Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

A Necessary Bondage? When the Church Endorsed Slavery

by T. David Curp


In this article Dr. Curp seeks to examine, but not exonerate, Christianity and the Church on the matter of slavery. He asks why the Church seemingly ignored the “obvious social implications of the gospel” for a thousand years, even approving of slavery during the Middle Ages. The historical context for this approval is the desperation of the papacy to turn back the surge of Muslims who were advancing on Christendom. Portugal and Spain were given papal permission to take slaves in the hope that these crusading countries would have the economic power to prevent Islamic victory. Despite this, the shameful legacy of the Church’s position on slavery will always remain.

Larger Work

Crisis Magazine



Publisher & Date

Morley Publishing Group, Washington, DC, September 2005

An important function of history, as opposed to antiquarianism, is to make the past intelligible to the present. Current questions and values can so distort our study of the past that we enact our own version of the “cadaver synod.” In this infamous trial, held in Rome in the ninth century, Pope Stephen VII exhumed, vested, and placed the corpse of Pope Formosus, his predecessor, on trial for heresy. Finding the defense insufficiently convincing, Pope Stephen's court convicted the corpse, stripped it of its vestments, and threw it into the Tiber.

If we believe that our tradition grants rights and even a voice to the dead, we must not discriminate against people due to the accident of their deaths. Even when our concerns are urgent—perhaps especially then—our exploration of the past must be a real and respectful questioning, neither assuming guilt nor playing favorites.

Few Catholics are so naïve as to insist that all of the Church's sons and daughters throughout history have been pure or conformed to our contemporary understanding of right conduct. As we study the past, we confront not only individual Christians who have sinned but teachers and pastors of the Church—the very guardians of Sacred Tradition—who held views and propagated ideas that we now know are wrong. The entanglement of the people of God with slavery is one particularly clear case.

The Biblical Witness

Slavery's biblical pedigree has made it a peculiarly difficult institution for Christians to resist. In the Old Testament, the most notable statement about slavery occurs when Noah condemns Ham and his descendents to perpetual servitude: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gn 9:25).

Sadly, this verse has been particularly influential in the development of racialized slavery, since Christians and even some Muslims eventually identified Ham's descendents as black Africans. In later laws regulating slavery in the book of Exodus and in Israel's conquest of the Promised Land, the Scriptures describe a society as dependent upon slave labor as any other in the ancient world:

If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, “I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.” If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever (Ex 21:2-6).

While slavery here is “voluntary” to the degree that a male Jewish slave may leave his master, the element of coercion implied in the retention of his family is significant. Slavery is regulated in the Old Testament, but there's no sense therein that God disapproves of the institution per se.

The New Testament, too, is without anything like a formal condemnation. There is, however, more tension between the institution and meaning of slavery and the vision of humanity implicit in the doctrine of the Incarnation. Christianity proposes the radical spiritual equality of every human person, as both slaves of sin and heirs of redemption. To most Greco-Roman thinkers (with a few exceptions among the Stoics), slavery was not simply a socioeconomic condition but a state of absolute spiritual inferiority. Aristotle considered certain men natural slaves, and Roman law offered the chilling definition of a slave as “a talking tool.” Though slaves in the Roman Empire could improve their social condition and become freed men, there was always a taint associated with their former status; the law mandated that they grovel whenever in the presence of their former masters as a sign of their ongoing inferiority. In this context, the proposition that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” was religiously quite radical—even if it took more than a millennium for Christians to recognize its full social dimensions.

While encouraging slaves to love and obey their masters—even abusive masters—the New Testament presents this as an opportunity for imitation of Christ (Col 3:22-25, Eph 6:5-8). Certainly, the most famous instance of apostolic confrontation with slavery occurs in Paul's letter to Philemon. Therein, Paul encourages Philemon to receive back a runaway slave, Onesimus, who has converted to Christianity while working with the apostle. The language of Paul's exhortation to Philemon is personal and urgent and carries with it a burden of guilt that would cheer any nagging mother: Paul dwells at some length on what he has done for Philemon in bringing him the Faith, on Paul's own love for Onesimus, and on the depth of Onesimus' conversion. While Paul never explicitly commands Philemon to free the slave, the implication is there:

Therefore, although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to both you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I should have liked to retain him for myself so that he might serve me on your behalf in my imprisonment for the gospel, but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary (Phlm 1:8-14).

This is both touching and frustrating—according to tradition, Philemon did free Onesimus, and both were eventually recognized as saints by the Church. From our perspective, it seems that Paul missed an opportunity to attack the institution of slavery openly. Given that the Church received Philemon as inspired Scripture, Paul's ambiguity effectively blocked the early Fathers of the Church from denouncing slavery outright. St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on Philemon, considers Paul's sending Onesimus back to his master a sign that slavery should not be abolished. While Paul's silence is understandable—identifying Christianity with slave revolt in the Roman Empire would have been the fast track to corporate suicide—it nevertheless had great consequences in the history of the Church.

And so, we're left with the question: Why were the obvious social implications of the gospel on the matter of slavery so seemingly unfruitful for almost a thousand years, and why would the end of the Middle Ages see an even greater expansion of the institution—in no small part encouraged by Catholic societies and leaders?

A Harsh Reality

It's worth emphasizing here that the Christian teaching of the past was frequently otherworldly: It was first and foremost a religious message concerned with achieving salvation, and the ekklesia as “a gathering of those summoned” had the worship of God as its main purpose. The earliest Christians didn't concern themselves overly with social issues.

Consider Augustine: Theologically, the influential African was deeply aware of both the limitations of human freedom and the futility of worldly power and polities. He observed how deeply wounded human nature was by sin and taught (in terms sharpened by his polemics with the rigidly moralistic Pelagians) that there were limits on most Christians' capacity for moral achievement. Taken together, this put a brake on too-ambitious efforts at social reform, which any program of the abolition of slavery would certainly have entailed. When Augustine reflected upon slavery as an institution, he saw it, like so much else in this life, as both the product of sin and a thing so thoroughly ingrained in social life as to be all but ineradicable.

But while Augustine formulated his theology amid the collapse of the Roman Empire, Thomas Aquinas developed his ideas of a Christian polity and the place of slavery within it at a time when almost all of Europe was self-consciously Christian and the Church had great power.

In 13th-century Europe, while slavery had not entirely disappeared, it was at low ebb. As a result, Thomas's teaching on slavery reflects the exuberance of a medieval Christendom whose clergy and theologians rightly believed that they were in a position to regulate the social conduct of individuals and guide the development of society.

Slavery, for Thomas, was a human amendment to the natural law, meant to benefit some at others' expense. The limitations Thomas proposed sought to protect the personal bodily integrity of the slave, the right of the slave to marry or remain a virgin, and the slave's relationship with his/her spouse. While his views on the rights of slaves have generally been considered naïve, they nevertheless reflect an attempt to synthesize Christianity with the best science of its day (Aristotelian philosophy) and a contemporary social reality in which slavery still retained a stubborn hold in Christian society.

The Muslim Threat

Theology worked hand-in-hand with Christendom's strategic imperatives to expand slavery among Christians at the dawn of the modern era, and even led the papacy to grant religious approval to slave-taking.

In the 15th century, Islam, spearheaded by the Ottoman Turks, expanded throughout the Mediterranean world. Militarily, the Ottomans were the strongest single power in the region—they employed cutting-edge technology, vast material resources, and brilliantly organized armies to wage jihad against Christendom. The soldiers, both ghazis (Muslim holy warriors) and janissaries (slave soldiers, many of whom were recruited in the 16th century by the devshirme , or tithe on Christian children who were then turned into soldiers and instilled with a fanatical devotion to Islam) provided a powerful backbone to the growing empire and confronted Christianity with a set of military, political, and economic dilemmas.

The conquest and sack of Constantinople in 1453 was just one in a string of Ottoman victories that would continue for more than two centuries. They and their vassals landed in Italy, engaged in slave-taking raids from Gibraltar to Moscow, and smashed one Christian state after another. The Ottomans enjoyed a high degree of political and religious unity under the government of the House of Osman, whose leaders styled themselves “the shadow of God on Earth.” Dynastic rivalries and religious disunity in Christendom allowed the House of Osman to build temporary alliances with Christian states and successfully play one power against another. By successfully encircling much of Europe from the East, the Ottomans were in a position to restrict, tax, and regulate almost all of Christendom's limited but important trade with the East—filling the coffers of “God's shadow on earth” and enabling the Ottomans to continue to wage holy war.

This is the context in which occurred the growth of slavery among Christians and the support granted it by the papacy.

Portugal, led by a series of able Crusader kings beginning with Prince Henry the Navigator, recognized the danger of expanding Muslim power. In the face of this superior force, Christians had to find ways to both outflank the strength of their enemies and strike them unexpectedly. By voyaging along the coast of Africa, the Portuguese sought to circumvent (quite literally) the growing Ottoman monopoly on trade with the East and also to find the mythical Christian African king, Prester John, whom they hoped would be an ally against militant Islam.

Throughout their travels the Portuguese engaged in trade—including slave trade. This new source of wealth provided by the exchanges enabled Prince Henry and his successors to fund further explorations and to support broader military efforts to fight Ottoman expansion. (A similar vision of gaining wealth to wage Cruzada against the Ottomans eventually fueled Columbus's search for a short-cut to Asia.)

The papacy endorsed Portuguese—and eventually Spanish—slave-taking out of cruel necessity. Popes Eugenius IV and a later successor, Sixtus IV, both condemned Portuguese raids in the Canary Islands in the mid–15th century in places where Christians already lived. But these condemnations came within the broader context of papal support for a Portuguese crusade in Africa that did include slave-taking.

Eugenius IV and his immediate successor issued a series of bulls, including Illius Qui (1442), Dum Diversus (1452), and Romanus Pontificus (1455), that recognized the rights of the monarchs of Portugal and eventually Spain to engage in a wide-ranging slave trade in the Mediterranean and Africa—first under the guise of crusading, and then as a part of regular commerce. As Pope Nicholas authorized the Portuguese in Romanus Pontificus :

We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso—to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit….

The occasional papal pronouncements against slavery earlier in the 15th century and later in the 16th century sought to regulate particular abuses, but they did not deny Spain and Portugal the right to engage in the trade itself. All of these bulls were issued just prior to and after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople—a calamity so traumatic that, according to Crusade historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, it launched the papacy on a 70-year effort to retake the former capital of eastern Christendom. As Pope Pius II lamented in 1460, these attempts were rarely greeted with enthusiasm:

If we send envoys to ask aid of sovereigns, they are laughed at. If we impose tithes on the clergy, they appeal to a future council. If we issue indulgences and encourage the contribution of money by spiritual gifts, we are accused of avarice. People think that our sole object is to amass gold. No one believes what we say. Like insolvent tradesmen we are without credit.

The Ottomans' advance on Europe, in addition to its general destructiveness, also saw Muslims taking thousands of Christian slaves each year through piracy, conquest, and the devshirme tithe. As a result, the pontiffs of the day were in no position to refuse Portugal and Spain—two of the few great Christian powers enthusiastic about crusading—the opportunity to develop their economic power in whatever way they saw fit.

Far from being an innocent bystander, or merely silently complicit, the papacy fully participated in the expansion of the European slave trade. This was not a product of greed, but of a thoroughly rational and tangible fear of the consequences of not using every available means to defend a rapidly contracting 16th-century Christendom.

Divorced from the context of a Europe under a tightening Ottoman siege, papal engagement with the slave trade would appear to confirm the worst prejudices of secular critics. Placed within its historical environment, however, what we confront is the lay faithful and their shepherds accepting a real evil—slavery—to avoid their own subjugation to militant Islam.

Slavery in Context

For the Christians of the 15th and 16th centuries, slavery was not an abstract issue. Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian Catholics had coped for centuries with Islamic aggression that had resulted in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Christians. Further, condemnations of slavery were not merely pro forma for a Catholic Church that had created two religious orders in the 13th century—the Trinitarians and the Mercederians—for the purpose of redeeming Christian captives. Nevertheless, tragically, slavery was part of the dirty war that Islam and Christianity waged against one another for centuries throughout the Mediterranean. In the 15th century it appeared that Islam, led by the Ottomans, was on the verge of final victory.

But even if the circumstances mitigate some of the guilt of Rome's involvement in slavery, it's a scandal nonetheless. And while the fear—perhaps even the necessity—for Christians to fight this war was real, its sad legacy remains with us.

History demonstrates that our earthly pilgrimage is rarely a straight line to a happier, progressive future; moral advancement is hard-won and easily lost. That the world finds it difficult to see Christ in the Church isn't simply a result of sin's blinders. Too often our own grievous faults and failures have become obstacles themselves. We do no service to Christ or His Church by refusing to acknowledge it.

T. David Curp is an assistant professor of history at Ohio University, where he teaches the contemporary history of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He is currently writing a book on ethnic cleansing in post-war Poland.

This item 6765 digitally provided courtesy of