Popes and Slavery

Do none of the evildoers understand?

They eat up my people as if eating bread;

they never call out to the Lord.

(Psalm 14: 4)

            While in Mexico, Pope Francis delivered a forceful condemnation of modern economic slavery caused by a misuse of capitalism. He spoke of a prevailing corruption of the business ethic, which exploits workers.

“Unfortunately, the times we live in have imposed the paradigm of economic utility as the starting point for personal relationships. The prevailing mentality, everywhere, advocates for the greatest possible profits, immediately and at any cost. This not only causes the ethical dimension of business to be lost, but it also forgets that the best investment we can make is in people, in individual persons and in families. The best investment is creating opportunities. The prevailing mentality puts the flow of people at the service of the flow of capital, resulting in many cases in the exploitation of employees as if they were objects to be used, discarded and thrown out (cf. Laudato Si’, 123). God will hold us accountable for the slaves of our day, and we must do everything to make sure that these situations do not happen again. The flow of capital cannot decide the flow and life of people” (Pope Francis, “Meeting with the World of Labor,” Ciudad Juárez,
17 February 2016).

There is a consistent doctrine against slavery in all its forms in the record of papal teachings. Five centuries ago, when news of the abuse of the Native population of the Americas reached Europe the papacy was unequivocal in its condemnation of slavery. Pope Paul III (1534-1549) railed against the colonial powers, who robbed the Native Americans of their human dignity and liberties.

Titian Paul III Naples
Titian, Pope Paul III, 1543, Naples, Capodimonte Museum

“The sublime God so loved the human race that He created man in such wise that he might participate, not only in the good that other creatures enjoy, but endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face….The enemy of the human race…inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith….The 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” (Paul III, Sublimus Dei, May 29, 1537).

Pope Francis gives modern expression to the Church’s age-old defense of the dignity of the human person. It is to be hoped that his message falls on more receptive ears. Cultural differences aside (Paul III’s entry into Roman church offices was due to his teenage sister being the mistress of Pope Alexander VI), the two popes, one Renaissance and the other contemporary, have other things in common. Pope Paul, like Francis, formed a commission of churchmen drawn from outside the curia that drew up a plan to address needed church reforms. Yet another interesting tie between the two popes is Paul’s approbation of the Jesuit Society in 1540. While we might stand with jaw agape at the scandalous personal histories of the Renaissance papacy, we may also ponder the grace of the Holy Spirit always at work in Her Church. The late professor emeritus of Saint Mary’s College, John Dwyer, used to say, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” All of God’s servants are broken in some way. But the call to mercy has ever been the same for all. It is the same for us.

Pope Francis Patrick #2


Photo credits
Portrait of Pope Paul III at Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Pope Francis by Brother Patrick Martin, F.S.C.

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