The Popes Against Slavery


Papal Efforts against Slavery:

How the popes combated slavery


There has not been an institution that has done more for the abolition of slavery as we know it than the Catholic Church. This is specifically true in regards to the constant efforts and admonitions against what is known today as chattel slavery, the unjust form of servitude which has existed ever since the time of the Age of Exploration, and which Pope Pius III once called a slavery “never before heard of.”1

Ever since the Early Church, the Catholic Church has done a great deal for the cause for human dignity, including the promotion of fair treatment even in regards to the practice of just forms of servitude “indentured servitude”. However because of the shortness of time and the content of this paper, I will address the Church’s fight against slavery in the modern sense of the word, namely “chattel slavery.” From (1435- 1890) the Church had been condemning slavery even before the rise of the American abolitionist movement, as well as before the finding of the New World itself. In order to show how it was these papal efforts that helped to end this notion of slavery as soon as it was started, I will be using primary source accounts of popes themselves condemning this very institution of slavery, as well as other secondary accounts which help to give evidence for this.


Pope Eugene IV and the start of the condemnations

Pope Eugene had condemned the slavery which was to come about during the Age of Exploration and the Atlantic slave trade as soon as it was discovered. Pope Eugene had issued a papal bull Sicut Dudum on January 13, 1435 in which he condemned the enslavement of the Guanches and other peoples of the Canary Islands which had started to be colonized. Pope Eugene IV wrote to those who had allowed themselves to be involved in this slave trade:

“We exhort, through the sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ shed for their sins, one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed man, 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.”2

Not only did Pope Eugene IV discourage and condemn the enslavement of these natives, but he also gave a brief period of fifteen days in which the colonists were to restore all of the natives, to their earlier liberty. If the colonists failed to do this then there would be an excommunication attached. “If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself, from which they cannot be absolved, except at the point of death, even by the Holy See, or by any Spanish bishop, or by the aforementioned Ferdinand, unless they have first given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods.”3

A thing to keep in mind is the significance regarding the date that this papal Bull was written. This Bull was written in 1435, which means that even before the finding of the new world, the Catholic Church had already condemned this new form of slavery as unjust which was just recently practiced in the age of exploration.


Pope Paul III

The three most significant papal documents passed by popes against slavery was by Pope Paul III. All these three papal documents where written in the same year. In 1537, just about a hundred years after Eugene IV’s Sicut Dudum, Pope Paul III passed Sublimus Dei, Pastorale Officium, and Altitudo Divini Consilii. These three papal documents showed that the natives of the New World were not subhuman as various individuals erroneously believed, explained that chattel slavery was a new and unjust in all situations, influenced both the Laws of 1542 and the fair treatment of the natives in Mexico, and lastly further applied an excommunication to those who would engage in this slavery.

The first place to start is in showing that these papal documents further explicitly condemned slavery as was practiced in the age of exploration and furthermore in the New World. Pope Paul III stated that “The enemy of the human race (the devil), 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.”4

By this it is made clear that just as Pope Eugene IV, Paul III is condemning both the slave trade and slavery itself which arose in the Age of Exploration. He does this by explaining that this is a type of slavery which was unheard of before now. By stating this he is also making it clear that this type of forced servitude is unjust in any situation, for unlike just forms of servitude “indentured servitude,” which people freely consent to, in this new type of forced labor there is no room for this free consent.

In another passage taken from Sublimus Dei, Pope Paul III makes clear the reality that the natives found in the New World are fully human with reason and all that makes humans a human. Paul III writes in regards to the natives:

“it is necessary that he should possess the nature and faculties enabling him to receive that faith; and that whoever is thus endowed should be capable of receiving that same faith. Nor is it credible that any one should possess so little understanding as to desire the faith and yet be destitute of the most necessary faculty to enable him to receive it. Hence Christ, who is the Truth itself, that has never failed and can never fail, said to the preachers of the faith whom He chose for that office ‘Go ye and teach all nations.’ He said all, without exception, for all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith.”5

Pope Paul III is basically proving that the natives are in fact human on the grounds of sound reason and scripture. By quoting Scripture, Paul III is saying that Christ commanded the disciples and those ordained to preach, to do so in all nations and thus to all people. For this reason following scripture with logic, Pope Paul III is letting his audience know that in order for someone (the natives) to understand what someone is preaching about (Christ), that he must then possess the faculties of the intellect and reason. This proves that the natives are then human. Proving that the natives were human was a big challenge to colonists who used the erroneous idea of the sub-humanity of the natives as a basis for slavery.

Not only did the documents of Pope Paul III help to prove both the humanity of the natives in the New World, and similarly to condemn the slave movement, but his document Altitudo Divini Consilii  also had a third consequence. This third consequence was in the move towards a fair treatment of the natives through the creation of the Laws of 1542. “The king (Charles V) followed up the Bull with the New Laws issued in 1542… One hundred and fifty thousand slaves were liberated, not counting women and children.”6

Thus it could be said that the papal efforts of Pope Paul III were some of the most substantial in the condemnation of slavery in the New World, and similarly in the various things which it managed to accomplish.


Pope Benedict XIV

Pope Benedict XIV is after Pope Paul III a great next logical place to oversee in terms of papal efforts against slavery. There were three popes from the time of Pope Paul III to Benedict XVI all of whom wrote and contributed to the efforts against slavery. It is however because of the specific and unique effort of Benedict XVI for which I am explicitly mentioning him.

During the papacy of Pope Benedict XIV, the Slave Trade and the use of slavery itself had reached its height “Beginning on the middle of the Sixteenth century, the need for a cheap source of human labor both in Europe and in the New World led to the shameless European enslavement of the people of Africa.”7

Even after the encyclicals and papal efforts against the slave movement, many Christians were still active in slavery, specifically around Brazil. For this reason Pope Benedict XIV issued the Papal Bull Immensa Pastorum on December 20, 1741. This Bull did two specific things. The first one is simply the fact that it recounted and reinforced the decrees and efforts of his papal predecessors such as Paul III and many others. However the most significant thing was that it clearly made known that it was not only the Catholic laity but all members of the Church including the clergy which were to be prohibited from taking part of this slavery.

“Every person both secular and ecclesiastic of whatever status, sex, grade, condition and dignity, even those worthy of special note and dignity of any order, congregation, society… who contravenes these edicts will incur eo, ipso excommunication latae sententiae.”8

Pope Leo XIII

Pope Leo XIII

The last pope who perhaps gave the last blow towards this institution of slavery is Pope Leo XIII. Pope Leo XIII wrote two encyclicals, In Plurimis on May 5, 1888 and Catholicae Ecclesiae on November 20, 1890. One of the particular thing which In Plurimis did, was that it was written as a means of encouraging the Bishops of Brazil to enforce the abolition of slavery which had just recently been passed. Since the pope holds such a strong sphere of influence, it makes sense why his support was crucial for the success of this legislation.

Catholicae Ecclesiae similarly had its own significance. Not only did it reinforce the papal efforts of previous pontiffs but it also stated that all humans stem from the same source and creation. Pope Leo XIII makes this clear when he writes “From Him we recall that everybody has sprung from the same source, was redeemed by the same ransom, and is called to the same eternal happiness.”9


These various examples of papal efforts against slavery show that there has been since the beginning a consistency of Church teaching regarding the condemnation of slavery as can be seen by the strict consequences of those who partook in it, as well as by the facts that it was condemned as soon as it was practiced, and similarly by the fact that these efforts against slavery came about before the finding of the New World and before the creation of any abolitionist movement. It could be argued that one of the great factors of these papal condemnations of slavery is given to the large sphere of influence which the pope possess.


1) Paul III: Papal Bull Sublimus Dei par. 2
2) Pope Eugene IV: Sicut Dudum par. 3
3) Sicut Dudum par. 4
4) Sublimus Dei par. 2
5) Sublimus Dei par. 1
6) Rev. Francis Kelley: Blood Drenched Altars, “Chapter V.” Blood-Drenched Altars. Milwaukee, WI: Bruce, pgs. 1935. 62-63.
7) Fr. Joel Panzer: The Popes and Slavery. New York: Alba House, 1996. Pg. 35
8) Panzer: The Popes and Slavery. Pgs. 94-95
9) Pope Leo XIII: Catholicae Ecclesiae par. 1

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