On December 3, 1839, Pope Gregory XVI issued a blistering condemnation of the slave trade, In supremo apostolatus.
The abolitionist movement was in full swing. Eight years before, Garrison founded The Liberator. Six years before, Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies.
Just the year before the Maryland Jesuits had sold their own slaves (for a nice profit, that helped a certain university get off the ground), causing scandal throughout the Church when the provincial failed to abide by a directive from the General that families be kept together and that they only be sold to those who would promise to educate them in the Catholic faith. This led to the provincial being summoned to Rome–and canned–about the same time the letter came out.
Further context: when Pope Gregory’s letter arrived in the US, the nation’s attention was focused on the Amistad trial– would slaves who had revolted against their captors be returned home to Africa or returned to the slavers?
Gregory’s intent could not be mistaken. He was not just getting on the bandwagon; rather, he begins by recounting multiple papal condemnations of the slave trade, and denounces the practice as inhuman and based solely upon greed. He concludes:
The penalties imposed and the care given by Our Predecessors contributed in no small measure, with the help of God, to protect the Indians and the other people mentioned against the cruelty of the invaders or the cupidity of Christian merchants, without however carrying success to such a point that the Holy See could rejoice over the complete success of its efforts in this direction; for the slave trade, although it has diminished in more than one district, is still practiced by numerous Christians. This is why, desiring to remove such a shame from all the Christian nations, having fully reflected over the whole question and having taken the advice of many of Our Venerable Brothers the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors, We warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition that no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favour to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labour. Further, in the hope of gain, propositions of purchase being made to the first owners of the Blacks, dissensions and almost perpetual conflicts are aroused in these regions.
We reprove, then, by virtue of Our Apostolic Authority, all the practices above-mentioned as absolutely unworthy of the Christian name. By the same Authority We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in this Apostolic Letter.
The apologists for slavery, including Secretary of State (and former Georgia Congressman/Senator/Governor) John Forsyth, were scandalized that this foreigner would condemn in such terms the South’s peculiar institution–that this foreigner would dare to stick his nose into American affairs.
Bishop John England of Charleston, South Carolina, wrote a series of public letters to Forsyth begging him to understand that the pope was being misunderstood. He wasn’t really talking about American slavery at all–he was merely condemning the slave trade as practiced by Spain and Portugal. He gave his own history, a history in which slavery was a positive good, in which no pope ever criticized it, in which all slaves were happy and content.
Shortly thereafter Philadelphia’s bishop, Francis Patrick Kenrick, wrote a moral theology whose description of slavery was another attempt to pretend that Pope Gregory had said nothing, and that slavery as it existed was a lesser evil to what would happen if slaves were freed.