The Popes and Slavery, by Father Joel Panzer (Alba House, 1996, 124 pp., $7.95)

BETWEEN THE “Christianity of Christ” and the religion that once justified slavery, wrote former slave Frederick Douglas, is the “widest possible distance.” Such strong language naturally leads the thoughtful Catholic to ask, “Where were the Popes in the battle against chattel slavery?” Right in the thick of it, claims Father Joel Panzer. His concise volume, The Popes and Slavery, chronicles papal opposition to slavery, including ample appendices of primary source material, in Latin and English, to substantiate the author's assessment.

Not until 1890, claim critics, did Pope Leo XIII finally repudiate it. But Father Panzer handily demonstrates staunch papal condemnation of African and Indian thralldom three and four centuries earlier.

Sixty years before Columbus came to the New World, writes Father Panzer, Pope Eugene IV condemned the enslavement of peoples in the newly-colonized Canary Islands. His bull Sicut Dudum (1435) rebuked European enslavers and commanded that “all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of 15 days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live … restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of [the] Canary Islands … who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money.”

Acentury later, Pope Paul III applied the same principle to the newly encountered Indians of the West and South in the bull Sublimis Deus (1537). This pontiff described the enslavers as allies of the devil and declared attempts to justify slavery as “null and void.” Accompanying the bull was another document, Pastorale Officium, that attached a latae sententiate excommunication, remittable only by the Pope himself, for those who attempted to enslave the Indians or steal their goods.

According to Father Panzer, papal condemnation of slavery persisted throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Pope Gregory XVI's 1839 bull In Supremo, for example, reiterated papal opposition to enslaving “Indians, blacks or other such people” and forbade “any ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this trade in blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse …” In 1888, and again in 1890, Pope Leo XIII forcefully condemned slavery and sought its elimination, where it persisted in parts of South America and Africa.

Despite this evidence, critics still insist the Magisterium did too little too late regarding slavery. Why? One reason was the failure to distinguish between just and unjust forms of servitude. The Magisterium condemned unjust enslavement early on, but it also recognized what is known as “just title slavery.” That included forced servitude of prisoners of war and criminals, and voluntary servitude of indentured servants. But chattel slavery as practiced in the United States and elsewhere, Father Panzer argues, differed in kind, not merely in degree, from “just title slavery.” By focusing on the latter, critics unfairly neglect the vigorous papal denunciations of the former.

The matter is further muddled by certain 19th century American clergymen—including many bishops—who tried to defend the American slave system. They contended that the even-then longstanding papal condemnations of slavery didn't apply to the United States. The slave trade, some argued, but not slavery itself, had been condemned by Pope Gregory XVI.

Historians critical of the papacy on this matter often make that same argument. As Father Panzer cogently demonstrates, however, papal teaching condemned both the slave trade and slavery itself (except, of course, “just title” servitude, which wasn't at issue). It was certain members of the American hierarchy of the time who “explained away” that teaching. Many critics still won't acknowledge the real papal record. They have a vested interest in not doing so, for they mistakenly believe Catholic teaching on such things as contraception and abortion can be reversed by showing how the papacy supposedly changed its teaching on slavery. The Popes and Slavery appears to present an insurmountable obstacle to making that case.

Mark Brumley is based in Napa, Calif.