Generally speaking, the impression is widespread that Catholicism's
...own course of doctrinal development belies the Church’s claims for her teaching authority, which themselves belong to that course of development. The Church claims that her “definitive” teaching—according to either the extraordinary or the ordinary magisterium—has been taught infallibly: in its solemn exercise, the magisterium is preserved from error in virtue of that divine infallibility in which Christ bestowed a share on the Church. But such a claim would be exposed as mere effrontery if it could be shown that, in the case of even one teaching that the Church has definitively proposed as belonging to the deposit of faith, she has formally or materially reversed herself on precisely the definitive point.
In defense of the Magisterium, I addressed six well-known cases in my series. But one that I neglected is slavery.
I neglected it because I assumed that Cardinal Avery Dulles had already addressed it effectively enough in a review article, "Development or Reversal?", about John Noonan's important 2005 book A Church That Can and Cannot Change. The main topics that Noonan, and perforce Dulles, addressed were slavery, usury, religious freedom, and marriage, with slavery getting by far the most treatment because Noonan had previously addressed the others elsewhere. Although I had learned much from Noonan on those others when I addressed them myself, and find his scholarship about the Church on slavery useful as well, I concur with Dulles in rejecting Noonan's conclusion that the Church has effectively reversed her traditional teaching on slavery. Yet now that the most notorious prog theologian in the blogosphere, Joseph O'Leary, has pressed the slavery issue by means of a direct rebuttal of Dulles, I see an occasion to address it myself. Such a treatment will be needed in the book I plan to turn the series into, if I can manage to interest a Catholic publisher in it. (So far I've sent a proposal to three, and been ignored.) Such a book, it seems to me and to several other Catholic authors, is itself badly needed.
It would seem that the Church got tougher on slavery under the papacy of John Paul the Great. Dulles notes:
Speaking at the infamous “House of Slaves” on the Island of Gorée in Senegal, from which innumerable slaves had been exported, [JP2] declared: “It is fitting to confess in all truth and humility this sin of man against man, this sin of man against God.” Noonan adds: “What this confession did not remark was how recently the sin had been discovered.”
But as Dulles points out:
...if we look up the quotation, we will find that the pope is here speaking of the slave trade, which had repeatedly been condemned. Far from changing the doctrine, John Paul is explicitly reaffirming the position of Pope Pius II, whom he quotes as having declared in 1492 that the slave trade was an enormous crime, magnum scelus.
Of course Noonan has a stronger argument for doctrinal discontinuity than that. Again, Dulles (emphasis added by me):
In 1993, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II took, from Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, a long list of social evils: “homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide . . . mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as sub-human living conditions, arbitrary imprisonments, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons.” Where Vatican II had called these practices “shameful” (probra), John Paul II calls them “intrinsically evil.” In the same encyclical the pope teaches that intrinsically evil acts are prohibited always and everywhere, without any exception.
The central question here is what, exactly, the Pope was condemning when he condemned "slavery" as "intrinsically evil." Was it just the slave trade—which the Church has quite consistently condemned for centuries? Was it just certain practices by which servitude is enforced, such as violence, family separations, and rape? Or was it, purely and simply, all forms of involuntary servitude?
Here, I must agree with Dulles' observation that
...if [JP2] had wanted to assert his position as definitive he would have had to say more clearly how he was defining slavery. He would have had to make it clear that he was rejecting the nuanced views of the biblical writers and Catholic theologians for so many past centuries. If any form of slavery could be justified under any conditions, slavery as such would not be, in the technical sense, intrinsically evil.
That is not only true but crucial. If the Pope had been condemning all forms of involuntary servitude as intrinsically evil—and thus as prohibited always and necessarily, regardless of motive, further intention, circumstances, or likely consequences—then even involuntary penal servitude would be prohibited. Thus, forcing imprisoned convicts to pick up trash along roadsides, or make license plates, would be intrinsically evil. I don't think a case can be made that the Pope was implying that, let alone saying it. But if we read JP2 as Noonan and O'Leary do, we would have to say that he was implying that. By the same token, we would have to say that popes who used Muslim prisoners of war to man the oars of Christian galleys were doing an intrinsic evil. Still more radically, we would have to say that slave owners who do not forthwith manumit their slaves are committing an intrinsic evil, regardless of how the slaves were acquired or why they are retained. That was a serious issue for English-speaking Catholics, as well as Protestants, in the mid-19th century, including and especially America. But neither St. Paul nor the Church prior to John Paul II ever went that far.
I don't believe we must say that even John Paul II went that far. Given the data of historic Church teaching that Noonan and Dulles both accept as data, the fairest conclusion is that the Pope was condemning as intrinsically evil not any and all involuntary servitude, but rather any attempt to force innocent people into servitude. That, at any rate, is a quite a reasonable way to make his position continuous with historic Church teaching. Why, then, interpret JP2's words in such a way as to make them discontinuous with said teaching?
As both Noonan's book and Dulles' reply suggest, the reasoning of the discontinuants seems to be by analogy with the development of doctrine on religious freedom. It took the Church over 1,500 years, spanning the fourth to the twentieth centuries, to formally recognize that any attempt to coerce adult consciences into professing the true faith is intrinsically evil. During those prior centuries, by contrast, heresy was punished as a civil crime because Catholicism was the spiritual premise of the social and political order. That led to well-known forms of persecution which the Church now condemns as intrinsically evil, even though some popes explicitly authorized them. So, does it not seem that the same sort of development occurred under John Paul II regarding slavery?
Frankly, the analogy doesn't hold up because its terms have not been adequately stated. When the Church condemns efforts to coerce consciences, she does not condemn the establishment of the true religion by the state. She does not even condemn the punishment of heresy. What she condemns is any effort to force people to change their minds about questions of religious truth. And she condemns it because, by the logic of her own account of the virtue of faith, such a thing is objectively impossible and hence can only be a gratuitous violation of basic human liberty. The same cannot be said about penal servitude, or about keeping slaves until the time is ripe for their manumission.
So, the hermeneutic of discontinuity is no more credible in the case of slavery than it is in the case of religious freedom. The Church has indeed changed her approach to those issues to some extent; it would be foolish as well as dishonest to deny that. But there is no good evidence that such developments have negated anything the Church has ever taught with her full authority.