Last week, I compiled a non-exhaustive list of ways that Catholic magisterial teaching has changed. I did not substantiate or explain these claims. I continue doing so below.
I tell my students that the Catholic church used to think about slavery the same way most of us think about incarceration today: it’s good as long as long as the person deserves it.
Put another way, earlier magisterial judgments about slavery were not an all or nothing affair. Just as we today believe it is wrong to imprison an innocent person, so magisterial authorities thought the same about enslavement.
But, just as our collective outrage at unjust incarceration does not automatically indicate support for prison abolition, so magisterial condemnations of certain instances of enslavement did not evidence opposition to slavery itself.
For most of the church’s history, the magisterium asked not whether slavery itself was wrong, but when and under what circumstances it was right.
Augustine, for example, thought that slavery was a just punishment for original sin. Original sin brought slavery into the world because it brought disobedience in too. Enslaved people earned their fate due to their disobedience.
But while we would blame slavery on the sinfulness of slave masters, Augustine blamed it to the sins of enslaved people themselves.
For Augustine, slavery was theological in another sense. He argued that, although Jewish people had descended from the free woman Sarah “in the flesh,” they were still slaves due to their spiritual attachment to the Old Testament.
And, even though they lacked a servile attachment to the Old Testament, Augustine’s pagan Arab contemporaries were slaves too (136-137). As the descendants of Abraham’s enslaved concubine Hagar, they had inherited their servile status through not the spirit, but the flesh.
Christians of course were free in both senses.
What about Aquinas? Modern interpreters often point to his belief that slavery was unnatural as evidence that Aquinas somehow opposed slavery.
But this misinterprets his work. As used in reference to slavery, the term “unnatural” did not operate as a category of moral condemnation. He deemed slavery unnatural only in the sense that it was not a part of God’s original plan for creation.
But original sin changed some of the rules of human existence. In this way, Aquinas’ argument for slavery resembled Augustine’s.
While Augustine blamed slavery on the Fall for the way it made people disobedient, Aquinas blamed slavery on the Fall due to the way it made them unreasonable. The more reasonable, that is, the more virtuous, should sometimes act as masters over the less reasonable, that is, the more vicious (Summa II-II, Q. 57, Article 3, ad 2).
Put another way, slavery made sense to Aquinas precisely because certain people lacked it.
To read part two of this history, click here.