African enslavement in the New World presented the Roman Catholic Church with a quandary because its colonies did not accord the slaves legal equality. Historians have generally divided into two camps regarding the role of the Catholic Church in the enslavement of Africans: one side thinks the church helped protect the humanity of black slaves, while others see the church as being no more of a protector of the enslaved than were Protestant groups in North America. Both sides make valid points, as the Catholic Church’s position on African slavery was never fully clear.
Slaves in Catholic Colonies
To maintain a balance of power between Portugal and Spain, Pope Alexander VI, in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, divided the known New World between the two countries. As there was a need to locate a group to work in areas where the supply of indigenous labor was insufficient, to sustain their colonies, Spain and Portugal imported Africans. Between 1500 and 1850, twelve million Africans arrived in the Americas to toil as slaves. The vast majority of these slaves worked in the Catholic colonies of Spain and Portugal.
Protector of Slaves' Humanity
The Catholic Church, over the course of four centuries, denounced the trade of African slaves. Various Popes condemned the enslavement of blacks publicly. Pius II (1462), Paul III (1537), Urban VIII (1639), Benedict XIV (1741) and Gregory XVI (1839) all spoke out against slavery, helping to create a negative tone within Catholic colonies in regards to this peculiar institution.
Within Catholic communities, the Church declared that masters and slaves, though unequal on earth, inhabited the same plane in the eyes of God. Blacks received public baptisms and had their marriages officially recorded. Because Catholics considered baptized slaves in full communion with the Church, as opposed to some non-Catholic colonies, masters could not kill a slave without facing murder charges. If able, slaves had a right to purchase their freedom, referred to as an act of manumission. Slaves could not be worked on Sundays or on the thirty Catholic feast days, guaranteeing some days of leisure. Slaves could also join lay Catholic fraternal organizations alongside free blacks. All of these protections, perhaps, provided slaves in Catholic territories with a degree of protection from the harshness of the dehumanizing experience of slavery.
Church’s Role Revisited
In his 1972 book, "Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States," Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Carl Degler states his belief that the Catholic Church did not protect the slaves. The slaves freed through Catholic manumission rules, noted Degler, were usually the sick and elderly who had lost their value to masters. The Catholic popes, though condemning slavery publicly, let the institution continue, because the church regarded slavery as an official form of labor, according to historian Stanley Elkins. Moreover, given that there were few priests in the colonies and that most slaves lived in rural, plantation areas, the church could not have enforced any high ideals against enslavement anyway, observed Delger.
Understanding the role of the Catholic Church in the enslavement of blacks in the New World is complex. Slavery was legally abolished in the United States when the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. However, though popes often denounced African slavery, the colonies allowed slavery well after the U.S. Civil War. Cuba abolished slavery in 1886. It would only be in 1888 that Brazil would abolish slavery.
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