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It is not uncommon in our current political and cultural society to hear the assertion that slavery had been an institution supported by Christianity. The issue is that claim is one not founded on a proper understanding of the historical geopolitical climate of ancient times, the middle ages, and Judeo-Christian culture. A claim that rests on nothing more than the generalization that both Judaism and Christianity existed in societies that functioned economically through slavery but did nothing to prevent it until roughly the 18th and 19th century—The Age of Enlightenment.  Naturally, the claim lies in a lousy history of both economics and the history of religion. The first point is simply that it wasn’t until the advent of industrialization and technological advances that Western civilization was willing to fully give up an institution that lasted more than two millennia. Furthermore, as will be discussed within the parameters of the history of religion, in the more than 2000 years of history, there is a failure to recognize the development and changes in the institution of slavery.

The predominant viewpoint is best expressed by Historian John Francis Maxwell who wrote: “Since the sixth century and right up until the 20th century it has been the common Catholic teaching that… slavery is morally legitimate.”[1]

The challenge with most historical reconstructions of history is not, as the relativists claim that we cannot know the past but rather much like our present condition is that humanity is as messy and complex then as we are now, and most likely for the rest of our time here on earth. As examined by Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences at Institute of Religious Studies at Baylor University, in his book Bearing False Witness, the modern historical consensus of the ilk of Christianity is based on Anti-Catholicism. He presents evidence for this generalized thesis of his work by quoting renowned American Historian from the University of Chicago Daniel J. Boorstin, “ Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe. Then we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia…the leaders of orthodox Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge.”[2]

Naturally, this consensus sets up the environment and culture where Catholic, and now Christianity as a whole, is now set upon by the commentary of modern historians that now shapes the prevailing outlook of the faith as a whole.

At this point, It’s important to flesh out what the Bible actually says about the institution of slavery before further examining the history of the Catholic Church’s involvement with it. Catholic Apologist, and new professor of moral theology at Holy Apostles College, Trent Horn argues in his book Hard Sayings that to have any debate on the topic we have to give a proper definition of the term slavery. He writes, “When most people think of slavery they think of kidnapping, imprisonment, and forced labor of Africans that took place in the New World between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, these events aren’t a good definition of slavery because slavery existed before and after this time period (including in the present day), and not all slavery is like what happened in the antebellum or pre-Civil War south. Hector Avalos, an atheist scholar who extremely critical of the Bible and its view of slavery, defines slavery as ‘a socioeconomic system centering on the use of forced laborers, who are viewed as property or as under the control of their superiors for whatever term was determined by their masters or by their society.’”[3]

By using this proposed definition of slavery, Horn explains that there are various degrees of slavery such as chattel slavery, debt slavery, and criminals forced to work. At this point, Horn focuses on the last particular category to illustrate that slavery cannot be outright considered an intrinsic evil. For example, criminals who are forced to work in prison do retain certain basic rights like not being tortured, the right to a lawyer, the right to food, clothing, and medical care, but they have been deprived of their freedom through the laws contracted by the community. Horn develops his explanation on why the Bible cannot universally condemn slavery by writing, “ it might be necessary to the common good to force criminals or prisoners of war to work against their will. If that’s true, then it’s not surprising the Bible does not universally denounce slavery, because not all kinds of slavery are wrong.”[4]

So, let’s get to the point, what does the Bible actually say on the topic slavery? Horn explains that one has to understand the basic economics of the ancient world to understand what type of slavery existed during this period of time. He cites Gregory Chirichigno, author of a tome on the topic Debt-Slavery in Israel and Ancient the Near East:

 “small landowners were often forced into procuring loans which often included high-interest rates. If their crop(s) failed or was below expectation, then the debtors would be hard pressed to pay back the loan. Therefore, many of these landowners were likely to become insolvent, since they were able to engage only in subsistence farming. As a result of their insolvency famers were forced to sell or surrender dependents into debt-slavery.”[5]

 Of course, what Chirichigno is explaining here as the most common type of slavery in the Ancient world is not chattel slavery, but instead, debt-slavery, which has more in common with what modernity calls indentured servitude. Naturally, when one is able clearly examine the institution within the framework of first-century Judea, parables in the Gospels begin to make more sense.

Let’s take a look at the Son outlook at the end of Parable of the Unmerciful Servant:

23 ¶“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; 25 ¶ and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 ¶ So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me; 33 and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. 35 ¶ So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” [6]

 How is modernity to understand the Biblical view of slavery? The scriptural evidence for these types of arrangements, other than the beginning of the above parable begins with Joseph in Genesis:

19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; and give us seed, that we may live, and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.” [7]

After framing what type of slavery is in the Bible, Horn explains that although this type of slavery was common in the Bible:

“the Bible’s authors did not endorse or celebrate it. As with polygamy an divorce, the sacred authors of Scripture attempted to limit the harm caused by this ubiquitous yet degrading human institution…instead of issuing shrill, universal condemnations of slavery that would have been ignored by most people (just as condemnations of abortion fall on deaf ears for many today) the laws set down in Scripture progressively guided God’s people toward eventual rejection of slavery…For example, the Old Testament does not instruct the Israelites to treat slaves in the same way one would treat an animal or a chair. If a master seriously injured a slave by knocking out a tooth or an eye, he had to set the slave free (Exod. 21:26-27) Slaves could not work on the Sabbath (Exod. 20:10, and were allowed to participate in religious festivals (Exod.12:44)…Slaves could marry free persons (1 Chron. 2:34-35), own property, and even own other slaves (2 Sam. 19:17) (like exampled in Jesus’ parable). If an ox killed a slave then the ox would be stoned, which was the same punishment that was administered for the killing of a free person (Exod. 21:28-36)”[8]

 It’s important to note historically that all ancient peoples had a functioning institution of slavery, Rodney Stark notes that what is unique about Christianity is that “Amid this universal slavery, only one civilization ever rejected human bondage: Christendom. And it did it twice!”[9]

Stark explains how slavery in Western Europe was first removed during the middle ages, “As the ninth century dawned, Bishop Agobard of Lyons thundered: ‘All men are brothers, all invoke one same Father, God: the slave and the master, the poor man and the rich man, the ignorant and the learned, the weak and the strong…None has been raised above the other…there is no…slave or free, but in all things and always there is only Christ.’ Soon, no one doubted that slavery in itself was against divine law. Indeed, during the eleventh century, both Saint Wulfstan and Saint Anselm successfully campaigned to remove the last vestiges of slavery in Christendom.”[10]

 Slavery because of the Catholic Church had been eliminated from Western Civilization, but when Europeans discovered the New World, this horrid institution would once again be reestablished. Stark explains, “when European colonists began to reestablish slavery in the New World, the popes vigorously opposed it. Unfortunately, the popes lacked the power to impose their will—the Spanish had recently sacked Rome and ruled much of Italy.”[11]

Pope Paul III on May 29th, 1537 made a public rejection of the institution by writing in a Papal Bull:

The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.[12]

 The Papal Bull was in accord with prior Bulls from Pope Eugene IV to future ones from Pope Urban VIII who gave “the most outspoken attack on South American slavery.”[13] Unfortunately, Ulrich L. Lehner, a professor at Marquette University and a Catholic, in his attempt to present Catholicism as an ‘enlightned’ to his peers asserts that “while the popes resisted the enslavement of North America, they condoned slavery as an institution. The often-repeated claims that Christianity humanized the institution of slavery because it regarded slaves as persons has been falsified—ancient Roman thinkers, such as Seneca, had brought the innovation.”[14] The problem with this assertion is that it totally ignores the codes of Exodus recognizing the persons of debt slaves in Israel in the Near East within the frameworks of the Old Testament as examined by Trent Horn. It also assumes the tired thesis of the history of religion narrative that 1st century Christians converted themselves from Judaism to Christianity rather than Christianity a development of Judaism after the temple period ended in 70 A.D.

Now, there are a few problems with Lehner’s assessment; first, he lumps all forms of slavery into one institution. The problem with doing this is that as Trent Horn explains by using Hector Avalos’ definition of slavery is that criminals and prisoners of war who also fall under this definition and who retain their basic rights as mentioned above does not represent an intrinsic evil if it benefits the whole of society. Furthermore, it doesn’t address the most common form of slavery in the ancient world—debt slavery, nor does it address the eradication of slavery from Europe presented in Stark’s argument.

Lehner explains that although the Popes by their words condemned New World slavery, they still practiced the institution within the Papal States. He writes, “archival material still exists on the slaves of the Papal States. As state property, these were predominately galley slaves, who were forced to row the ships of the fleet. Some were volunteers who been bribed to enlist, some were criminals who sentence was considered equal to the death penalty, and others captives from wars. The last group comprised the largest number of slaves.”[15] Again, the problem with Lehner here is that it is already assumed ‘slavery’ is intrinsic evil, now he can certainly make the case that both criminals and prisoners of war shouldn’t be forced into labor and they are intrinsic evils, and perhaps this is the consensus view, so he doesn’t feel that he needs to assert any argument. But again, Lehner’s argument rests on a generalization, which Horn’s argument does address the differences between different modes of the institution.


The difficulty with tackling such a topic is that due to the stresses of our contemporary culture with the ramifications of chattel slavery of the pre-Civil War America and the legacy of racism in its aftermath is that the topic becomes an emotive one. Lehner does make good points of Catholics supporting slaves during the period of the slave trade, but ultimately by presenting his evidence passes judgment against the Church as a whole.  It may simply be that he also needs to walk a tighter rope in his department at Marquette University, whereas Trent Horn, as a Catholic Apologist and Professor of Moral Theology at Holy Apostles doesn’t feel the need. It’s important to note that if the topic is generalized within the parameter of modern thought and historical figures are moralized within the norms of our modern society, it’s easy to find them guilty. However, if historians, clerics, laymen, and non-believers view the complexities of an era within the framework of historicism and taking into account the historic period and understanding, we’ll be more likely to discover the truth.

[1] Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness (West Conshohocken: Templeton Press, 2016), 169.

[2] Ibid, 73.

[3] Trent Horn, Hard Sayings (El Cajon: Catholic Answers Press, 2016), 268.

[4] Ibid, 269.

[5] Ibid, 270.

[6] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), Mt 18:23–35.

[7] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), Ge 47:19.

[8] Horn, 272.

[9] Stark, 81.

[10] Ibid, 82

[11] Ibid, 169.

[12] Pope Paul III, Sublimus Dei, http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_pa03sd.htm

[13] Ulrich L. Lehner, The Catholic Enlightenment (New York; Oxford University Press, 2016), 186.

[14] Ibid, 185.

[15] Ibid, 186