Catholics, racism and slavery


By Akhbad Makumbe

THE Roman Catholic Church has been found wanting again.

Recent editions of The Patriot exposed the Church’s human rights abuses, detailing clergymen with unprosecuted cases of sodomy, mostly of minors and the abuse of many girls and women in its institution.

This week, The Patriot focuses on the Catholic Church and its despicable role in promoting slavery and racism.

On January 4 1861, a Roman Catholic bishop Reverend Augustin Marcellin Verot rose to the pulpit in the Church of St Augustine, Florida, defending the ‘right’ of white people to own slaves.

Apostle Paul, Rev Verot claimed in his sermon, instructed slaves to obey their masters as ‘a necessary means of salvation’. 

Quoting Colossians 3:22, he said: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not serving to the eye, as pleasing men, but in simplicity of heart, fearing God.”

It’s no secret Christians like Rev Verot used the Bible to promote slavery. 

On August 1 1866 the same Rev Verot published a Pastoral Letter on slavery, justifying slave trade as a necessity.

No doubt the Catholic’s Pastoral Letters forced Africans to re-examine the church’s historical ties to racism.

Common good or the Catholic good?

The Catholic Church interferes in politics through the use of what are called Pastoral Letters – the same letters that legitimised slave trade from the 6th to the 19th Century.

A Pastoral Letter is an open letter addressed by a bishop to the clergy of a diocese, containing general admonition, instruction, consolation or directions for behaviours in particular circumstances.

From the Church’s 10 principles, this letter zeroes in on the second principle, that of the ‘Common Good’. 

It defines it as: “The sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”

As this doctrinal document reaches different climes, it tends to get localised by colleges of bishops in the form of what are termed ‘pastoral letters’. 

Zimbabwe has had such letters issued by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ZCBC) and its predecessor, the Rhodesia Catholic Bishops’ Conference (RCBC). 

That way, the Church’s ideology finds local troupe, colour and fervour.

Regrettably, in Zimbabwe, the document has been used to call for sanctions in order to make the economy ‘scream’ and effect regime change.

Each Pastoral Letter in Zimbabwe is groundwork being laid by the Catholic Church for regime change.

They have been abused to influence decisions of the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, EU Parliament, US Congress and UN Human Rights Council, among others, towards Zimbabwe.

No doubt, the ZCBC’s hand was visible in the recently held July 2018 harmonised elections in Zimbabwe.

Their Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe (CCJPZ) Report on the July 30 harmonised elections rubbished the polls, claiming they were marred by violence and intimidation, among other things.

The same ZCBC issued Pastoral Letters calling for economic sanctions on Zimbabwe.

The Catholic Church believed that if sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe, they should be applied ‘intelligently’.

In 2004, Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference president Cardinal Wilfred Napier weighed in, saying he could not understand why the South African Government was not considering sanctions against Zimbabwe, given the success that sanctions brought for South Africa.

“What further suffering will sanctions bring to the people of Zimbabwe?” Cardinal Napier said.

Is that the so-called common good?

The Jesuits, Capuchins and Ursulines had plantaions run by slaves and all three engaged in enslavement of blacks for free and cheap labour

Sins difficult to forget

The Catholic Church has sins so difficult to forget.

Every teaching and doctrine is tainted.

The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in tandem.

The bitter cries of the heart-broken slave were drowned in the religious shouts of his ‘pious’ master.

The narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass of April 28 1845 comes to mind.

Said Douglass: “Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand-in-hand together. 

The slave prison and the church stand near each other. 

The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time.” 

It’s crucial to note that as early as the 6th Century, the Catholic Church had already legitimised slave trade.

Concerning slaves in the Guinea Coast (West Africa), in 1452, Pope Nicholas V said: “We grant to you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, lull and tree permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans (Africans) and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property… and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate and convert to the use and profit of yourself and your successors.”

Constantly, the Catholic Church drove home the idea that slavery was good for both the enslaver and the enslaved.

In January 1549, the Conservatori published in Italy, Rome, their decree authorising all persons in Rome to hold, buy and sell slaves. 

On June 20 1866, the highest authority in the Catholic Church, short of the Pope, the Holy Office which rules on matters of orthodox faith and teaching, issued an instruction in reply to questions from a Vicar Apostolic of the Galla tribe in Ethiopia:

“Slavery, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law. 

There can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons (of the Catholic Church). 

It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given.”

More so, it was a Catholic, Chief Justice Roger Taney, who was one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the famous Dred Scott ruling of 1857, which was responsible for the judicial decision that African slaves were not to be included as a part of the people.

Blacks were regarded as inferior and unfit to associate with the white race socially or politically.

They (blacks) had no rights which the whiteman was bound to respect. 

‘Negroes’ were reduced to slavery for the benefit of whites.

According to Richard Miller: “Catholic countries were the prime movers in the revival of slavery in the Old World and the introduction of it into the New World.”

Note reader, that the first extensive shipment of black Africans, that would later become known as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, was initiated at the request of Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas in 1517.

Bishop Las Casas advocated the use of African slaves instead of indigenous Americans.

In fact, Bishop Las Casas provided the endorsement of the new idea of slavery based on race, rather than the medieval concept of slavery as the result of war and conquest.

When Bishop Las Casas later advocated that all slavery be abolished, the burgeoning European empires paid little attention to this idea when so much wealth and power was at stake.

The Vatican was not pleased with calls to end this popular and loud aberration in its crib. 

It made efforts to suppress it, ex-communicating those who called for its end. 

The church placed some books criticising slavery on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Holy Office between 1573 and 1826. 

Capuchin missionaries, however, were ex-communicated for calling for the emancipation of black slaves in the Americas, but because slavery was such a lucrative business, many in the church continued to profit from the despicable institution.

The Jesuits, Capuchins and Ursulines had plantations run by slaves and all three engaged in the enslavement trade.

In 1838, the superiors of the Maryland Province of the Jesuits, which included Georgetown College in the nation’s capital, decided to sell all 272 of its African-American men, women and children slaves to Henry Johnson, the former governor of Louisiana and to Louisiana landowner Jesse Batey for US$115 000, the equivalent of US$3,3 million in 2016.

Uncontested racism

The Church had, and still has, men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries and cradle-plunderers for church members.

Author John Maxwell wrote in his 1975 work on slavery that the Church did not correct its teaching on the moral legitimacy of slavery until 1965, with the publication from the Second Vatican Council.

Even though it ‘corrected’ its mistakes of 1 300 years, the reality on the ground remains.

Nothing has changed as Pastoral Letters continue to ‘enslave’ Africans to date.

The ZCBC should know better that the Catholic Church has been, and will always be, for the whiteman.

Racism in the Church in uncontested.

It’s so rife a conference on racism and the Catholic Church was organised last month in Baltimore, US.

Dubbed ‘Call to Action Conference’, Dr Greer Gordon explored racism in the Catholic Church, saying: “The US is still dealing with the residual effects of slavery, manifested in the collapse of the black family … once you begin to see a lot of distress and destruction of the black community as a result of the collapse of the social system.”

Last year, the Catholic Church in the US was accused of snubbing demonstrations calling for an end to racism.

In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Catholic Worker leader Laura Brown said although many lay Catholics joined the Charlottesville riots counter-protest in Virginia against the white nationalists, some expressed concern about the absence of visible Catholic clergy on the front alongside several fully garbed Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders.

The Huffington Post, on the other hand, said: “If you pull the church out of the whole equation, it’s highly likely that there never would have been racism. 

Southern clergy had no doubt that slavery was not a sin.” 

In conclusion, it should be noticed how very slender and scarce is the Catholic anti-slavery documentation since 1888 as compared to the very large volume of Catholic pro-slavery documentation right up to the time of the second Vatican Council.

The Roman Catholic Church and it’s role in promoting slavery and racism must be documented for the benefit of future generations. 

Africans must not be hoodwinked by so-called ‘men of cloth’ who not only used religion to pacify blacks, but to also destroy their minds and identity as a people. 

Indeed the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference should know better!


  1. Let me quote you “The ZCBC should know better that the Catholic Church has been, and will always be, for the whiteman”.
    A few things I need to remind you
    1)- You talk of Racism, but in this day & age, you still talk of Black & White! The Racist, actually, is you.
    2)- You have referred to events of centuries ago! I dont have time to contest your Source(s) but we cant live in History forever! Shall we say Germans are cruel, simply because of the Hitler era? Shall we say we aint civilised because of the Kaguvi-Nehanda era?
    3) The Patriot has been on Catholics for a time now, and guess what, it seems deeply personal to me. Im sure you know what this means-it means your Articles are somewhat biased! Tichazvinzwa zvedu zvamakavengera Roman Catholic!
    4) I have tried to ignore you, but Oh my Brodda, you’re just too much hoooooooo


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