Our current focus on the Jesuits’ corporate involvement in slavery in colonial America complements our posting for March 14 concerning slavery inspired and authorized by decree of European royalty:
Mr. Ferrara excoriates . . . the revolutionary expropriation of ecclesiastical property in France, but not the absolutist state of Louis XIV who reserved to Roman Catholics the privilege of owning human beings in France’s colonies, provided the slaves were baptized and their families not broken up. His Royal Highness was only acquiescing in then-current Catholic Social Teaching which, thank God, contrary to Mr. Ferrara, can change.
While the Sun King (r. 1643-1715) was basking in his reflected glory, Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-1644) was in the market for 40 galley slaves to be bought for his personal squadron of bonavoglie (rowers). Following suit, his successor, who took the unintentionally ironic name of Innocent X (r. 1644-1655), ordered 100, as did his successor to the Throne of Peter, Alexander VII (r. 1655-1667).*
It is also worth noting that papal solicitude for the natives of the Americas vis-à-vis the Spanish empire's demand for slave labor did not officially extend to Africans until 1839 during the reign of Gregory XVI (1831-1846). Even at that late date, however, His Holiness was maintaining a distinction between "just" and "unjust" acquisition of slaves.
How is this dirty laundry germane to TCATL and our serial response thereto? In this way: by anticipating Mr. Ferrara’s defense of what he means by “Catholic Social Teaching” and its putative moral authority, we are following his own foreshadowing of his later argument.
In the third historical “sketch,” currently under review, Mr. Ferrara does not explain what he means by “wage slaves.” (The reader is free, however, to form an emotionally charged impression from his heart-rending illustrations.) He nevertheless employs that term in a way that (a) fails to illuminate the true condition of employees in global corporations and (b) trades on the emotional charge that rightly attaches to the enormity of genuine slavery.
As “wage slavery” is a staple of socialist, even Marxist, propaganda,** a Catholic should have strong reasons for parroting such lingo. Mr. Ferrara offers none, yet irresponsibly plants this malignant seed in his reader’s mind. We are merely uprooting that seed. When he returns to that ground, we will not only repeat but also elaborate upon our counter-argument.
There is an additional strategic reason for our rummaging through the Church’s moral dumpster: papal apologiae for slavery discredits in advance any simple appeal to encyclicals on behalf of empirical Catholic Social Teaching.
Rerum Novarum*** is deafeningly silent on the long-standing casuistic distinction between owning a person (magisterially long forbidden) and owning his labor (once magisterially permitted), a distinction that once gave slavery canonical “wiggle room.”
Given the ordinary magisterium’s track record on this issue, however, no papal condemnation of slavery per se—whether implicit as in Rerum Novarum (1891) or explicit as in Veritatis Splendor (1993)–suffices to command assent. We need something besides a pope’s ipse dixit. (Again, “No more slavery, starting . . . now!,” simply will not do.) We need, for instance, to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ inaugural sermon, recorded in Luke 4, and draw conclusions that it took 18 centuries for theologians to draw.
Mr. Ferrara, our unsung Doctor of the Church, may wish that the concurrence of seven consecutive (historically recent) popes is all that’s needed theologically, that a modern “social” encyclical is to be received by Catholics virtually as Holy Writ, but wishing doesn’t make things so.
And, by the way, that goes for Ubi Arcano no less than for Rerum Novarum: one cannot establish the juridical sufficiency of a papal encyclical by citing a papal encyclical, as Mr. Ferrara apparently thinks. (327 n. 4) More on this in due course, but we hope that this exposure of circular reason will go a long way for most readers!
To Be Continued
* For citation of contemporary documents supporting these claims, see John F. Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church: A History of Catholic Teaching concerning the Moral Legitimacy of the Institution of Slavery (London: Barry Rose Publishers, 1975), 76-77.
** As there is a kind of “Gresham’s Law” of language whereby bad words tend to drive good words out of circulation, it is worth noting that one consequence of this linguistic corruption (which we charitably assume is unintended) is the occlusion from consciousness of instances of genuine slavery which, since it is the opposite of working for a wage, then needs a new name. And so when a union activist, for example, targets “wage slavery” for elimination, he or she trivializes the plight of upwards of 27 million people who would gladly trade places with wage-earners. 19th century abolitionists repudiated this identification, notably former slave Frederick Douglass, who delighted in his first wage-paying job, and William Lloyd Garrison, who explicitly regarded it as involving an “abuse of language.” It does not bode well for our times that such things need to be spelled out, or for our Church in particular that educated Catholic laymen are among those responsible for the currency of such a template of mental laziness.
*** We happily note that Leo XIII’s statement in Rerum Novarum, paragraph 3, that “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself,” while walking right up to the line of abusing language, does not cross it. If a condition is “little better than slavery,” then it’s not slavery, not even “wage slavery.”