Slavery has existed since almost the very beginning, and it exists still today in various forms. But Americans have become obsessed with the atrocities of the African Slave Trade of Colonial times, and what has followed. And in the midst of this the Catholic Church has often been lambasted for being complicit in this evil institution or at best its efforts to end the slave trade have been completely ignored and left out of the history books. There is a strong parallel here with what happened during the Jewish Holocaust in World War II, which is even more outrageous considering the number of priests and Catholics killed in this camps right along side the Jews, not to mention the extraordinary efforts of Catholics all over Europe to help them, even going all the way up to Venerable Pope Pius XII.
First then we ought to consider the origin of the African Slave Trade, which was an institution created by Islam and permitted by its teachings in the Qur’an. It was introduced into Europe when slaves would be captured in a battle by a European army from an Islamic force. These slaves were then kept as slaves by the Europeans, but initially there was no direct enslavement of Africans by Europeans. This practice first came in direct contact with Catholicism in Catholic Spain which was slowly pushing Islam out of their nation. This occupation had lasted nearly 800 years before finally ending in the 15th century during the reign of the great Queen Isabel the Catholic. When this practice of keeping slaves captured from the Muslims came to her attention she immediately and unequivocally forbade it in her kingdom. Thus the practice died before it could gain ground.
And around that same time the Holy See made a clear pronouncement against the practice of enslaving native peoples encountered by European colonials:
Pope Eugene IV Against the Enslaving of Black Natives from the Canary Islands
January 13, 1435
Eugene, Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God,
To our venerable brothers, peace and apostolic benediction, etcetera.
1. Not long ago, we learned from our brother Ferdinand, bishop at Rubicon and representative of the faithful who are residents of the Canary Islands, and from messengers sent by them to the Apostolic See, and from other trustworthy informers, the following facts: in the said islands—some called Lanzarote—and other nearby islands, the inhabitants, imitating the natural law alone, and not having known previously any sect of apostates or heretics, have a short time since been led into the Orthodox Catholic Faith with the aid of God’s mercy. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, it has happened that in some of the said islands, because of a lack of suitable governors and defenders to direct those who live there to a proper observance of the Faith in things spiritual and temporal, and to protect valiantly their property and goods, some Christians (we speak of this with sorrow), with fictitious reasoning and seizing and opportunity, have approached said islands by ship, and with armed forces taken captive and even carried off to lands overseas very many persons of both sexes, taking advantage of their simplicity.
2. Some of these people were already baptized; others were even at times tricked and deceived by the promise of Baptism, having been made a promise of safety that was not kept. They have deprived the natives of the property, or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery, sold them to other persons, and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them, because of which very many of those remaining on said islands, and condemning such slavery, have remained involved in their former errors, having drawn back their intention to receive Baptism, thus offending the majesty of God, putting their souls in danger, and causing no little harm to the Christian religion
3. Therefore, We, to whom it pertains, especially in respect to the aforesaid matters, to rebuke each sinner about his sin, and not wishing to pass by dissimulating, and desiring—as is expected from the pastoral office we hold—as far as possible, to provide salutarily, with a holy and fatherly concern, for the sufferings of the inhabitants, beseech the Lord, and 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.
4. And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free, and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of money. If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself, from which they cannot be absolved, except at the point of death, even by the Holy See, or by any Spanish bishop, or by the aforementioned Ferdinand, unless they have first given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods. We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents of the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism, from which excommunication cannot be absolved except as was stated above.
5. Those who humbly and efficaciously obey these, our exhortations and commands deserve, in addition to our favor, and that of the Apostolic See, and the blessings which follow there from, but are to be possessors of eternal happiness and to be placed at the right hand of God, etcetera
Given at Florence, January 13th, in the Year of Our Lord, 1435
Source: Appendix B of Fr. Joel S. Panzer’s book, “The Popes and Slavery” (Society of St. Paul, 1996) on page 75 from Baronius’ Annales Ecclesiastici, ed. O. Raynaldus (Luca, 1752) vol. 28, pp. 226-227. (Webmaster note: A special thanks to catholicweb.com for this document)
Unfortunately, in the once Catholic nation of England, a century later this practice would become very popular and Protestant England would then engage in the direct enslavement of Africans. Worse still they would use their incredible might across the globe to export the practice everywhere. Thus the African Slave Trade came to North America
The Holy See again spoke out during this century against the enslaving of peoples:
Pope Paul III
On the enslavement and evangelization of Indians
May 29, 1537
To all faithful Christians to whom this writing may come, health in Christ our Lord and the apostolic benediction.
The sublime God so loved the human race that He created man in such wise that he might participate, not only in the good that other creatures enjoy, but endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face; and since man, according to the testimony of the sacred scriptures, has been created to enjoy eternal life and happiness, which none may obtain save through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is necessary that he should possess the nature and faculties enabling him to receive that faith; and that whoever is thus endowed should be capable of receiving that same faith. Nor is it credible that any one should possess so little understanding as to desire the faith and yet be destitute of the most necessary faculty to enable him to receive it. Hence Christ, who is the Truth itself, that has never failed and can never fail, said to the preachers of the faith whom He chose for that office ‘Go ye and teach all nations.’ He said all, without exception, for all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith.
The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.
We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
By virtue of Our apostolic authority We define and declare by these present letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, which shall thus command the same obedience as the originals, that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.
Sadly, the practice was not abated as the protestant world ignored the Holy See.
Then came the establishment of the United States of America, which was established with slavery built in to it’s foundations. Most of the founding Fathers in fact were themselves slaveholders. Sadly, the Catholics living in the United States, so persecuted from the very beginning (11 of the 13 colonies had laws against Catholicism), did not speak out against the evil maybe as vociferously as they should have.
But in December of 1839 the Holy Father very clearly proclaimed the Catholic teaching on the matter to the Catholics living in the New World:
(Apostolic Letter condemning the slave trade, written by Pope Gregory XVI and read during the 4th Provincial Council of Baltimore, December 3, 1839.)
Placed at the summit of the Apostolic power and, although lacking in merits, holding the place of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who, being made Man through utmost Charity, deigned to die for the Redemption of the World, We have judged that it belonged to Our pastoral solicitude to exert Ourselves to turn away the Faithful from the inhuman slave trade in Negroes and all other men. Assuredly, since there was spread abroad, first of all amongst the Christians, the light of the Gospel, these miserable people, who in such great numbers, and chiefly through the effects of wars, fell into very cruel slavery, experienced an alleviation of their lot. Inspired in fact by the Divine Spirit, the Apostles, it is true, exhorted the slaves themselves to obey their masters, according to the flesh, as though obeying Christ, and sincerely to accomplish the Will of God; but they ordered the masters to act well towards slaves, to give them what was just and equitable, and to abstain from menaces, knowing that the common Master both of themselves and of the slaves is in Heaven, and that with Him there is no distinction of persons.
But as the law of the Gospel universally and earnestly enjoined a sincere charity towards all, and considering that Our Lord Jesus Christ had declared that He considered as done or refused to Himself everything kind and merciful done or refused to the small and needy, it naturally follows, not only that Christians should regard as their brothers their slaves and, above all, their Christian slaves, but that they should be more inclined to set free those who merited it; which it was the custom to do chiefly upon the occasion of the Easter Feast as Gregory of Nyssa tells us. There were not lacking Christians, who, moved by an ardent charity ‘cast themselves into bondage in order to redeem others,’ many instances of which our predecessor, Clement I, of very holy memory, declares to have come to his knowledge. In the process of time, the fog of pagan superstition being more completely dissipated and the manners of barbarous people having been softened, thanks to Faith operating by Charity, it at last comes about that, since several centuries, there are no more slaves in the greater number of Christian nations. But – We say with profound sorrow – there were to be found afterwards among the Faithful men who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries, did not hesitate to reduce to slavery Indians, negroes and other wretched peoples, or else, by instituting or developing the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, to favour their unworthy practice. Certainly many Roman Pontiffs of glorious memory, Our Predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their charge, to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those engaged in the traffic and a shame to the Christian name; they foresaw that as a result of this, the infidel peoples would be more and more strengthened in their hatred of the true Religion.
It is at these practices that are aimed the Letter Apostolic of Paul III, given on May 29, 1537, under the seal of the Fisherman, and addressed to the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, and afterwards another Letter, more detailed, addressed by Urban VIII on April 22, 1639 to the Collector Jurium of the Apostolic Chamber of Portugal. In the latter are severely and particularly condemned those who should dare ‘to reduce to slavery the Indians of the Eastern and Southern Indies,’ to sell them, buy them, exchange them or give them, separate them from their wives and children, despoil them of their goods and properties, conduct or transport them into other regions, or deprive them of liberty in any way whatsoever, retain them in servitude, or lend counsel, succour, favour and co-operation to those so acting, under no matter what pretext or excuse, or who proclaim and teach that this way of acting is allowable and co-operate in any manner whatever in the practices indicated.
Benedict XIV confirmed and renewed the penalties of the Popes above mentioned in a new Apostolic Letter addressed on December 20, 1741, to the Bishops of Brazil and some other regions, in which he stimulated, to the same end, the solicitude of the Governors themselves. Another of Our Predecessors, anterior to Benedict XIV, Pius II, as during his life the power of the Portuguese was extending itself over New Guinea, sent on October 7, 1462, to a Bishop who was leaving for that country, a Letter in which he not only gives the Bishop himself the means of exercising there the sacred ministry with more fruit, but on the same occasion, addresses grave warnings with regard to Christians who should reduce neophytes to slavery.
In our time Pius VII, moved by the same religious and charitable spirit as his Predecessors, intervened zealously with those in possession of power to secure that the slave trade should at least cease amongst the Christians. The penalties imposed and the care given by Our Predecessors contributed in no small measure, with the help of God, to protect the Indians and the other people mentioned against the cruelty of the invaders or the cupidity of Christian merchants, without however carrying success to such a point that the Holy See could rejoice over the complete success of its efforts in this direction; for the slave trade, although it has diminished in more than one district, is still practiced by numerous Christians. This is why, desiring to remove such a shame from all the Christian nations, having fully reflected over the whole question and having taken the advice of many of Our Venerable Brothers the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors, We warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favour to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labour. Further, in the hope of gain, propositions of purchase being made to the first owners of the Blacks, dissensions and almost perpetual conflicts are aroused in these regions.
We reprove, then, by virtue of Our Apostolic Authority, all the practices abovementioned as absolutely unworthy of the Christian name. By the same Authority We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in this Apostolic Letter.
Thus the Catholic Church’s stand of the evils of slavery is most apparent and goes back to the root of the problem in its earliest days. Thus we can speak most clearly then about the fact that the War of Southern Independence (or that of Northern Aggression) or more popularly known as the “Civil War” (despite the fact it was between to different countries) was not about the preservation of Slavery.
President Jefferson Davis of the Confederates States of America was always a friend to the Catholic Church and to Catholics. He actually went to a Catholics School as a child and wanted to become Catholic, but sadly never formally converted. Is is no wonder then that the glorious Pope Blessed Pius IX wrote to him on several occasions with support and encouragement during his terrible trial. He even fashioned a crown of thorns with his own hands and sent it to President Davis as a symbol of his suffering along with Christ for the people of his fledgling nation…
RICHMOND, September 23, 1863.
VERY VENERABLE SOVEREIGN PONTIFF
The letters which you have written to the clergy of New Orleans and New York have been communicated to me, and I have read with emotion the deep grief therein expressed for the ruin and devastation caused by the war which is now being waged by the United States against the States and people which have selected me as their President, and your orders to your clergy to exhort the people to peace and charity. I am deeply sensible of the Christian charity which has impelled you to this reiterated appeal to the clergy. It is for this reason that I feel it my duty to express personally, and in the name of the Confederate States, our gratitude for such sentiments of Christian good feeling and love, and to assure Your Holiness that the people, threatened even on their own hearths with the most cruel oppression and terrible carnage, is desirous now, as it has always been, to see the end of this impious war; that we have ever addressed prayers to Heaven for that issue which Your Holiness now desires; that we desire none of our enemy’s possessions, but that we fight merely to resist the devastation of our country and the shedding of our best blood, and to force them to let us live in peace under the protection of our own institutions, and under our laws, which not only insure to every one the enjoyment of his temporal rights, but also the free exercise of his religion. I pray Your Holiness to accept, on the part of myself and the people of the Confederate States, our sincere thanks for your efforts in favor of peace. May the Lord preserve the days of Your Holiness, and keep you under His divine protection.
And the response of Blessed Pope Pius IX was as follows:
ILLUSTRIOUS AND HONORABLE PRESIDENT,
We have just received with all suitable welcome the persons sent by you to place in our hands your letter, dated 23d of September last. Not slight was the pleasure we experienced when we learned, from those persons and the letter, with what feelings of joy and gratitude you were animated, illustrious and honorable President, as soon as you were informed of our letters to our venerable brother John, Archbishop of New York, and John, Archbishop of New Orleans, dated the 18th of October of last year, and in which we have with all our strength excited and exhorted those venerable brothers that, in their episcopal piety and solicitude, they should endeavor, with the most ardent zeal, and in our name, to bring about the end of the fatal civil war which has broken out in those countries, in order that the American people may obtain peace and concord, and dwell charitably together. It is particularly agreeable to us to see that you, illustrious and honorable President, and your people, are animated with the same desires of peace and tranquility which we have in our letters inculcated upon our venerable brothers. May it please God at the same time to make the other peoples of America and their rulers, reflecting seriously how terrible is civil war, and what calamities it engenders, listen to the inspirations of a calmer spirit, and adopt resolutely the part of peace. As for us, we shall not cease to offer up the most fervent prayers to God Almighty, that He may pour out upon all the people of America the spirit of peace and charity, and that He will stop the great evils which afflict them. We, at the same time, beseech the God of pity to shed abroad upon you the light of His grace, and attach you to us by a perfect friendship.
Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, the 3d of December, 1863, of our Pontificate 18.
(Signed) “.Plus IX.”
The Pope sent the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text from Matthew 11:28 ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ (Come to me all all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.)
Davis later wrote about the consolation he received by the fact that the Pope remembered him. His family, suffering greatly, was blessed with assistance from Catholics, as his wife Varina recalled: “No institution of my own Church offered to teach my children. One day three Sisters of Charity came to see me and brought me five gold dollars, all the money they had. They almost forced me to take the money, but I did not. They then offered to take my children to their school in the neighborhood of Savannah, where the air was cool and they could be comfortably cared for during the summer months.”
When Davis died at 81 in New Orleans, Catholic clergy helped officiate at this funeral.