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Vatican rejects claims it is encouraging illegal ivory trade

By on Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Benedict XVI accepts a gift of an ivory crucifix from Benin's President Thomas Yayi Boni, who said it was obtained legally (Photo: CNS)

Benedict XVI accepts a gift of an ivory crucifix from Benin's President Thomas Yayi Boni, who said it was obtained legally (Photo: CNS)

The Catholic Church has never encouraged anyone to use ivory for religious devotional objects and, in fact, teaches that animals must be treated with respect, the Vatican spokesman has said.

Fr Federico Lombardi was responding to questions posed in an online National Geographic editorial. In a letter he said: “Thinking that there is an important ivory trafficking centre to uproot here [in the Vatican] in order to save African elephants makes no sense.”

Within the boundaries of Vatican City, “there is no store that sells items made of ivory to the faithful or to pilgrims”, Fr Lombardi said.

The October 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine featured an article entitled “Ivory Worship” about how the use of objects made of ivory in the devotions of many religions – not just Catholicism – are contributing to the slaughter of elephants in Africa.

In an online editorial, National Geographic said that by taking a stand against the use of ivory for religious objects, the Vatican could help slow the slaughter. The article included the personal email addresses of Fr Lombardi and his secretary.

Responding to the editorial, Fr Lombardi said many people had written to express their concern and not all of them were “particularly kind or profound”.

However, he said, many of the messages conveyed compelling arguments regarding “the duty to combat a serious and unjustifiable phenomenon”.

Fr Lombardi, who also serves as general director of Vatican Radio, promised that staff members of the radio’s broadcasts to Africa in English, French, Swahili and Portuguese would investigate the problem and encourage Catholics in Africa “to engage in the fight against poaching and the illegal ivory trade”.

He also said he would bring the editorial and magazine article to the attention of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which handles questions connected to environmental protection and works with local Catholic bishops to promote efforts to safeguard creation.

In addition, he said, he would study ways to publicise the research on the importance of biodiversity done by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – a high-level panel of scholars from a variety of religious backgrounds.

Fr Lombardi wrote that as a 70-year-old Catholic who has had contact with Catholic leaders from around the world, “I have never heard or even read a word that would encourage the use of ivory for devotional objects”.

“We all know that there are ivory objects of religious significance, mostly ancient, because ivory was considered a beautiful and valuable material,” he wrote. “There has never, however, been encouragement on the part of the Church to use ivory instead of any other material. There has never been any reason to think that the value of religious devotion might be connected to the preciousness of the material of the image you use.”

As for the slaughter of elephants, the Catholic Church always has taught that while animals do not have the same dignity as human beings, he said, animals also were created by God, they can feel pleasure and pain, and they must be treated with respect and “cannot be arbitrarily killed or made to suffer”.

Fr Lombardi said that as far as he could remember and as far as he could ascertain by speaking with others, no recent pope had ever given an ivory object as a gift.

In November, however, in separate audiences, two visiting African presidents gave Pope Benedict ivory gifts. The president of Ivory Coast gave the pope a chess board, and the president of Benin gave the Pope a wooden cross with an ivory corpus. Both presidents assured the Pope that the ivory was obtained legally.

  • Elephant Lovers

    An activist page on facebook, Save Queenie Save Elephants, had its  members email to Fr. Lombardi and to Cristina Ravenda. Now we have a response, but it is paltry in that Fr. Lombardi suggests a study. The last thing the elephants need is a study, they do not have the time; there are not enough elephants to supply the demand. The answer is simple, the Church tells its churches to accept no ivory, period. And the pope should take that lead and tell any visiting heads of state, No Ivory. 

  • Georja Umano

    Although the Vatican may not condone ivory in the churches, it surely should have an impact if the papal office contacted those churches directly and made a point that the Church does not want to be implicated in this international crime.  Studying is passive. We know the facts.  Time for the church to be pro-active. This will be the only thing that will help in these urgent times.

  • Pcuvie

    Although according to Fr Lombardi, the Catholic Church may never have encouraged “the use of ivory for devotional objects” they also have never discouraged it, which is what is presently needed. If the Catholic Church would send a clear message to the world discouraging the use of ivory for devotional objects it would go a long way towards helping elephants.

  • Parasum

    “The Catholic Church has never encouraged anyone to use ivory for religious devotional objects and, in fact, teaches that animals must be treated with respect, the Vatican spokesman has said.”

    ## He needs to take a course in art – ivory has been used “for religious devotional objects” (as opposed to anti-religious “devotional objects” ?) for centuries. Why are clergy in high positions so ignorant :( ? There may be an article “Ivoire” in the “Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie” of 1907

    From 1855, there is this: “Notices of sculpture in ivory” – with illustrations:

    Or from A. W. Pugin’s “Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume”, 23 references to ivory in Church use:

    “Both presidents assured the Pope that the ivory was obtained legally.”

    ## Would they say otherwise ? Did they know beyond a doubt that it had been legally obtained ? And what are the laws ?

  • Christina Halasz

    Some creatures are sacred due to the immense capacity they have to nurture and care for their young. While not human, these creatures have dignity and grace. It’s a sin to waste life—life’s not an infinite luxury to be plundered recklessly. Our own health pivots on our capacity to show reverence for life outside our own existence.

  • Tridentinus

     You specifically refer to some creatures which are sacred. So these sacred creatures you speak of do not include domestic cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, etc.

  • nannon31

    Exactly. And perhaps more people would go to confession if the Vatican stopped running from confession per these incidents. Every criticism becomes an opportunity to brag….in this case about a Vatican science group. Scripture (Proverbs 27:2) says, ” Do not praise yourself but let another’s lips praise you.”. Apparently the Vatican missed that one….big time.