Did You Know - How we change

Fourth in a series by John Houk

From divine plan to intrinsic evil

What possible human activity could change so radically in the minds of Christians that it became a sin at all times and in all places after being understood for centuries as part of God’s plan and part of the natural order? A human activity that fits this description is the cultural practice of one person owning another person as property, that is the practice of slavery.

Most of us are aware that slavery existed in ancient times, including biblical times, and we are aware that it existed here until the Civil War. What is sometimes not so well known is that slavery was practiced in the Christian world through all of those intervening years. Slavery did not become black until Christian Europeans began to explore the coast of Africa in the 15th century. During these years from Biblical times to our Civil War there were numerous Church pronouncements which accepted slavery as a cultural norm and part of the divine plan for human relationships. Here are a few examples:

Council of Cangra, 340 “If anyone on the pretext of religion, teaches another man’s slave to despise his master, and to withdraw from his service, and not serve his master with good will and respect let him be anathema” (damned). This council statement was incorporated into canon law and cited for the next fourteen hundred years.

Nicholas V, 1452 “We grant to you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, countries, principalities, and other property ... and to reduce these persons to slavery.” This decree was confirmed by three additional popes as the exploitation of Africa and America proceeded during the following century.

Holy Office, 1866 “Slavery itself is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law ...” This was a attempt to draw a distinction between the slave trade which was being condemned and slavery itself. Note the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863.

Second Vatican Council, 1965 “Whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as ... slavery, prostitution, and the selling of women and children ... all these things and others like them are infamous ...”

The Church saw slavery as a feature of the natural law because it was “practiced in all cultures at all times”. Theologians made much of fact that Sacred Scripture (especially St. Paul), tradition and the early Church Fathers through a succession of popes and Councils formed an unbroken line that supported slavery. Popes owned slaves. Christian missionaries owned slaves. Their eyes were closed to what we now see as an intrinsic evil. Even though there were scattered voices of disapproval, it took all those centuries for us to shift from acceptance to condemnation.

The history of slavery in the Christian world stands as a monument to the profound resistance experienced when changing strongly held cultural norms, and it stands as a monument to the fact that Christians can and will eventually get it right. No Christian will ever again be able to believe that it is God’s will to own another person. For a detailed and thoughtful account of slavery within Christianity read “A Church That Can and Cannot Change” by John T. Noonan, Jr. This series will deal next with the role of women.