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Church and Slavery, Yesterday and Today

Nuno da Silva Gonçalves, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sat, Nov 4th 2023

Church and Slavery, Yesterday and Today
A look at history shows us that, for many centuries, Christianity accepted slavery as a social and economic reality proper to most societies. Christian thought accepted slavery under certain circumstances, and when the Atlantic slave trade developed, the effort of theologians and jurists was to delimit the occasions involving legitimate loss of freedom. This was the case in the 16th century with thinkers such as Luis de Molina and Tomás de Mercado. As Pope Francis writes, morality and law determined “who was born free and who was born into slavery, as well as the conditions whereby a freeborn person could lose his or her freedom or regain it. In other words, the law itself admitted that some people were able or required to be considered the property of other people, at their free disposition.”[1]

During the period of European expansion and, in particular, with their arrival in the Americas in the late 15th century, the Church defended the freedom of Amerindian peoples. Examples include Pope Paul III with the 1537 bull Sublimis Deus, and pastors and missionaries such as Dominicans Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de Las Casas in Spanish America, and Jesuits Manuel da Nóbrega and António Vieira in Portuguese America. As for the enslavement of Africans, the Church more readily accepted it, limiting its response to demanding respect for the law and morality of the time, insisting on pastoral care and the need for decent living conditions. Among the causes of this acceptance, on a par with the legal and moral arguments, is the observation that slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of Europeans, as well as slaves being trafficked to the Arab world. However, it must be clearly recognized that the arrival of Europeans and the Atlantic trade, which supplied America with labor, multiplied the demand for slaves and, consequently, their supply, arranged at strategic points on the African littoral.

Thus, European demand for cheap labor led to the growth of conflict among African peoples whose leaders were not indifferent to trade with Europeans.[2] In this context, it was not surprising that many Church institutions on several continents resorted to employing slaves for domestic and agricultural work. Nor is it surprising that some more radical voices in favor of freedom remained isolated and unheard. While the issue involved lights and shadows, we can say, in any case, that Christianity, in a long-term perspective, made its own contribution to the progressive recognition of the dignity of every human being, and in this way participated in the slow movement that led, during the 19th century, to the abolition of trafficking and, later, to that of slavery itself.[3]

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when abolitionist ideals were spreading, the motivations were humanist and religious, as well as political and economic. It should be remembered that at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), when the United Kingdom pressured European countries to abolish the slave trade, the Holy See went along with the British position. A few years later, in 1839, the Brief In Supremo, in which Pope Gregory XVI spoke out, without distinction, against all forms of trade in humans, was particularly significant.[4] This deepened a process that, within the Catholic Church, led to a growing awareness of the same dignity shared by all human beings. Nonetheless, in 1866, the Holy Office, in an admittedly countercultural stance, still defended the permissibility of slavery in certain circumstances, stating that “servitude, considered in itself and absolutely, does not clash with natural and divine law.”[5] To hear again a clear papal pronouncement against slavery we have to move to 1888, the year in which Leo XIII addressed the Brazilian bishops with the encyclical In plurimis. In it, after a lengthy summary of the Church’s teachings throughout history, the pope encourages the bishops to collaborate with state authorities in the process of abolishing slavery, condemning it as a “shame,” “plague,” “baleful plague,” and “foul market of humans.”[6]

Mention should be made, with regard to the Catholic Church’s contribution to the fight against slavery, of the efforts of many European missionaries, especially in Africa. Outstanding in this regard was the activity of Cardinal Lavigerie, Archbishop of Algiers, and his campaign for the abolition of slavery in Africa. In any case, that the development of Christian thought opposed to slavery was long and slow can be seen from the fact that it was not until 1888 that slavery was abolished in Brazil, the last major Catholic country to free the slaves still living in its territory, having abolished the trade much earlier, in 1830.[7]

The awareness of the troubled history of slavery continues to be part of many peoples’ memories. It is true that we are not personally responsible for the events of the past that we did not experience. Nevertheless, we are heirs to a history that continues to have an impact on a personal and collective level. Therefore, as happens on the individual level, we are called to accept on the collective level our history, recognizing its lights and shadows. Thus, we realize that the history of a people may include wounds that continue to exist, to the point of causing division and opposition. These wounds should not be hidden; they should be acknowledged, accepted and, as far as possible, healed. Christian thought, not accepting attempts at denial, falsification or manipulation, is present in many of these processes of memory clarification. Such processes may include the invitations to ask for forgiveness and to forgive, as moves that help in reconciliation and healing, while being aware that personal faults are not passed on. Christian thought itself, in the struggle to rebuild memory – that is, the basis of one’s identity – recalls Christ’s clear and demanding words, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

The slavery that exists in our day does not have the characteristics of the historical condition, because it is completely illegal and universally condemned. In common is the fact that both constitute an attack on the human dignity of those who suffer and lead to the loss of the humanity of those who exploit them. In the condemnation of this modern-day slavery, the Catholic Church stands, without equivocation or hesitation, in the forefront, as we see in the pronouncements of the recent popes and, in particular, in the insistence with which Pope Francis takes up this theme.[8] For example, in his message for the 2015 World Day of Peace, titled No Longer Slaves but Brothers and Sisters, he stated, “even though the international community has adopted numerous agreements aimed at ending slavery in all its forms, and has launched various strategies to combat this phenomenon, millions of people today – children, women and men of all ages – are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery.”[9] Condemnation by the magisterium is accompanied by many practical initiatives by local Churches, institutes of consecrated life and Church organizations of various kinds.[10]

Eliminating contemporary slavery, human trafficking and forced labor is a moral demand that requires urgent and articulate responses. In the face of underlying economic interests affecting unimaginably large numbers, a bold and shared commitment is required from international organizations, states, religions and individual citizens, with the defense of human dignity always at the center. In addition to effective laws, vigilance and suppression of such practices, integral human development work is required to combat the roots of a huge tragedy that we cannot ignore.[11] As opposed to historical slavery, we are not exempt from personally sharing responsibility for this current tragedy.


[1]. Francis, Message for the Celebration of the XLVIII World Day of Peace, January 1, 2015, no. 3.

[2]. Cf. J. K. Thornton, L’Africa e gli africani nella formazione del mondo atlantico: 1400-1800, Bologna, il Mulino, 2010.

[3]. Cf. N. da Silva Gonçalves, “Escravatura”, in Dicionário de História Religiosa de Portugal, edited by C. M. Azevedo, vol. II, Lisbon, Círculo de Leitores, 2000, 160-162.

[4]. Cf. R. Reggi – F. Zanini, La Chiesa e gli schiavi. Testimonianze e documenti dalla Bibbia ai nostri giorni, Bologna, EDB, 2016, 219-223.

[5]. Ibid., 224.

[6]. Ibid., 225.

[7]. Cf. J. P. Marques, Escravatura. Perguntas e respostas, Lisbon, Guerra & Paz, 2017, 103. On the slave trade, a useful resource is, especially the maps and databases included on that website.

[8]. Cf. “Giornata schiavitù, il Papa: lavoriamo perché nessuno renda schiavo un altro”, in

[9]. Francis, Message for the Celebration of the XLVIII World Day of Peace, January 1, 2015, no. 3.

[10] See, for example, P. Lah (ed), Talitha Kum 2009-2019. Analysis of the Structure and Activities of the International Network of Consecrated Life against Trafficking in Persons. A research report, Rome, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2019.

[11]. The Report published in 2022 by the World Labor Organization, Walk Free and the World Organization for Migration indicates the figure of 50 million people in slavery during the year 2021: see–en/index.htm/ On the Church and modern-day slavery, see D. Hollenbach, “The Church and Modern Slavery: Responding with strength and humility”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed. November 2022.

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