Christianity & Slavery

Pope Paul III's bull 'Sublimis Deus' was ignored by self-interested men

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Justice

Hypocrisy is the offence that Christians are most often charged with. It is a powerful and effective cudgel to beat them over the head because it appears to be self-evidently true: everyone can give you examples of Christians behaving badly, now and throughout history. The charge is immediately persuasive to the undiscerning and especially attractive to the enemies of religion, yet it arises from ignorance, whether wanton or innocent.

The weakness of the accusation is that it fails to distinguish the claims of a perfect God from the imperfection of mankind. The force of the accusation depends on the contrast between the demands of Christ and the actual performance of his would-be followers in the world. The latter always fall short.

No believing Christian ought to be surprised by the existence of evil within the human community of the Church. Let them be angry, by all means – they should be – but not surprised: the image of weeds sown among the wheat is part of the mental furniture of anybody who has had a smattering of religious instruction. The doctrines of death, judgement, heaven, and hell are known to all, whether believed or not.

It may seem harsh to accuse the enemies of Christianity of ignorance, as I did above, but there are various kinds of ignorance. Firstly, there is the blameless ignorance of those who are (rightly) outraged by the misbehavior of many who claim to be Christians. Secondly there is culpable ignorance that deliberately disregards the good and seeks out the bad. An example of ignorance in action would be the claim sometimes made that Hitler and Stalin were Christians. Both had probably been baptized (Stalin certainly, Hitler possibly), but their lives and deeds were so utterly at variance with everything that Christ taught as almost to beggar belief. Religious people were the primary victims of their persecutions. The idea that they were themselves Christians is beyond absurd, yet some people will choose to believe it willfully or accept it gullibly.

The hypocrisy charge thrives on bad history. Nowadays pretty well everything that Europeans did during the past few centuries attracts heated criticism, especially if there is a religious component. The Crusades usually come high on the list, the Inquisition not far behind, and witch-hunting is a sturdy perennial. The blame for the two World Wars is often imputed to Christianity, because the primary belligerents were nominally Christian countries. Missionaries are almost always bad-mouthed, even if in fact they protected people from the exigencies of their conquerors.

In the catalogue of human wickedness slavery ought to hold first place, for the enormity of its scale (it has been practiced by all races and cultures, and people of all races and cultures have been its victims) and the utter greed of its motivation has no equal. Wars can sometimes be explained in terms of justice, but slavery never.

In 1537, 45 years after Columbus “discovered” America, Pope Paul III issued the bull Sublimis Deus which contains the following words:

Satan, who envies the human race, promotes the false belief that the Indians of the West and the South, and other peoples of whom we have come to know in these times, should be treated as dumb brutes to be subjugated for our service. We recognize that these same Indians are truly human beings. We declare that the said Indians, and all other peoples who may later be encountered by Christians, must not 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 lawfully, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property, nor be reduced to slavery.

There is absolutely nothing ambiguous about this. It is not hypocritical. It was simply ignored by those who placed self-interest above the claims of their religion and have thus forfeited any claim to be counted among Christ’s faithful. And it is being ignored still.

 

David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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