Since Before the Witness of St. Peter Claver to Today, the Catholic Church Has a Long, and Often Overlooked, History Opposing Slavery

COMMENTARY: No other institution has so consistently opposed slavery for so long as has the Church. And it still does.

A sculpture honoring the ministry of St. Peter Claver stands in the square named for him in Cartagena, Colombia.
A sculpture honoring the ministry of St. Peter Claver stands in the square named for him in Cartagena, Colombia. (photo: Mariano Gaspar / Shutterstock)

The unexpected blockbuster film The Sound of Freedom has everyone talking about human trafficking, a modern form of slavery. The scenes in the film are heartbreaking, with viewers knowing that they’re happening around the world today, in the 2020s.

But tragically, of course, slavery is nothing new. In fact, picture another scene from four centuries ago.

Imagine: It’s the 1620s, a period known to Americans for the Pilgrims coming to our shores. It follows the year 1619, which many modern Americans are marking as a hideous year in our nation’s history, when Black African slaves were first brought to our shores.

But imagine another image from another shore.

At that same time, Cartagena in the Caribbean was a primary slave market, one of two slave ports in Spanish America designated by the Council of the Indies. African slaves were shipped there and dispersed into the Americas. These ships were horror shows. Slaves were packed beneath the decks, treated like rotting sardines rather than human beings, often upward of 500 shackled individuals per craft. 

The voyage was long and arduous, with the conditions on the ship so deplorable, with these poor people receiving little food, water, hygiene, washing and basic care, that even hardened sailors could not bear the overwhelming odor. The lack of treatment offered to these groaning assemblages was so acute, along with their accompanying dysentery and vile lack of basic aid, that a large percentage never survived the voyage to Cartagena. 

But those who did survive, witnessing the utter inhumanity of man to man, were astonished to be greeted by a smiling, loving Jesuit priest who rushed to their aid before anyone else. His name was Father Peter Claver (1580-1654). 

While even tough crewmen fled these poor souls, Father Claver couldn’t get to them fast enough. He eventually sought and received permission to board a smaller craft and row with an oarsman to the ship the moment that he spied it out at sea. No time could be wasted. He climbed the rope ladder, pulled himself on board, and then descended between decks, and often alone, as no one else could stand the stench.

“The black cargo arrived in a condition of pitiable terror,” wrote Claver biographer Arnold Lunn. “They were convinced that they were to be bought by merchants who needed their fat to grease the keels of ships, and their blood to dye the sails.” But what they got from Father Claver was just the opposite. Such was his affection for them, and so moved was he by their terrible treatment, that he literally kissed them. Lunn was not the only biographer to report that some claimed to see Father Claver visibly “illumined with rays of glory” as he, Christlike, loved his neighbors.

Peter Claver wrote to his superiors on May 31, 1627: “This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and actions.”

He gently wiped the mucous and blood from them and treated their ulcers. He kissed their wounds, unafraid of infection, like Jesus with lepers. When the Jesuit priest ran out of rags, he used his own cloak to wipe the wounded.

The future saint treated tens of thousands of slaves in this fashion, nursing their wounds, ministering to them, baptizing them, anointing them, and hearing their confessions. 

Father Claver’s subsequent ministry to Black slaves is plainly remarkable and perhaps unparalleled among anyone in the history of the Catholic Church and perhaps Christianity as a whole. His personal motto was “Peter Claver, slave of the Negroes for ever.” 

Peter Claver died on Sept. 8, 1654. When he was canonized by Leo XIII in January 1888, the Pope declared, “No life, except the life of Christ, has so moved me as that of St. Peter Claver.”

It was a life and service hard to surpass.


Sublimus Deus (June 1537)

It is particularly important to know that, in defending the dignity of these people, St. Peter Claver had the support of his Church. Indeed, a century earlier, on June 2, 1537, Pope Paul III issued Sublimis Deus, “On the Enslavement and Evangelization of Indians.” It was a century prior to the arrival of the Mayflower and John Winthrop and his Arabella. Unlike some Southern preachers in the mid-19th century who argued that slavery was ordained by God and the Bible, Paul III credited the enslavement of Indians to no less than Satan, the “enemy of the human race.” To try to help stop this evil, his Church declared:

“Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters [that] 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.”

This language affirmed the inherent humanity and rights of Indians, regardless of whether they accepted the Christian faith. And not just these Indians. Look again: Pope Paul III insisted that “said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians” must not be deprived of liberty or property, even if they are outside the Christian faith. In doing this, the Pope affirmed what he also just said in his immediate previous pronouncement on slavery, Pastorale Officium.

Here, from the Pope and the Church, was a universal declaration of human rights for all individuals, not just Europeans, and not just Christians, but for all peoples of all places yet to be discovered.


Sicut Dudum (January 1435)

Pope Paul III was not alone. A century prior to him, on Jan. 13, 1435, Pope Eugene IV issued Sicut Dudum, titled, “Against the Enslaving of Black Natives From the Canary Islands,” which followed a December 1434 statement, Creator Omnium. Regarding the activity on these islands, Pope Eugene IV stated in Sicut Dudum:

“They have deprived the natives of the property, or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery, sold them to other persons, and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them, because of which very many of those remaining on said islands, and condemning such slavery, have remained involved in their former errors, having drawn back their intention to receive Baptism, thus offending the majesty of God, putting their souls in danger, and causing no little harm to the Christian religion.”

Because of this crime, the Church formally set forth to “rebuke each sinner about his sin” and exhorted “one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed men, barons, soldiers, nobles, communities, and all others of every kind among the Christian faithful of whatever state, grade, or condition, that they themselves desist from the aforementioned deeds, cause those subject to them to desist from them, and restrain them rigorously.”

In this papal bull, Eugene IV explicitly stated: 

“And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free.”

Not wanting to tolerate any dissembling or excuses, the Pope ordered action right away, with a specific timeline. He literally commanded those responsible under threat of excommunication: “These people are to be totally and perpetually free, and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of money. If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication.” The statement threatened excommunication three times in that one paragraph alone.

This was certainly not the first time the Church would issue the penalty of excommunication for slavery. Moreover, it may surprise some to learn that the Church supported reparations to slaves. 

For instance, on April 18, 1591, Pope Gregory XIV issued a significant papal bull, Cum Sicuti, to the bishop of Manila in the Philippines on April 18, 1591. He demanded that conquering Spanish Christians in the Philippines cease and desist from using force against the Native population and not enslave them. He demanded that they be freed and their property returned to them. He even went so far as to order that reparations be made by these Spanish Catholics in the Philippines to the Natives they had seized.

Returning to Sicut Dudum in 1435: It ought to be clearly underscored that these individuals were Black persons and largely considered of Black African origin. Again, note the actual title of the papal bull: “Against the Enslaving of Black Natives From the Canary Islands” (emphasis added).

There are many detractors who want to try to claim that the Church was insensitively or unforgivably late to the plight of, say, Black slaves. But understand this factual reality: What we know as the Atlantic slave trade, which eventually brought slaves to America, began in the late 15th or early 16th centuries, with some sources dating it as early as A.D. 1444, with the Portuguese shipping slaves from Africa to Europe. Thus, the Church here in 1434-1435 was condemning this blight on Black slaves immediately. In fact, if the Church was late on slavery, it was late in condemning not Black-transatlantic slavery, but the prior slavery of whites, Jews and Gentiles. Muslim slavers had been capturing white Christians in the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean for almost a millennium prior to the transatlantic slave trade! And the Church certainly was well aware of that.

How could it not be?

After all, slavery, of course, has plagued humanity for thousands upon thousands of years. Scholars trace it back 9,000 or even 11,000 years ago. The organization Free the Slaves asserts that slavery goes back to at least Mesopotamia in the year approximately 6800 B.C. Notably, Mesopotamia, which is modern Iraq, was located along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which the Book of Genesis records as the site of the Garden of Eden. That is the place of the dawn of humanity. You can start the slavery story there. It is all through the Old Testament, of course.

Again, what we know as the Atlantic slave trade, which eventually would bring African slaves to America, began in the late 15th or early 16th centuries. To repeat: As for Black-transatlantic slavery, the Church zeroed in on it immediately. If the Church was late in condemning slavery, it was late only in condemning the enslavement of whites.


More Condemnations of Slavery — to the Present Day

These statements in the 15th and 16th centuries were merely the start of many papal bulls, apostolic letters and encyclicals condemning the slave trade over the next centuries.

Many more would come, such as Pope Sixtus IV’s bull Regimini Gregis of 1476, which threatened to excommunicate all captains or pirates or anyone aiding in the transport of Christian slaves from Africa. It can be seen as a reiteration of Sicut Dudum. And more soon followed. Many more. Too many to summarize in an article.

Some critics today will criticism certain popes for certain statements on slavery. And some of those popes — namely, Nicholas V (1447-1455), who issued the very disturbing, confusing and downright baffling Dum Diversas (June 1452) and Romanus Pontifex (January 1454 or January 1455) — no doubt are vulnerable, if not deserving. (I start my book, The Worst of Indignities: The Catholic Church on Slavery, by dealing with those two statements from Nicholas V, which are totally anomalous among the Church’s numerous pronouncements.) 

But, overall, the Church was beautifully consistent in its statements against slavery and way ahead of and apart from the rest of the world. Note that the date of Sicut Dudum is about 400 years before the Brits abolished slavery and about 430 years before the United States did so. And aside from papal bulls and encyclicals, there are Church councils that issued statements against slavery going all the way back to the Council of Agde in 506, the Council of Worms in 876 (speaking out against the exploitation of female slaves), the Council of Koblenz in 922 (declaring the selling and enslaving of Christians as tantamount to homicide), and more.

Long before our Church had incredible saints like Josephine Bakhita who were ex-slaves, the Church had saints like Patrick (385-461), who had been a slave, and Gregory the Great (540-604), who personally freed slaves. 

And then there were other extraordinary figures who fought slavery in their ministries. It is hard to surpass the holy work of St. John de Matha (1160-1213), who founded the Order of the Most Holy Trinity to ransom Christian captives, or other similarly dedicated priests and missions and their orders, such as St. Peter Nolasco (1189-1256), i.e., “The Ransomer.” They were doing that 900 years ago. 

It is hard to outdo the intellectual heavy-lifting on behalf of basic human rights by the Spanish Dominicans from the Salamanca School in the 15th and 16th centuries — men like Francisco de Vitoria, Antonio Montesinos, Melchor Cano, Dominic de Soto and Bartolome de las Casas.

It is hard to surpass St. Peter Claver.

The Church’s record is downright remarkable. All the way into the 20th century, we have statements from the likes of Pope Pius X condemning this “worst of indignities,” “the slavery of Satan and of wicked men,” which fills “our heart with horror” and “great compassion” at something “so cruel and so barbarous as to scourge men and brand them”; or from Pope John Paul II, calling out, at the very epicenter of the source of the West African slave trade, “this sin of man against man, this sin of man against God.”

And today, in the 21st century, Pope Francis has addressed slavery repeatedly in modern contexts, focusing on human trafficking in particular. He has addressed this scourge in Laudato Si, in Evangelii Gaudium, in Fratelli Tutti, and, among numerous other public occasions, an important April 2015 plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences tackling human slavery in the 21st century.

Of course, this is not to say that every lay Catholic or even bishop or certain orders were exemplars in their faithfulness to the Church’s teachings on this subject. They were not. The Church is filled with, of course, human beings. But, overall, the institution as a whole has been hard to surpass. There is no other institution that so consistently opposed slavery for so long. And it still does.


Paul Kengor's new book is titled, The Worst of Indignities: The Catholic Church on Slavery (Emmaus Road Publishing, July 2023).


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