Before commenting (in a near-future post) on Mr. Ferrara’s en passant, stage-setting reference to Wal-Mart, we would like to round out our recent remarks on the Catholic Church and slavery. They pertain to our strategy on this site.
The ownership of one human being by another violates the law of nature and of nature’s God. Such is the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in In Plurimus. Unfortunately for a certain view of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, that teaching is inconsistent with that of many, if not most, of Leo’s predecessors.
Of course, Jesus did not explicitly condemn slavery any more than he did the Roman Empire. Had He and His followers engaged in a frontal assault on the empire and its slavery, He and they would have been in violation of His prudential advice to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16).
Yet, the Gospel intends the abolition of slavery in all its forms, and independently of whether its subjective and objective conditions slavery have been fulfilled. Even if chattel slavery is but an institutional reflection of slavery to sin—that is, it presupposes the slaver’s shutting out the true light given to everyone coming into the world (John 1:9)—there is no justification for an exclusively “spiritual” reading of Jesus’ inaugural sermon (Luke 4:18). He announced the liberation of captives, and not just of the men-stealers (ανδραποδισταις) mentioned in 1 Tim. 1:10.
The spiritual dimension is not sealed off from the physical or the interpersonal. How we treat one another is a reliable indicator of our spiritual state, which is not knowable solely by reflection and contemplation (if at all that way [Jer. 17:9]). Even if for most of the Church’s history it was all but impossible for Christians to have formulated abolitionism as a goal—because of, say, the hardness of their hearts (as Christ explains the Mosaic legal countenancing of divorce [Matt. 19:8])— they ought always to have done so. Christians ideally ought never to have acquiesced in that institution.
Slavery itself, not just the desire to enslave, has no place in the Kingdom of God, which came with Christ’s earthly ministry. Slavery may have been the “business-as-usual” norm under the Kingdom of Satan, but Christ announced the end of that Kingdom and the establishment of His own. Slowly but surely the Gates of Hell are being bent back by the active force of the preaching of the Gospel. The Kingdom of Satan has been invaded, and its strong man hog-tied and looted (Matt. 12:26-29). Eventually the implications of the Kingdom for the institution of slavery sunk in. And some “got” it sooner than others and acted in concert to implement their insight.
Father Maxwell assured his readers that “if for over 1,400 years the Church’s fallible ordinary magisterium was mistaken in its interpretation of the natural moral law concerning the institution of slavery, this in no way impugns the infallibility of the Church. For in no case were the criteria met for a statement of the magisterium on slavery to be infallible.” (Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church, 13)
If we may not fairly test Church infallibility in light of the mistaken, i.e., false, character of the fourteen-century-long common teaching on slavery, just because certain technical criteria were not met, perhaps we may be permitted to wonder what purpose the notion of infallibility serves. Surely slavery was not a matter of prudence or custom, but rather one of faith and morals, touching as it does the dignity of created image-bearers.
For fourteen centuries, popes and bishops accepted slavery as an institution and as a just criminal penalty. They did so either explicitly or—insofar that there is no record of episcopal or papal dissent—implicitly. It does, however, call into question the “point” of a claim of infallibility when the office claiming it can fail so spectacularly. If falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, does not apply, we may at least be within our cognitive rights to have reservations about the truth-value of other proclamations of that office. The “just wage,” for instance.
Thus we foreshadow our approach to Mr. Ferrara’s defense of empirical “Catholic Social Teaching.”