Bible’s take on slavery

Question: I was telling my daughter that the Bible teaches against homosexual acts and, thus, same-sex marriage. She dismissed the Bible and said it once approved slavery, and so it carried no moral authority for her. What can I say?

Name withheld, via email

Answer: There are several problems in both the logic and the understanding of Scripture involved in this objection. The first problem involves equating what is a definitive precept with what is at best a tacit tolerance. Homosexual acts (as well as all heterosexual acts outside of marriage) are explicitly condemned throughout the whole of Scripture. We are commanded to refrain from any such acts. But nowhere are we commanded to own slaves.

The Scriptures treat slavery as part of the existing social structure of the ancient world and set norms so as to avoid the excesses that sometimes accompanied it. But the mere tolerance of questionable practice should not be equated with supporting it let alone prescribing it as something good. An argument from silence does not connote approval.

The second problem is the term “slavery” itself. In the ancient biblical world, slavery resulted from essentially three sources: One owed debt they could not repay, one had been a soldier in a defeated army or one may have committed certain crimes. As such, slavery was an alternative to death or imprisonment. It was not without its questionable dimensions, but neither was it intrinsically evil. Even today we often seek alternatives to imprisonment (such as probation and house arrest) wherein one forfeits some of their rights.

But the slavery of the colonial period exploited and enslaved people who had no debt, had committed no crimes and had not waged war. This is a very different situation, morally speaking, from the slavery of biblical times.

Finally, even if one were to insist that Scripture once approved of slavery (a point not conceded here), and this discredits it as a source for moral teaching, then we ought to ask what would happen if this same standard were applied, for example, to the U.S. Constitution. Is the Constitution fully discredited because it once remained silent or gave tacit approval to slavery? Is your daughter’s right to free speech discredited because the Constitution was once imperfect or even wrong on another topic? Most would find this notion too extreme. And neither does Scripture lose its value even if it was once less severe on slavery than we would wish today.

Alleluia omission

Question: In my parish at daily Mass, the Alleluia and verse before the Gospel is omitted. Is this permitted?

Roseanna Miller, Bayonne, N.J.

Answer: Yes. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (No. 63) indicates that the Gospel acclamation, if not sung, may be omitted. And while this does not seem to forbid reciting it, the acclamation is generally envisioned as a sung text, so if no one can reasonably lead the singing, it can be omitted.

Another possibility is to sing the Alleluia without the verse. Generally most congregations are able to sing a well-known melody of Alleluia without a cantor. But here, too, situations vary and the celebrant can omit the Gospel Acclamation.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.