In a rabid froth, many Protestants will claim that the Church promoted slavery. Usually they offer no evidence, but occasionally some will cite “Romanus Pontifex” or “Dum Diversas,” supposedly authored by Pope Nicholas V. Both of the alleged “papal bulls” are fictitious propaganda concocted by English and Dutch Protestants.
The Vatican has always been meticulous in its record-keeping, especially for documents of global importance, yet there is no Catholic source for a Papal Bull “Romanus Pontifex” written by Pope Nicholas V (originally known as the physician Tommaso Parentucelli). The Protestant propagandists who claim the existence of the alleged bull did not and could not provide proof of any valid Catholic source to indicate the actual existence of such a bull. The only legitimate and verifiable reference to Romanus Pontifex is from the Bull Romanus Pontifex of April 25, 1506, approved by Julius II regarding the Shroud of Turin. Another mention is the Constitution Romanus Pontifex of August 23, 1873. Similarly, there is no “Dum Diversas” by Pope Nicholas V or any other Pope.
An important distinction must be made. Chattel slavery is the condition of involuntary servitude in which a human being is the property of an owner, a thing not a person. Such slavery is intrinsically evil and has been opposed by the Church from its beginning. That said, there are legitimate, though unhappy, types of involuntary servitude: prisoners of war, incarcerated criminals, and even persons who sell their labor for a contracted period of time, called “indentured servitude.”
A small tangent—even though the supposed “Romanus Pontifex” of Pope Nicholas V is fabricated. The text in the phony document actually concerns prudential matters of war and imprisonment, not chattel slavery. So, even the phony document does not impugn the Church on chattel slavery.
Contrary to foaming Protestant propaganda, there are numerous papal bulls and encyclicals against chattel slavery.
The Church Against Chattel Slavery
Sicut Dudum given by His Holiness Pope Eugene IV (predecessor of Nicholas V), 1435:
“...We order and command all and each of the faithful... within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person... who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery.”
Sublimus Dei given by His Holiness Pope Paul III, 1537:
“The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction... inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South... should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith... We... consider, however, that the Indians are truly men... We define and declare by these Our letters... that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty... and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”
In Supremo Apostolatus given by His Holiness Gregory XVI, 1839:
“But as the law of the Gospel universally and earnestly enjoined a sincere charity towards all... not only that Christians should regard as their brothers their slaves... but that they should... set free those who merited it; which it was the custom to do chiefly upon the occasion of the Easter Feast as Gregory of Nyssa tells us... It is at these practices [of slavery] that are aimed the Letter Apostolic of Paul III... and afterwards another Letter, more detailed, addressed by Urban VIII... to the Collector Jurium of the Apostolic Chamber of Portugal. In the latter are severely and particularly condemned those who should dare ‘to reduce to slavery the Indians of the Eastern and Southern Indies,’ to sell them, buy them, exchange them or give them, separate them from their wives and children, despoil them of their goods and properties, conduct or transport them into other regions, or deprive them of liberty in any way whatsoever, retain them in servitude, or lend counsel, succour, favour and co-operation to those so acting, under no matter what pretext or excuse, or who proclaim and teach that this way of acting is allowable and co-operate in any manner whatever in the practices indicated... Benedict XIV...and Pius II address grave warnings [AD 1741 and 1462] with regard to Christians who should reduce neophytes to slavery. In our time Pius VII... intervened zealously with those in possession of power to secure that the slave trade should at least cease amongst the Christians... We warn... that no one in the future dare to... reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favour to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and devoted sometimes to the hardest labour. We reprove, then, by virtue of Our Apostolic Authority, all the practices abovementioned as absolutely unworthy of the Christian name. By the same Authority We prohibit and strictly forbid any Ecclesiastic or lay person from presuming to defend as permissible this traffic in Blacks under no matter what pretext or excuse, or from publishing or teaching in any manner whatsoever, in public or privately, opinions contrary to what We have set forth in this Apostolic Letter.”
Neither were these commands belated afterthoughts. Pope Leo XII, 1888, chronicled the Church’s history of desiring freedom and brotherhood for all persons. In Plurimis given by Pope Leo XII, 1888:
“‘For you are all the children of God by faith, in Jesus Christ. For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew, nor Greek; there is neither bond, nor free; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:26-28)
“...the Church, like a tender mother, went on to try to find some alleviation for the sorrows and the disgrace of the life of the slave; with this end in view she clearly defined and strongly enforced the rights and mutual duties of masters and slaves as they are laid down in the letters of the Apostles... (1 Peter 2:18; Ephesians 6:5-8; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10)
“Whoever compare the pagan and the Christian attitude toward slavery will easily come to the conclusion that the one was marked by great cruelty and wickedness, and the other by great gentleness and humanity, nor will it be possible to deprive the Church of the credit due to her as the instrument of this happy change...
“Lactantius [AD 240-320] could not have maintained it so confidently, as though a witness of it. ‘Should any one say: Are there not among you some poor, some rich, some slaves, some who are masters; is there no difference between different persons? I answer: There is none, nor is there any other cause why we call each other by the name of brother than that we consider ourselves to be equals...’
“The care of the Church extended to the protection of slaves, and without interruption tended carefully to one object, that they should finally be restored to freedom... That the event happily responded to these efforts, the annals of sacred antiquity afford abundant proof. Noble matrons, rendered illustrious by the praises of St. Jerome [AD 340-420] themselves afforded great aid in carrying this matter into effect; so that as Salvian relates, in Christian families, even though not very rich, it often happened that the slaves were freed by a generous manumission. Wherefore, in addition to the fact that the act of manumission began to take place in churches as an act of piety, the Church ordered it to be proposed to the faithful when about to make their wills, as a work very pleasing to God and of great merit and value with Him... Neither was anything grudged as the price of the captives, gifts dedicated to God were sold, consecrated gold and silver melted down, the ornaments and gifts of the basilicas alienated, as, indeed, was done more than once by Ambrose [374 to 397], Augustine [AD 354-430], Hilary [AD 368-?], Eligius, Patrick [AD 387-493], and many other holy men.
“Moreover, the Roman Pontiffs, who have always acted, as history truly relates, as the protectors of the weak and helpers of the oppressed, have done their best for slaves. St. Gregory himself set at liberty as many as possible...
“Hadrian I maintained that slaves could freely enter into matrimony even without their masters’ consent. It was clearly ordered by Alexander III in the year 1167 to the Moorish King of Valencia that he should not make a slave of any Christian...
“Innocent III  ... approved and established the Order of the Most Holy Trinity for Redeeming Christians who had fallen into the power of the Turks... Honorius III [AD 1227], and, afterwards, Gregory IX [AD 1145-1241], duly approved the Order of St. Mary of Help, founded for a similar purpose... St. Gregory passed a decree... that it was unlawful to sell slaves to the Church, and he further added an exhortation to the faithful that, as a punishment for their faults, they should give their slaves to God and His saints as an act of expiation...”
A thoughtful and well referenced essay:
Let My People Go: The Catholic Church and Slavery
by Mark Brumley
St. John Chrysostom
“the Golden Mouth”
Doctor of the Church
c. 347-407 A.D.