St. Peter Claver: A Study in Sanctity

St. Peter Claver

St. Peter Claver


St. Peter Claver’s (1581-1654) style of sanctity furnishes something of a counterpoint to that of St. Alberto Hurtado, about whom I rhapsodized previously.  Whereas St. Alberto happily demonstrates the compatibility of great sanctity with the pursuit of structural reform, St. Peter highlights the possibility of great sanctity without the same.  In this sense, St. Peter is about as kindred a spirit to a Bl. Teresa of Calcutta or a St. Damian of Molokai as the Jesuits have ever known.

It was in fact this very quality that in 1947 prompted Sir Arnold Lunn, a British literary figure and convert to Catholicism, to publish a biography of St. Peter, Saint of the Slave Trade.  The book succeeds admirably as straightforward hagiography, but also manages to transcend its genre by presenting Peter as a case study of Catholic sanctity.  Lunn meditates on the “slave of the slaves,” not merely because his life inspires, but because St. Peter casts the essence of Christian holiness into deeper relief.

St. Peter did most of the things that would qualify him as a “secular saint”—á la MLK, Gandhi, or Ché.  In Cartagena he treated compassionately Africans brutalized by unscrupulous colonial powers and labored manfully to soften the hearts of traders toward their human cargo.  He brought the slaves refreshment as soon as they reached port, and insisted that European nobles line up behind them at his confessional.  By his own (probably conservative) estimate, St. Peter baptized 300,000 men and women. 

No gesture of love was too extravagant.  In order to restore some sense of human dignity to the slaves, Peter used to descend into the stinking belly of the ships and kiss the “passengers’” festering sores.  In order to protect their human dignity, on the other hand, St. Peter would compel publicly intoxicated slaves to lick the ground, placing his shoe lightly on their necks and asking aloud so that everyone could profit, “Who art thou, miserable creature, that thou dares attack heaven and offend the divine majesty?”  St. Peter was at once more compassionate and more exigent than any save a saint would dream of being.

In these and in countless other ways, St. Peter positioned himself against the injustice that still constitutes the “original sin” of the American national psyche.  Interestingly, however, Peter—unlike Bartolomé de las Casas and his other contemporaries—never agitated for structural reform or denounced slavery without qualification.  The Church had not yet condemned all forms of servitude—and perhaps never has.  Slavery was still permitted under certain circumstances: e.g., as a commuted sentence for POWs or for convicts of capital crimes.  And the slaves who reaches Cartagena alive had often been sentenced on trumped up charges or captured in intertribal skirmishes.  So Peter, despite his unquestionable love for the slaves, did not run ahead of the Church.  He contented himself with mitigating cruelties and baptizing the unwashed masses—efforts that would perhaps today be reckoned myopic and haphazard. 

The horrors of the slave trade, of course, continued long after St. Peter’s death.

As Lunn first recognized, St. Peter’s life allows us to draw the distinction between the saint and the humanitarian with a certain finesse.  St. Peter certainly did work that even contemporary humanitarians would esteem, but his patient obedience to the Church suggests that he was animated by different principles.  And while heroic holiness can certainly be worked out in humanitarian fields—even in the struggle for structural reform, as St. Alberto demonstrates—measurable humanitarian progress is not its defining criterion.  Charity and obedience to God’s will are together the soul of sanctity, and the particular work to be “ensouled” by saintly love is assigned by God’s mysterious providence.  That is why the lack of obedience and love does not hinder the secular saint in his proper mission, so long as he manages to “make a difference;” whereas the failure to “make a difference” does not hinder the Christian saint in his proper mission, so long as he manages to obey and love.

3 Responses to St. Peter Claver: A Study in Sanctity

  1. bill bannon says:

    Actually the Church according to John T. Noonan Jr.’s most recent book (“The Church That Can and Cannot Change”) had a lot more to do with slavery (Spain and Portugal vis a vis most of Latin America and the Carribean at that time) than the US did (“original sin”)(6% of the trade if I remember correctly occured to the US while Portugal was prime and only out of it in the 19th century at England’s command). From 1452 til the first decade of the 16th century, a series of Popes (one of them, Alexander VI, who had 6 children as Cardinal and two mistresses as Pope) affirmed the horrific endorsement to (spiritually therapeutic) slavery by Pope Nicholas V (see Romanus Pontifex mid 4th paragraph below)…meant of course to convert souls. In that paragraph Nicholas gives Portugal the right to enslave in perpetuity and rob of all goods…those who resist the gospel…three later Popes affirmed it in writing for Portugal.

    Here: “We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit — ”
    Romanus Pontifex 1454
    Remember that Aquinas (ST I-II 94 article 4) had said God could take goods without stealing as when He enjoined the Jews to take out of Egypt gold and silver etc from the Egyptians. And he said that slavery was a beneficent addition to the natural law (ibid). Early Renaissance Popes saw themselves as having rule over all secular rulers theoretically (Unam Sanctam)in God’s place as vicar…the two swords of the disciples. Ergo Nicholas seemed in line with Aquinas and Unam Sanctam in allowing slavery and robbery.
    When you get to the 1537 anti slavery bull of Pope Paul III partly inspired by Bartolome de las Casas, one can sense that he is explicitly rejecting the permissions of that exact series of Popes in his first phrase which follows:

    Sublimus Dei 1537:

    ” 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 or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; 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.”

    What we need in the future from Catholic historians is recognition of Rome’s part in some of these problems otherwise Rahner’s and Vatican II’s seeing the Church itself as in some sense being sinner and not yet perfect Bride of Christ (unlike Mary who was always perfect being not Bride but Mother to Christ)….will continue to be incomprehensible to conservative Catholics and to outsiders who know history and think we are forever covering it up when it comes to the Popes.

  2. bill bannon says:

    One correction: the Aquinas cite should read article 5 not 4 and here they are:

    Article 5 reply to 3rd objection:
    “ the distinction of possessions and slavery were not brought in by nature, but devised by human reason for the benefit of human life.”

    (elsewhere (section on marriage) in the Supplement, Aquinas had noted that slavery follows as to the mother and thus those born to slave mothers were also slaves and he gives Decretals that affirmed that …a principle that would work against emancipation).

    Article 5 reply to 2nd objection:
    “The same applies to theft, which is the taking of another’s property. For whatever is taken by the command of God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft consists. Nor is it only in human things, that whatever is commanded by God is right; but also in natural things, whatever is done by God, is, in some way, natural, as stated in the I, 105, 6, ad 1.”

    (What was done by God in Leviticus 25:44-46 was the bestowing of chattel slavery to the Jews vis a vis foreigners. Yet aside from slavery the above cite was to furnish the means of how a Pope could order theft of possessions as Nicholas V did and it not be theft if he were the vicar of Christ as understood by that Unam Sanctam generation as to how far that vicarship went.)

  3. thy meatal says:

    St.peter Claver is awsome

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