Friday, June 4, 2010

Catholics and Slavery: A Compromising History

By John Perry, 204 pages, Novalis.

"Like a mutating virus that continues to threaten the health of the human community, the slave trade has taken on new forms. The reality of life as a slave, or as the offspring of a slave, continues to be cruel."

The author's above words form the core around which he weaves the inconsistent Catholic reaction to slavery. This reaction has been complicated by the Greek New Testament, which doesn't seem to explicitly condemn slavery outright, probably the author muses, because the early Church and therefore the New Testament writers expected the world to end imminently. They didn't fight a social justice fight because the return of Christ would right everything in the cruel, unjust world.

Yet while Saint Paul and other early Christians failed to question the institution and existence of slavery, they did demand from Christian slave owners that they respect their slaves and "ease the actual conditions of slaves and to establish the relationship between slave and owner on the basis of charity and acceptance of legitimate authority and the human condition as it existed at that time."

The idea that slavery is always objectively evil came to the Church only slowly. Aristotle, on whom the Church depended for much of its philosophical thinking from Aquinas onwards, and biblical writings such as Genesis 9 muddled the issue for centuries.

Catholic thinkers focused more on the charitable treatment of slaves rather than on the outright abolition of its various forms, including medieval serfdom, when aristocrats didn't own the serf as a person, but owned the serf's labor.

Perry examines a few cases of slavery so as to show the ruinous human side of it. The sugar cane estates of the Dominican Republic, he claims, use Haitian slave labor. Even when Haitians have been working in brutal conditions for several generations, they are usually not eligible for citizenship or other forms of legal recognition.

Catholic religious orders and establishments attempt to minister to old Haitian sugar cane workers in need of health and dental care, old age pensions, and housing. It also helps some of these workers get legal recognition from the Dominican authorities. With the need so dire, these charities represent only a drop in the ocean.

Because Perry's definition of slavery is so expansive, he risks sounding like he has an anti-Catholic agenda. Though he highlights the efforts of certain religious who opposed the grievous treatment of slaves in South America, he also accuses the Church itself of practicing a kind of slavery, including modern slavery, through its various orders.

It turns to sensationalist cases for this, including the case of women from India being sent to Europe to train to be nuns by unscrupulous church officials who pocket big margins from their recruitment and training fees. A deeper examination of contemporary and historical sexual slavery and human trafficking (which are both covered) could have replaced this sensationalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment