Sunday, September 09, 2007

Has the Catholic Church Ever Officially Endorsed Human Slavery?

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 9, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2007]

In an article he wrote a few years ago, Catholic author Mark Brumley tells of an experience he had back in college, during a European History class. The professor, who was a fallen-away Catholic, stated during his lecture that the Catholic Church had supported human slavery at various points in her history. When one of Brumley’s classmates challenged the professor’s statement and tried to defend the Church, the teacher responded by saying, “I'd like to buy your argument, but the facts are other than you assert. How is it that Catholic countries such as Spain and Portugal promoted the slave trade in America, if, as you claim, the Catholic Church actually brought the end of slavery? How do you explain certain bishops of the American South defending the practice?"

Unfortunately, the student wasn’t able to defend his position, and, as Brumley said in his article, “the Catholics left that undergraduate history class thoroughly trounced.”

Now you know why some young people lose their faith in college! It’s because of conversations like that which take place in college classrooms in this country every day.

If that student had heard this homily prior to his encounter with that professor, he would have known the truth. Then he would have been able to say to his teacher, “With all due respect, Mr. Professor, you’re wrong! The Catholic Church has never officially endorsed the practice of human slavery! Quite oppositely, many popes—including Eugene IV and Paul III who lived at the time when the slave trade was in high gear—have vigorously condemned it. So does the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church condemn it—in paragraph 2414, to be exact! Now, have some individual Catholics over the years been silent in the face of slavery and other injustices? Of course! But, lest we forget, many atheists and people of other religions have also been silent. Have some baptized Catholic kings and rulers supported slavery during the last 20 centuries? Of course! Have some Catholic clerics—including some members of the Catholic hierarchy in the pre-Civil War years—also been in favor of the practice? Of course! But why should any of this surprise us? In every generation there are Catholics who personally support things that the Church officially condemns! Today, for example, there are Catholic lay people—and even Catholic priests—who support abortion and contraception and same-sex marriage and many other sinful behaviors. Catholics of the past who supported or who were involved in the slave industry were like just like these dissenting Catholics in the modern Church: they were Catholic in name only, not in what they taught and stood for!

That’s what the student should have said.

I should mention at this point that I’m speaking in my homily this morning about the kind of slavery where human persons are deprived of their rights and forced into service and treated like property. I’m not talking about the practice of keeping criminals or prisoners of war in jail (some people classify that as slavery, but it’s really something different); nor am I talking about voluntary servitude, which has existed in various cultures during the last 2,000 years.

That also is something different.

All of this should help us to put today’s second reading in proper perspective. This passage is taken from the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon, and it deals directly with the issue of slavery. The entire letter, incidentally, is only 25 verses long (that’s verses, not chapters!). So I highly encourage you to go home and read the whole thing. If you’re a fast reader, it will take you about 1 minute (maybe less!); if you’re a slow reader, it will take you no more than 2 minutes.

So please don’t say that you don’t have time!

The letter is directed to a wealthy Colossian man named Philemon, who had become a believer in Christ through Paul’s missionary efforts. He was also a slave owner, like many other wealthy men of his time. Lest we forget, in the first century world slavery was pretty much a universal phenomenon. No doubt Philemon had owned slaves long before his conversion to Christ. In Colossians 4 and in Ephesians 6 Paul tells masters to treat their slaves with fairness and with kindness (which, believe it or not, was a radical idea for the time!), so hopefully Philemon treated his slaves with greater respect after his conversion. But nonetheless he did own them.

One of these slaves was a young man named Onesimus. Well at some point prior to the writing of this letter, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon—and he had taken some of his master’s “stuff” in the process! That made Onesimus a thief as well as a runaway slave.

But then he met St. Paul, who happily converted him to Christ. (Paul at the time was in prison.) The apostle then sent Onesimus back to Philemon; he sent the runaway slave back to his master—along with this letter.

Does this mean that St. Paul approved of slavery?

Not at all! In fact, it’s quite clear from what he says in this letter that he opposed it. But Christians like Paul found themselves in a difficult position. Remember, in the first century, Christians were members of a religion that was illegal in the Roman Empire; consequently they had no power to change existing laws regarding slavery (or anything else for that matter!). They were forced to tolerate the legal situation as it was, while at the same time trying to change people’s minds and hearts. It’s similar to the way pro-life Americans have to approach “life issues” today: we are forced to tolerate the unjust laws of our land that allow the killing of the innocent, while at the same time trying to change people’s minds and hearts—so that someday in the future every innocent human life will be respected in our nation from conception until natural death.

And the sad reality is there are still some minds and hearts that need to be changed on the issue of slavery. This is definitely not just a topic from the far distant past. Slavery still exists in our world—as well as in our own nation! We just call it by different names nowadays, such as “human trafficking”. Listen to this quote that I came across on a government web site last week: “According to U.S. government estimates, about 800,000 to 900,000 men, women and children are trafficked each year across international borders worldwide for sex and other purposes; approximately 18,000 to 20,000 of those victims are trafficked into the United States itself.”

Slavery by any other name is still slavery—and it’s still wrong.

That message is implicit in the letter of Paul to Philemon. In effect, the apostle says to the Christian slave owner, “Look, I could order you to do the right thing here and free Onesimus, since I’m your spiritual father: I’m the one who brought you to Christ. But I’m not going to do that. I want you to do the right thing of your own free will. I want you to choose to act virtuously here. So I’m honoring the law of the Roman Empire—unjust though it might be—and I’m sending Onesimus back to you. But please understand that after he escaped from your service, I brought him to the faith. He’s also my spiritual child now. And if he’s my spiritual child and you’re my spiritual child that makes the two of you brothers: brothers in the Lord. So I ask you to receive him back as your brother and not as your slave. And if he owes you anything because of what he stole, charge it to me. As his father and as his friend, I’ll be more than happy to pay his bill.”

A great Catholic writer once said, “I don’t want a Church that’s right when the world is right; I want a Church that’s right when the world is wrong.”

The Church was right about the evils of slavery from the earliest days of her existence. The Church was right about slavery when the rest of the world was wrong about it.

Take that thought with you today. And if you’re a student, make sure you take it with you to college when you go. It’s one of the thoughts that can keep you from losing your faith.