Slavery and the Catholic Church book cover

Excerpt of Slavery and the Catholic Church in the United States

The following is an excerpt from Slavery and the Catholic Church in the United States, edited by David J. Endres with a foreword by Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre. David J. Endres is dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West/Athenaeum of Ohio and editor of U.S. Catholic Historian.

U.S. Catholic Religious and Slavery: Seeking Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation


Attitudes Toward Slavery in the U.S. Catholic Church

For most American religious of the twentieth century, the ownership of enslaved persons by their forebears in religion is disturbing. For religious formed since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), this aspect of their history might seem incomprehensible. The teaching of that council places slavery among the crimes against the dignity of the human person and calls the Church to work to eliminate all forms of slavery:

The varieties of crime are numerous: . . . all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where people are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons: all these and the like are criminal; they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the creator. . . . Human institutions, both private and public, must labor to minister to the dignity and purpose of the human person. At the same time let them put up a stubborn fight against any kind of slavery, whether social or political, and safeguard the basic rights of the human person under every political system.6

In the Catholic Church of the early nineteenth century, no formal and absolute condemnation of slavery as an institution existed. Although recognizing abuses in the system, the Church did not see slavery as a moral evil in itself but as a result of original sin. Christians found no condemnation of slavery in the scriptures or in the writings of early church theologians: “From Genesis to Philemon one could find no condemnation of the practice. Jesus did not utter one word of censure against slavery even though it was in full existence in his day. Saint Paul, who claimed to have met the resurrected Christ, did nothing to abolish it—in fact, he did just the opposite when he said, ‘Slaves, be obedient to your masters.’”7 Although slavery per se was not condemned, Pope Pius II in 1462 and Pope Urban VIII in 1639 had condemned the slave trade. Pope Benedict XIV condemned the continued enslavement of native peoples in 1741.8 

By the end of the eighteenth century, abolition movements began in various countries and in some parts of the United States. In 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued an apostolic letter again calling for the elimination of the African slave trade.9 Voices opposing slavery began to arise among Catholics in European countries.10 Catholics in the United States, however, did not take a lead in the abolitionist movement. Of the few significant Catholic voices, the most prominent came from outside the United States—the Irish leader, Daniel O’Connell. His voice did not receive a warm welcome in the United States, however.11 Catholic leaders consistently tended to identify the abolitionists with anti-Catholic and nativist sentiments. The Know-Nothing Party platform of 1855, which combined antislavery, nativist, and anti-Catholic concerns, did nothing to win Catholic converts to the antislavery movement.12 Catholic leaders tended to avoid the slavery issue, which divided the nation. In their 1859 provincial council meeting in Baltimore, the bishops of the United States avoided taking a stand on the issue. Although Catholic leaders admitted that human bondage was not an ideal system, they differed on the gravity of the evil and the practicality of proposals to end the system. The only element upon which they agreed was that the principles and methods of the abolitionists were a threat to the country’s well-being.13

Slavery and the Catholic Church book cover

At the time of the Civil War, Northern church leaders generally supported the position of the Union, and Southern church leaders generally supported the Confederacy. In 1862, Orestes Brownson, a prominent American Catholic layman and thinker, wrote that in the mind of Catholics, the preservation of the Union took precedence over slavery’s abolition. As a Northerner, he wrote that it was his impression that the majority of Catholics opposed the abolitionists but were neither in favor of slavery nor opposed to gradual emancipation. At the time he supported emancipation as a political and military necessity.14 In his manual of moral theology written in the early 1840s, Francis Patrick Kenrick, bishop of Philadelphia and later archbishop of Balti-more, regretted the institution of slavery as it was practiced in the United States but generally acquiesced in the prevailing conditions in the country. Although especially concerned about the restrictions on the education of enslaved persons and on their freedom to practice religion, he nevertheless opposed the violation of laws controlling slavery. He encouraged slaves to be obedient and masters to be just and kind. Though the original seizure of slaves was immoral, Kenrick argued that the descendants of those who originally purchased the slaves should not be held accountable.15 Kenrick represented Catholic opinion in the United States, which generally supported the status quo. Those Catholics who saw slavery as an evil, in general, were for gradual, not forced, emancipation.

*An earlier version of this essay was published as “U.S. Catholic Religious and Slavery: A Seldom Told Story,” in the Review for Religious 58, no. 4 (July–August 1999): 342–363. I am grateful for the permission to reprint it in revised form with the permission of the U.S. Central and Southern Province, Society of Jesus. My interest in this topic arose partly from my friendship with the now-deceased African American Marianist, Father Paul Marshall, a leader in our religious order and in the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus. When the article first appeared, Father Marshall was happy that the history was being acknowledged, especially by a white religious. Clearly, some important developments have happened in the years since the article was first published. Nevertheless, I believe its message still has relevance.

  1. Gaudium et Spes, §27, 29.
  2. Kenneth J. Zanca, ed., American Catholics and Slavery: 1789–1866, an Anthology of Primary Documents (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994), xxxi.
  3. Zanca, American Catholics and Slavery, 37-39.
  4. Madeleine Hooke Rice, American Catholic Opinion in the Slavery Controversy (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1964), 21.
  5. John Francis Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church: The History of Catholic Teaching Concerning the Moral Legitimacy of the Institution of Slavery (London: Barry Rose, 1975), 101–110.
  6. David J. O’Brien, Public Catholicism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 65. See also Rice, American Catholic Opinion, 80–85.
  7. O’Brien, Public Catholicism, 53.
  8. Rice, American Catholic Opinion, 85.
  9. See Brownson’s Quarterly Review (October 1862) 451–487, excerpted in Zanca, American Catholics and Slavery, 134–139. 
  10. Zanca, American Catholics and Slavery, 200. See also Joseph D. Brokhage, Francis Patrick Kenrick’s Opinion on Slavery (Washington, DC: Catholic University of American Press, 1955), 122–124.

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