Leo the Great and Early Christian Attitudes to Slavery

Christians are often embarrassed by the fact that the Bible never comes out and condemns slavery; sometimes, the Law seems to support it, and St Paul at least seems to accept it as part of life — although, I believe, a robust, mature biblical worldview sees slavery as something to be overcome, many throughout history have not shared this view.

For example, Pope Leo I. I was working away at a proper (readable) translation of Ep. 4 today — another of Leo’s ‘decretals’. If canon law is sexy, then in this decretal we get another glimpse of Christian attitudes in the fifth century. Leo’s fourth epistle is sent to a variety of Italian bishops, expressing his displeasure that unqualified candidates are being admitted to holy orders — even, if I read sacerdos correctly, to the episcopacy.*

Amongst those unqualified groups thus admitted, Leo mentions slaves. Before giving his major reasons for not admitting slaves, Leo says that they pollute the holy orders with their servile baseness. I’m sure he meant it in the nicest way possible, of course. In and of itself, this could never be a viable reason for Christians not to admit slaves into holy orders; it smells more than a little of Roman aristocrat prejudices, if you ask mee (and Leo was certainly Roman) — whatever happened to ‘there is neither slave nor free’ in Christ?

Leo moves on to what may be the legitimate reason for not admitting slaves into the priesthood — they have earthly masters who can legally call upon them for obedience. Those who serve in the Lord’s military cannot have divided loyalties and tasks. This is actually not a bad argument; but, I believe, the better course of action than simply removing these people from holy orders is first to try and get their masters to free them — if someone has been found of spiritual maturity and leadership, shouldn’t the Church value that person more than the rights of the master? Failing that, perhaps the diocese could purchase and then manumit one of these slaves. Failing that, I suppose the slave would have to be sent back to the master, only because of conflicting legal (and therefore canonical) issues, not because servile baseness makes him unfit for service at the altar.

Ancient Christian writers tend to take slavergy as a given. There are slaves. Some of them are Christians; some of them are owned by Christians. In a world with a slave-based economy, this is no grand surprise, even if we find it uncomfortable. But two things:

  1. Slavery, while always bad, is less bad in some places than others; Roman slavery is an entirely different kettle of fish than in the American South — it would have been harder to see the evil in the fifth century than in the nineteenth.
  2. Every culture has its own blindspots, often widespread. Although we are called to stand against the sins of our time, Christians very often fall prey to the same culture blindness as our pagan neighbours. Think of wealthy, white, western Christians today.

These are my thoughts on slavery for now. Documents like Leo, Ep. 4, can be disappointing, but they can also be illuminating on how we have changed. And we should always be slow to judge those in the past — we are great sinners as well, just in different ways.


*Sacerdos is bishop sometimes, priest at others. Commonly used for bishop by Ambrose, and the context of Leo, Ep. 1, makes it clear that there, at least, Leo means bishop. It seems a likelier reading here than priest.


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