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The Church and Modern Slavery: Responding with strength and humility

David Hollenbach, SJ-La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Mar 9th 2023

The Church and Modern Slavery: Responding with strength and humility

Church's Response to Modern Slavery: Strength and humility, David Hollenbach Image by Freepik

The Church should address the reality of modern slavery with a combination of two qualities of spirit that are rarely associated with each other: strength and humility. Strength of spirit is surely needed, for the realities of modern slavery can easily tempt one to despair over the continuing abuse human beings continue to inflict upon each other. In the face of possible discouragement, Christians will need an inner strength of heart if they are to take the vigorous action required to overcome the abuses that modern slavery and trafficking inflict on the human dignity of men, women and children today.

At the same time, if Christians are to address contemporary slavery and trafficking in an appropriate way, the Church community will have to do so in a spirit of deep humility. Such humility will be essential because the Christian community, throughout nearly all of its history, not only believed that slavery was morally and religiously legitimate, but her members and leaders enslaved others. To avoid facing a legitimate charge that its opposition to slavery today is markedly hypocritical, the Church must clearly acknowledge its own past failures to recognize and to actively respect what human dignity demands that we take for granted today. Indeed, the Church needs to admit, in a spirit of both humility and repentance, that her members behaved in ways that today she regards as shameful. This is a challenging task, for the strength of spirit needed to work against current serious abuses of humanity and the humility that the history of the Church’s way of dealing with human enslavement requires will not be easily combined.


Some terms and facts

It will be useful to begin with a clarification of a few terms and some facts about the situation today. First, we need to be clear on what we mean by “slavery” in our context. The term  is used to describe several types of behavior and institutions. Slavery is most commonly used to refer to activities that treat human beings as property or chattels. For example, the 1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention defined slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.”[1] People were often held to be lawfully owned in this way because they were seen as inferior to those who owned them, due to their race or to being members of  a culture regarded as inferior. For example, Aristotle held that some persons were destined by nature to a condition of slavery. In his words: “some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.”[2] Other justifications for enslavement included the claim that children of slaves were themselves rightly slaves, and that people conquered in war could rightly be held in bondage. These kinds of chattel slavery were often enforced by law, with the law backed up by convictions derived from religion and culture.

There are similarities between the chattel slavery in which one person legally owns another and the issues we face today, but there are also significant differences. The legal ownership of one person by another has been rejected in virtually all countries and cultures. Britain abolished trade in slaves in 1807 and forbad the ownership of persons in 1833. The United States banned legalized ownership of persons in 1865 in the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed at the end of the Civil War. Almost all countries have followed suit over recent years, with slavery officially abolished by Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962, and Mauritania in 2007. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared in 1948 that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms” (art. 4). If we identify enslavement with the legal ownership of some persons by others, we can ask if there is any slavery in the world today.[3]

Our concern here, however, is with forms of human abuse that are similar to chattel slavery in the suffering they cause even though they do not involve the legal ownership of one person by another. These forms of exploitation are frequently called “modern slavery.” Modern slavery does not have a precise legal definition. It refers to situations of exploitation that the person being exploited cannot escape because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power. Modern slavery includes forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage, human trafficking, and other  conditions traditionally associated with slavery.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that in 2016 there were 40.3 million people living in conditions of modern slavery. Of these, 24.9 million were in forced labor, where they were being coercively compelled to work; 15.4 million people had been forced into a marriage to which they had not consented; 71 percent of those in modern slavery were women, as were 99 percent of those forced to work in the commercial sex industry. One out of four of the victims of modern slavery were children. Over the five-year period ending in 2018, the Global Slavery Index prepared by the Walk Free Foundation estimated that 89 million people had experienced some form of slavery.[4] To treat persons in these ways is clearly to exploit and abuse them through forms of coercion that restrict their freedom through violence or a harmful misuse of power. The diverse forms of modern slavery injure persons, often severely.

Slavery as a grave abuse of human dignity

Modern forms of slavery of these types are severe violations of the humanity and dignity of those subjected to it. Those enslaved are treated as less than human, not only through the material, physical and economic harms they experience, but also through the psychological and spiritual wounds that being treated this way inflicts upon them. Such treatment violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its insistence that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”[5] It also contravenes the Bible’s proclamation in the book of Genesis that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). This means that every human being possesses a sacredness and dignity that requires respect and social support.

It was no accident, therefore, that the Second Vatican Council referred in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (GS) to many of the conditions today seen as modern forms slavery among the abuses of the person that it strongly condemned: “Whatever violates the integrity of the human person, … whatever insults human dignity, such as … slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where persons are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of the like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (GS 27).

Most of the abuses listed by the Council in this text are forms of modern slavery. They are moral offenses because they gravely violate the dignity of the person and his or her fundamental human rights. The Church today, therefore, joins numerous other religious and secular agencies in calling for a halt to modern slavery, forced labor, trafficking in persons for work, sex or organs. In the African language Kiswahili, the trade in enslaved persons is described as “maafa,” which means “great tragedy.”[6] This is what occurs to the persons subjected to it and to the communities that are affected.

In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS) Pope John Paul II cited the same list of abuses we have quoted from Vatican II in his discussion of “intrinsically evil” actions. For him, such actions “are by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in God’s image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece mala): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances” (VS 80).

Thus both Vatican II and Pope John Paul II insist that human trafficking, forced labor and other  practices associated with slavery are objectively evil. The Christian community, therefore, should seek the abolition of modern slavery through corporate action and emphatic teaching. To achieve this objective there is a need for carefully developed pastoral strategies that work to overcome the social and political conditions that support this abusive treatment of persons. Strong commitment by the Church’s members and pastoral leaders is required, especially in  resisting the opposition to change that is sure to arise.

History as a call to humility

In addition to this strong commitment, however, both individual Christians and the Christian community will also need genuine humility. The need for humility is evident when we recall that, despite Pope John Paul II’s insistence that slavery is always and everywhere wrong, the Church not only taught that slavery could be morally acceptable but actively practiced it. John T. Noonan, Jr., a distinguished historian of Catholic moral thought, has studied the way the Church has dealt with slavery though its long history. His research shows that through most of its history the Catholic Church supported the enslavement of some persons by others as morally and religiously legitimate.[7] His reflections on the development of Church tradition on the ethics of enslavement can help us develop a Christian response to the realities of modern slavery today.

In assessing  past Church teaching and practice, Noonan does not mince his words: “Once upon a time, certainly as late as 1860, the Church taught that it was no sin for a Catholic to own another human being.” Though the Christian community, from St. Paul through St. Augustine, down to the American Bishop, Francis Kenrick in 1841, held that enslaved people should be treated humanely and that manumission was admirable, but chattel slavery as an institution was not challenged by ecclesiastical authorities. When Pope John Paul II condemned slavery as always and everywhere evil, he made no mention of the 18 centuries during which slavery was tolerated and sometimes endorsed by the Church.

This past history is particularly distressing to me as a Jesuit teaching at Georgetown University. Since 2015, Georgetown has been engaged in serious reflection on the fact that through much of its history the university held many persons in the bondage of slavery and supported institutions of human enslavement. John Carroll, who founded Georgetown in 1789 and who became the first bishop in the United States in the same year, himself owned slaves. The priests who ran Georgetown had been Jesuits before the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773 and again became Jesuits when the Society was restored in 1814. They owned sizable numbers of slaves who worked on the plantations that generated support for the churches and schools they led in Maryland. Due to financial pressures, in 1838 they sold 272 enslaved men, women and children to another Catholic slave owner and shipped these persons south to Louisiana, sometimes breaking up families when they did so.

The sale of these people has become the focus of historical reflection on the relation of Catholicism to slavery at Georgetown University and more broadly in the U.S. Catholic community.[8] This reflection shows how great a distance there is between the moral perceptions of earlier Catholics and Jesuits in the United States and the declarations of Pope John Paul II and Vatican II on slavery.

Indeed, this distance has led us to recognize that our ancestors in the faith suffered from genuine moral blindness. They failed to see the deep harm that their enslavement of other humans was causing. They did not recognize that this harm was objectively a serious moral evil. Over the past half century, the university has come to recognize its past moral blindness on the ethics of slavery. This awakening has led to serious historical study of the university’s past approach to slaveholding and its commitment to work to overcome the continuing effects of slavery on current attitudes toward racial issues in the United States.

This process of awakening to the harms of the past came into sharp focus for the university at a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition and Hope” held on April 18, 2017. At that event, the leader of Jesuits in the United States, Fr. Timothy Kesicki, addressed a sizable number of descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold in 1832. He declared the Jesuits’ repentance for the way they had treated those who had been enslaved. In his words: “Today the Society of Jesus, which helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned … we make bold to ask on bended knee forgiveness.”[9] He also pledged that the Jesuits would seek the courage needed for a long-term effort to heal some of the wounds caused by slavery and to overcome its institutional legacy. Georgetown University has made similar commitments.

Experience as the source of new moral insight

How are we to account for this dramatic change in Christian teaching and practice, and what does the shift imply about how the Church should address modern slavery today? It is clear that the authors of the books of the Old and New Testaments and many major theologians in the Catholic tradition saw the slave trade and slavery itself as at least tolerable because they allowed their surrounding cultures to shape their moral vision, and Christians accepted as ethical what we now judge to be seriously immoral. John Noonan, Jr., has shown, however, that new experience led to a recognition of the devastating impact of slavery. When they appreciated what enslavement was actually doing to people, both individual Christians and official Church teaching came to recognize that it is morally and religiously reprehensible.[10]

Noonan notes that the impulse toward the abolition of slavery initially arose chiefly among those with less firm commitments to the Christian tradition. In Catholic France, for example, Montesquieu, Rousseau and the revolutionaries of 1789 helped the Catholic community achieve new insights into the harm of slavery that made the condemnation of the institution of slavery by Pope Leo XIII possible. Only after much conflict with the surrounding culture and argument about the relation between Christian tradition and that culture did the implications of faith in Christ for a response to slavery become clear. Noonan is convinced that the teaching of Christ in the New Testament is definitively normative for Christian ethics. He argues, however, that “it is evident from the case of slavery alone that it has taken time to ascertain what the demands of the New [Testament] really are.”[11]

This new awareness of the suffering of those enslaved spread more broadly in both society and the Church due to the protests of and resistance by the slaves themselves. By having to face this resistance in their actual experience, Christians were led to a new understanding of what their faith required. Christians came to a new, deepened understanding of the meaning of the biblical proclamation that all humans are created in the image of God and are loved by God. This awakening generated the abolitionist movements that led to the new cultural and legal norms that today declare chattel slavery to be morally reprehensible and legally forbidden.

Practicing humility today

Just as the movement to abolish chattel slavery arose from the protests and resistance of  the enslaved themselves, efforts against modern slavery will be effective when they arise from the experience of those who suffer the harms of this form of abuse. The Church’s response to modern slavery will be effective when it helps victims give voice to their experience of suffering, making their dehumanizing experiences widely known. This will have greater social impact than condemnation by the Church of traffickers and others who benefit from slavery-like activities.

In a recent study of diverse styles of Christian engagement in the public square, the American scholar of Christian ethics and law, Cathleen Kaveny, recognized  that the rhetorical style of “prophetic denunciation” is not always the most effective way to mobilize people against genuine evils. For example, the abolitionist movement rightly denounced chattel slavery in forceful and indeed prophetic ways. However, when prophetic denunciation is the sole mode of discourse on an issue it can sometimes produce a backlash. It can lead those being denounced to a growing resentment against what they see as self-righteousness in those who are denouncing them. When this happens, the desired change becomes less likely to occur.

Kaveny concludes that resistance to evils like slavery is likely to be more effective when those who resist do so with humility and avoid self-righteousness.[12] To support this view, she cites Abraham Lincoln’s leadership in overcoming slavery in the United States. In his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln clearly insisted that slavery was a grave evil that had to be abolished. But he did this in a way that also humbly acknowledged that those on both sides of the U.S. Civil War were at fault, with imperfect knowledge of the morally right path ahead. Lincoln called for the United States to complete the task of eliminating slavery in humble words that sought reconciliation among those on both sides of that destructive conflict: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”[13]

In a similar way, paying careful attention to the words of those who endure the abuses of modern forms of slavery can strengthen the responses of the Church and will help to orient more effectively the service provided to address the needs of persons that it looks to help.[14]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.11 art. 13, 1122: 10.32009/22072446.1122.13

[1]. League of Nations Slavery Convention, 1926, Article 1.  (; Cf. S. Kara, Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective, New York, Columbia University Press, 2017, esp. 4-17.

[2]. Aristotle, Politics, Book I, 1254a20-1254a23.

[3]. See S. Kara, Modern Slavery…, op. cit., 7.

[4]. See International Labour Organization – Walk Free Foundation, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage (Geneva, 2017), 9f (—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575479.pdf); id., The Global Slavery Index 2018, VII (

[5]. United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble, (

[6]. Healing the Wounds of Slave Trade and Slavery: Approaches and Practices, The UNESCO Slave Route Project / GHFP Research Institute, Brighton, January, 2021, 2 (

[7]. J. T. Noonan Jr., “Development in Moral Doctrine”, in Theological Studies 54 (1993) 662-677; cf. id., The Church that Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.

[8]. See Report of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to the President of Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 2016, ( ). Cf. A. Rothman – E. Barraza Mendoza (eds), Facing Georgetown’s History: A Reader on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, Washington, D.C., Georgetown University Press, 2021.  An often cited, earlier study of the Jesuits and slavery in Maryland is R. E. Curran, “‘Splendid Poverty’: Jesuit Slaveholding in Maryland, 1805-1838”, in id., Shaping American Catholicism: Maryland and New York, 1805-1915, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 2012, 30-51.

[9]. “Remarks of Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, at Georgetown University’s Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope”, in A. Rothman – E. Barraza Mendoza (eds), Facing Georgetown’s History…, op. cit., 284f.

[10]. See J. T. Noonan, Jr., A Church that Can and Cannot Change…, op. cit., 219-222.

[11]. Id., “Development in Moral Doctrine”, op. cit., 674-676.

[12]. Cf. C. Kaveny, Prophecy without Contempt, Religious Discourse in the Public Square, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2016, esp. 421.

[13]. A. Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865 ( See Kaveny’s discussion of Lincoln in her Prophecy without Contempt…, op. cit., 373-392.

[14]. Finally, we recall an initiative that is bearing fruit in a different area: that of relief for refugees, among whom it is not uncommon to find victims of trafficking. We refer in particular to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), whose work for forcibly displaced persons has three dimensions: accompaniment, service and protection. Accompaniment means being on the ground with the people we want to serve, listening closely to their stories, and having them tell their experiences of abuse firsthand  to others. Accompaniment shows those who have been driven from their homes that they are not forgotten, left alone and forced to rely on their own strength . The JRS approach is also based on the conviction that constant accompaniment of displaced persons will enable practitioners to identify more precisely the most useful responses to be made, and thus avoid the mistakes that can result from assuming that they, as committed humanitarian aid workers, already know what needs to be done. Finally, accompanying and serving refugees can help them understand which policies and institutions will respect their rights more adequately, meet their needs more fully, and support their active role more adequately.

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