New volume explores church's shameful past

By  Afua Cooper, Catholic Register Special
  • May 9, 2008

{mosimage}Catholics and Slavery: A Compromising History by John Perry (Novalis, soft cover, 204 pages, $24.95).

We live in a world in which the human rights of a large majority are trampled daily. This world did not emerge from nothing, and Christians are part of this history.

Through much of its history the Catholic Church condoned, promoted, supported and engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Jesuit John Perry’s account of this in Catholics and Slavery is comprehensive and unflinching. He believes the church was part of the problem in its complicity in slavery, but has remade itself as part of the solution.

Perry teaches ethics at St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. He asks what was and is the role of the church in these practices. He concludes that, though the church “permitted and justified slavery” in ancient times, it “changed over time to become its implacable foe today.”

Early Christians of the Mediterranean world lived in a slave-based society and accommodated themselves to it. Even if they were against it, Christians were numerically and politically too weak to fight against it. Accommodation of slavery is exemplified in Paul’s letter to Philemon which urged Philemon to accept the return of his slave Onesimus. St. Paul and other early Christian intellectuals did not condemn slavery but saw it as a necessary evil. They believed that though a Christian slave and slave owner enjoyed different conditions in the physical realm, they were spiritually equal.

 Leaders of the early church used slavery as a major metaphor for Christian life. The Christian was to be reincarnated as a slave of Jesus Christ through submission and obedience. By the time Constantine converted to Christianity the church had all but condoned slavery and its regularization in Roman law. By the fifth century slavery was an integral part of life in Christendom.

{amazon id='9782896460069' align='right'}Perry follows up with an exploration of the church’s position on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He begins by taking on the “curse of Ham” thesis based on Genesis 9: 24-27. No other piece of Scripture has been used as often as this in Catholic (and other denominations’) justification for black slavery. Basically, this Scripture passage narrates a story in which Noah cursed his grandson Canaan, condemning him to perpetual slavery for apparently gazing at his father’s nakedness. As Atlantic slaving began, European Christians transferred this curse to Ham, Noah’s son, whom they believed to be father of black Africans.

Europeans used this dubious “curse of Ham” to justify and legitimize the bondage of Africans. They felt justified because they had biblical authority. They argued slavery would be good for blacks because as slaves they would be taught Christianity. Slavery was a means to an end.

The Catholic Church supported capture and enslavement of blacks with a series of 15th- and 16th-century papal documents, particularly letters of the crusading Pope Nicholas V which gave Catholic powers — Spain and Portugal — authority to conquer, invade and enslave the peoples of West Africa and the Americas.

For Perry, even though the slave trade is long past, it is troubling these papal commands remain on the books. The church’s current position against slavery in all its forms will not be complete until these briefs are retracted.

Perry looks at the work of individual Catholic priests in the New World who took positions against black bondage, focussing on four 17th-century clerics — St. Peter Claver who laboured in Colombia; the Portuguese Antonio Vieira who did missionary work in Brazil; and two Capuchins, the French Epiphanius de Moirans and the Spaniard Francisco José de Jaca, who took on antislavery work in Venezuela and Colombia respectively.

Vieira was no abolitionist but a missionary whose objective was to convert enslaved Brazilians to Christianity — to prepare them for heaven. He did not condemn the institution and urged slaves to accept their lot in life. He informed startled slaves that if they accepted their condition they would become better Christians than their owners and enjoy happiness in the hereafter. He urged slave owners to treat their slaves humanely. The Jesuit St. Peter Claver preached to and baptized slaves and performed charity work among them. He never publicly criticized the institution. It would take two crusading Capuchins, de Moirans and de Jaca, to do so.

These clerics not only condemned the slave trade and slavery. They argued African captives were unjustly enslaved, should be immediately freed and compensated for the theft of their labour by Europeans. These Franciscans engendered tremendous hostility from the slave owners, the church and the state, were forced to flee to Cuba and eventually were jailed and deported to Spain.

In Europe de Moirans and de Jaca took their case to the Vatican, asking that Catholics not be permitted to engage in the trade in human flesh and seeking reparations for enslaved Africans. Astonishingly, in 1687 the Vatican agreed with the friars and urged Catholic slave traders to “distinguish between blacks who had been justly or unjustly enslaved.” This was a dead letter. The Vatican was not going to take steps to end the slave trade. Catholics as individuals and corporations were making too much profit and it had become the axis upon which world commerce spun. The Catholic Church was too embedded in the system of slavery for its hierarchy to take positive action on behalf of the enslaved.

When Perry turns his lens to the abolitionist movement he notes it was Protestant. The last countries to abolish slavery were Catholic — Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

In the  19th century, there were several papal letters against slavery, but these were also dead letters because “slavery was deeply rooted in the slave economy and previously enjoyed papal tolerance,” writes Perry. 

A strong position on the illegitimacy of slavery did not come about until Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes. The Pastoral Constitution of the Church condemned slavery and listed it as “shameful.” We would wait until 1993 for what Perry calls a “significant doctrinal development” when Pope John Paul II unequivocally described slavery as one of the “worst injuries of all times” in Veritatis Splendor. Finally, 400 years after Nicholas V gave Catholics the right to plunder and enslave another pope said quite the opposite.

Perry discusses the plight of Haitian sugar workers in the Dominican Republic today. He also discusses slavery in Sudan, for sex trade workers in Central America and Italy, child soldiers in Uganda and other parts of Africa and in the traffic in South Indian nuns from Kerala to Italy.

Perry looks for ways the church has redeemed itself. Sometimes he finds little proof, as in the case of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Condemnation of slavery at Vatican II, further articulation of that position by Pope John Paul II and grassroots work of clerics in communities around the world give Perry hope that the Catholic Church has taken a firm and clear position against the evil of slavery.

One topic Perry avoids in Catholics and Slavery is reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans. The Archbishop of Canterbury has agreed to reparations in principle and said his church will address the issue. Perry makes no mention of this burning issue with respect to the Catholic Church.

(Cooper holds a PhD in the history of the African diaspora.)

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