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Slavery yesterday and today

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 28, 2023 | In Reviews

When Americans think of slavery they typically have in mind the slavery in the American South, especially in the nineteenth century, which was one of several differences between North and South leading to the American Civil War. I suspect many Europeans also think of slavery in terms of the American experience.

That would be a mistake. Slavery has been a significant feature of life in the world as far back as human records go (with the exception of the first few chapters of the book of Genesis). It has and continues to have many forms: Enslavement of those of one race by those of another race (a practice actually made more likely by Critical Race Theory); enslavement of those of one religion by those of another (here the overwhelming contemporary example is Islamic enslavement of Christians wherever ISIS holds sway and by abduction in Sudan, a practice amply justified by the Koran); enslavement of the conquered by the victorious (whether in ancient Roman times or in relatively recent tribal warfare); enslavement of women by men (and other forms of sexual slavery); the entrapment into slavery through human trafficking, which is widespread even in the West today; and a variety of conditions of servitude, some of which have approached lifelong enslavement, arising from poverty and debt.

Estimates of the number of persons currently enslaved around the world range as high as 25 million. The best estimate for the number of slaves in the United States 163 years ago is 4 million. Despite the constant focus on the history of slavery in America, the United States offers a significant example of a major power which actually eradicated legal slavery under its own steam, at a relatively early date in its history, without being forced to do so by world opinion or the pressure of other nations. But my purpose here is not to exonerate my own country, but to draw attention to two facts: First, slavery of various types is still a very large problem worldwide today; second, the Catholic Church has been in the forefront of opposing slavery, beginning with a universal call to salvation in Christ which eliminated human distinctions between slave and free, and continuing through Catholic action prompted by conciliar and papal statements from at least the sixth century AD onward.

Catholicism and slavery

We are indebted to Paul Kengor for a new and fairly comprehensive book on the subject. Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, director of the Institute for Faith & Freedom, and editor of The American Spectator. His book is The Worst of Indignities: The Catholic Church on Slavery, new this year from Emmaus Road Publishing (an outstanding Catholic publisher not to be confused with the Protestant Emmaus Road Press).

Kengor’s book first covers slavery in history and among all religions before focusing on the documentary history of Roman Catholic opposition to slavery. In the third and fourth parts of his 278-page study, Kengor recounts the lives and significance of saints, blesseds, martyrs and other Catholics throughout history who were once enslaved themselves or who played an important role in service to slaves and the amelioration or eradication of slavery. Next he focuses on three Catholics who were slaves in modern times but who also went on to become holy to the point of being recognized by the Church: Ven. Pierre Toussaint, Ven. Augustus Tolton, and St. Josephine Bakhita. St. Josephine was a slave in Sudan who, after being freed, became a religious sister in Italy, died in 1947 and was canonized in 2000. Finally, Kengor briefly covers slavery in the world today. He then offers a conclusion on “How to be an anti-racist”, since he clearly wants to engage today’s Critical Race Theory before ending the book.

In other words, Kengor puts American slavery in the context of the universal historical problem of slavery, and then indicates the longstanding and consistent Catholic response to slavery both in official Church documents at the highest level and in the lives of the many holy Catholics the Church has recognized who have either endured slavery themselves or devoted considerable energy to ameliorating or ending it for others. Given the author’s background (again, editor of the feisty American Spectator), it comes as no surprise that he is outspoken against the more-or-less deliberately widespread supposition that the Catholic Church has turned a blind eye to slavery. While recognizing the reality that too many Catholics, including leaders in some religious orders, have been complicit in slavery (just as too many Catholics are complicit in abortion today), he insists quite polemically that the Church, speaking officially, has been historically first and firmest in slavery’s condemnation.

Apologetics at work

The Worst of Indignities is a somewhat surprising “study” in that it is perhaps more aptly described as a work of apologetics. The author’s passion about correcting false narratives comes through clearly, and the reader must decide for himself whether this is likely to decrease the influence of the book in any community that goes beyond committed, feisty Catholics. Is the book too likely to be dismissed as “another Catholic rant” (such as I myself might write)? Would a less passionate scholarly treatment have been more broadly influential? Kengor has done all the scholarly work, and with tremendously enriching results. But I do find myself wishing there could be two versions of the text: One for convinced Catholics who want to know more about this subject; and another for everyone else, covering the same material with a different and less combative tone.

Speaking purely for myself, I would have preferred a more extensive examination of slavery among the Jews in the Old Testament. Kengor covers it, but with the caveat that it is not central to his book on the Catholic Church and slavery. Well, yes and no, for the God of the Old Covenant is the God of the New Covenant, and the Old Testament is part of the Divine Revelation which is the basis of the Catholic Church and its Faith. It is useful to note here that there are many types of servitude, not all of which are intrinsically immoral, neither for those who voluntarily engage in them, nor for those who make use of their service. Some uses of the term “slave” or “bond servant” in the Old Testament referred to impoverished Jews who placed themselves voluntarily in service to a wealthier family (which, if the laws were observed, was only for a certain number of years, after which ancestral properties were once again to be made whole).

But I would have been interested in this precisely because any summary of it I might use in the discussion of Kengor’s text would be subject to correction! In any case, Kengor has chosen to treat his subject in the mode of combative Catholic apologetics, and that choice bears marvelous fruit in the litany of holy Catholics he introduces to us, who lived in accordance with what Christ and the Church taught, including the instructions of synods, councils and popes on this important topic of slavery. These are not Catholics whose heirs had to apologize later for their dabbling in slavery when it suited their worldly interests, such as leaders of various religious orders who must periodically lament portions of their past histories. (Such apologies, now so common in the Church, are also a feature of our modern crisis of spirit. I mean the rush to acknowledge currently unpopular sins committed by our forbears while refusing to repent the popular sins we ourselves commit today.)

All slaves, all of the time

In any case, ought we not all to be slaves of God? Perhaps this is the ultimate solution to the scourge of slavery even in our own time. “Whoever would be the first among you must be the slave of all,” said Jesus Christ (Mt 20:27; Mk 10:44), but “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:24). Indeed, “now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom 6:22).

We ought to pray for the release and indeed the salvation of both those who suffer enslavement and those who enslave them. We ought to consider whether working to rectify this gross injustice is something God is calling us to do. But first we must recognize that slavery is a present reality, not simply the stuff of history. And if we are still fixated on the American South as our scapegoat, we have much to learn, not only about the slavery to which others are still subjected against their will, but also about our own comfortable and convenient slavery to sin.

Paul Kengor, The Worst of Indignities: The Catholic Church on Slavery. Emmaus Road: 2023. 278pp. Hardcover: $29.95; eBook: $19.95.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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