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Slavery once found in natural law

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Professor Charles Rice seems to think (“Church condemns slavery,” April 30) that my Letter to the Editor (“Natural law proves fallible,” April 25) was an attack on the papacy. It was not. It was an observation about natural law.

Of course, we can all list dozens of cases in which popes valiantly condemned the abuses of slavery, the inhumane treatment of slaves, the indiscriminate enslavement of populations, or the slave trade. Many of these condemnations came from the same popes who upheld the institution of slavery itself (Paul III, for example, or Eugenius IV, or Benedict XIV). And, yes, slavery, not servants; the distinction being that servants could not be bought or sold. The instruction I quoted from Pius IX, saying that “slavery in itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law. … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given, provided in the sale, purchase, exchange, or gift, the due conditions are strictly observed which the approved authors describe and explain,” was explicitly in answer to a question about American slaves in the Civil War and the 13th Amendment (it was issued in June 1866). In specifying that “the purchaser should carefully examine whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and the vendor should do nothing which might endanger the life, virtue, or Catholic faith of the slave,” Pius IX also implicitly condemned the mistreatment of American slaves and the slave trade.

All this is beside the point. The point is that for many centuries the popes, in accordance with theological tradition, interpreted natural law to say that in principle one human being can own, buy, sell, or donate another human being (though they should treat that human being with dignity, and not enslave him unjustly). If such buying and selling can ever be considered consonant with natural law, what cannot?

Christian Moevs

associate professor of Romance Languages

May 1