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Dissent: Lessons from slavery

 |  NCR Today


In a blog posted Sept. 21, "Can We Talk?", I wondered if it might be possible to have a civil debate on the troublesome hot topic of dissent from church teaching. Is dissent ever legitimate or is it not? I carefully read the many responses, which displayed a range of thinking on the subject. For a few, there was no need to talk. And I quote:


  • “Religion is intrinsically totalitarian...”

  • “Most modern dissent was caused by Vatican II which never was needed...”

  • “There is orthodoxy and [there is] Heterodoxy...”

For others discussion would be ideal but it cannot happen:


  • “No on ever changes his/her mind… based on another’s point of view...”

  • “I have no problem but it is useless.”

  • “People talk but do not listen...”



The majority however found the concept intriguing:

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  • “Yes, I have hoped for that...”

  • “I am totally supportive...”

  • “I pray the Holy Spirit will lead us in the right direction...”



So I’m encouraged to proceed, adopting two excellent suggestions from readers. First, we are talking here about “dialogue,” not debate. And second, ideas will be presented with the caveat, “Of course I could be wrong.”

As a discussion starter, I think both conservatives and liberals can agree that some church teachings at various times can and have changed over the centuries. And we can talk about this without specifying what levels of teaching may be altered or what may not be altered.

It’s pretty obvious that change is a phenomenon of the Christian experience. As an example, consider the subject of slavery. It is not one of the current hot buttons but has a long been a subject of discussion and analysis in the Catholic Church.

One of the most penetrating accounts of slavery’s history can be found in the first 119 pages of A Church That Can and Cannot Change by John T. Noonan, Jr., a respected Catholic intellectual and veteran judge on the federal circuit court of appeals for the ninth district. In a highly readable style, Noonan shows how the church, along with the rest of Western civilization, openly tolerated and often supported slavery for some 1,800 years before coming to a complete change of heart and mind.

At issue, writes Noonan, was the “intrinsic character of a relationship in which one person bought, sold, mortgaged and transferred another person without regard to that person’s will or education or vocation, in which the one owned is a chattel of the owner.”

That slavery was acceptable in God’s sight seemed self-evident to the Jews based on the law handed down at Mt. Sinai. As recorded in Leviticus, God tells his people, “The slave and the slave girl shall come from the nations round about you…. They may become your property and you may leave them to your sons after you; you may use them as slaves permanently.”

Despite the radical equality of all preached by Paul in the New Testament --
“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman” -- Paul tolerated slavery. He urged masters to stop “bullying” their slaves and encouraged slaves to “obey your masters” -- yet he never criticized slavery as an institution.

Nor, it seems, did Jesus, who healed the slave of a centurion, yet did not comment critically on the status of slaves in this case or elsewhere.

Throughout the centuries, popes, bishops and theologians called on slaveholders to treat their slaves charitably and not abuse them. There was no suggestion that slaves were less than human.

Slaves could become Christians, and they did. Slaves like Felicity, Blandina and Vitale are among honored saints and martyrs in the church. In the seventh century Pope Gregory the Great owned slaves himself, and on one occasion was so impressed with the noble faces and obvious intelligence of some young pagan slaves he encountered that he wanted to go to their native land, England, and convert their relatives and friends to Christianity. That was his goal, not the elimination of the slave trade itself.

Some fathers of the church like Gregory of Nyssa were troubled by slavery, seeing it as a sin of pride and contrary to human nature. They chided slave owners for their arrogance but none was an advocate of abolition.

Even as Christianity emerged as the glue that held Western Europe together in the second millennium, the practice of slavery continued to flourish.

Writes Noonan: “No pope or general council laid down as law that Catholic Christians might not lawfully enslave [even] Catholic Christians defeated in battle along with their wives and children.”

Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, held that slavery was “a corporeal condition” created by “human reason for the utility of human life.” No vocabulary to confess the sin of slave owning or trading can be found in the writings of Aquinas or other moral teachers. Much attention was paid to offenses such as theft, robbery, adultery, fornication, incest and rape.

“No word,” writes Noonan, “designated as an offense the owning of another person.” In fact, anyone who assisted a slave in running away from his master committed a sin, according to Catholic teaching of the time, because he was cooperating in stealing the master’s property.

Very gradually an awakening occurred. A singular break with tradition took place in the 13th century when the city of Bologna bought all the slaves within its jurisdiction and set them free. The action was widely discussed and celebrated. However, no other city followed Bologna’s example.

With the discovery of the New World, popes and kings worked in cooperation to oversee the slave trade. For example, Pope Nicholas V in the 16th century granted to the king of Portugal “full and free faculty” to “conquer, crush, pacify and subjugate” the population of Guinea and “to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”

Yet, increased attention to the slave trade brought forth for the first time prophetic voices, like that of Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish Dominican priest who accompanied Columbus on one of his journeys. He wrote about the cruelty he observed and concluded that “Christ granted no power to apostle or preacher of the faith to force the unwilling” to obey and no power… to seize their possessions and enslave them.”

Las Casas is often remembered for his debate with the renowned theologian Sepulvida in 1550. One by one he took apart the arguments for waging war and enslaving Indians, finding them “completely absurd.” The prominent theologian Thomas Cajetan, also a Dominican, declared, “On a living human being, so long as he is held in slavery, violence is continually inflicted.”

Popes at last began to speak out against the wholesale enslavement of Africans and Native Americans but still stopped short of pronouncing slavery itself immoral and forbidden.

By the 19th century, the moral justification of slavery was in retreat, though its practice continued in the United States and elsewhere. The first official papal condemnation came in an encyclical by Gregory XVI in 1863. He said the faithful should be “dissuaded” from the “inhuman traffic” in “blacks or any other kind of persons.”

The pope did not explain why it took so long for the church take a stand, nor did he ground the condemnation on the natural law or the liberating message of the Gospel. Some quibbling followed. John England, bishop of Georgia and the Carolinas and the leading prelate in the U.S., argued that the pope spoke only against the international slave trade, not against slavery itself.

Nevertheless, the handwriting was on the wall. By the 20th century there was no more arguing. The Second Vatican Council listed slavery as “especially contrary to the honor of the creator.”

It was left to Pope John Paul II to put a stamp of finality on the discussion. In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, he spoke of certain acts that are incapable of being ordered to God, that are always and everywhere intrinsically evil. Among these he listed slavery along with genocide, homicide and abortion. There can never, ever, said the pope, be an excuse for such actions.

So what has all this got to do with dissent? I think slavery illustrates clearly that something gravely evil can for long periods of time be viewed as not at all evil by the leaders, the experts and vast numbers of the laity. This blindness to slavery persisted age after age for some 1,800 years.

How can it be that something so obvious to us -- the evil in essentially denying basic rights to another human being -- was perceived as not evil at all or only dimly so for such a period?

Noonan says part of the answer may be that the leading Christians -- popes, bishops, theologians -- had little or no personal experience with slavery. They did not see first-hand how it degraded and crippled the human body and spirit.

Of course no one asked the slaves what they thought. So the leaders wrote and spoke about slavery rationally and from above, fashioning horrible accommodations that made sense only when presented at a safe distance from real life. The history of slavery tells us that there was something essential in the Gospel message that had to be teased out, its implications drawn out slowly over a long time and with great difficulty.

And I have to wonder if our ancestors in the faith missed this elephant in the living room, the question what else may we still be missing?

Of course I could be wrong, but that’s where dissent comes in. It is closely related to change. The institution of slavery survived for so long because few thought there was anything to dissent about. Only when voices were finally raised did the church as a whole remove its blinders.

This doesn’t prove all dissent is good, only that sometimes it is -- sometimes even necessary. I believe the tension in a particular issue between dissenters and those who choose not to dissent can be healthy and productive if both sides are respectful and agree that loud diatribes and silent stalemates are useless.

Catholicism’s culture wars have gone on long enough. What do you think?

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