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Church condemns slavery

Letter to the Editor | Sunday, April 29, 2007

In response to my column on the natural law and the Magisterium of the Church (“Natural law still applies,” April 24), professor Christian Moevs claims that “until 1888” the popes were “condoning slavery” (“Natural law proves fallible,” April 25). Normally, a reader who comments on a column should have the last word. But the Moevs comment is inexcusably simplistic and misleading.Slavery antedated the Church by centuries. The Latin “servitus” can mean either “slave” or “servant.” It embraced servitude by “just title,” as in punishment for crime or by voluntary contract, as well as the unjust servitude which we know as slavery. The 1866 Holy Office document to which Moevs apparently refers, recognized that distinction – a point which Moevs fails to mention. In 1866, the Pope over the Holy Office was Pius IX who, in beatifying Peter Claver in 1850 for his work among slaves, had called slavery “supreme wickedness.”For further information I suggest Rev. Joel Panzer’s book, The Popes and Slavery (Alba House, 1996). Panzer analyzes 12 explicit papal condemnations of slavery, dating from the 1400s when the modern age of slavery arose. Prior to the Civil War, some American bishops taught that, although trading in slaves was immoral, owning slaves was not. Panzer demonstrates that this erroneous teaching contradicted the teaching of the popes. The fact that some bishops fail to do their duty should not surprise us today.The teaching authority of the Church, exercised by the Pope and the bishops in union with him, has been consistently right on slavery as it has been on contraception, homosexual activity, economic injustice and other issues that bother today’s cafeteria Catholics.

Charles Riceprofessor emeritusLaw SchoolApril 29