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Does the Catholic Church have an official position on slavery reparations?

For those interested, I asked the same question on Mi Yodeya, which is the site for Judaism.

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Does the Catholic Church have an official position on slavery reparations?

There are two basis for reparations, a legal basis and a moral basis. Either one would require a more specific identification of the injured party and the responsible party. Also a more specific definition of terms would have to be used as throughout history slavery of varying types as well as servitude and serfdom of varying types have been found.

A general principle regarding disfavor to be shown to those who exploit labor can be drawn from;

James 5:4 Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

To establish a legal basis for reparations one would, in addition to identifying the injured and responsible parties, also have to establish the degree of injury. For an economic claim this might be established by comparing the economic condition of the injured party to the economic condition of one that was not injured.

In the case of African American slavery, one might compare the economic condition of the average black person in America and the economic condition of the average West African whose ancestors were not taken.

I can see several reasons for the Catholic church to avoid entangling itself in the subject;

  1. The Catholic church has no role to play in adjudicating civil legal claims.
  2. The identification of injured and responsible parties is impossible since they are all now dead.
  3. Evidence exists that rather than suffering economic disadvantage any prospective claimants may actually have benefited economically over those whose ancestors were not taken.
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I do not think the Church has any official position, or any reason to have one.

In the link provided, Rev. Farrakhan is quoting a papal bull dating from 1452, that is essentially authorizing the Portuguese king, Alfonso V, to conduct a new crusade against the "Saracens" (probably the Ottoman Empire).

In it, there is a phrase in which the pope authorizes the king as follows:

With these words, by the Apostolic authority, we grant you permission to invade, conquer, capture, and subjugate those persons [the Saracens, unbelievers, and enemies of Christ], and reduce them to perpetual servitude, and also the lands, duchies, counties, principalities, and any other dominions, possessions, and goods of the same (my translation).

Or, see the Latin original:

Invadendi, conquerendi, expugnandi, et subiugandi, illorumque personas in perpetuam servitutem redigendi, regna quoque, Ducatus, Comitatus, Principatus, aliaque Dominia, possessiones, et bona huiusmodi, tibi et successoribus tuis Regibus Portugalliae, perpetuo applicandi, et appropriandi, ac in tuos, et eorundem successorum usus, et utilitates convertendi plenam, et liberam, auctoritate Apostolica, tenore praesentium concedimus facultatem.

Noteworthy is the phrase perpetuam servitutem. It is possible that the pope is authorizing a kind of serfdom, which was still all too common in Europe at the time. The term servitudo is ambiguous. In addition to "slavery," it could be a generic term for "subjugation" or "service."

Pope Nicholas actually uses the term in that way in the opening of the bull:

Dum diversas, nobis licet immeritis superna providentia commissi Apostolicae servitutis officii, curas, quibus quotidie Nos urgentibus angimur, sedula quoque hortatione pulsamur, in mente revolvimus.

As we turn over in our minds the various cares of the duty of Apostolic service, entrusted to us by celestial providence (much as we do not deserve it), by which we are urgently anguished, we are also moved by an insistent encouragement.

Regardless of Rev. Farrakhan's intentions, he does not seem to have been aware that this bull was written nearly a century before the Atlantic slave trade began. It was completely unrelated to the tragic deportation of Africans to the Americas.

That the pope should authorize a crusade of this kind (let alone authorize serfdom for the conquered peoples) is, naturally, an excessive mingling of temporal and spiritual power.

This bull cannot, however, be construed as a teaching or magisterial document. It has no weight whatsoever regarding the Church's teaching about serfdom and slavery, which did not develop until later, in the light of the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of the Americas.

  • I'm curious about your last paragraph. As far as I know the Church has always condemned abuses of slavery, but not slavery itself. Wasn't Jesus surrounded by slavery when he was walking the Earth? If so, it's interesting that he never condemned it. None of the major religions seem to condemn slavery, which makes me think the modern abhorrence towards it is wrong. That there's nothing intrinsically immoral about slavery. – user8547 Oct 21 '14 at 15:41
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    I suppose it depends what is meant by slavery. Slavery in the ancient world was almost never racist, like the slavery that grew up in the Americas and other colonies, and slaves were not usually bought and sold like goods. Slavery of that modern kind is clearly wrong always and everywhere, and the Church has condemned it many times. (Have a look at the Catechism, for example.) I think that even ancient slavery was objectively immoral, but it took a long time for the Church, or its members, to realize that it was wrong, because slavery was so prevalent. – AthanasiusOfAlex Oct 21 '14 at 16:32
  • I should point out that subsequently these bulls were used as an excuse to capture African slaves. But I don't think that could have been the intention of Pope Nicholas, since neither colonization nor the slave trade had yet begun. – AthanasiusOfAlex Oct 21 '14 at 16:38
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I do not see any authoritative statement regarding reparations for slavery from the Vatican or from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where I would expect them.

The Vatican has, however, made a comment regarding reparations in reference to racism, which it might be expected to apply to any theory about reparations generally. In its Contribution to [the] World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, And Related Intolerance, the Pontifical Council For Justice And Peace stated:

From the legal point of view, all persons (individual or corporate) have a right to equitable reparation if personally and directly they have suffered injury (material or moral).

(paragraph 12, emphasis added)

Although there is no direct evidence, this would provide a strong precedent for the Vatican to deny that reparations for slavery were owed to any person currently living.

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