Today’s reading at Mass is a beautiful section from the sixth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just. Honour thy father and thy mother, which is the first commandment with a promise: That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long lived upon earth. And you, fathers, provoke not your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and correction of the Lord. Servants, be obedient to them that are your lords according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the simplicity of your heart, as to Christ:
Not serving to the eye, as it were pleasing men, but, as the servants of Christ doing the will of God from the heart, With a good will serving, as to the Lord, and not to men. Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man shall do, the same shall he receive from the Lord, whether he be bond, or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, forbearing threatenings, knowing that the Lord both of them and you is in heaven; and there is no respect of persons with him.
There is a lot to be drawn from it, but preachers often choose the section about slavery; most probably because it is relatively straightforward to sermonise on, is a concept people (think) they understand, and pretty much everyone agrees that slavery is a Bad Thing.
Now, the passage uses the word servus in Latin and doulos in Greek. This is quite important, because these words occur in many other contexts in Sacred Scripture. One example of particular importance is Mary’s declaration at the Annunciation: Idou doulé kuriou; famously translated Behold the handmaid of the Lord. As attentive readers will see, what she in fact says is, Behold the slave (f) of the Lord. Now, I am not suggesting, of course, that Mary’s condition was the same as that of the douloi of Ephesians. Nevertheless, it does show that there is a different mentality when it comes to slavery in the New Testament period to that which we have. The explanation for this might be that there are two phases of slavery in the history of Christendom.
The first phase was the Romano-Byzantine one, in which slaves were a preponderant economical necessity, to be found in almost every home and often attaining to the heights of political influence (particularly in Byzantium). In this period, although the slave’s lot was not a happy one, there was no question as to his “personhood” – in particular in Christianity, he was able to receive Baptism and the other sacraments just like anyone else. This Christian influence only grew and slavery largely died out in the Christian West, and certainly the Church did not support the holding of other Christians as slaves, although there are examples of non-Christians being enslaved (indeed the word slave itself only came into use (c. 13thC) after large number of conquered Slavs were brought to Europe by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto in the tenth century).
The second period of slavery in which Christians were involved we might call racial slavery. This was concept entirely alien to the Church’s previous views on slavery. It not only entirely objectified the slave (something the Church had been fighting since the time of Paul) but in addition it did so on the basis race. This was obviously unacceptable, and indeed it was the Catholic Church which from the outset presented serious objections this practice.
Now, when pastors preach about slavery, they often do so without making this distinction. It is as if the slavery of the New Testament were the same slavery of the Seventeenth century to the Nineteenth. Obviously, it is not. Even the words feel different – it could be argued that if we mean the objectified, racial slave of modern and early modern times (for, let us make no mistake, this is a modern phenomenon to which a modern response – abolitionism – was required) when we say “slave” then we should not translate doulos and servus as with the word slave in our modern Bibles. “Bond-servant” might be better.
The further aspect of all this is that it is one of those issues where the Church appears to have “changed her teaching”, inasmuch as neither St. Paul, nor our Blessed Lord, spoke out in opposition to slavery during their ministries. This sometimes inspires preachers who are concerned with being controversial to ask the question: if Christ and St. Paul were (allegedly) trammelled about slavery because (supposedly) they could do nothing about it then what other changes to human society were they unable to bring about? Of course, they maintained a similar decorous quietude as regards… the ordination of women!
Well, to me, this is all wrong headed. It’s a false start. In the first place, neither Paul nor the Lord are silent on the matter of women. They are quite explicit, in fact. In the second place, the two issues are not at all of the same kind. While questions about the role of women in society and the situation of the slave might have an analogous quality, the relationship of Paul’s teaching on slavery vis-a-vis his (and Jesus’s) teaching about women and apostolic ministry is an entirely different sort of question. In the third place, it is clear from the New Testament that the direction of the Church was always opposed to slavery per se, that is, slavery as objectification, slavery as enslavement, slavery understood as giving a slave owner carte blanche, the slave trade. The fact that the Vatican Council II declared slavery a “poison” in human culture and a “supreme dishonour to the Creator” (Gaudium et spes, 27) is merely (but importantly) the development to its natural conclusion of the impulse we find in Paul. (Incidentally, the same passage declares the treating of men “as mere tools for profit” as great an evil as slavery.) There is no such impulse towards the inauguration of an age of priestesses to be discovered in the New Testament, no matter how hard the Schüssler-Fiorenza’s of this world may search for it. In other words, the Church’s current teaching on slavery is the flowering of seeds planted in the earliest life of the Church; the idea of women’s ordination is not.