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Pope Francis, Modern-Day Slavery Abolitionist

Pope Francis and the Fight Against Slavery

Albert González Farran/UNAMID

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 11/05/13

Yes, slavery still exists in the world today, and Pope Francis wants to make sure the Catholic Church is on the fore-front of eliminating it.

Pope Francis has hosted a conference calling together academics, doctors, and clergy to discuss the growing problem of human trafficking. As global mobility increases, there has been a growing trade in prostitution, organ trafficking, and the use of children and adolescents for the sex trade and drug smuggling. 

The poor in the developing world are especially vulnerable, accepting offers of jobs and a better life from unscrupulous criminals, only to find themselves far from home and caught up in a nightmare of sex slavery, drugs, and crime. Parents are known to sell children into slavery, and when the victims complain or try to expose their masters, their family members at home are threatened with violence.

The AP reports that Marcelo Sánchez Soronodo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, had this to say: “Some experts believe human trafficking will overtake drug and arms trafficking in a decade, becoming the most lucrative criminal activity in the world.”

Critics have sometimes used the issue of slavery to attack Catholics. Evidence from the Bible would seem to support their criticism. In the Old Testament, slavery is taken for granted as a social and economic reality, and in the New Testament, both St. Paul and St. Peter advise slaves to obey their masters.

However, it is not quite as simple as that. While the Old Testament accepts slavery, it also sets out strict and detailed rules for the humane treatment of slaves. They were to be treated as members of the extended family. Temporary slavery was permitted as a way for people to pay off debts, and slaves were to be freed after seven years with an ample gift of food and livestock so that they could be established in freedom. 

While the New Testament writers also take slavery for granted, there is other evidence of a revolutionary understanding of slavery within the New Testament which becomes the foundation for the eventual abolition of slavery.

In Galatians 3:28, St. Paul teaches that in Christ, there is “neither male or female, slave or free.” And in I Corinthians 7:21, he advises slaves to seek their freedom whenever possible. St. Paul also advises his friend Philemon to welcome back an escaped slave, Onesimus. He is to be welcomed as a brother in the Lord, and St. Paul suggests that he be freed. Church tradition says that Philemon did release Onesimus, and that they were reconciled as brothers.

The early Church continued to accept the reality of slavery while insisting on humane treatment, but by the early medieval period, the enslavement of other Christians had been abolished. By the early 1400s, the attitude was shifting against all forms of slavery. It was Pope Paul III who in the early 1500s issued a series of bulls against the enslavement of Native American peoples by the Spanish and Portuguese colonials. There was finally a resounding condemnation of all slavery by Pope Gregory XVI in his 1839 bull, Supremo Apostolatus.

Critics of the Christian tolerance of slavery should be informed that it was actually the insights of St. Paul in Galatians which first suggested that the idea of slavery was intolerable, stating that it went against the ideal of Christian brotherhood, which was grounded in equality in Christ. 

It was Christian saints like Patrick, Wulfstan, and Anselm who taught prophetically against slavery, and Pope Paul III and others over the course of four centuries to Gregory XVI who spoke out increasingly against slavery. That individual Catholics disregarded papal teaching and continued to support slavery only shows that many Catholics are bad Catholics. 

The problem with slavery today is that we think we have abolished it in the modern world. At least when slavery was legal it was controlled, and humane conditions were demanded. Now, since we are under the delusion that slavery does not exist, the conditions are more horrible than ever. Because we think slavery and human trafficking is a thing of the past, today’s slave masters inflict more torture, cruelty, and terrible suffering than we can imagine.

All caring agencies, governments, and churches must continue to be aware of the problem. All Catholics, responding to the lead of Pope Francis, must draw attention not only to these forms of slavery, but also to what might be called “semi-slavery” – those people who are not formally enslaved, but who work in sweat shops around the world for such low wages and in such degrading conditions that they are enslaved in all but legal fact.

Jesus Christ said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” We need restored vision to slavery as it exists today, and we need the power of the Spirit to bring freedom to those who are enslaved.

Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Romance of Religion, will be published in February 2014 by Thomas Nelson. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at

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