To people who are not interested in the above topics, or in the history of the Catholic Church: This is a long post, and you may want to skip it.
Andrew Sullivan recently wrote two items about the Catholic church’s historical record on slavery on his site. He suggests (in a post that seems to be unlinkable, but is on the page he has up now) that the Vatican weighed in on the pro-slavery side of the American debate even after the Civil War. He quotes an 1866 statement by the Vatican: “Slavery itself. . . is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law. . . The purchaser [of the slave] should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue, or Catholic faith of the slave.” In the follow-up post, he sums up: “This is not to say that the Church always condoned slavery. Several popes condemned it outright, some eloquently; and the Church has much to be proud of in its record on this. But the hierarchs simply never declared slavery to be illicit under natural law. So homosexual relationships are and were morally worse than slavery for the Church. Having a gay relationship is still, under Catholic doctrine, more profoundly evil than owning a slave.”
Sullivan wrote that he was shocked by that 1866 statement. I was shocked, too. This was not what I was given to understand about Church history. So I asked a scholar who has studied the subject whether Sullivan’s account was correct. He replied that Sullivan had fallen victim to some misunderstandings.
His email follows:
Have church officials, including popes, been wrong on issues, including moral issues, including big moral issues? Yes. If the current pontiff is right about capital punishment, for example, many of his predecessors have been wrong. (Of course, neither he nor they have proposed his or their teaching as an exercise of the charism of infallibility.) If Vatican II is right about religious liberty, then the positions asserted by some popes in the past about some aspects (actually the differences we are talking about here are narrower than most commentators notice) of religious liberty were wrong. And then there is the treatment of heretics. The current pope thinks that it is wrong to execute mass murderers; some previous popes have held that it is right to execute people for preaching Protestantism.
What about slavery? The document referred to by Mr. Sullivan is Instructio Number 1293: Found in Collectanea, Vol. 1, pp. 715-720. It is an “Instructio” of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office on some disputed questions, including questions of “servitude.” Does “servitude” mean “slavery”? Here we get into a thicket of possible misunderstandings. We can, however, sort some things out without much difficulty. The Instructio itself, right at the point at which it declares “servitude itself [now let's add what Mr. Sullivan omits in the ellipsis], considered in itself and all alone (per se et absolute), is by no means repugnant to the natural and divine law,” acknowledges that “the Roman Pontiffs have left nothing untried by which servitude be everywhere abolished among the nations” [Mr. Sullivan didn't tell you about that, did he?], and also boasts that “it is especially due to them [i.e., the popes], that already for many ages no slaves are held among very many Christian peoples.” [Mr. Sullivan didn't mention that either. Of course, later he will concede that several popes condemned slavery and that the Church has much to be proud of in its record, but all this will come after his readers have been led to believe that the Vatican sided with the pro-slavery side of the American debate.]
It turns out, as Joel Panzer documents in his 1996 book The Popes and Slavery, that the popes had been condemning the slave trade and slavery of the sort that was at issue in the American debate for centuries. (That’s right: centuries.) Racial slavery was singled out for special condemnation as being incompatible with Christian anthropology. Of course, where such slavery was practiced, the Vatican insisted on the humane treatment of slaves, and especially respect for their family integrity and moral and religious welfare, but it did not approve the practice. Here’s where I think Mr. Sullivan really goes off the rails. He noticed the date of the Instructio (1866), and assumed that the subject of the statement he quotes (translating servitus as slavery) is American racial slavery. It wasn’t. The reason that the Holy Office is wrestling with the question is that it is focused on the possible legitimacy of three types of servitude that are not at the heart of the American debate: (1) penal servitude; (2) indentured servitude; and (3) the servitude of prisoners captured in just wars. That’s why we have this business (right there in the material Sullivan quotes, but evidently doesn’t pay much attention to) about the need to examine whether the “slave” (servitus) “has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty.”
Of course, one problem for the popes in thinking through the morality of slavery (you have the same thing with polygamy, by the way, but not homosexual conduct) is that the Bible seems to accept (and perhaps even condone) it in some places. (“Slaves, obey your masters.”) So it was not obvious that every type of servitus was contrary to divine law. Still, as Panzer shows, the Vatican’s witness against the enslavement of the Indians, Africans, and other peoples was longstanding and consistent. Mr. Sullivan might have understood better the meaning of the passage that he now wishes to use to undermine the Church’s witness on homosexual conduct and relationships had he read it in light of the teaching of Gregory XVI: In Supremo, December 3, 1839 (found in Coleccion de Bulas, pp. 114-116): “We consider it to belong to our pastoral solicitude to avert the faithful from the inhuman trade in Negroes and all other groups of humans.” [In this clear enough for Mr. Sullivan?] The Pope goes on: “Therefore, in the course of time, when the darkness of pagan superstition was more fully dissipated and the customs of the uneducated people had been mitigated due to Faith operating by charity, it at last came about that, for several centuries now, there have been no slaves in the greater number of Christian peoples. But, We still say it with sorrow, there were to be found subsequently among the faithful some who, shamefully blinded by the desire for sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries did not hesitate to reduce to slavery Indians, Blacks, and other unfortunate peoples, or else, by instituting or expanding the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, aided the crimes of others. Certainly many Roman pontiffs, of glorious memory, Our predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their office, to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous to the spiritual welfare of those who did such things and a shame to the Christian name.”
So, which side had the support, and which the opposition, of the Vatican in the American debate over slavery in which, as Mr. Sullivan says, “the Vatican weighed in”? It is not the abolitionists who are being accused by the Pope of being “shamefully blinded by the desire for sordid gain” and of bringing “shame to the Christian name.” It is not the abandonment of slavery that is associated by the Pope with “the darkness of Pagan superstition.”
Evidently the passage from the 1866 Instructio struck Mr. Sullivan as a useful tool to beat up the Vatican after it issued its statement on homosexual unions, so he ran with it. All he tells us about the depth of his inquiry into the matter is that the passage “seems to check out” and that he looked up “slavery” in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
In light of what I’ve already said, I think you can see that the following claim by Sullivan (his punchline, really) is a massive non sequitur:
“But the hierarchs simply never declared slavery to be illicit under natural law. So homosexual relationships are and were morally worse than slavery for the Church. Having a gay relationship is still, under Catholic doctrine, more profoundly evil than owning a slave. That helps shed light on how deeply the hierarchy feels about this. If they really consider a gay relationship more evil than owning a slave, no wonder they are so adamant about preventing it from happening.”
Catholic teaching leaves no doubt that willingly participating in a system of racial chattel slavery by owning or trading in slaves contains injustices so grave as to render it objectively far worse, from the moral vantage point, than committing acts of consensual fornication or sodomy. (Which is not to deny that fornication and sodomy, like slavery, murder, and rape, but also like theft, calumny, and cheating in business, are the matter of mortal sins.)