Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery

Responding to increasing international outcries and an apostolic visitor’s report on atrocities being committed against indigenous peoples in the isolated South American region known as Putumayo, Pope Pius X issued the encyclical Lacrimabili Statu to the bishops of several Latin American countries decrying the maltreatment and enslavement of the natives.

Summary of Event

In the 1820’s, every South American state except Brazil outlawed slavery and the slave trade; Brazil banned these in 1888. Such bans were repeated over the years in revisions to the countries’ various national constitutions and penal codes. By the early twentieth century, however, it had become clear that although these bans applied to slaves of African ancestry and trade with Africa, in some areas the enslavement and other forms of mistreatment of native peoples continued unabated. Lacrimabili Statu (encyclical)
Slavery;papal condemnation
Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals
Papal encyclicals;Lacrimabili Statu
[kw]Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery (June 7, 1912)
[kw]Pius X Condemns Slavery, Pope (June 7, 1912)
[kw]Slavery, Pope Pius X Condemns (June 7, 1912)
Lacrimabili Statu (encyclical)
Slavery;papal condemnation
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[g]Italy;June 7, 1912: Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery[03120]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;June 7, 1912: Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery[03120]
[c]Human rights;June 7, 1912: Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery[03120]
[c]Social issues and reform;June 7, 1912: Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery[03120]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;June 7, 1912: Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery[03120]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;June 7, 1912: Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery[03120]
Pius X
Genocchi, Giovanni
Merry Del Val, Raphael
Casement, Sir Roger

Also in the early twentieth century, the modern world’s demand for natural rubber, a resource of the vast Amazon River basin, was increasing at a tremendous rate, spurred in part by the rapid development and spread of the automobile. Companies from Europe and elsewhere exploited the resource and the local native labor as well while local governments turned a blind eye. One region that was especially ill served was the ten thousand square miles of Putumayo, today a province of Colombia. Once the Jesuit reduction of Loreto (1610-c. 1767), in the early twentieth century it was a semiautonomous and undeveloped region bordered by Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. The few Catholics in the area were under the jurisdiction of a Peruvian bishop, although there was little missionary or other Christian presence outside the ostensible capital, Iquitos. With neither a governmental nor an ecclesiastical presence in the region, the violence against natives went unchecked and largely unreported before 1909.

The world was first informed of the atrocities being committed through an unofficial report from the region that was published in a London newspaper. Because British companies and citizens were implicated in the vile acts, the British foreign minister, Lord Grey, sent Sir Roger Casement with the portfolio of a consul general to investigate the claims. At about the same time, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Raphael Merry del Val, made inquiries of and eventually lodged protests with the government of Peru, a constitutionally Roman Catholic country. He noted the illegal existence of slavery and the practice of slave raiding (correria) and the severe, even mortal punishments meted out to escapees. The cardinal also complained of the rape and torture of women and children in the Putumayo region and the utter disinterest of local authorities in providing any religious missionary activity.

In March, 1911, Casement and his commission reported to the British government, recommending that a Roman Catholic mission in the area would go far toward reducing the arbitrary violence. In May and June, the apostolic delegates from the countries of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico received a circular letter, or encyclical, from Pope Pius X demanding full reports from their countries on the mistreatment and enslavement of natives and on the accomplishments of local missions in curbing atrocities. On July 6, Merry del Val formally charged an apostolic visitor with carrying out a full inspection tour of the problematic areas and reporting back to the pope. The man chosen was Father Giovanni Genocchi, an Italian scholar and missionary with experience in Syria, Turkey, and New Guinea. Genocchi was charged with preparing a full firsthand report on the nature and extent of violence against indigenous peoples in northern South America and with laying the groundwork for formal ecclesiastical organization of Putumayo and provision for missions to the region.

From the pope’s point of view, the lack of evangelization was as bad as—or perhaps worse than—the physical maltreatment of the natives. Even so, Pius was acting in accordance with a long history of papal pronouncements against slavery and the slave trade. His doctrines, and those of his predecessor Leo XIII, had emphasized the rights of laborers to enter freely and equitably into contractual arrangements with employers, which of course delegitimated slavery. During his first year in office, Pius had stated that employers owed fair wages and decent working conditions to their employees. Leo had sternly condemned slavery in his In plurimus encyclical In plurimus (encyclical) of 1888, but he also warned against rash emancipation programs that might disrupt or even destroy the civil state. Neither pope believed in the kind of strict egalitarianism being promoted by socialists and communists, and both saw economic, social, and political inequalities among peoples as natural and part of the divine order. Nonetheless, as Pius expressed in his E supremi apostolatus of October 4, 1903, this natural state was to be meliorated by Christian charity, and no person had a right to oppress, let alone own, another.

Genocchi arrived in Buenos Aires and proceeded to Lima, Peru, sending his first reports back to Merry del Val on October 6. He arrived in Iquitos on December 23, in the midst of an outbreak of yellow fever, and left a month later. He proceeded through parts of the Amazon basin and then sailed for Europe in March, arriving in Rome on April 4, 1912. During his travels he read extensively on the history of Latin America and on slavery, interviewed both civil and ecclesiastical authorities, talked informally with locals, and took reports of violence, enslavement, and other forms of maltreatment. He forwarded reports to Merry del Val at various points and prepared a summary for the pope, who received him on April 26.

Genocchi’s immediate tasks were to prepare for the reorganization and evangelization of the Putumayo region, with an eye toward creating a new diocese under a Peruvian bishop. Meanwhile, Pius was having an encyclical letter prepared for the bishops of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, to be circulated throughout South America. Genocchi’s report informed this new pronouncement, but it is not clear whether the priest had a direct role in its drafting. Although the new encyclical was finished by the end of May, it was dated June 7, 1912, at which time it was sent to the apostolic delegates in the respective countries to distribute to the bishops. It was formally published on June 26, after the bishops had received their copies.

Known by its opening words, Lacrimabili Statu began by recalling the formal condemnation by Pope Benedict XIV (in 1741) of the mistreatment of Native Americans and the history of the abolition of slavery in the South American republics. It went on to remind the bishops that much remained to be done on the native peoples’ behalf, citing some of the atrocities that had been reported. The civil governments, the encyclical noted, were trying to address the problems, but they needed the assistance of the Church. The bishops were urged to do all in their power to educate and otherwise provide resources for the evangelization of the isolated regions and to condemn and decry the “base deeds” of the oppressors. Before concluding, the encyclical also announced the new missionary initiative from Rome and stated the pope’s wish that all of the bishops would cooperate.


Shortly after the encyclical’s publication, Roger Casement’s two reports were published as official “blue books” of the British government. In an article headlined “The Putumayo Atrocities,” which ran on July 15, 1912, The Times of London echoed Casement’s recommendation that a Roman Catholic mission be established and supported by public subscription. The initial mission consisted of four Irish Franciscans. The papal initiative received support in England until Protestant leaders began asking publicly why they should be shut out. (In fact, Peruvian law forbade non-Catholic proselytizing.)

For their part, the Peruvians were very defensive about the harsh light that was being shone on their defects. They complained about having British subjects serve the area, suggesting that the missionaries should at least be Spanish. As the Vatican secretary of state pointed out in a letter of November 24, 1912, the encyclical was only the first step in regularizing the Church’s presence in Putumayo and in utilizing the Church’s resources to protect the Indians from maltreatment. Merry del Val, on the advice of Genocchi, decided to locate the center of the new mission at La Chorrera and drew up plans to establish the town as the center of a new diocese. Lacrimabili Statu (encyclical)
Slavery;papal condemnation
Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals
Papal encyclicals;Lacrimabili Statu

Further Reading

  • Camp, Richard L. Papal Ideology of Social Reform. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1969. Does not address the Lacrimabili Statu encyclical directly, but discusses the broader context of papal social teaching from Leo XIII to Paul VI.
  • Chiron, Yves. Saint Pius X: Restorer of the Church. Kansas City, Mo.: Angelus Press, 2002. One of the fullest modern accounts in English of the life and encyclicals of Pius X.
  • Turvasi, Francesco. Giovanni Genocchi and the Indians of South America, 1911-1913. Rome: Editore Pontificia Gregoriana Universitá, 1988. Provides an excellent overview of the origins and aftermath of the Lacrimabili Statu encyclical.

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