racism (or “racialist prejudice,” as he referred to it), Pope St. Paul VI affirmed

The members of mankind share the same
basic rights and duties, as well as the same supernatural destiny.  Within a country which belongs to each one,
all should be equal before the law, find equal admittance to economic,
cultural, civic and social life and benefit from a fair sharing of the nation’s
.  (Octogesima

suggests a useful definition of racism, which is best understood as the denial
of what the pope here affirms.  In other
words, racism is the thesis that not all races have the same basic rights and
duties and/or supernatural destiny, so that not all races should be equal
before the law, find equal admittance to economic, cultural, civic and social
life, or benefit from a fair sharing of the nation’s riches.

There could
be no clearer manifestations of racism in this sense than the institutions of slavery
and segregation that once existed in the United States.  The falsity and evil of racism, and thus of
those institutions, clearly follows from standard Scholastic thinking about
human nature and natural law.  Perhaps
the best-known examples of Scholastic thinkers who made this case are Francisco
de Vitoria (c. 1486-1546) and Bartoloméo de Las Casas (1474-1566). 

Vitoria’s argument

These thinkers
were writing at a time when the Spanish were colonizing the Americas, and were troubled
by the harshness with which the American Indian populations were being
treated.  Let’s start with Vitoria, who
was an important contributor to the development of a Scholastic doctrine of natural rights as grounded in Thomistic
natural law, and he hammered it out in the context of arguing for better
treatment of the Indians.

The idea of
a right in the modern sense is that
of a kind of moral power to act in certain ways.  For example, if I have a right to my car,
that entails that I am morally at liberty to drive it or not drive it, paint it
or keep it the color it is, sell or lend it, and so on.  Others do not
have a right to it insofar as they are not
at liberty to do these things.  The
moral law permits me this range of actions, but it does not permit them to others.

theorists refer to rights in this sense as subjective
, because they inhere in the individual subject or moral agent, in a manner analogous to the way his height
or weight inheres in him.  This is
contrasted with the idea of objective
, which essentially has to do with the object or aim of justice being realized.  For example, a society in which people do not
murder or steal from one another is one in which objective right, at least to
that extent, is achieved.

While the
idea of objective right is to be
found in a medieval philosopher like Aquinas, the notion of subjective rights is not, at least not explicitly.  As scholars like Brian Tierney have argued (see
Idea of Natural Rights
), the notion began to evolve in medieval canon
law, and later Scholastic writers like Vitoria essentially grafted it onto the
Thomistic understanding of natural law.

The basic
idea is this.  What sets human beings
apart from non-human animals and the rest of the natural world is our rationality, and the free will that follows from it.  This affords human beings a mastery over
their own actions that other creatures do not have, and it is, of course, why
we are subject to a moral law that tells us how we ought to use our freedom.  So far this is just standard Thomistic
teaching.  But the Scholastic argument
for natural rights (in the sense of subjective rights) is that if I am obligated to act in a certain way under
natural law, then I must have a right
in the sense of a power or liberty to do so. 
I must be able to make a moral claim against others that they not
interfere with my actions in that particular respect.

Some Scholastic
thinkers developed a theory of the natural right to private property on this
basis.  The idea is that property is
necessary in order to bring our powers to bear on the world in a manner that will
allow us to do things like provide for ourselves and our families, which we are
obligated to do under natural law.  Hence
if natural law directs us to do things that presuppose private property, we
must have a natural right to acquire it. 
In the same way, we must have natural rights not to be killed and not to
have our liberty taken from us (at least if we have not forfeited these rights
by committing a crime), since these rights are prerequisites of our acting in
any way at all.  (Naturally, there are
all sorts of details concerning the institution of private property and the
scope and limits of other rights that this doesn’t address.  I’m just trying to convey the basic idea
here.  I say more about these issues in
articles like “Freedom
in the Scholastic Tradition”
and “Classical
Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.”

Let’s come
back, then, to Vitoria’s critique of the harsh treatment inflicted on the
American Indians, which was an argument appealing to the natural rights that the Indians shared with all other human
beings.  (See Chapter XI of Tierney for a
useful survey of Vitoria’s position.)  Vitoria
considers four reasons why some in his day did claim or might claim that the
Indians lacked such rights: it might be claimed that they lacked such rights
because they were sinners; or that they lacked them because they were infidels;
or that they lacked them because they lacked rationality; or that they lacked
them because they lacked sufficient intelligence.  Vitoria disposes of each of these arguments.

First, he
points out that natural rights are grounded in human nature, and that sinners
and infidels have the same human nature as everyone else.  Hence they have the same basic rights as everyone
else (such as the right not to be murdered, the right not to be stolen from,
and so forth).  Hence, whether the
American Indians were sinners or non-believers is irrelevant to their having
natural rights, and thus could not justify treating them as if they did not
have them.

As to the
claim that the American Indians lacked rationality, Vitoria pointed out that
this is obviously false given that they had customs and institutions that only
creatures with reason have (laws, the institution of marriage, cities, etc.).  He also argues that it will not do to suggest
that they somehow have rationality only in potentiality
rather than actuality, since (as the old Aristotelian maxim has it) nature does
nothing in vain.

His point
seems to be that it makes no sense to suppose that a large and ongoing
population of human beings would have rationality only potentially rather than
actually, because in that case their possession of it would be pointless, which
violates the Aristotelian maxim.  If a population
has the power of rationality, then over time and across the population that power
is inevitably going to be actualized.

In response
to the claim that the Indians lacked sufficient intelligence, Vitoria says that
though children and mentally ill people lack the intelligence others have, they
do not lack natural rights, because they have the same human nature as everyone
else.  Hence, he concludes, claims to the
effect that the Indians lacked the same mental acuity as the Spaniards could
not justify denying that they had the same natural rights.

Vitoria also
argues that Aristotle’s notorious argument to the effect that some people are
naturally fit only to serve others could not justify chattel slavery.  His view was that this conclusion is ruled
out by the circumstance that even such servile persons have the same rational
nature as every other human being, so that they have the same natural rights as
other human beings.  Hence, even someone
better suited to serve others could not justly be treated as property or
otherwise less than human.

Las Casas’s argument

Las Casas was
even more thoroughgoing and passionate in his defense of the rights and equal
dignity of the American Indians.  He
argued strongly against any suggestion that the Indians were morally or
intellectually inferior to Spaniards, and put special emphasis on the right to
personal liberty and government by consent. 
Fellow rational creatures, he insisted, have to be appealed to via
rational persuasion rather than force. 
He also emphasized the brotherhood of man both on Christian and natural
law grounds, writing:

All the peoples of the world are
humans and there is only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is
that they are rational… Thus all the races of humankind are one
(Quoted by Tierney, at p. 273)

Las Casas
developed an especially important argument against any suggestion that
Aristotle’s view that some people are naturally servile could be used to
justify racial slavery.  First, he noted some problems with claims,
common in his day, to the effect that some peoples were “barbarian” races.  What does that mean, exactly?  In the original sense of the term, “barbarian”
peoples were those whose language was strange, but in this trivial sense all people are “barbarian” relative to
those who speak a different language.  In
another sense, a “barbarian” people is one that is especially cruel, but in
this sense, Las Casas points out, the Spanish
could be said to be barbarians given their treatment of the Indians.  In yet another sense, “barbarians” referred
to non-Christian peoples.  But the pagan
Greeks and Romans were non-Christians, and yet they were not considered by
Christian writers to have been barbarians.

Las Casas
argues that a “barbarian,” in the only interesting sense of the term, would be
someone who essentially lived the life of a savage, bereft of reason and barely
above the level of non-human animals, like a proverbial forest-dwelling “wild
man.”  He would for that reason
essentially be a damaged human being, his defects of rationality comparable to
blindness or lameness.  But now Las Casas
makes two key points.  First, he says, even
such a person would still be a human being (even if his use of reason was
greatly stunted) and would therefore retain the basic human rights. 

Second, he
argues, such people would also in the nature of the case be extremely rare and
isolated.  There could not, in principle,
be a race of barbarians in this
sense.  For it simply makes no sense for
there to be a race of people who have the basic powers of rationality that
other human beings have, with all the duties under natural law that that
entails, and yet, generation after generation, are always fundamentally stunted
or crippled in their capacity to use those powers.  That would be like a race of people all of
whom, generation after generation, are always born blind or crippled.  There would be a kind of perversity in such a scenario that would violate the Aristotelian
principle that nature does nothing in vain. 
(Here, Las Casas essentially extends the line of argument we saw Vitoria

What Las
Casas gives us, then, is an argument which, on grounds of Aristotelian-Thomistic
metaphysics and anthropology, rules out the very possibility of a race that is
naturally inferior to others.  And thus
it rules out any justification for racism in the sense later condemned by Pope St.
Paul VI.

But what about…

Some will
ask: “But didn’t the Catholic Church once defend slavery of the kind that once
existed in the U.S. precisely on natural law grounds?”  The answer is No, she did not.  To be sure, there were individual Catholic
writers who defended slavery of that kind (e.g. with reference to Spanish
treatment of the American Indians), but their view died out and the views of
writers like Vitoria and Las Casas prevailed. 
But it is not true that the Church
as an institution defended slavery of that kind.

The word “slavery”
is ambiguous.  What we usually think of
when we hear the term today is chattel
slavery of the kind practiced in the United States before the Civil War, which
involved complete ownership of another person, the way one might own an animal
or an inanimate object.  This is
intrinsically evil, and the Church has never defended it.

There are,
however, other practices that were sometimes loosely labeled “slavery” but
which are very different from chattel slavery. 
For example, there is indentured
, which is a contract to give the right to one’s labor to another
person for a prolonged period of time – for example, in payment of a debt.  And there is penal servitude, which involves forcing someone to labor as part of
a punishment for a crime.  Indentured
servitude is essentially an extreme version of an ordinary labor contract, and
penal servitude is an extension of the loss of liberty a justly punished
prisoner is already subject to.  Now, Catholic
theologians have long regarded such practices as so morally hazardous, and in
particular as posing a serious enough danger of degenerating into chattel
slavery, that in practice they ought not to be employed.  But it is practices of these kinds (rather
than chattel slavery), that the Church did not condemn as intrinsically immoral.  Regarding the modern slave trade and the practice
of chattel slavery, the Church and the popes have
in fact consistently condemned them beginning at least as far back as the 15th

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