An article by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., under the title “Development or Reversal?” published in First Things in October 2005 has received wide circulation in the Catholic or neocath blogosphere, where it is taken to refute John Noonan’s demonstration that the Church has changed its official thinking on topics such as usury, religious freedom and, above all, slavery. The article is very cleverly argued, but its conclusion is all the more shocking. Cardinal Dulles maintains that the Church still teaches, as it did in 1866, that slavery is compatible with natural and divine law. Slavery is undesirable, but like poverty and war, we cannot realistically expect its complete disappearance until the eschaton. Hence while the Church condemns slave trading, it does not brand slavery as such as intrinsically immoral. This echoes the position of American Catholic theologians in the nineteenth century.
“It is unnecessary to observe that the practice of capturing savages or barbarians for the purpose of making slaves of them has always been condemned as a heinous offence against justice, and no just title could be created by this procedure. Was it lawful for owners to retain in slavery the descendants of those who had been made slaves in this unjust way? The last conspicuous Catholic moralist who posed this question when it was not merely a theoretical one, Kenrick, resolves it in the affirmative on the ground that lapse of time remedies the original defect in titles when the stability of society and the avoidance of grave disturbances demand it.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912.)
Dulles begins by noting that doctrine develops in a different way from social ethics:
“The formulation of revealed truth develops through the discernment of new truths that are formally implicit in the apostolic deposit. Such truths, once proclaimed by the Church as divinely revealed, are dogmas and must be held by all as matters of divine and Catholic faith. Social teaching, on the other hand, consists of behavioral norms for social conduct in conformity with the gospel. While the principles remain constant, the proximate norms are not free from contingency because society itself is in flux. Specific regulations rarely have the universal and permanent character that belongs to dogma.”
What are referred to here as “the principles” presumably include ethical prescriptions such as “thou shalt not kill.” In the case of slavery, how does one differentiate the underlying principle from its application? Suppose that the principle is a human right to freedom. Is the condemnation of slavery just a “specific regulation” adapted to changing circumstances or does it flow immediately from the human right to freedom, so that it shares in the constancy and universality of that right?
Dulles resumes John T. Noonan’s book, A Church That Can and Cannot Change, which deals primarily with slavery, but also with usury, religious freedom, and divorce. “The overarching thesis seems to be that in all these areas social change makes it possible for Christians to overcome the blindness that had previously afflicted their moral vision. The doctrinal change, in Noonan’s estimation, is in many cases an about-face, repudiating the erroneous past teaching of the magisterium itself.” Dulles accepts Noonan’s history: “The popes themselves held slaves, including at times hundreds of Muslim captives to man their galleys…Although the subjection of one person to another (servitus) was not part of the primary intention of the natural law, St. Thomas taught, it was appropriate and socially useful in a world impaired by original sin.” Popes condemned the enslavement of New World people, but not the institution of slavery as such. “Thus it was no break with previous teaching when Gregory XVI in 1839 issued a general condemnation of the enslavement of Indians and Blacks. In particular, he condemned the importation of Negro slaves from Africa.” But this was taken to refer only to original evil of slave trading, not to the present existence of slavery. “At the time of the Civil War, very few Catholics in the United States felt that papal teaching required them to become abolitionists. Bishop John England stood with the tradition in holding that there could be just titles to slavery.”
Is this still the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church? Dulles basically thinks that it is. He believes that the Bible makes it impossible for us to say otherwise:
“In 1863 John Henry Newman penned some fascinating reflections on slavery. A fellow Catholic, William T. Allies, asked him to comment on a lecture he was planning to give, asserting that slavery was intrinsically evil. Newman replied that, although he would like to see slavery eliminated, he could not go so far as to condemn it as intrinsically evil. For if it were, St. Paul would have had to order Philemon, ‘liberate all your slaves at once.’ Newman, as I see it, stood with the whole Catholic tradition. In 1866 the Holy Office, in response to an inquiry from Africa, ruled that although slavery (servitus) was undesirable, it was not per se opposed to natural or divine law. This ruling pertained to the kind of servitude that was customary in certain parts of Africa at the time.”
Noonan “contends that John Paul II reversed the traditional teaching. In support he quotes a statement of John Paul II in 1992. Speaking at the infamous ‘House of Slaves’ on the Island of Gorée in Senegal, from which innumerable slaves had been exported, he declared: ‘It is fitting to confess in all truth and humility this sin of man against man, this sin of man against God.’” But Dulles believes that the “sin” referred to by the Pope is not the enslavement of fellow human being, but rather “the slave trade, which had repeatedly been condemned.”
In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II took from Gaudium et Spes a list of social evils: “homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide . . . mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as sub-human living conditions, arbitrary imprisonments, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons.” Here, surely, slavery as such, and not just the slave trade, is branded as sinful, in contradiction to the 1866 declaration of the Holy Office signed by Pius IX.
Noonan wants to find an even stronger contradiction: “Where Vatican II had called these practices “shameful” (probra), John Paul II calls them “intrinsically evil.” In the same encyclical the pope teaches that intrinsically evil acts are prohibited always and everywhere, without any exception.” Dulles attenuates this: “It seems to me that if he had wanted to assert his position as definitive he would have had to say more clearly how he was defining slavery. He would have had to make it clear that he was rejecting the nuanced views of the biblical writers and Catholic theologians for so many past centuries. If any form of slavery could be justified under any conditions, slavery as such would not be, in the technical sense, intrinsically evil.”
Note that the 1866 declaration accepts as morally valid quite specific forms of slavery, so that even if Dulles finds some form of slavery that could be justified under some conditions, he has not rescued the 1866 declaration from being in contradiction with current church teaching. Moreover his reference to “nuanced views of the biblical writers” is misleading, since the biblical writers never formally discuss the question of the ethical licitness of slavery. His reference to “so many past centuries” is also misleading, since the defence of slavery has not been a live theme in Catholic theology since Leo XIII.
“According to the logic of Noonan’s argument, whatever holds for slavery would have to be said for deportations, subhuman living conditions, and degrading conditions of work. But could not degrading or subhuman conditions be inevitable, for example, after some great natural disaster in which mere survival is an achievement?”
It is hard to imagine a situation in which the institution of slavery would be inevitable. It is much easier to imagine situations in which the practice of abortion is inevitable, but Dulles would hardly accept that as a reason for not seeing abortion as intrinsically evil.
Further attenuation follows: “So far as I am aware, he never repeated his assertion that slavery is intrinsically evil. Neither the Catechism of the Catholic Church nor the recent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, in their discussions of slavery, speaks so absolutely.”
Nonetheless, none of these documents accept the legitimacy of slavery as long as the slaves are justly acquired, humanely treated, and preserved from dangers to their faith, as the 1866 document does.
Then Dulles quotes Maritain to the effect that “absolute bondage” is opposed to natural law, but “certain attenuated forms of servitude, such as serfdom, are not opposed to natural law except in its secondary requirements or aspirations.” These “cannot be eliminated except by degrees. As machinery and technology develop, servile labor becomes less necessary.” Were the slaves in the southern States of the USA serfs in this sense? Or is he thinking of the situation in Russia at that time?
“With more sophisticated forms of economic and social organization, it becomes possible and indeed imperative to diminish servitude and to abolish slavery in the usual sense of the word. In the ‘new heavens’ of the resurrection every form of servitude will disappear.” So the Church did not recognize this imperative in 1866 because the technology had not yet developed.
In reality, the abolition of slavery had nothing to do with technological advancement, but rather with an advancement in insight into human rights.
“Radical forms of slavery that deprive human beings of all personal rights are never morally permissible, but more or less moderate forms of subjection and servitude will always accompany the human condition.”
Note again that this does not save the declaration of 1866 which talks of slaves justly acquired, that is, of an immediate, not mediated, form of slavery.
“The elimination of slavery, possible in our time, corresponds to a natural dynamism of the human spirit toward freedom and personal responsibility.”
When the popes condemned the enslavement of New World populations people could have used this argument – that it was not yet “possible”. The Church in its teaching on abortion or even on theft and murder does not consult whether it is possible to eliminate them in our time, or at any time.
“The goal of full and uninhibited freedom, however, is an eschatological ideal never fully attainable within history.” The abolition of the institution of slavery was not a matter of “full and uninhibited freedom” but of a concrete legal change. Bringing in utopian ideals of uninhibited freedom is a red herring.
Writing in The Catholic Answer (Jan.-Feb. 1996) on “The Popes and Slavery: Setting the Record Straight,” Fr. Joel S. Panzer takes issue with one theologian’s statement that “one can search in vain through the interventions of the Holy See – those of Pius V, Urban VIII and Benedict XIV – for any condemnation of the actual principle of slavery.” He argues that “the Magisterium condemned from the beginning the colonial slavery that developed in the newly discovered lands,” but this of course is no reply; Dulles was too canny to try that gambit. “From 1435 to 1890, we have numerous bulls and encyclicals from several popes written to many bishops and the whole Christian faithful condemning both slavery and the slave trade.” Not so, there is no condemnation of slavery as such. Moreover, there are papal documents urging the perpetual enslavement of populations thought to be hostile to Rome. Alexander VI gave the Spanish “"full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other properties and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”
Even Gregory XVI in 1839 could be interpreted as attacking the slave trade but not slavery as such:
"There were to be found subsequently among the faithful some who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries did not hesitate to reduce to slavery (in servitutem redigere) Indians, Blacks and other unfortunate peoples, or else, by instituting or expanding the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, aided the crime of others… The slave trade, although it has been somewhat diminished, is still carried on by numerous Christians. Therefore, desiring to remove such a great shame from all Christian peoples ... and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors, We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery (in servitutem redigere) Indians, Blacks or other such peoples.”
This author quotes one-sidedly documents of the kind that gave substance to Leo XIII’s daring claim that the Church had always been against slavery. There is no mention of papal ownership of slaves or of the 1866 declaration. He says: “the buying and selling of slaves unjustly held was also condemned by 1435” – leaving it open that papal buying and selling of slaves was not unjust.
The author quotes a letter of Bishop England on the 1840 Council of Baltimore, where the bishops read and discussed this apostolic letter of Gregory XVI:
"Thus, if this document condemned our domestic slavery as an unlawful and consequently immoral practice, the bishops could not have accepted it without being bound to refuse the sacraments to all who were slave holders unless they manumitted their slaves; yet, if you look to the prelates who accepted the document, for the acceptation was immediate and unanimous: you will find, 1st the Archbishop of Baltimore ...2d, the Bishop of Bardstown ... 3d, the Bishop of Charleston: ... 4th, the Bishop of St. Louis ... 5th, the Bishop of Mobile ... 6th, the Bishop of New Orleans ...and 7th, the Bishop of Nashville ... they all regarded the letter as treating of the ‘slave-trade,’ and not as touching ‘domestic slavery.’ I believe, sir, we may consider this to be pretty conclusive evidence as to the light in which that document is viewed by the Roman Catholic Church.”
The author believes the bishops were obtuse or disobedient to the papal teaching; Dulles would probably say they interpreted it correctly, and that moreover the teaching has not been changed since.
“Amazingly, it was decided that papal pronouncements against slavery, particularly Gregory XVI’s In Supremo, did not apply to the institution as it existed in the United States, thus yielding on this issue a sort of Americanized Gallicanism.” Yet the Vatican never criticized the American understanding on this matter.
Since Gregory mentioned the documents of the previous pontiffs, “it is hard to understand how the American hierarchy was not aware of the consistency of the teaching and its nature.” On the contrary, precisely because of the limited scope of those previous documents, it was natural to interpret Gregory XVI also as condemning not slavery as such but abusive impositions of it.
The naive wishful thinking of this author is preferable to the sophisticated special pleading of Cardinal Dulles. It is indeed embarrassing to find a theologian, a Jesuit, a Cardinal, and an American maintaining, in the name of a rigid Parmenidean hermeneutics of immutable church teaching, that the Catholic Church still considers slavery perfectly compatible with natural and divine law.