“Slaveholding was always a choice”

by | Apr 18, 2023 | Justice

“Slaveholding was always a choice.” This is the running theme in Christopher J. Kellerman’s book, All Oppression Shall Cease: A History of Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Catholic Church.  The Church’s history of slaveholding then is “not of one choice, but of countless choices made by countless Catholics.” The intellectual arguments needed for the Church to condemn slavery were not lacking, but they were effectively silenced. The Church’s Index of Banned Books and the threat of excommunication from the Church, both helped to censure such views. The “uncomfortable imaginative space” of freedom was avoided at all costs. 1

For Kellerman, there are no easy answers when it comes to the Church’s history with slavery. It is a history not of one choice but of countless choices made by countless Catholics. In making its decisions, there was no one, single teaching that guided the Church, just as there was no one, single teaching of the faith that the Church consistently ignored.

While it would be impossible to accurately summarize the detail that Kellerman covers in his book in a matter of a few paragraphs, what follows attempts to give just a glimpse into a horrible history that spans centuries.

Examining the topic of slavery in scripture, Kellerman admits that “Slavery was part of Jesus’s world, and he never directly condemns or praises it.” Rather than admonishing the centurion for owning a slave, Jesus instead praises his faith (Mt 8:5-10). Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. Black writers would stress the significance of the entire canon of Paul and the importance of reading Scripture comprehensively. It would not be Scripture that was seen as ludicrous, but the white preachers. Ultimately God frees, he does not enslave. That is his character. 

“Christianity contributed to Roman slavery by creating a theology of obedience,” writes Kellerman. By the Church’s teaching and corporate example, the gospel and slaveholding appeared compatible. In fact, Pope Gregory thought that slavery had been ordained by God. The early Jesuits seemed more concerned with building missions than asking too many questions, as ten African slaves helped build the Jesuit school in Coimbra. The Jesuit college in Bahia, Brazil owned seventy slaves, and the Jesuits were sending a ship each year to Brazil filled with slaves. Peter Claver, a minister to enslaved persons, actually helped sustain the legitimacy of slaveholding in Cartagena by both defending it and participating in it. The Peruvian Jesuits alone owned over a thousand enslaved Africans. The Society of Jesus owned over 20,000 enslaved human beings by around 1760. The growth of the missions seemed to take precedence over the very mission of Christ and the character of God. 19th Century American journalist William Lloyd Garrison  criticized his fellow countrymen for “their impious appeal to the God of the oppressed, for his divine benediction while they are making merchandise of his image!” 2

Catholic slavery did not mean, in any tangible way, lighter or more compassionate slavery. In fact, Catholics often took Roman civil law and made it even more severe. Canon law and civil law became so intertwined that a person could not understand one without the other. This often resulted in terrible punishments for enslaved people. For example, Pope Gregory instructed at least one bishop to beat enslaved people who engaged in idol worship. In the seventh century, it was not the clergy who would be punished with slavery, but their concubines and children. The Council of Pavia sanctioned the enslavement of the children of clergy in 1022. The Council of Melfi, in 1089, authorized the enslavement of the wives of clerics who refused to cease living with them. Centuries later, people could be enslaved for helping the Moors, and freed persons could be recalled into slavery for ingratitude.

Kellerman cites the research of Mary E. Sommar, which shows that actually freeing those enslaved by the Church may have been even harder since the transfer of ownership of Church property was often forbidden. Ending the trade was thought by the Church to be too difficult due to the revenue it provided the Spanish Crown.

Instead of “poetically condemning” slavery, while keeping slaves itself, the Church the world over was in need of a prophetic commitment – action more than letters, words, or promulgations. Rather than just waxing eloquent, what was needed was actions that would be taxing to those in power. The rights of masters were tended to and cared for more than the souls of those enslaved.

Pope Paul III wrote that evangelization should come through example and preaching, not through force, although this was regarding only indigenous peoples of the Americas. Enslaved were forbidden from gathering on religious feast days, since they were being used as opportunities to plan escapes. Legal avenues would be secured as early as 1526 when Black Catholic confraternities in both Lison and São Tomé secured the right to sue for the freedom of any of its members. Where legal recourse was not available, a rebellion was the only tool. It would be Kongolese Catholics in South Carolina in 1739 that would lead one of North America’s largest and bloodiest slave uprisings, the Stono Rebellion. 

For seventy-five years, bridging the 15th and 16th centuries, not just one pope, but four would approve the Atlantic slave trade. So established in Catholic tradition, law, and theology was chattel slavery that, papal condemnation of it would not come until the late nineteenth century. Kellerman describes it as one of the most astounding theological revolutions in the history of Christianity, but it took time for that revolution to take root in the American Church.

For example, even though the Church condemned the Atlantic slave trade in 1839, most American bishops and religious orders interpreted this condemnation as only applying to the international trade, not slaveholding itself. There wasn’t a strong abolitionist movement in American Catholicism. In fact, prior to the Civil War, not a single US bishop joined himself to the abolitionist cause.  Kellerman summarizes, “All in all, the response of most Catholics in the United States to the movement seemed to be one of annoyance and confusion as to why these abolitionists were making such a fuss.”

May the Jesus who spoke to Toussaint Louverture and Martha Jane Tolton, among others, continue to speak to all Catholics today, even when Church leadership fails to support certain cries today. As Kellerman concludes, “The truth may not always be thriving in the places where we have been trained to look for it.” 3 

The closing pages of Christopher J. Kellerman’s book, All Oppression Shall Cease: A History of Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Catholic Church, provide the synthesis of much of the history he lays out in the preceding 200 pages.

“The Catechism teaches that along with returning the stolen property, the duty of restitution includes ‘the profit or advantages their owner would have legitimately obtained from them.’ If you are a farmer, and I steal and sell a large sack of seeds that you were going to use to plant your crops that season, I need to give you not only the money that I earned from selling the seeds but also pay you compensation for the profits you would have earned from selling the crops produced by the seeds. I also must pay you compensation for injuries and other losses incurred.” 4


In order to help our readers prayerfully read this book, below are Kellerman’s responses to the most common obstacles to the Church addressing its history of participation in chattel slavery. 

It would be difficult to identify the descendants, requiring time, energy, and research. Some institutions may no longer have any of the wealth or property gained from relying on enslaved labor.

“But these difficulties and challenges in no way eliminate the moral responsibility of these institutions from coming to a just estimation of what they owe (when adjusted for inflation and with a reasonable estimation of the interest that could have been accrued through investment), making an honest attempt at finding living descendants, and offering to engage in conversation with those descendants to facilitate a reparations process.” [203]

Nobody thought it was wrong back then.

“But we must remember that denunciations of what was happening during the era of black slavery were abundant. Religious orders and dioceses chose to ignore or reject those denunciations as they allowed their clergy and institutions to engage in the slaveholding of Africans.” [205]

What else can be done going forward as a Church?

“The Church, if it wants to implement policies and promote ideas that are based on truth and goodness, needs to listen to the voices and experiences of those who are most impacted by its decisions. This lesson is not a superficial and cozy platitude to invoke in order to satisfy our desire to be seen as inclusive. If Rome in the past had been attentive to the people most impacted by its pronouncements or lack thereof concerning slavery, it is quite possible that millions of people may not have spent their lifetimes in bondage. Who knows how many people would not have been raped, tortured, or separated from their loved ones? Who knows how many people would not have committed suicide or died chained at the bottom of the ship? And who knows how many people would not have lost their Catholic faith as Lorendo Goodwin did? Listening to the voices of those who are most impacted by a Church decision can make a crucial, lifesaving, and even salvific impact.” [209]

How to do this listening?

“For example, what if a bishop in the United States, before giving an address on racial justice, first consulted fifty people of color in his diocese? Such consultation could prevent him from, despite good intentions and a desire to promote the Catholic faith, saying something harmful and completely out of touch with the needs and concerns of Catholics of color in his diocese. It also would help him to be a better shepherd of his diocese by learning more about the joys, experiences, gifts, hopes, and fears of his flock.”

“What if the Vatican, when making a decision regarding the Latin Mass, first consulted with Catholics around the world who regularly attend the extraordinary form of the liturgy? Or what if before denouncing ‘gender ideology,’ bishops met with thirty transgender, nonbinary, or intersex Catholics? Some members of these communities may not feel comfortable having such conversations, but others will be eager to talk with their Church leaders about these issues that matter so much to them.” 

“In our age of videoconferencing, email, and relatively easy travel, there is no excuse for Church leaders not to reach out to the people most affected by a decision of the local or universal Church.” [209]

What does the reversal in Catholic moral teaching regarding slavery mean to us today?

“It should be part of our firm purpose of amendment as a Church to make sure that we do not make the same mistake again of teaching erroneous doctrines, especially when those doctrines cause grave harm as did our teaching in defense of slavery. And it is at least theoretically possible that some of our current teachings need to be revised as our teaching on slavery was.” [212]

What does restitution entail for our Church and our society?

“In the United States, when we discuss whether the US government owes restitution to African Americans, we often refer to this debate as one over “reparations,” and the question explores restitution not only for slavery but also for decades of racists policies such as convict leasing, government-sanctioned housing segregation, Jim Crow laws, and allowing lynchings to go unpunished.” [pg. 200]


This was a difficult book to read regarding not just Jesuit history, but the entire Catholic Church’s history, and not just American history, but world history. I think any reader is invited to consider what is it that he or she defends, ignores, opposes, and even rebels against in his or her own life, at this time in Church history. For Kellerman, trying to make ourselves feel better by pointing fingers at others only keeps us from knowing and reconciling with our past. Our biases can get in the way of looking at history honestly, whether that means either defending or condemning the Church at any cost. This might be an invitation to all of us to let go of the compulsion to quickly condemn or defend.


  1. pg. 111
  2. pg. 110
  3. pg. 214
  4. Kellerman, pg. 199. See also paragraphs 2412 and 1459 of the Catechism

Patrick Hyland, SJ

phylandsj@thejesuitpost.org   /   All posts by Patrick