...they [the Roman Catholic Church] for example thought that slavery was perfectly fine... absolutely okay, and then they didn't, and what is the point of the Catholic Church if it says, “oh well we couldn't know better because nobody else did”? [To the affirmative team] Then what are you for?!
-- Stephen Fry, answering a question during the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate, “Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?”
Of course, slavery was okay to the Church. The concept isn’t just approved by the bible, its practices and usages are fully outlined in Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25. It’s also endorsed by their big boy, “J” in the New Testament – “Slaves, obey your masters…” As the bible is the revealed and inerrant word of their god, any belief, action, or practice which has such rousing approval should be beyond question.
Yet not only has slavery as a practice been questioned, it has been proscribed and abandoned by the vast majority of the civilized world in the current day. Worse, the RCC was well behind the curve as regards this massive change in attitude. While encyclicals from Rome varied in their opinions regarding the topic, as late as 1866, representatives of Pope Pius IX expressed no condemnation of the sale or exchange of slaves, based in “divine law.” Meantime, the United States had already very nearly torn itself apart in a Civil War whose primary point of argument was the issue of the ownership of people as property. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, establishing the rights of African-Americans, were being proposed and would be ratified only a few years later, even as the Vatican was holding forth with a clearly opposing position.
Very well … how was it that, all at once, the Catholic Church decided that slavery was NOT okay? Clearly, they were not taking their holy book as a primary source in making such a decision, as evinced by the above-cited biblical verses. It’s dubious that any other reference in the Vatican’s considerable library would be anything like definitive in countering the root basis for the structure of their religion. So what did it?
My own suspicion may be summed up in one word: “blowback,” the blowback of ordinary people whose personal moral senses were enraged at the idea of the treatment of certain human beings as something less than human. Simple human decency, bolstered by considerable numbers, finally forced the hand of the Church. One would think such a thing shouldn’t be necessary. As the Church is supposed to be the foremost authority on matters moral and ethical, for them to be so badly out of step on an issue this critical speaks to a systemic failure on their part to assess, understand, and adjust their position.
Sadly, this state of affairs is not limited to slavery. The status of women, of the LGBTQ community, of the aberrant behavior of their own priests with children, and too many other issues to count show the Church badly out of the mainstream of modern social thought. The reason is tragically simple: their seemingly immutable attachment to a standard, expressed in a single book, which was written by men, frozen in time, and exempt from modification or evolution, and which cannot deal with the changes which humankind has undergone in the intervening years and decades and centuries. Because of that dependence, any possibility of those who would represent Roman Catholicism of joining the rest of us in the 21st century is reduced to little or none.
In the light of that intransigence, one might well ask those of the denizens of Vatican City and its representatives around the world: “What ARE you for?”