The position of the Catholic Church (officially through the pope) regarding slavery of native Americans in the American continent is very clear. At the beginning of the European colonization of such continent, a legal and theological issue arose with respect to the status of the natives, about whether they had a soul or not (in the latter case, their slavery was possible). The papal bull Sublimis Deus settled for the former, meaning they were rational human beings, servants of the crown and thus not subjects of slavery. Other popes later forbade them more specifically in Brazil, Paraguay and West Indies.

Regarding African slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade however, things are less clear. Well known is fray Bartolome de las Casas, a defender of native americans, who proposed early in 16th century the use of Africans for hard work as replacement for native americans, although retracted later. Quote from Wikipedia:

In his early writings, he advocated the use of African slaves instead of Natives in the West Indian colonies but did so without knowing that the Portuguese were carrying out "brutal and unjust wars in the name of spreading the faith".4 Later in life, he retracted this position, as he regarded both forms of slavery as equally wrong.

Beyond this, little is found. Pius VII was a signatory of the declaration of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 that urged the suppression of the slave trade. In 1839 the papal bull In supremo apostolatus clearly denounced slave trade more broadly. But this is around the same period where slavery was being abolished.

The question here is more specific about the period between 17th and 18th century, when the Atlantic Slave Trade was at is highest. Is there another official writing by the Catholic Church on the topic, either against, in favour, or neutral to it? Wikipedia page on the Atlantic Slave Trade makes no mention of this. The article on the Catholic Church and slavery pretty much omits that period.

  • 5
    Given how...volatile...this issue is today, I'd be very careful accepting modern day statements (including Wikipedia's) about others' past positions without checking back to the original documents or, at least, earlier translations.
    – Mark Olson
    Sep 16, 2021 at 21:14
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    Catholic Church was concerned that all slaves be converted to Christianity. This was its position. However some individual churchmen protested against slavery.
    – Alex
    Sep 16, 2021 at 23:21
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    Up until the mid 19th century (I think), papal bulls almost studiously avoided mentioning sub-Saharan Africans in the context of slavery. Thus, you might conclude that the Vatican didn't really have a policy on the Atlantic slave trade, but it's actually a lot more complicated than that (especially as three centuries is an awful lot of ground to cover). One policy was not to enslave those who had been baptized but, of course, one way around that was not to baptize them in the first place. Sep 17, 2021 at 4:13
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    the idea of blacks as soulless never had any chance to fly. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Maurice was a black saint, he was even patron saint of medieval emperors and his face is still shown on some coat of arms.
    – Luiz
    Sep 20, 2021 at 14:19
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Kongo In 1518 a Congolese prince was ordained priest in Rome itself, and became a bishop afterwards, returning as bishop of his own country (which had a sad end afterwards). Ordaining someone as a bishop is a very official statement that they are not soulless.
    – Luiz
    Sep 20, 2021 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


Which was the official position of the Catholic Church on the Atlantic Slave Trade?

This is going to be a very complicated answer to say the least, especially when we see that the Apostle St. Paul himself never spoke out against slavery in the Apostolic Times.

The institution of slavery was an accepted and deeply established part of Roman society. Before the Roman era, slavery was practiced in Greece and throughout the ancient Near East from the earliest times. In fact, slavery was a part of Judaism in every period of its history. Even the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—owned slaves (see Gen 12:16; 26:19; 30:43).

The widespread practice of slavery does not give moral justification for its existence. Slavery always involves the ownership of one or more persons by another that constitutes the deprivation of their freedom. When we read Paul’s letters (including Ephesians), we find that he never gives a theological basis for slavery; he assumes its presence in society and helps believers understand what it means to live as a Christian within this socioeconomic institution.

The mention of slavery in a modern context immediately leads people to think of the form of slavery practiced in the New World. Slavery during the Roman Principate, however, was vastly different. It is therefore important that we understand the nature of these differences so that we do not unwittingly import modern ideas of slavery into the biblical context. - Why Doesn’t the Apostle Paul Speak Against Slavery?

St. Basil of Caesarea (329, bishopric 370-379) was the Greek bishop of Caesarea Kayseri in Turkey. He believed that all men are created equal by God and that no one is by nature a slave of another man. Despite this position, he accepted the condition of slavery which reigned in the society where he lived.

As early as the seventh century, Saint Bathilde (wife of King Clovis II) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all slaves; in 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. That the Church willingly baptized slaves was claimed as proof that they had souls, and soon both kings and bishops—including William the Conqueror (1027-1087) and Saints Wulfstan (1009-1095) and Anselm (1033-1109)—forbade the enslavement of Christians.

Since, except for small settlements of Jews, and the Vikings in the north, everyone was at least nominally a Christian, that effectively abolished slavery in medieval Europe, except at the southern and eastern interfaces with Islam where both sides enslaved one another's prisoners. But even this was sometimes condemned: in the tenth century, bishops in Venice did public penance for past involvement in the Moorish slave trade and sought to prevent all Venetians from involvement in slavery. Then, in the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas deduced that slavery was a sin, and a series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537.

The Catholic Church has condemned the institution of slavery on several occasions.

Seeing that the Church has condemned slavery prior to the institution of the Atlantic Slavery Trade, it stands to reason that this also is to be considered condemned by Catholicism.

From 1435 to 1890, we have numerous bulls and encyclicals from several popes written to many bishops and the whole Christian faithful condemning both slavery and the slave trade. The very existence of these many papal teachings during this particular period of history is a strong indication that from the viewpoint of the Magisterium, there must have developed a moral problem of a different sort than any previously encountered. In this article I will address three—from many more—of the responses of the papal Magisterium to the widespread enslavement that accompanied the Age of Discovery and beyond.

Eugene IV: Sicut Dudum, 1435

On January 13, 1435, Eugene IV issued from Florence the bull . Sent to Bishop Ferdinand, located at Rubicon on the island of Lanzarote, this bull condemned the enslavement of the black natives of the newly colonized Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The Pope stated that after being converted to the faith or promised baptism, many of the inhabitants were taken from their homes and enslaved:

"They have deprived the natives of their property or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery (subdiderunt perpetuae servituti), sold them to other persons and committed other various illicit and evil deeds against them.... Therefore We ... exhort, through the sprinkling of the Blood of Jesus Christ shed for their sins, one and all, temporal princes, lords, captains, armed men, 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, cause those subject to them to desist from them, and restrain them rigorously. And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex that, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their pristine liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands ... who have been made subject to slavery (servituti subicere). These people are to be totally and perpetually free and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of any money."

Paul III: Sublimis Deus, 1537

The pontifical decree known as "The Sublime God" has indeed had an exalted role in the cause of social justice in the New World. Recently, authors such as Gustavo Gutierrez have noted this fact: 'The bull of Pope Paul III, Sublimis Deus (June 2, 1537), is regarded as the most important papal pronouncement on the human condition of the Indians." It is, moreover, addressed to all of the Christian faithful in the world, and not to a particular bishop in one area, thereby not limiting its significance, but universalizing it.

Sublimis Deus was intended to be issued as the central pedagogical work against slavery. Two other bulls would be published to implement the teaching of Sublimis, one to impose penalties on those who fail to abide by the teaching against slavery, and a second to specify the sacramental consequences of the teaching that the Indians are true men.

The first central teaching of this beautiful work is the universality of the call to receive the Faith and salvation:

"And since mankind, according to the witness of Sacred Scripture, was created for eternal life and happiness, and since no one is able to attain this eternal life and happiness except through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is necessary to confess that man is of such a nature and condition that he is capable to receive faith in Christ and that everyone who possesses human nature is apt for receiving such faith . . . Therefore the Truth Himself Who can neither deceive nor be deceived, when He destined the preachers of the faith to the office of preaching, is known to have said: 'Going, make disciples of all nations.' 'All,' he said, without any exception, since all are capable of the discipline of the faith."

The teaching of Sublimis continued:

"Seeing this and envying it, the enemy of the human race, who always opposes all good men so that the race may perish, has thought up a way, unheard of before now, by which he might impede the saving word of God from being preached to the nations. He has stirred up some of his allies who, desiring to satisfy their own avarice, are presuming to assert far and wide that the Indians of the West and the South who have come to our notice in these times be reduced to our service like brute animals, under the pretext that they are lacking the Catholic Faith. And they reduce them to slavery (Et eos in servitutem redigunt), treating them with afflictions they would scarcely use with brute animals."

Gregory XVI: In Supremo, 1839

The 1839 Constitution In Supremo by Gregory XVI continued the antislavery teaching of his predecessors, and was in the same manner not accepted by many of those bishops, priests and laity for whom it was written. As we will see, even today many authors do not have an accurate understanding of this work. First, however, let us consider the content of In Supremo itself.

The introduction of In Supremo tells us that it was written to turn Christians away from the practice of enslaving blacks and other peoples. In it, Gregory first mentioned the efforts of the Apostles and other early Christians to alleviate out of the motive of Christian charity the suffering of those held in servitude, and that they encouraged the practice of emancipating deserving slaves. At the same time, he noted that:

"There were to be found subsequently among the faithful some who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries did not hesitate to reduce to slavery (in servitutem redigere) Indians, Blacks and other unfortunate peoples, or else, by instituting or expanding the trade in those who had been made slaves by others, aided the crime of others. Certainly many Roman Pontiffs of glorious memory, Our Predecessors, did not fail, according to the duties of their office, to blame severely this way of acting as dangerous for the spiritual welfare of those who did such things and a shame to the Christian name."

Gregory then cited the various predecessors and their antislavery teachings, even recalling the familiar phrase in contained in the work of Paul III and his successors. He mentioned the efforts of Clement I, Pius II, Paul III, Benedict XIV, Urban VIII and Pius VII, before concluding this historical summary:

"Indeed these sanctions and this concern of Our Predecessors availed in no small measure, with the help of God, to protect the Indians and the other peoples mentioned from the cruelties of the invaders and from the greed of Christian traders."

However Gregory was well aware that there was still much work to be done:

"The slave trade, although it has been somewhat diminished, is still carried on by numerous Christians. Therefore, desiring to remove such a great shame from all Christian peoples ... and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors, We, by apostolic authority, warn and strongly exhort in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to bother unjustly, despoil of their possessions, or reduce to slavery () Indians, Blacks or other such peoples. Nor are they to lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not humans but rather mere animals, having been brought into slavery in no matter what way, are, without any distinction and contrary to the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and sometimes given over to the hardest labor."

For the early 19th century, in the midst of the volatile decades before the Civil War, Gregory XVI issued In Supremo, with its clear condemnation of both the slave trade and slavery itself.

Since that Constitution mentioned the documents of the previous pontiffs, it is hard to understand how the American hierarchy was not aware of the consistency of the teaching and its nature.

All of these teachings, nonetheless, went unknown to the Catholic faithful of the U.S., perhaps through willful ignorance, or were explained away by many of the American bishops and clergy. Thus, we can look to the practice of dissent from the teachings of the Papal Magisterium as a key reason why slavery was not directly opposed by the Church in the United States.

In the light of Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI, and Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae of John Paul II, can we not hope that the shepherds of the Church will not fall into the same mistakes of their predecessors?

The Popes and Slavery: Setting the Record Straight

  • Thanks for the thorough answer. The period of 17th and 18th century remains uncovered though, and that was my main question since that is when the ATS was at its peak everywhere in the christian world. Maybe there is some low profile bull somewhere...
    – luchonacho
    Sep 20, 2021 at 17:43
  • @luchonacho If slavery is condemned by Catholicism prior to those centuries then this is an acceptable post,
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 20, 2021 at 17:47
  • Since that Constitution mentioned the documents of the previous pontiffs, it is hard to understand how the American hierarchy was not aware of the consistency of the teaching and its nature.”
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 20, 2021 at 18:18

First, you will find few documents because the Catholic church main problems in the 17th and 18th centuries were other than slavery.

Second, as a summary, the policy regarding enslaved persons was: it is morally bad, because Negroes are sons of God too, and so they deserve to know God, and have what we today call “rights”. This was stablished around 1550 in a theorethical (philosophical) way. See: “discussions of Salamanca University” and also “Leyes de Indias”, in addition of the papal bulls already mentioned.

Third, in pratice, the church did not want to interefere with the economic powers, which the church relied on for their own funding. Only fringe missionaries preached to enslaved persons and wanted to build churches for enslaved persons. See capuchine and augustinian abolitionist monks. Just a few of them. They were considered problematic monks.

Fourth, please find interesting information from the “Propaganda Fide” archives, literally, the Marketing department of the church for the propagation of the faith. Very active during the 17th century. Summary of some of the letters and instruccions from this department: Negroes are of lesser race, lazy and difficult to educate, its not a priority that they know god, and since they have primitive pagan religions and some of them are Muslim (in the eastern Mediterranean, for instance), and since there is work to be done in the plantations, so they should work as enslaved persons and pray to God, and their masters should treat them correctly (as enslaved persons), because they need to work and the work must be done anyway by someone.

Fifth, the result of this was: Masters happy, enslaved persons somewhat ‘protected’, and bishops happy to be worried by other things other than enslaved persons.

Also, forget about finding documents about slavery in the US. The US was non existing in 1607 and in 1815 it was a still rather unpopulated, weak country compared with the Portuguese and Spanish American possessions. This is part of the reason why you do not find church sources from that period! Historians must learn and be willing to look for non-english sources when needed.

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    References needed
    – Mary
    Sep 17, 2021 at 1:15
  • 7
    You really have to change the wording of your answer. And find some references.
    – Jos
    Sep 17, 2021 at 3:26
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    This post shows a serious lack of research.
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 20, 2021 at 16:53
  • 3
    References needed, and I think the answer would be significantly improved if it were more explicit that the attitudes expressed represent contemporary attitudes, not current day attitudes.
    – MCW
    Sep 20, 2021 at 17:59
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    References added. Sorry the wording is direct. It is even more direct in the original documentation, and since English is my third language, this is the best I could translate and summarize.
    – James
    Sep 20, 2021 at 21:46

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