Instruction of the Holy Office, June 20, 1866

This is the text of the Instruction Number 1293 of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, June 20, 1866, which explains under which conditions the buying and selling of slaves was permitted in the view of the Catholic Church. The instruction is given first in its English translation, and then in its original Latin form. It is taken from the book “The Popes and Slavery” by Joel S. Panzer. The text is not complete, but seems to cover nevertheless the important points regarding slavery. It is published here as part of The Atheist Bible.

Today, the Catholic Church prohibits the buying and selling of slaves Catechism of the Catholic Church / 3 / 2 / 2 / 7 / 2414.


For the Vicar Apostolic among the Galla.

There have been sent to this Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition many questions proposed by the Rev. William Massaia, Vicar Apostolic among the Galla in Africa. For convenience these questions can be broken up into eight different kinds. The first kind deals with simultaneous polygamy both on the part of the man and the part of the wife; the second touches on the manner in which the daughters of a family are given in marriage; the third touches on the baptism of those for whom a danger of loss of faith is foreseen; the fourth touches on the buying, selling, flight, punishment and marriage of slaves; the fifth touches on the enmities or feuds exercised among the independent tribes of the Galla,...

IV. The fourth type of question concerns the buying and selling of slaves. The condition of servitude, properly so called, among the Galla and Sidama so strictly coheres with their social status that it is almost impossible to establish and maintain a home among them without the buying of slaves, Because of this it is not found that servants are hired, and every head of a household has to buy completely everything for himself and for his household, be they things grown from the land or made by human industry. Therefore the slaves are held like a principal matter of commerce; in a certain degree they have the value of money, and frequently, by the order of the leader or by prescript of their laws, creditors are held to accept them for the payment of debt. All this being the case, I ask:

12. Whether it is permitted for Christians among the Galla and Sidama to buy slaves, or to receive them as payment for a debt or as a gift as long as they act for the sake of the necessities of their home and family and without the intention of re-selling the slaves.

13. Whether a Christian family, not for the sake of gain, but only because of a grave means of support or the necessity of paying a debt is permitted to trade or sell a slave it possesses.

14. Whether it is permitted to admit to the sacraments any Christian merchant who normally abhors the buying and selling of slaves for the sake of profit, but, lest he suffer harm to his family affairs, wants to resell some slaves whom once he was forced, by a seller who was a noble, to take as the price for his wages.

15. Whether Christians and even missionaries can licitly be present as witnesses or agents or other such name at contracts, judgments or other types of public acts which deal with slaves according to the laws of those peoples.

[Response] Although the Roman Pontiffs have left nothing untried by which servitude be everywhere abolished among the nations, and although it is especially due to them that already for many ages no slaves are held among very many Christian peoples, nevertheless, servitude itself, considered in itself and all alone (per se et absolute), is by no means repugnant to the natural and divine law, and there can be present very many just titles for servitude, as can be seen by consulting the approved theologians and interpreters of the canons. For the dominion which belongs to a master in respect to a slave is not to be understood as any other than the perpetual right of disposing, to one’s own advantage, of servile work, which dominion it is legitimate for a person to offer to another person. From this it follows that it is not repugnant to the natural and divine law that a slave be sold, bought, exchanged, or given, as long as in this sale, or buy1ng, or exchange or giVing, the due conditions which those same approved authors widely follow and explain, are properly observed. Among these conditions those which are to be especially looked at are whether the slave who is put up for sale has been justly or unjustly deprived of his liberty, and that the seller does nothing by which the slave to be transferred to another possessor suffer any detriment to life, morals or the Catholic faith. Therefore, Christians, about whom one is speaking in the first question, can licitly buy slaves or, to resolve a debt, receive them as a gift, as long as they are morally certain that those slaves were not taken from their legitimate master or reduced to slavery unjustly. For if the slaves who are offered for sale have been taken from their legitimate master, it is not permitted to buy them, because it is a crime to buy what belongs to another and has been taken, the master being unwilling, by theft. If, however, they have been unjustly reduced to slavery, then one must determine whether they are unwilling to be sold or given to Christians or whether they consent to it. If they are unwilling, they can by no means be bought or received, since the captives themselves are masters of their own liberty, although it has been unjustly taken from them. If indeed, after they have been fully taught that freedom belongs to them by right and which they lose only by injury to others, they spontaneously and by their own free will, as masters of themselves, present themselves to Christians to be received by them and held in servitude, by a prudent plan in order to be freed from the harsh present servitude, from which they have in no way the ability to free themselves, and choose a milder servitude in the hands of Christian buyers and with whom they are easily able to persuade themselves that they can come to a knowledge of worshipping the true God, and of confessing Him to the inestimable advantage of their souls; in such circumstances it is permissible for the Christians, especially when they act in favor of the Faith, to purchase such captives for a just price, and to take and retain them in their own servitude, as long as they are of the mind to treat them according to the precepts of Christian charity, and take care to imbue them with the rudiments of the Faith so that, if it is possible, they may be freely and happily led, this being done by no compulsion, but only by opportune persuasion and encouragement, through their conversion to the True Faith into the liberty of the sons of God which is found only in the Catholic Church. On this matter one should look at the instruction of His Holiness Pius VI (Sept. 12, 1776), which is attached.

Indeed, just as slaves can be licitly bought, so they can licitly also be sold, but it is altogether necessary that the seller is the legitimate possessor of the slave, and does nothing in the sale by which the life, morals or Catholic faith of the slave to be sold would be harmed. Therefore it is illicit to sell a slave or in any manner give the slave into the ownership of any master who by a certain or probable judgment can be foreseen to be going to treat that slave inhumanely, or lead him to sin or abuse him for the sake of that most evil trade which has been condemned and strictly prohibited by the constitutions of the Roman Pontiffs, especially by Pope Gregory XVI. Likewise it is illicit to sell a slave, taking no account of the marriage rights and duties of that same slave. Much more illicit is it so sell a Christian slave to a faithless master, or even, where the danger of falling away is prudently to be feared, to an heretical or schismatic master. If he keeps these things properly in mind, the Vicar Apostolic will clearly see what response is to be given to questions 13, 14, and 15. For nothing impedes any Christian family — as mentioned in question 13 — from selling their slaves in good conscience, if they possess them legitimately and, in the sale, observe the cautions described above. So also the seller mentioned in question 14 can be admitted to the sacraments if it is a fact that the slaves who have come into his possession as pay, have not been taken from their rightful master by theft nor been unjustly reduced to slavery, and if he furthermore solemnly promises that he will sell them in such moral conditions that none of the rights and duties which belong to them as men — and, if they have it embraced the Christian faith, as Christians — will be harmed or endangered by the sale. Finally in respect to question 15 it is determined that the Christians themselves, even missionaries, can be present as witnesses and as agents — or any other name not prohibited by the sacred canons — in contracts, judgments and other public acts of this types done in respect to slaves as long as the acts are licit in themselves and are vitiated by no evil circumstance.

V. Next we come to the questions about fugitive Slaves. According to the laws of the Galla and Sidama the slave is counted among the useful things over which one has a true and proper dominion, and for which they make contracts, damages are sought, and judgment sought in case of theft or usurpation. Hence it is asked:

16. Whether it is licit for Christians and for missionaries themselves to search for fugitive slaves, and force them to return, or at least to permit that others search them out or even by use of force have the public magistrate or friends bring them back.

17. Whether slaves have the right to flight, and whether they have to repair the damages caused by their flight to the master.



As has been noted in response to the questions immediately above, there are some just titles or causes by which a slave can be legitimately deprived of his liberty and legitimately retained by a master. But since it is contradictory to say that a master has the right to possess and retaln a slave and the slave has the right not to be possessed and retained by a master, everyone can see that the Christians and missionaries mentioned in question 16 are able in good conscience to search for fugitive slaves and force them to return, if indeed they possess a just title to those who have been justly reduced to slavery.

It is not so easy to answer questions 17 and 18. Regularly it is the right of slaves who have been unjustly reduced to slavery to flee; it is not permitted for slaves who undergo just servitude, unless perhaps they are solicited by the master to some sin, or are treated inhumanly. On this distinction depends the solution to the other question, namely whether fugitive slaves are held to make up for the damage caused to the master by their flight. Since, to incur the obligation of restitution three conditions must be simultaneously linked together and fulfilled, viz. theological sin, subsequent damage, and efficacious cause, it is clear that those slaves whose flight was gravely illicit are held to reparation while those slaves whose flight lacked all fault are not; but as to the liceity of flight and the obligation of repairing the damage caused by such flight let the Vicar Apostolic consult the approved authors and with them distinguish between the various cases and the various titles to servitude.


Instr. S.C.S. Off. 20 Iunii 1866
Pro Vic. Ap. Ad. Gallas.
Deleta sunt ad hanc S.C.
Suprema Inquisitionis plurima dubia quae proposuit R.P.D. Guillelmus Massaia Vicarius Apostolicus apud Gallas in Africa, queaque in octo diversas classes distinguis commode possunt. Prima classis respicit polygamiam simultaneam tam ex parte viri, tam ex parte uxorum; altera modum quo filiaefamilias nuptui traduntur; tertia baptismum eorum qui perversionis pericolo praevidetur obnoxii; quarta emptionem, venditionem, fugam, coercionem, matrimonia servorum; quinta inimicitias, communis vindictae nomine, inter gallarum independentium tribus exercis solitas;...

IV. Quarta dubiorum classis, de servorum emptione et venditione. Servitutis proprie a dictae conditio apud Gallas et Sydamas tam stricte cohaeret cum sociali eorum statu, ut impossibile fere sit domum inter eos sine mancipiis figere et retinere. Illic enim reperire non est servos conducticios, et quilibet paterfamilias omnia prosus sibi suaeque domui comparare debet, sive quae e terra gignuntur, sive quae hominum industria fiunt. Praeterea mancipia habentur veluti principalis commercii materia, immo valent quadamtenus pro numerata pecunia, eademque saepe ad solutionem debiti vel principis iussu, vel legum ipsarum praescripto creditores acce ptare tenentur. Quae cum ita se habeant, quaeritur:

12. An liceat christianis apud Gallas et Sidamas mancipia emere, et in debiti solutionem, aut in donum recipere, quotiescumque id agant propter domus vel familiae suae necessitates, sine animo eadem mancipia revendendi.

13. An familia aliqua Christiana non lucri faciendi consilio, sed tantum ob gravem Victus comparandi, vel debitorum solvendorum necessitatem, possit licite aut tradere in pretium, aut vendere servum quem possidet.

14. An liceat admittere ad sacramentorum participationem christianum quemdam negotiatorem, qui a servis quaestus causa emendis et vendendis abhorrere quidem solet, sed ne detrimentum rei familiaris patiatur, servos aliquos revendere vult, quos olim nobilium emptorum praepotentia recipere coactus est pro mercium suarum pretio.

15. An christiani, ipsique adeo missionarii licite possint interesse tamquam testes, vel sequestres, vel alio nomine contractibus, iudiciis, aut aliis id genus publicis actibus, qui secundum gentium illarum leges fiunt circa servos.

Etsi Romani Pontifices nihil intentatum re liquerint quo servitutem ubique gentium abolerent, iisdemque praecipue acceptum referri debeat quod iam a pluribus saeculis nulli apud plurimas christianorum gentes servi habeantur; tamen servitus ipsa per se et absolute considerata iuri naturali et divino minime repugnat, pluresque adesse possunt iusti servitutis tituli quos videre est apud probatos theologos sacrorumque canonum interpretes. Dominium enim illud, quod domino in servum competit non aliud esse intelligitur quam ius perpetuum de servi opens in proprium commodum disponendi, quas quidem homini ab homine praestari fas est. hide autem consequitur iuri naturali et divino non repugnare quod servus vendatur, ematur, commutetur, donetur, modo in hac venditione, emptione, commutatione, donatione, debitae conditiones accurate serventur quas itidem probati auctores late perse quuntur et explicant. Quas inter conditiones illa praecipuum sibi vindicat locum, ut emptor diligenter examinet, num servus qui venum exponitur iuste iniuste libertate sua privatus fuerit, et venditor nihil committat, quo servi ad alium possessorem transferendi vita, honestas, aut catholica fides in discrimen adducatur. Christiani igitur, de quibus in dubio primo sermo licite possunt servos emere atque in debiti solutionem, vel in donum recipere, quoties moraliter certi sint servos illos neque legitimo eorum domino sublatos, neque iniuste in servitutem fuisse abstractos. Si enim servi qui ad emendum offeruntur, legitimo eorum domino ablati fuerunt, non licet eos emere, quia nefas est alienas res furto ablatas emere invito domino. Si autem iniuste in servitutem redacti fuerunt, distinguendum est num se christianis venum ire aut donari detrectent, vet consentiant. Si detrectant, emi aut recipi nequa quam possunt, ipsi enim captivi domini sunt propriae libertatis, quamvis iniuste us ereptae. Si vero postquam plene edocti fuerint iure sibi libertatem competere, a qua nonnisi aliorum iniuria exciderunt, ultro et sponte sua, et ex libera et propria voluntate tamquam rerum suarum domini se exhibeant christianis ut ab eis recipiantur et detineantur in servitutem, eo prudenti consilio ut a dura servitute praesenti, a qua ipsis datum non fuerit alio modo se emancipare, mitiorem apud dominos christianos servitutem sortiantur, penes quos etiam facile sibi persuadere poterunt, venire posse in cognitionem veri Dei cultus, eumque inaestimabili animarum suarum compendio profiteri, in his sane circumstantiis permitti potent christianis, habito etiam respectu ad favorem fidei, ut possint eiusmodi captivos iusto pretio aut alio iusto titulo acquirere, et in propriam servitutem redigere et retinere, dummodo eo animo sint ut eos tractent secundum praecepta caritatis christianae, et curent etiam rudimentis fidei illos imbuere, adeo ut, Si fieri potent, in libertatem filiorum Dei, quae in sola catholica ecclesia est, nulla tamen coactione facta, sed tantummodo opportunis suasionibus et hortationibus, a libere et feliciter traducantur per eorum conversionem ad veram fidem. Et hac de re prae oculis habeatur instructio S. m. Pii VI (12 Sept. 1776) quae adnectitur. (V. n. 515).

Quemadmodum vero servi licite emi, ita licite quoque vendi possunt, sed necessarium ommno . est ut qui vendit legitimus sit servi possessor, nihilque in vendmone committat quo servi alienandi vitae, honestati, aut catholicae fidei noceatur. Quare illicitum est servum vendere, aut quomodocumque in proprietatem cedere alicui domino, qui certo aut probabili iudicio praevideatur servum eumdem inhumaniter habiturus vel ad peccatum pertracturus vel eodem abusurus ad iniquissimum illud commercium exercendum, quod Apostolicis Romanorum Pontificum, ac praesertim s. m. Gregorii XVI constitution ibus reprobatur districteque prohibetur. Illicitum pariter est servum alienare, nulla prorsus habita ratione iurium et officiorum matrimonialium ipsius servi. MuIto magis illicitum est servum christianum vendere domino infideli, aut etiam, ubi perversionis periculum prudenter timendum sit, domino haeretico vel schismatico. Haec si Vicarius Ap. probe teneat, aperte videbit, quid respondendum sit ad 13, 14 et 15 dubium. Nihil enim impedit quominus familia christiana, de qua agitur in dubio 13, servos suos vendere tuta conscientia queat, si ipsos legitime possideat, et cautiones supra descriptas in venditione observet. Sic etiam negotiator in dubio 14 memoratus potent ad sacramenta admitti, si constet, servos, qui ei pro mercium pretio obtigerunt, neque per furtum legitimo eorum domino subductos, neque iniuste in captivitatem redactos fuisse, ac praeterea spondeat se eos honestis conditionihns ita Venditurum esse, ut nihil ex eiusmodi venditione laedantlIF periclitentur iura et ofticia, quae illis tamquam hominibus, et, si christianam fidem amplexi fuerint, tamquam fidelibus competunt. Tandem de dubio 15 statuendum est christianos ipsos, etiam missionarios, interesse posse ut testes et sequestres aliove nomine per sacros canones non prohibito, contractibus, indiciis, aliisque id genus publicis actibus servorum causa fieri solitis, qui tamen et in se liciti sint. et nulla prava circumstantia vitientur. V. Sequitur quarta dubiorum classis, de servis fugitivis. Mancipium iuxta leges Gallarum et Sidamarum in rerum utilium numero censetur, de quibus verum propriumque dominium habetur, et fiunt contractus, quaeque deperditae conquiruntur, raptae aut usurpatae apud iudices repetuntur. Hinc quaeritur:

16. An liceat christianis ipsisque missionariis servos suos fugitivos persequi, atque ad redeundum cogere, vel saltem permittere ut eosdem persequantur, et vi etiam adhibita reducant publicus magistratus aut amici.

17. An servi ius habeant ad fugam, et an debeant resarcire damna ex eorum fuga domino illata.



Quemadmodum adnotatum est in responsione ad postulata proxime superiora, sunt tusti aliqui tituli seu causae, ex quibus potest servus libertate sua legitime privari, legitimeque a domino retineri. Porro cum manifeste repugnet, hinc quidem ius domino competere possidendi ac retinendi servum, inde autem ius servo inesse ne a domino possideatur ac retineatur, nemo non videt christianos et missionarios de quibus agitur in dubio 16, posse tuta conscientia servos suos fugitivos persequi, et ad redeundum cogere, siquidem eos iuste in servitutem redactos iusto ex titulo possideant. Non ita expedita est ad 17 et 18 dubium responsio. Regulariter fugere iure suo possunt servi qui iniuste fuerint in servitutem redacti; non possunt servi qui iustam subeant servitutem, nisi forte a domino sollicitentur ad aui quod peccatum, vel inhumaniter tractentur. Ex hac distinctione pendet solutio alterius quaestionis, an scilicet servi fugitivi teneantur resarcire damna ex fuga sua domino illata. Cum enim ad inducendam restituendi Ii amni obligationem tria haec simul et coniunctim requirantur, culpa theologica, damnum secutum, et causa efficax, patet profecto ad reficienda damna ex fuga sua domino illata, tenere servos illos quorum fuga fuit graviter illicita, non teneri servos illos quorum fuga omni caruit culpa; sed de liceitate fugae, deque obligatione resarciendi damna ex fuga illata consulat Vic. Ap. probatos auctores et cum illis distinguat varios casus, variosque servitutis titulos.