17. Catholic Morality

The New Testament admits slavery

Paul and the authors of the Gospels, never intended to abolish slavery.

It is clear from the New Testament passages that in nascent Christianity the ownership of slaves was admitted without any particular problem.

1 Corinthians 7:20

“Let each one remain in the condition he was in when he was called. Were you called as a slave? Do not worry; but even if you can become free, rather profit from your condition!”

Galatians 4:30,31

“What, however, does the Scripture say? Send away the slave girl and her son, for the son of the slave girl shall have no inheritance with the son of the free woman. 31 So, brothers, we are not the children of a slave, but of a free woman.”

Philemon 1:10,11

“I pray you therefore for my son, whom I begat in chains, for Onesimus, the one who was once useless to you, but is now useful to you and to me.”

Colossians 3:22

“You, servants, be meek in all things with your earthly masters; not serving only when they see you, as is done to please men, but with a simple heart and in the fear of the Lord.”

Colossians 4:1

“You, masters, give to your servants what is just and equitable, knowing that you also have a master in heaven.”

1 Timothy 6:1

“Those who are under the yoke of slavery, treat their masters with all respect, lest God’s name and doctrine be blasphemed. Those then who have believing masters, let them not disrespect them because they are brothers, but serve them even better, precisely because those who receive their services are believers and beloved. This you must teach and recommend.”

Titus 2:9

“Exhort the slaves to be submissive in everything to their masters; let them please them and not contradict them; let them not steal, but show absolute faithfulness, to do honor in everything to the doctrine of God our savior.”

Ephesians 6:5,7

“Slaves, obey your masters according to the flesh with fear and trembling, with simplicity of spirit, as to Christ.”

Matthew 24:50,51:

“the master of that servant will come in the day he does not expect, in the hour he does not know, and he will punish him with scourges and assign him the lot of hypocrites. There will be weeping and Colossians 4:1

“You, masters, give to your servants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a master in heaven.”

1 Timothy 6:1

“Those who are under the yoke of slavery, let them treat their masters with all respect, lest the name of God and doctrine be blasphemed. Those then who have believing masters, let them not disrespect them because they are brothers, but serve them even better, precisely because those who receive their services are believers and beloved. This you must teach and recommend.”

Titus 2:9

“Exhort the slaves to be submissive in everything to their masters; let them please them and not contradict them; let them not steal, but show absolute faithfulness, to do honor in everything to the doctrine of God our savior.”

Ephesians 6:5,7

“Slaves, obey your masters according to the flesh with fear and trembling, with simplicity of spirit, as to Christ.”

Matthew 24:50,51:

“the master of that servant will come in the day he does not expect, in the hour he does not know, and he will punish him with scourges and assign him the lot of hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 12:37

“Blessed are those servants whom the master on his return will find still awake; verily, I say unto you, he will gird up his garments, set them at table, and pass by to serve them.”

Luke 12:47

“The servant who, knowing the master’s will, shall not have disposed or acted according to his will, shall receive many beatings; but the one who, not knowing it, shall have done things worthy of beatings, shall receive few.”

Luke 22:27

“For who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Is it not he who is at the table?”

John 15:20

“Remember the word I told you, A servant is not greater than his master.”

John 13:16

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, a servant is not greater than his master, neither is an apostle greater than he that sent him.”

1 Peter 2:18

“Servants, be subject with deep respect to your masters, not only to the good and meek, but also to the hard ones. It is a grace for those who know God to suffer affliction, suffering unjustly.”

1 Peter 2:13

“Servants, be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake: both to the king as ruler and to the governors as well as to his envoys to punish evildoers and reward the good. For this is the will of God.”

Revelation 18:13

“no one buys their goods anymore: …frankincense, wine, oil, flour, wheat, cattle, flocks, horses, chariots, slaves.”

The Church, slavery and the black slave trade

Among the most nefarious consequences of the discovery of America, the first place undoubtedly belongs to the extermination of the indigenous peoples of the New World. Immediately after that must be placed the trade and enslavement of the inhabitants of Black Africa.

The deportation of Africans to the New World began in the early sixteenth century, but did not reach a certain extent until after the middle of the century, as a remedy for the rapid collapse of America’s populations caused by the arrival of the Spanish.

Slave trafficking, which today appears as a vile and iniquitous trade, incompatible with the principles of humanity and human right, was an activity to which the Christian nations and societies of the Old and New World devoted themselves for several centuries without any compunction or shame, considering it on a par with any other commercial enterprise.

It is no coincidence that, among those who shared the profits of the slave trade as entrepreneurs, shipowners, merchants, bankers, shareholders or financiers, we find people from all social and cultural backgrounds: men and women, lay and religious, Catholics, Protestants and Jews,6 rulers, aristocrats and bourgeois, smugglers, privateers and pirates, not excluding certain great standard bearers of the Enlightenment and some famous authors of treatises on natural law and individual liberties.

For a long time, in the face of the prolonged and systematic exploitation of blacks, the churches, nations and societies of Europe and the Americas showed no doctrinal or moral scruples: they accepted and supported both the trade in human beings and the slave system established in the American colonies, believing them to be substantially in conformity with the canons of religion and law and the principles of justice and morality. Putting aside any hint of pointless apologetic polemics to show that Christian societies did not see in the trade and enslavement of Africans nothing illicit or reprehensible is sufficient to recall how in the New World the Catholic Church itself – clergy, bishops, abbots and congregations – systematically made use of black slaves and their descendants for several centuries. The “Society of Jesus,” even in this field, showed special resourcefulness. Among all religious orders, the Jesuits became in fact, the largest slave owners in Spanish America: in 1767 they owned over 17,0008 slaves.

Men of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in general, found in slavery nothing abnormal illegal or unjust; they considered it a completely normal thing, a lawful and legitimate fact, conforming to nature and laws, admitted and justified by the Old and New Testaments, the Church, civil and canon law, theologians, philosophers, jurists and the customs and habits of many peoples.

Past religions have rarely condemned the institution of slavery; more often they have justified and legitimized it. In Judaism, slavery finds its foundation directly in the precepts of the Old Testament. Indeed, the right over slaves is recognized and enshrined in the Commandments of their imaginary god and codified in detail in many norms of the Pentateuch. Islam, having the same imaginary god as the Jews and, of the Christians, in turn, fully justifies slavery as much by the example of the Prophet – owner and trader of slaves – as by the Surahs of the Qur’an, which on several occasions, while recommending benevolence toward slaves, leave no doubt as to the lawfulness of the practice.

The undoubtedly disconcerting fact is that the status of slaves does not seem to have raised perplexity, embarrassment or reservations among the early Christians, for Paul and the anonymous authors of the Gospels. On slavery no one thought to utter a single word of condemnation; morality was optional!

Religion, in effect, in addition to inheriting the Old Testament justification of slavery, prolonged and strengthened it with the authority of the New Testament, not only refraining from censuring the use of slaves but rather explicitly recognizing their lawfulness. The Bible was read to the slaves to make them understand that their slavery was willed by god and Jesus Christ Himself.

In the letters of Peter and Paul, they do not merely keep silent, but rather address the subject of slavery openly and explicitly, they fully accept slavery and approve of it on several occasions judging it to be entirely lawful. Addressing the same recipients to whom they directed impassioned exhortations to charity, love and brotherhood, the two apostles found no inconsistency in approving and legitimizing at the same time the institution of slavery.

See, for example, the words in which Paul returns the runaway slave Onesimus, recently converted to Christ, to his Christian master, or the even clearer words in which he prescribes obedience, respect and total submission to the slaves toward their masters, recommending that each remain in the state in which he is and adding that slaves converted to Christ are to be especially respectful and diligent precisely when serving Christian masters. Peter, for his part, reiterates the same concept, pointing out that Christian slaves must be obedient and respectful even when their masters are unjust and overbearing.

There is ultimately nothing in the New Testament message in favor of freeing slaves or abolishing slavery.

The great Christian thinkers, theologians, saints and church fathers generally found nothing to object to slavery; they saw it as an institution originating in sin or the natural inequality of men, but nevertheless just, legitimate and even useful to society.

This is how Ignatius of Antioch (1st-2nd cent.), St. Ambrose of Milan (4th cent.), Basil the Great (4th cent.), Isidore of Seville (6th-7th cent.) and especially Augustine of Hippo (4th-5th cent.) saw it.

St. Augustine, whose influence on the formation of Christian morality was

decisive, had towards slavery a position of total approval and full justification. We read:

“It must be understood that rightly the servile condition was imposed on sinful man. […] So first cause of slavery is the sin whereby man is subjected to man by a bond of subjection, but this does not happen without the judgment of God, in whom there is no injustice and he knows how to distribute different punishments to the faults of those who commit them.”

Thus Augustine celebrated the magisterium of the Church:

“Teach the servants to be devoted to their masters not so much because of the necessity of their condition as for the pleasure of duty.”

To the Christian slave he then addressed with these words:

“As long as you are alive, as long as you live the present life, Christ does not want to make you proud. You happened to become a Christian while you continue to have a man master. Well, you did not become a Christian because you refused to serve.”

And quoting Paul’s words on the duty of obedience of slaves he clarified:

“Behold, (Christ) did not take servants and make them free, but He took bad servants and made them good. What debt do the rich not owe to Christ for the way He has arranged their house!”

On the practical side, then, the Church itself, which had become an increasingly wealthy and influential institution since Constantine’s edict of 313, offered ample confirmation of this: in addition to owning an enormous real estate and landed estate, it was also the owner of a large body of slaves, whom it employed directly on its own estates.

As evidenced by a dense and centuries-old sequence of laws, decrees, bulls and canons approved by popes, bishops and councils, religious authorities considered slavery to be a completely normal institution of economic, legal and social life and in accordance with divine and human laws.

The Council of Vaison in 442, for example, in the case of the discovery of abandoned children stipulated that if the little ones were not claimed by anyone

they would become in perpetuity the property of those who had found them.

That of Orleans in 511 provided for slavery as a penalty for abductors of women. In the centuries that followed, slavery turns out to be frequently imposed to sanction concubinage by religious men.

In 589, the Third Council of Toledo decreed canonical punishment for priests and deacons who harbored suspicious women in their homes; as for the women themselves, it was provided that the bishop would put them up for sale and give the proceeds to the poor. Similarly, a provincial synod held in Seville in 590 instructs civil judges to offer for sale women found in the homes of religious.

Similar provisions are repeated in the Fourth Council of Toledo (633): the bishop inflicts temporary penance on incontinent priests and puts their women up for sale. Often the canons, rather than the licentious priests, harshly punished their female companions and even the innocent fruits of the guilty connubi, going so far as to create an unprecedented category of slaves by ecclesiastical law.

The Ninth Council of Toledo (655), with reference to clerics of all ranks, from subdeacon to bishop, decreed that children begotten by members of the clergy, whether with female slaves or free women, would be in perpetuity slaves of the church to which the cleric who procreated them belonged.

To this kind of sanction, attesting to a convinced acceptance of the institution of slavery, the church made customary recourse even in the second millennium.

The German Council of Goslar in 1019 had decreed the enslavement of married priests and their children. A few years later, at the Council of Pavia in 1022, Benedict VIII, seeking to curb the concubinage of the clergy and especially the impoverishment of ecclesiastical property that ensued, threatened the deposition of dissolute clergy and condemned their offspring to perpetual slavery: all sons and daughters of any cleric, of every order and rank, begotten by servants or free women, by brides or concubines, would remain in perpetual slavery to the Church. A quarter century later, on the inspiration of Leo IX, the Roman Council of 1049 prescribed that women of the city caught in the company of clerics should be reduced to servitude in the Lateran palaces.

In 1089, still grappling with the same problem, the III Council of Melfi, convened by Urban II, declared that if a subdeacon did not intend to separate from his wife, the prince was authorized to take her as a slave. In England, a synod called in London by Anselm of Canterbury in 1108 stipulated that priests’ wives would become the property of the bishop.

Paul III, rightly celebrated for having defended the freedom of the American Indians with a bull of 1537, is the pope who had authorized, in that very year, the opening of a slave market in Lisbon and who, in his own initiative of November 9, 1548, had granted the inhabitants of Rome, both lay and ecclesiastical, the faculty to own, buy and sell slaves and female slaves, even of the Christian religion. It is well known, moreover, that the Papal State normally employed slaves, especially Islamic slaves, on its galleys, and that for the management of the fleet it would continue to buy them until the end of the 18th century.

In short, it can be said in general that throughout the centuries the Church has not failed to express words of compassion for slaves, lamenting their

miserable lot, recommending their good treatment, hoping for their liberation and not infrequently providing for their liberation itself; it has undoubtedly

contributed in no small measure to mitigating the phenomenon of slavery; however, it maintained at the same time toward the slave institution a theoretical and practical attitude of substantial legitimacy, acceptance and tolerance, refraining, until the 19th century, from declaring it unjust, iniquitous or contrary to human laws.

The holy inquisition

It was the bull “Ad extirpanda”: issued in 1252 by Pope Innocent V that marked the beginning of the carnage. The reference text for this infamous persecution, which affected the entire Christian world and raged until the 19th century (the last one was held in Mexico in 1850), was the biblical Deuteronomy (17:12-13), which explicitly requires Jews to kill anyone, even family members, who had converted to idolatry to worship a god other than Yahweh. Only Deuteronomy, in addition to the killing of the infidel, also orders the destruction of his property. Which the Church was careful not to implement, decreeing, instead, that all property owned by a convicted heretic was to be confiscated by it to be divided among the local authorities and the victim’s accusers. With this, it caused the army of delators to grow disproportionately.

At first all those who were accused, or merely suspected, of heresy, even on the basis of anonymous and fabricated accusations, ended up at the stake. But when Innocent VIII in 1484 endorsed, with a Papal Bull, the delusional superstition that the devil at night united carnally with women, witch hunts exploded throughout Europe. From then on, until 1782, when Anna Goeldi, the last woman to be sentenced to death for witchcraft, was beheaded in Glarus, Switzerland, Europe was littered with continuous bonfires that burned a multitude of innocent women, of all ages and even little girls.

These victims were forced to confess their carnal union with the devil by means of atrocious torture. The luckiest were those who managed to choke themselves in prison to end their torture. It was a collective delirium, a monstrosity due to the fact that the Church had endorsed the grotesque demonic psychosis that the world was invaded by evil spirits, who joined with virgins to procreate monsters, that is, individuals with malformations, spread disease, pollute the waters and so on. Those who refused to admit witchcraft, relegating it to silly belief, ended up at the stake as heretics.

Believing and propagating such monstrosities were not only the uncultured populace but the greatest doctors of the Church, such as John Chrysostom, Augustine, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, etc., and all the popes. Even today the Church has a special body of priests, called exorcists, who are in charge of casting out evil spirits. With the rise of psychiatric treatment and psychoanalysis, however, evil spirits are now in sharp decline and, as science progresses, their rapid extinction is assumed.

The execution of heretics took place on feast days and in the city’s most important square. It was regarded by the Church as an exhibition of its unlimited power, so all the people were obliged to attend it, and those who offered wood for the burning were granted plenary indulgence. On the way to the place of execution, the condemned man, decked out in the cap of madmen, was mocked and insulted. Special grandstands were erected to enjoy, for a fee, the best view. The people attended with great joy, mocking the suffering of the victims. The ancient Romans amused themselves by flocking to the cruel games of the circus, the Christians, more modestly, by witnessing the roasting of heretics and witches.

How many were burned? A massacre. If we could consult the secret archives of the Vatican we would find there a multitude of skeletons. Voltaire calculated that the number of Christians killed for reasons of faith was about 10 million.