At the Last Supper, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit, “to lead you into all truth.” The Church does not understand this as meaning new public revelations. Public revelation was closed when the last Apostle died and the NT was completed. Now there will be no more of it until He returns (Vatican II, DV 4).
But the promise does mean that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church into an ever deeper penetration into the original deposit of revelation. So it was that in the first centuries there was no mention of an Immaculate Conception, and in the 12th century St. Bernard, though noted for his Marian devotion, could even openly deny it, seemly sparking the medieval fashion of rejecting it, to which even St. Thomas Aquinas succumbed.
So as to slavery we ask: Is it morally wrong. Yes, unless it is a punishment for crime. Then it is no worse, perhaps even milder, than life in prison. The slave can work in better surroundings, have more comforts, unless of course he was a slave in the ancient mines or agricultural capitalism.
But it took the Church some time to understand this, just as it did for other things. So we read St. Paul telling even the slaves of Christians to obey their masters who are Christians. Why did he not just tell the masters it is wrong to have slaves? And Paul even sent back a runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master, Philemon, asking Philemon to treat him as a brother. But Paul said he would have liked to keep Onesimus with him.
So we do not know if Paul knew slavery is wrong. Paul did not write any false doctrine, he merely came close. So we see there is a divine pattern of what we might call Brinkmanship, that is, God has made two commitments, to give free will, and to protect the Church. At times the two go in opposite directions. Then He walks a tight line, as it were, and gives to each what is due, no more, no less. So in the early centuries some official texts seem to suppose the writer had in mind St. Augustine’s horrible massa damnata theory. But yet the writers never put down on paper an approval of it. Again, Pius IX (And Gregory XVI ) are fairly likely to have had in mind more strenuous thoughts on religious liberty than they set down on paper. What they did write down is all true; part of what was in their minds, not set down, may have been untrue.
As to Paul’s practice, we should remember that the whole economy of the Mediterranean was built on slavery. Not even the all-powerful Roman Emperor could have dislodged it if he had wanted to do so. The Church was still struggling to survive. Surely it could not challenge slavery then. Further, the living conditions of slaves, except for those in the mines and agricultural capitalism as we said, were not bad. Many were house slaves. Their comfort was such that even when freed, it was not unusual for a slave to make a deal with the former master: I would like to keep on working for you, if you give me security. The reason was that in that economy, a free laborer had a hard time competing with real slave labor. He had no security at all. So the kind of deal we pictured was not unusual, not unreasonable. Further, St. Paul had strong in his mind the contrast between time and eternity: the things of this life are worth little compared to eternity. So in 1 Cor 7:18-24 he is developing the theme: No one needs to change the outward conditions of life when he becomes Christian. The second case he gives is this: “Were you called [into the Church] as a slave? Let it not concern you. But even if you are able to get free, rather use it.” Use what? In context it seems to mean use the chance for humility by staying as a slave.
As early as 873 A. D. (DS 668) Pope John VIII ( to the princes of Sardinia) taught: “There is one thing about which we should give you a paternal admonition, and unless you emend, you incur a great sin, and for this reason, you will not increase gain, as you hope, but guilt. . . . many in your area, being taken captive by pagans, are sold and are bought by your people and held under the yoke of slavery. It is evident that it is religious duty and holy, as becomes Christians, that when your people have bought them from the Greeks themselves, for the love of Christ they set them free, and receive gain not from men, but from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Hence we exhort you and in fatherly love command that when you redeem some captives from them, for the salvation of your soul, you let them go free.”
Further, in May 1537 (DS 1495) Pope Paul III wrote to the Archbishop of Toledo: “It has come to our ears. . . that Charles [V] the [Holy] Roman Emperor. . . to repress those who, eager for gain have an inhuman attitude to the human race, has prohibited by public edict that anyone should presume to reduce to slavery the Western or Southern Indians. . . . we give orders that. . . to all and each one of any dignity whatsoever. . . . you give strict orders under penalty of automatic excommunication . . . that they must not in any way presume to reduce the Indians we mentioned into slavery . . . .
Also, Pope Gregory XVI in a Bull of Dec. 3, 1839, similarly prohibited slavery. The note in DS 2745-46 says that the Bull mentioned previous documents, from Paul III (as above) and Urban VIII and Benedict XIV.
Against this background, we report that it is claimed that in 1454 Pope Nicholas V gave permission to Alfonso V of Portugal to enslave Saracens, and other “enemies of Christ.”
First, we have yet to see any documentation for this claim. Even if it be so, it as not a doctrinal teaching, but a practical action. Such an action could indeed imply a teaching in the mind of the one who acted, but it did not express any teaching. So we need to recall what was said above about divine Brinkmanship. Volume III, of Warren Carroll’s church history chronicles so many serious abuses of Popes in the middle ages. And we all know that Alexander VI had illegitimate children, and even officiated at marriage for them and even appointed an illegitimate son, Caesar, as a Cardinal! None of these abuses amounts to a teaching, but only to a very regrettable action.
Further we note that the alleged document allows slavery for Saracens. We need to remember also what was said above, that slavery is a bit less a penalty than life in a prison. And it may be earned by grave sin. Now the Saracens had been murdering all sorts of persons. Their religion was literally spread by the sword. Their sacred book, the Koran, says (cited from Bernard Palmer, Understanding the Islamic Explosion, Horizon House, 1980, pp. 36-37): “When ye encounter unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them, and bind them in bonds. . . .” They also believed that to fight in such a “Holy War” ensures immediate salvation, going to a sex paradise. Islamic people held Spain and Portugal for centuries, and got control of the area at first precisely by killing the “infidels”.
So since — if indeed the claim is true — Pope Nicholas V granted such an approval, it is evident he must have thought something substantially changed the case. For there was the much earlier prohibition of slavery by Pope John VIII in 873, in which he called it a grave sin. And Pope Paul III not long after 1454 (in 1537) ordered under automatic excommunication that slavery stop.
Most, Fr. William G. “Slavery.” Original source unknown.