sin of racism to be eradicated. A few years ago, I participated in the Ignatian solidarity retreat on racism. We were given different articles to read. One article described the conditions the kidnapped endured on the slave ships. They were crowded into the ship’s hull and forced to sit between the legs of the person behind him or her for weeks. They sat in their own waste. Those who died were thrown overboard. Where was the recognition of their dignity and right to life?
The intellectual dishonesty manifested in claiming that Catholic teaching has never changed is certainly another obstacle. Intellectual dishonesty is still dishonesty.
No doubt the poor example set by rank-and-file Catholics such as myself is the greatest stumbling block to folks who might otherwise enter Christ’s church. But the intellectual dishonesty manifested in claiming that Catholic teaching has never changed is certainly another obstacle. Intellectual dishonesty is still dishonesty.
There just is no one “thing” called “slavery” that is capable of being out-and-out condemned before the emergence of labor markets following the onset of the Industrial Revolution. As to the church, the record is crystal clear: Slaves are fully Christian and should be treated in accordance with the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. Any other conduct is sinful and has always been so. Picking out the African slave trade as “typical” of slavery as an institution through history is problematic.
I’m neither a theologian nor historian. This article and the comments lead me to conclude that until 1888, the hierarchy of the church condemned the slave trade. But except in a few instances such as the situation of Canary Island slaves, the church did not condemn slavery per se. Chalk it up, I guess, to the fact that for too long a bunch of old white men, who were in the thrall of the European colonialist monarchies and guided by the knowledge gleaned from old writings attempting to explain things, decided to keep the status quo rather than rocking the boat. Thanks and kudos to Pope Leo XIII. Now if we could just get to the point that individuals may enter the priesthood regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or marital status, and come clean about church history, perhaps we won’t need to be so defensive about things. (Disclosure: I am an old white man.)
It seems unlikely, to me, that the average American Catholic will be emotionally prepared to confront the authentic record. It’s as if they believe the “culture of death” more or less suddenly appeared as a result of some kind of industrially facilitated cheapening of life. And the next thing anyone knew, we were producing [millions of abortions]. As if the millions of lives that have been lost to a lust for treasure and territory, sugar cane and cotton, didn’t count.
I laud the author for addressing this issue, but trained historians have been researching this topic for a while now. The fact that the “average Catholic” isn’t aware of the history isn’t particularly surprising: most Catholics don’t know very much about the church’s history.