Workin' for the man

The latest issue of The New Republic has E.J. Dionne's dispatch from Rome on the election of Benedict XVI. Like most TNR dispatches, the piece becomes an argument. In this case, the point is that Catholicism shouldn't shut itself off from the modern world. Dionne recounts that the journalist in him cheered but that the Catholic part of him was "petrified" on hearing of the election of the new pope. He worries that

Benedict sees liberal Catholics primarily as products of the worst excesses of the '60s and not as people who are genuinely grateful for the Catholic tradition and the Church's efforts since Pope John [XXIII] to interpret it anew for our times.

He gives the new petrifying pope an attaboy for his criticism of a "culture that overemphasizes the material and lifts up the narrowest forms of individualism," but then goes into lecture mode and gets worked up about the things that modernity has bequeathed to Catholicism. He says he and his fellow liberal Catholics

think that not all that is new is bad. Our Church was soft on slavery. It was terribly slow to embrace democracy. It still does not seem to understand that the desire of women for power in the Church reflects legitimate -- and, yes, Christian -- claims to justice, not weird ideological enthusiasms. Those who say that change in the Church is simply capitulation to a flawed culture must explain whether they really think the Church would be better off if it had not come to oppose slavery, endorse democracy, and resist anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance. [Italics added.]

How should I put this? E.J. Dionne, meet Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion from the University of Washington. To the charge that the Catholic Church was late to the game in condemning slavery, he cries "Nonsense!"

As early as the seventh century, Saint Bathilde (wife of King Clovis II) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all slaves; in 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. That the Church willingly baptized slaves was claimed as proof that they had souls, and soon both kings and bishops -- including William the Conqueror (1027-1087) and Saints Wulfstan (1009-1095) and Anselm (1033-1109) -- forbade the enslavement of Christians.

Since, except for small settlements of Jews, and the Vikings in the north, everyone was at least nominally a Christian, that effectively abolished slavery in medieval Europe, except at the southern and eastern interfaces with Islam where both sides enslaved one another's prisoners. But even this was sometimes condemned: in the tenth century, bishops in Venice did public penance for past involvement in the Moorish slave trade and sought to prevent all Venetians from involvement in slavery. Then, in the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas deduced that slavery was a sin, and a series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537.

It is significant that in Aquinas's day, slavery was a thing of the past or of distant lands. Consequently, he gave very little attention to the subject per se, paying more attention to serfdom, which he held to be repugnant.

There's a lot more to Stark's article, but the gist of it is that the Catholic Church condemned and practically abolished slavery in the so-called Dark Ages, and continued to argue against slavery when new world expansion and geopolitics brought the dread institution back. That Dionne would assert the opposite is a black mark either against his knowledge of history or his intellectual honesty.

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