RC Church and slavery

THE EDITOR: I enjoyed the articles by Reginald Dumas (August 2) and Theodore Lewis (July 26). However, I would like to enter the fray in order to clarify some points based on what they wrote.

First, I would like to encourage both authors not to generalise about Christianity. There are some very marked differences among the various Christian churches and communities, as an honest investigation would have revealed. They have also followed very different trajectories. So, therefore, to lump together the different experiences of those churches is dishonest and a disservice to the efforts of many Christian men and women who sought to eradicate slavery. Generalisation is lazy academic work and may also reveal the biases of the authors, and perhaps the stereotypes that they subscribe to.

Second, depending on how you look at it, slavery was prohibited from the beginning in Christianity. Christ commanded his followers to “love one another as I have loved you.” A love which would exclude subjecting anyone to slavery. This teaching has actually put early Christians at odds with Roman authorities. All Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. As such, treating another human being as property cannot be justified.

Christ died for all men and for our salvation, as stated in the Creed that Catholics pray every Sunday at Holy Mass: all people, whether they know it or not and whether they were baptised or not. And so enslaving anyone, whether they be Christian or not, could never be justified.

Another point of view was that of St Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic saint and philosopher. He argued in the 13th century that all rational creatures are entitled to justice. Hence there is no natural basis for subjecting our fellow man to slavery.

As social historian Rodney Stark once said, “At the fall of Rome there was slavery everywhere in Europe; by the time of the Renaissance it was long gone.” It was eradicated in the Middle Ages in Europe due to the influence of Catholic Christianity on society.

Finally, there was much work done by several Catholic popes to eradicate slavery in the “New World.” There were several papal bulls (declarations) demanding that the rights of the indigenous and other people be respected, threatening excommunication for failure to comply.

The church also promoted slave codes to improve the conditions of those subject to slavery with the purpose of eradicating it eventually. Many of the civil authorities, Catholic only in name, refused to follow the pope’s wishes and in some cases impeded the spread of the pope’s message.

There were also many Catholic organisations and individuals that defended the rights of all mankind as well. The Jesuits protected the native South Americans in Paraguay from the colonists and planters who wanted to subject them to slavery. One famous individual who rallied against slavery was Fray Bartolome de las Casas, a Catholic bishop who lived in the 16th century.

It is true that some Catholics owned slaves including members of the clergy, but it has never been the overall policy of the Catholic Church to support or encourage slave-owning. The actions of individuals cannot be taken as representative of the entire church and its leadership. It would be like judging all Trinis based on the actions or positions held by the worst of us. It would be untrue, unfair and disingenuous.




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