One has to credit the Catholic Church with their slavery policy in the Age of Discovery, when poised at the temporal precipice of what would become known to history as the Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1435, Pope Eugenve IV, in a cynical tactic to gather more sheep to the fold on the Canary Islands, issued a Sicut Dudum, a papal bull prohibiting Portuguese raiders from procuring slaves from the islands.
Here is a portion of Eugene IV’s Sicut Dudum, in which he acknowledges the plight of recently-captured African Christians, or those tricked into baptism and thus enslaved:
[W]ith the passage of time, it has happened that in some of the said islands, because of a lack of suitable governors and defenders to direct those who live there to a proper observance of the Faith in things spiritual and temporal, and to protect valiantly their property and goods, some Christians (we speak of this with sorrow), with fictitious reasoning and seizing and opportunity, have approached said islands by ship, and with armed forces taken captive and even carried off to lands overseas very many persons of both sexes, taking advantage of their simplicity.
A few paragraphs down, after threatening excommunication to those raiders who do not return the newly-minted Christians to the Canary Islands, the Pope proclaims:
We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents if the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism, from which excommunication cannot be absolved except as was stated above.
The dark beauty of Vatican policy here is that now all African converts were protected from enslavement, which stands to reason that any Jew, Muslim, heathen or atheist was essentially fair game to be evaporated from the sight of God’s people.
Christian academics and apologists have engaged in historical revisionism intent on framing the Sicut Dudum as the initial moral move—a baby step, as it were—toward an ultimate banning of slavery. In doing so, Christians, particularly Catholics, attempt to elevate Pope Eugene IV to a standard of liberty and moral rightness that he quite simply does not deserve.
Indeed, the move was religiously and politically expedient, aimed not at gathering Christians converts through one’s thoughtful consideration followed by study and baptism, but given an either-or scenario: either you convert or you risk being rounded up by the Portuguese and sold into slavery—your choice. It amounts to nothing less than religious extortion, not unlike the myriad of conversos—Jewish and Muslim converts—who publicly joined the ranks of Christianity lest they face the awful and violent machine of the Spanish Inquisition.
This is the religious conception of free will, so it must count for something. Eugene IV then deserves only the distinction of being Machievellian in his papal policy, not as some Saint of Human Rights.
But, don’t take my word on Pope Eugene IV’s political machinations—read about them at the Catholic Encyclopedia.
[Image by Ron Reznick]