The thesis of the book is that Catholics were guilty for centuries of having slaves or profiting from the slave trade while the popes taught clearly and frequently the evil of slavery, and even legislated severe ecclesiastical penalties for engaging in it. Slavery was continued, then, in Catholic countries, by disobedience.
Certainly the papal statements presented here are strong. They are dated 1435, 1493, 1497, 1537, 1591, 1639, 1686, 1741,1839, 1866, 1888, and 1890. The author reprints most of them, in Latin and English. But why have they not been seen as a definitive teaching?
Two reasons are considered: one is that a statement of 1537 was revoked in 1538, due to conflict with the Spanish power. Panzer argues, however, that the later popes simply disregarded this revocation and accepted the powerful 1537 statement.
The second reason is that the 1866 statement allowed Catholics in a particular situation in Africa to have slaves under certain conditions. (We must remember that in this situation slavery was intimately connected with every part of the culture.) For example, one question was this: "Whether it is permitted to admit to the sacraments any Christian merchant who normally abhors the buying and selling of slaves for the sake of profit, but, lest he suffer harm to his family affairs, wants to resell some slaves whom once he was forced, by a seller who was a noble, to take as the price of his wages." The response was that there were "just titles" to slavery which were generally accepted, such as if a person had been deprived of his liberty justly, or if a person entered into a slavery agreement willingly. But one could not have slaves, or sell them, if the title, as was no doubt usually the case, was unjust.
Catholics were also forbidden to do anything in connection with such a slave which would lead to a detriment to his life, his morals, or his Catholic faith. Masters also had to instruct their slaves in the Catholic faith, treat them according to Christian charity, and not interfere with their marriage rights and duties.
Panzer readily admits that the argument for possessing slaves by certain just titles (for example, if they had been captured in war) dated back many centuries and was generally accepted, even if it was not right.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book has to do with the attitude of American Catholics to slavery. The author shows that even on the eve of emancipation United States Catholic bishops taught that, though trading in slaves was immoral, having slaves was not. And Panzer shows that this erroneous doctrine was in contradiction with what the popes taught.
He also draws a parallel between the acceptance by Catholics of papal teaching on slavery and their acceptance of papal teaching on contraception in the last thirty years. In each case the popes stated clearly, correctly, and consistently what Catholics should do, and in each case most Catholics refused to do it. And, as bishops went long with disobedience regarding slavery, they have gone along also with disobedience regarding contraception.
Kennedy, Leonard A. "The Popes and Slavery -- book review." Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly (Summer 1997): 23.
Reprinted by permission of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
The Popes and Slavery is published by Alba House, 1996 xii + 125 pages; $7.95 ISBN 0-8189-0764-9.
Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B. lives in Castries, Saint Lucia, West Indies.
Copyright © 1997 Fellowship of Catholic Scholars