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Kellerman Details the History of the Catholic Church’s Involvement in Slave Trade

The Catholic Church and Society of Jesus played a influential role in the origination and continuation of the transatlantic slave trade, according to Rev. Christopher J. Kellerman, S.J.

“There is a real need for us in the church today to reckon with this past and correct the historical record,” said Kellerman, who serves in the Office of Justice and Ecology of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. “The truth is that our popes authorized the beginnings of the slave trade and did not withdraw that authorization until nearly 400 years later.”

Kellerman discussed the history of the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus’ involvement in the transatlantic slave trade at an event co-sponsored by the Boston College history department, the Institute for the Liberal Arts, and BC’s interdisciplinary minor in Catholic studies on Feb. 21. 

According to Kellerman, the Catholic Church’s history of permitting slavery began when it adopted Roman law. 

“In early Christianity, post–New Testament era, the church is going to adopt Roman law as its way of doing things and its way of looking at slavery,” Kellerman said. “And the Catholic tradition is going to be remarkably consistent in defining it according to these rules.”

Though many historians say otherwise, according to Kellerman, slavery was present throughout the medieval era in Europe as a Catholic-endorsed practice.

“British historians would often say that in the medieval era slavery disappeared from Europe, and that was not true,” Kellerman said. “They were trying to make it look like Christianity had been this force for good throughout history, but slavery did not disappear from Europe in the medieval era.”

Pope Nicholas V, in fact, legally granted Portugal to engage in the slave trade in Africa, as did several of his successors, according to Kellerman

“Pope Nicholas V, in 1452 and 1455, gave Portugal the right to take all lands and possessions of non-Christians in Africa and continue conducting slave raids on them,” Kellerman said. “And those permissions will be renewed by three Popes following Nicholas.”

Kellerman said the church purposefully hid behind Catholic theology and philosophy to justify authorizing the slave trade.

“Our church gives the authorization for this horrific moment to begin and has a theology behind it,” Kellerman said. “It’s not just policy—there’s a theology, and there’s a philosophy behind it that we’re using.”

For the following centuries, prominent Jesuits such as Luis de Molina and Peter Claver defended slavery—arguing that some people were justly enslaved—and were even slave owners themselves, according to Kellerman.

“What the Society of Jesus is able to do with this character of Peter Claver is to say ‘Justice is one thing—some of them have been kidnapped, but instead of worrying about that, we are going to minister to them,’” Kellerman said. “And that’s how they ended up owning over 20,000 enslaved people.”

Kellerman said Black Catholic representatives pleaded with Pope Innocent XI to condemn slavery, but he did not comply.

“In the 1680s, representatives of Black Catholic confraternities go to Rome and beg Pope Innocent XI to condemn the trade under pain of excommunication,” Kellerman said. “But unfortunately, the Pope chooses not to do it.”

Kellerman said the church did not formally condemn the transatlantic slave trade until Pope Gregory XVI in 1839. 

“What’s sad is that Pope Gregory, in his document, uses the exact same arguments against the trade Father Bartolomé de las Casas did 350 years before that,” Kellerman said. “It’s not like he had new information, he is just the first Pope to do it.”

According to Kellerman, Pope Gregory XVI’s documents have contributed to widespread debate in modern times about the Catholic Church’s role in the slave trade. 

“He starts listing other times that Popes had condemned the enslavement of indigenous peoples,” Kellerman said. “Anybody who knows the history of the time goes, ‘That wasn’t a condemnation of the slave trade.’”

Kellerman concluded his lecture by stressing the present need for the Catholic Church to acknowledge its historical role in the transatlantic slave trade. 

“It amounted to a cover up,” Kellerman said. “So, I would argue that today we very badly need a process of truth telling, of apology, and of reparations.”

February 24, 2023