The Catholic Church Against Slavery: Setting the Record Straight

The Catholic Church, like many ancient institutions, has a checkered past.  Its record has been marred by the horrors of the Inquisition, its ambivalence towards the Nazis and the Holocaust, and its complicity in – and even cover-up of – child abuse by priests.  To its credit, however, the Church – despite some lapses – has a long and consistent history of opposing slavery.

That is the thesis of The Worst of Indignities: The Catholic Church on Slavery, the latest book by Paul Kengor.  A professor at Grove City College, Kengor is the bestselling author of over a dozen works, such as The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism’s Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration; Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century; and Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left has Sabotaged Family and Marriage.

Citing scriptural depictions of Jesus healing slaves, Kengor asserts that an exemplary, forward-thinking role against slavery can be traced to the very beginnings of Christianity – as early as the first century.  Since then, the Church’s stance has been consistent.  Papal bulls and encyclicals have condemned the abominable commerce in humans, which soared during the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 1480s through much of the 19th century. 

The stance continues to this day.  Early in the 20th century, in an encyclical called Lacrimabili Statu (Latin for in tears), Pope Pius X described slavery as “the worst of indignities,” from which the book draws its title.  Pope John Paul II, whose papacy ran from 1978 to 2005, apologized for slavery and warned against “new forms of it, often insidious.”  In the encyclical Veritatis Splendor,  he condemned slavery as “intrinsically evil,” and in a 2002 letter to Archbishop Jean-Louis Touran described human trafficking, organized prostitution, and forced labor as a “modern plague.”  The current pontiff, Pope Francis, has often condemned sex trafficking, low-paid labor, organ trade, the drugs and weapons trade, war, and organized crime.  In Fratelli Tutti, he described them as “scourges.”

Kengor agrees that many Catholic priests did not apply the golden rule to blacks, “say, in 16th century Hispaniola or 19th century America.”  Also, that some bishops, orders, and institutions (such as the Georgetown University, in Washington D.C.) owned slaves in the past.  And that one pope – Pope Nicholas V (r. 1447-55) – issued bulls authorizing King Alfonso V of Portugal to enslave Saracens, pagans, and Africans.  But he decries the “egregious scholarship” that has pounced on these instances to declare that the Catholic church did not recognize the evils of slavery until the late 19th or early 20th century.

He ascribes slavery practiced by Catholic clergy and leaders to the problem Christianity shares with all religions and peoples – “namely, it is made up of human beings; it is made up of sinners.”  He also builds the context in which Nicholas V’s bulls – Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) – were issued, wrongly, but in a pragmatic spirit: the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to Muslim invaders who were bent on extinguishing Christianity.  He says Nicholas V stands as a “glaring question mark” and the bulls as “utter exceptions,” anomalous to what the Church has maintained for over two millennia.

Kengor then strives to set the record straight.  He writes that he discovered that in 506 A.D., at the Council of Agde, the church vowed to “take care of” manumitted slaves.  From then on, there are penances set out for ill-treatment of slaves.  He also found that in 1102, the Council of London forbade the sale of men “like brute animals in England.”  These, and various papal pronouncements on slavery, were unique, farsighted, and humane for their times.  Here’s a partial list from the book:

  • In 1434, Pope Eugene IV’s Creator Omnium excommunicated Christians who enslaved other Christians.  He then expanded it to include all slaves.
  • In 1537, Pope Paul III called for excommunication of slave owners and proclaimed the intrinsic dignity of humans regardless of ethnicity, color, or creed
  • In 1686, Pope Innocent XI affirmed that slavery was wrong and that slavers must stop their activity and make reparations
  • In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV’s Immensa Pastorum demanded proper treatment of all human beings, threatening excommunication of those who did not
  • In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI’s Supremo Apostolatus sought complete abolition of slavery
  • And in 1888, when slavery continued only in parts of Brazil, and in Africa at the hands of Muslim slavers, Pope Leo XIII’s In Plurimis said that humans were made in the image of G_d, so slavery was unnatural.

Catholic priests, too, have spoken out against slavery and saved the lives of slaves.  Recognizing this, the book cover shows St. Peter Claver, patron saint of the enslaved, who ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of slaves in 17th century Cartagena.  St. Eligius (588-660) would buy slaves from Marseilles only to free them.  Orders such as the Order of the Most Holy Trinity (1198) were founded for the express purpose of ransoming Christians captured by Muslims and sold into slavery.  The Dominicans and the School of Salamanca were also infused with fervor against slavery.

A section of the book is dedicated to poignant accounts of three modern-day slaves who rose above adversity, and were canonized for their exceptional conduct and service to humanity.  They are Ven. Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), a Haitian house slave who fled with his French master to New York during the Haitian revolt, earned a fortune as a hairdresser, and used it to free slaves; Ven. Augustus Tolton (1854-97), whose family escaped slavery when he was a child and who went on to become America’s first black priest; and St. Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947), who was kidnapped into slavery in Sudan by Arabs, endured unimaginable torture, and eventually found peace and freedom in a convent in Italy. 

The book includes a brief history of slavery, which has plagued humankind since the establishment of the first city-state in Mesopotamia in 6800 BC.  It has existed in every country, and across cultures – from China, where chattel slavery, sex slavery, and child slavery have been in existence since 2000 B.C.; to the Mayan and Aztec cultures (1300-1520), where sexual slavery and the sacrifice of wayward slaves was common; to India, where Muslim rulers of the Sultanate began the practice; and to the sale of over one million whites by Muslim traders from the 1530s to the 1780s.  The biggest wave occurred, of course, during colonization, enslaving 12-15 million Africans.  Even Native American tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and others – held slaves and sided with the Confederacy to preserve the institution.

Kengor also covers modern slavery in its many forms – labor trafficking, sex bondage, debt bondage, and the forced enlistment of children by militias and terrorist groups.  Curiously, he doesn’t mention the multi-generational prison camps of North Korea or the slave labor and organ harvesting of Falun Gong religious members and ethnic Uighurs by China.  The ISIS and Boko Haram terrorist groups actively engage in slavery, which isn’t proscribed in Islam, as they try to reestablish a caliphate.  Citing a 2012 report that 27 million people live in slavery, and another from 2017 putting the figure at 40.3 million, Walk Free Foundation chief Andrew Forrest says, “We now have the largest number of slaves than we’ve had in human history.” 

Kengor says the Catholic Church has once again stepped forward to condemn modern slavery, with the Holy See lobbying the U.N. for including eradication of slavery in the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.  But the focus, Kengor says, must not be on divisive Critical Race Theory and berating America and Western civilization; instead, it must be on following the lead of Christ and saving those who can be saved.

Image: Picryl // public domain


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