Popes, Bishops, Slavery – and Us

The old saying is that: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In other words, we can and should learn the lessons of history. But experiencing current events can also help cast and unexpected light on things that might have puzzled us about the past.

Consider, for example, the history of the papal condemnations of racial slavery, starting with Pope Eugene IV’s 1435 bull Sicut Dudum. Then there was Pope Paul III’s 1537 bull Sublimis Deus, in which he condemned slavery as “stirred up by allies of the enemy of the human race,” i.e. Satan. And finally Pope Gregory XVI’s condemnation of slavery in 1839, In Supremo, in which he wrote: “Certainly many Roman Pontiffs of glorious memory, Our Predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their office, to blame this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those who did such things and a shame to the Christian name.”

He mentions explicitly documents by Clement I, Pius II, Paul II, Benedict XIV, Urban VIII, and Pius VII and finishes with this decisive condemnation:

Therefore, desiring to remove such a great shame from all Christian peoples. . .and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors, We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks or other such peoples. Nor are they to lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not humans but rather mere animals, having been brought into slavery in no matter what way, are, without any distinction and contrary to the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and sometimes given over to the hardest labor.

After which, he included this warning:

We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade 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 these Apostolic Letters.

So, one wonders:  Why did slavery not stop among Southern slave owners who were Catholic?  How could the papal condemnations be so constant and yet the results so empty?

One answer involves the reactions of certain American bishops and members of religious orders.

The Jesuits, for example, owned slaves and sold them to a Southern slave owner in 1838 to pay off the debts of Georgetown University.  (The name of the priest who brokered that deal was on a building at Holy Cross College until 2020.)

Bishop John England of Charleston wrote detailed letters to John Forsythe, Secretary of State under President Martin Van Buren, explaining that he and most American bishops interpreted In Supremo to be condemning slave-trading, not slavery itself.


The prevalent attitude among the bishops, says author Joel Panzer, seems to have been this: Although “many aspects of slavery were evil.” Yet “to change the law would be, practically speaking, a great evil.” (For a good summary, see Joel Panzer’s The Popes and Slavery.)  Clerics like Bishop England did everything they could to disassociate Catholics from the abolitionists, whom they considered “fanatics.”

Pope Gregory’s bull condemning slavery was discussed by the bishops at the Council of Baltimore in 1840.  Bishop England’s interpretation of Gregory’s bull held sway, and he informed Secretary of State Forsythe that:

[his fellow bishops] all regarded the letter as treating of the “slave-trade,” and not as touching “domestic slavery.” I believe, sir, we may consider this to be pretty conclusive evidence as to the light in which that document is viewed by the Roman Catholic Church.

One wonders what the bishops who interpreted the document this way thought was going on in the slave markets across the South?  Was this not “slave-trade”?  How did they not recognize they were obscuring the Church’s clear condemnation of slavery with silly semantic distinctions and ignoring the obvious horrors going on before their eyes?

Why this hair-splitting?  Here is one reason, according to Bishop England: “if this document condemned our domestic slavery as an unlawful and consequently immoral practice, the bishops could not have accepted it without being bound to refuse the sacraments to all who were slave holders unless they manumitted their slaves.”

What an unthinkable suggestion!  Bishops having to tell people engaged in a morally evil act that they are engaged in a morally evil act.  I mean, people depended on having access to slaves. Telling them to stop engaging in a moral evil would be so. . .unpopular.  What about the sensus fidelium?

I have long wondered about this period of history.  How could bishops so fool themselves into thinking they were being faithful to their office, to the long teaching of the popes, and to their moral duties before God?  How do Catholics in good conscience, knowing that an action has been condemned by their Church as a grave moral evil, continue to traffic in it?  How does that happen?

So too, for example, how could Catholic soldiers hear the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” month after month, read the pope’s condemnations of Nazism in Mit Brennender Sorge, go to Mass every Sunday, say a rosary regularly, and then return to work with the rest of the guards at Auschwitz?  None of it makes sense.

Until you see the convoluted argument some bishops make about why it would be unthinkable to “refuse the sacrament” to political leaders who have done everything in their power to support the murder of millions of unborn children.

And then you realize, Oh, that’s how it happened with slavery. Now I understand.

Now, granted, our bishops likely wouldn’t see themselves this way – as unfaithful bad guys. John England obviously didn’t see himself that way either – then.  He undoubtedly sees the truth now.


*Image: Pope Pius VII by Jacques-Louis David, 1805 [Louvre, Paris]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.