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Natural law proves fallible

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Charles Rice tells us that natural law, as interpreted by the Pope, must guide our thought and action (“Natural law still applies,” April 24). I agree, as long as we remember that until 1888, that would mean condoning slavery. In the fourth century, St. Augustine thought slavery could be beneficial to both slaves and masters; in 650 Pope Martin I forbade people to help slaves escape; in 1179 the Third Lateran Council decreed the enslavement of anyone helping the Saracens; in 1226 Pope Gregory IX incorporated slavery into the Corpus Iuris Canonici (Canon Law), where it remained until 1913; in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas considered slavery to be in accordance with natural law and a consequence of original sin; in 1454 Pope Nicholas V’s bull Romanus Pontifex allowed the King of Portugal to enslave Saracens and pagans at war with Christians; in 1493, Pope Alexander VI gave the same right to the King of Spain in fighting native Americans; in 1548 Paul III allowed both clergy and laity to own slaves; in 1866 Pope Pius IX specifically declared that “slavery in itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery, and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. … It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.”

So much for natural law, as interpreted by the Pope or by anyone else, as an infallible, self-evident, unproblematic, unquestionable guide to moral action. In interpreting natural law, we must not forget that the term, like the word “God” itself, often serves merely as an amplifier for our own historically and culturally conditioned prejudices, fears, and judgements.

Christian Moevs

Associate Professor of Romance Languages

April 24