In supremo apostolatus

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In supremo apostolatus is a papal bull issued by Pope Gregory XVI regarding the institution of slavery. Issued on December 3, 1839, as a result of a broad consultation among the College of Cardinals, the bull resoundingly denounces both the slave trade and the continuance of the institution of slavery.[1][2][3]

The Bull[edit]

The Bull outlines the history of Church attitudes to slavery, beginning with the Apostles who tolerated slavery but called on masters to "act well towards their slaves... knowing that the common Master both of themselves and of the slaves is in Heaven, and that with Him there is no distinction of persons". The Bull then discusses the involvement of Christians for and against slavery:

The Bull refers to several earlier Papal pronouncements seeking to alleviate the suffering of slaves, beginning with the Letter Apostolic of Paul III, given on May 29, 1537, to the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, and that of Urban VIII on April 22, 1639 to the Collector Jurium of the Apostolic Chamber of Portugal; then that of Benedict XIV of December 20, 1741, to the Bishops of Brazil and some other regions; then another by Pius II, of October 7, 1462 and finally Pius VII. Pope Gregory then unambiguously condemns the continuing slave trade:

Effects in the United States[edit]

The Bull had political consequences for the Catholic communities in slave-holding states, especially Maryland. The Bishop of Charleston John England, despite privately abhorring slavery, interpreted In supremo apostolatus in his ecclesiastical province as a condemnation of large-scale slave-trading, as opposed to the individual owning of slaves: This is in spite of the pontiff having forbidden defense of the institution of slavery "under any pretext...or excuse."[5]

In 1852, any American Bishops later convened upon Baltimore for the First Plenary Council of Baltimore, where remarks on the conditions of slaves were kept to the need for prayers for individuals in slavery.[5] The Irish-born Archbishop of Baltimore Francis Kenrick raised issue of the condition of slaves in America, but concluded that "such is the state of things, [that] nothing should be attempted against the laws"[6]

Two translations[edit]

Two English translations of the bull are now common; these differ in one important detail. The original and contemporaneous (1844) translation includes the word unjustly, while the newer translation (prepared 128 years later) does not. Because of the inclusion of this word in the original translation (which was taken by some to imply that molestation, despoiling, and enslavement of persons was acceptable to the church, as long as those acts were not "unjust", presumably according to the perpetrators of the acts), some American bishops continued to support slave-holding interests until the abolition of slavery.[7] (→ Catholic Church and slavery)

Latin 1844 Translation 1972 Translation
Quare Nos, tantum hujusmodi probrum a cunctis christianorum finibus avertere cupientes, ac re universa nonnullis etiam venerabilibus Fratribus Nostris S. R. E. Cardinalibus in consilium adhibitis, Wherefore WE, desiring to turn away so great a reproach as this from all the boundaries of Christians, and the whole matter being maturely weighed, certain cardinals of the holy Roman Church, our venerable brethren being also called into council, This is why, desiring to remove such a shame from all the Christian nations, having fully reflected over the whole question and having taken the advice of many of Our Venerable Brothers the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,
mature perpensa, Praedecessorum Nostrorum insistentes vestigiis, auctoritate Apostolica, treading in the footsteps of our predecessors, with apostolic authority, and walking in the footsteps of Our Predecessors,
omnes cujuscumque conditionis Christi fideles admonemus etobtestamur in Domino vehementer, do vehemently admonish and adjure in the Lord all believers in Christ, of whatsoever condition, We warn and adjure earnestly in the Lord faithful Christians of every condition
ne quis audeat in posterum Indos, Nigritas, seu alios hujusmodi homines injuste vexare, that no one hereafter may dare unjustly to molest Indians, negroes, or other men of this sort; that no one in the future dare to vex anyone,
aut spoliare suis bonis, or to spoil them of their goods; despoil him of his possessions,
aut in servitutem redigere, or to reduce them to slavery; reduce to servitude,
vel aliis talia in eos patrantibus auxilium aut favorem praestare, or to extend help or favour to others who perpetrate such things against them; or lend aid and favour to those who give themselves up to these practices,
seu exercere inhumanum illud commercium, quo Nigritae, tanquam si non homines, sed pura, putaque animantia forent, or to exercise that inhuman trade by which negroes, as if they were not men, but mere animals, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals,
in servitutem utcumque redacti, sine ullo discrimine contra justitiae et humanitatis jura emuntur, venduntur, ac durissimis interdum laboribus exantlandis devoventur, howsoever reduced into slavery, are, without any distinction, contrary to the laws of justice and humanity, bought, sold, and doomed sometimes to the most severe and exhausting labours; 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.
[8] [8][9] [10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Pope Gregory XVI 3 December 1839 Condemning Slave Trade". Retrieved February 16, 2010. 
  2. ^ Gillis, Chester (1999). Roman Catholicism in America. Columbia University Press. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-231-10871-3. 
  3. ^ Diène, Doudou (August 2001). From chains to bonds. Berghahn Books. p. 271. ISBN 978-1-57181-266-7. 
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ a b Curran, Robert Emmett (2012). Shaping American Catholicism: Maryland and New York, 1805-1915. Print: The Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 978-0-8132-1967-7. 
  6. ^ Kenrick, Francis (1842). Theologica Moralis. Print: Apud Eugenium Cummiskey. 
  7. ^ Stark, Rodney (July 1, 2003). "The Truth About the Catholic Church and Slavery". Christianity Today. 
  8. ^ a b England, John; Read, William George (1844), "Apostolic Letter of our most holy lord Gregory XVI, by divine providence, pope: Concerning the not carrying on the trade in negroes", [Online at Google books Letters of the late Bishop England to the Hon. John Forsyth on the subject of domestic slavery: to which are prefixed copies, in Latin and English, of the Pope's Apostolic Letter, concerning The African Slave Trade, with some introductory remarks, etc.] Check |url= value (help) (Google books), Baltimore: John Murphy, pp. ix–xi (& 2 pages before in Latin), retrieved March 17, 2013 
  9. ^ Geo. Read: Letters to the Honorable John Forsyth, On the Subject of Domestic Slavery Archived 2011-01-04 at the Wayback Machine., December 19, 1843, Jesuit Plantation Project,
  10. ^ "Snipset at Google books" (Google books), Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 82-84: 74 (RA1-PA74), retrieved March 17, 2013 
  11. ^ In supremo apostolatus, Papal Encyclicals Online