Clarifications: When I say Church, I mean anybody who recognises the authority of the Pope over him. Also, I am referring to efforts on a mass scale, that is papal bulls, formal policies etc. I am not interested in small-scale local efforts initiated by low-ranking members. Also, efforts with the primary aim of converting non-christians to christianity do not count.

The influence of the Church seems to have been considerable during the early 1500s, as shown by the Papal Bull Inter Caetera. In contrast, the influence of the Church has waned in the modern world. Since the modern position of the Church with regards to human rights is very liberal, I wish to know whether the Church actually promoted human rights when it had influence.

Specifically, I wish to know about the efforts to promote the human rights of the :

  • non-christian indigenous people in Colonised nations
  • Slaves
  • Indigenous population in nations overtaken by a Christian population (i.e. US, Australia etc.)
  • Good question. In this (somewhat understandable) era of Church bashing, it's quite easy to gloss over the good things the Catholic Church did for the world. Especially in historically Protestant countries where there have been centuries of defamation against the Catholic church.
    – Noldorin
    Dec 27, 2011 at 1:33
  • It's really easy to demonstrate 19th century onward... Jan 16, 2012 at 15:32
  • 1
    This is quite a broad question. Could you limit the time span?
    – Geremia
    Jan 12, 2018 at 3:04

2 Answers 2


The basic problem with this question is that the Papacy really didn't start producing a large number of encyclicals until Leo XII in the middle of the 19th century. Prior to that, the Papal Bull would be used, as would apostolic letters, but Leo XIII really revolutionized the practice. I highly recommend Papalencyclicals.net for more sources.

Another problem is that slavery and the later abuses come predominantly from areas under the British crown. The French had lost most of their oversees holdings by the middle of the 18th century, the Spanish and Portugese had outlawed a majority of slavery by the end of the 17th century. As far as I know, the only major involvement after this was during the opium war in China (which is well past Catholic influence).

A third problem is "official position" and "official efforts" are often far removed from actual realizations. Spain and Portugal outlawed slavery, but it still continued. For that matter, the US outlawed the import of slaves, but it continued until slavery was abolished.


The big list for slavery timeline can be found here. Any involvement by the Holy Roman Emperor may be considered "action by the Church" depending on your point of view, but even still, there does not seem to be terribly much unilateral action.

  • Enslavement of natives condemned in the 16th century (note: the two major players in the enslavement of natives were the Portugese and the Spanish, both of whom had gotten rid of those practices within about 150 years (4 generations or so) of the condemnation)
  • Direct condemnation of all slavery is found here, but that is in the 19th century.

The Poor

For the (mid/late) 19th century, Rerum Novarum is arguably the single most important document in Catholic Social Teaching since the Bible itself (actually, when I was in grad school, it was considered the "first, best place" to learn the Church's opinons re: social justice). If you like that, there are at least a dozen encyclicals based off of that, some being as clearly named as "Forty years later" and "One hundred years later", but those are from the beginning of the 20th century onward.

Immediately, this document on almsgiving from the Council of Trent comes to mind.

The pastor, therefore, should encourage the faithful to be willing and anxious to assist those who have to depend on charity, and should make them realise the great necessity of giving alms and of being really and practically liberal to the poor, by reminding them that on the last day God will condemn and consign to eternal fires those who have omitted and neglected the duty of almsgiving, while on the contrary He will praise and introduce into His heavenly country those who have exercised mercy towards the poor.

Then, there is Clement XIII's "On Unity Among Christians"

Among the fruits of justice, mercy to the poor should certainly be considered the most important.

  • 150 years is 8 generations.
    – Anixx
    Jan 17, 2012 at 7:59
  • 1
    @Anixx That entirely depends on your yardstick. If you are looking for the actual lifespan, that is closer to 30 years/generation (also happens to be the number if you type define:generation into Google). My understanding is that for men it is actually closer to 33 years and for women it is closer to 29 years. The Biblical generation was 40 years, and the modern sense of the word is about 20 years (Gen. X is at least 20 years, but Gen Y is sometimes cited as only 10). Jan 17, 2012 at 14:45

Pope Paul III issued a Papal Bull, the "Sublimus Dei" forbidding the slavery of Native Americans. However, it should be noted that this was 7 years after, Charles V of Spain had issued a similar decree. Thus it's debatable how much effect it had and whether it would have been issued in face of opposition from Spain/France/Portugal.

  • 2
    On the other hand, the Catholic Church (in particular Jesuits) often promoted the fundamental rights of the indigenous populations of South America (e.g. the Guarani) against some very unscrupulous Spanish and Portuguese slave traders and general exploiters.
    – Noldorin
    Dec 27, 2011 at 1:32
  • @Noldorin, interesting, considering that the "very unscrupulous Spanish and Portuguese slave traders" were themselves probably card-carrying members of the Catholic Church.
    – user10356
    Nov 26, 2015 at 3:17
  • 2
    @coderworks: And what's your point? Or did you just want to express some anti-religious bigotry?
    – Noldorin
    Nov 26, 2015 at 3:26
  • hmm "bigotry"? more like a statement of a fact. History is my judge. How about those churches taking care of that their followers actually follow those "statements" of the church leaders...otherwise they risk ending rather shallow statements. Sort of like today when the Vatican caters to one population through the Popes speeches, and another part of the population through their actions. That way they maximize their membership I guess? Or is it a case of "when money talks, everything else walks"...
    – user10356
    Nov 26, 2015 at 6:15

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