Father Lombardi's Response to National Geographic Article on Ivory

«Creation is entrusted to humanity to be cultivated and safeguarded as a precious gift»

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Here is the text of a letter sent by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, in response to a feature by National Geographic titled «Ivory Worship.» The feature discusses the use of ivory in religious images.

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Elephant massacres and the illegal ivory trade

(An interlocutory response to National Geographic and its readers)</p>

Dear Mr. Oliver Payne, Dear friends of the elephants,

Over the past few days my secretary, Ms. Christina Ravenda, and I have received a number of email messages and have thus been involved in the movement to save the elephants. While some of the letters have not been particularly kind or profound, many are both to the point and compelling; they are a true invitation to awareness and to the duty to combat a serious and unjustifiable phenomenon.

We were particularly touched by the testimony of a woman, the long-time administrator of a park in the Republic of Congo, who thoughtfully urged us to reflect upon how each of us might do as much as we can to remedy the disaster. We have, therefore, taken in hand the question that Mr. Payne posed a while ago, inquiring into factors and considerations in search of an answer. To tell the truth, we did not find many factors for a wide-reaching and exhaustive answer and that was why we had given up, being much occupied by other urgencies. Now, however, encouraged by your email messages, we are sending an answer, which naturally does not claim to be definitive in resolving the serious problems related to the massacre of elephants, but tries to show our attention to the gravity of the problem and our commitment to collaborate in as far as we are able.

Above all, the Catholic Church’s position and its teaching on the unjustified violence toward animals is clear and simple in its general principles and can be summarized as follows:

Creation is entrusted to humanity to be cultivated and safeguarded as a precious gift received from the Creator and therefore should not be destroyed, treated violently, or exploited but rather treated with great responsibility toward the creatures themselves and toward future human generations so that they might be able to enjoy these essential and marvelous goods. The Pope’s interventions on environmental awareness have become more and more frequent in recent years, following the worsening of the environmental crisis and the raising awareness in humanity’s impact on the environment.

For example, in the document Caritas in veritate (2009)—the most important of the recent documents personally signed by Pope Benedict XVI on the Church’s teaching in social and economic areas—there is a significant section dedicated to this topic (Ch. 4, nos. 48–52). From this obviously follows a general moral condemnation of human actions that damage the environment or the world’s flora and fauna.

More specifically, regarding animals, the position of the Catholic thought has always been that, even if these certainly do not have the same level of dignity and thus of rights as human beings, they are living beings and of a higher perfection than plant life, especially those more evolved animals that are capable of relationships and sensations, of feeling pleasure and pain, for which they merit respectful treatment. They cannot be arbitrarily killed or made to suffer.

This is referred to explicitly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (a very important text that gathers the major doctrinal positions of the Catholic Church) under the section entitled “Respect for the Integrity of Creation” (nos. 2415–2418).

Another fundamental text, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, deals more widely with all these problems (see all of Ch. 10: “Safeguarding the Environment”), including the issues of the protection of living species and of biodiversity.

As is clear, these are general principles to be applied to the various concrete situations encountered by members of the Church who live in different countries and who find themselves faced with different problems.

Certainly you know that the animal species that are at risk of extinction because of human violence and aggression carried out for various reasons—mainly out of economic interests, but also because of irrational behavior—are numerous in the different areas of the world. The CITES Convention, which you all are more familiar with than are we, lists several thousand animals as well as tens of thousands of plant species.

The ecclesiastical authorities that serve the Church at the universal level cannot, therefore, multiply declarations of a particular character for all of the specific cases, which often involve different regions of the world. They must instead affirm precisely those principles by which, in the different regions, the bishops or the faithful can take responsibility for the most urgent and obvious consequences. In some countries, particularly in Africa, this will regard elephants and in other whales or white sharks, in still others those animals sought after for their fur, and so on.

Another principle that the Catholic Church definitely sustains is that of respect for the law and for governmental responsibility in establishing strong laws against crime and in committing to having those laws respected. Therefore, the Church always looks favorably on those who are committed to effective norms to combat criminal activities and harmful and illegal practices such as poaching, smuggling, illegal trade, etc.

In this area, however, it is also natural that the regional or local authorities of the Church as well as the Catholics of various countries take a position on specific situations. For these reasons, I believe that the most important and most urgent action is that of raising the awareness of the Christian communities in the countries affected by the most serious phenomena so that they might act together with those in charge and with the other members of the civil communities in which they live in order to deal decisively with these very serious problems. This must be done, if possible, in collaboration between the followers of different Christian confessions or other religions. In fact, it is a serious problem that Christians can and should unite against, as against all problems concerning the safeguarding of creation, regarding which there are many important international ecumenical statements.

A second aspect that many of your posts insist upon regarding the ivory trade is that of what the “Vatican” can or must do to combat the demand for ivory. On this issue it seems to me that a number of messages that we have received are not objective and that there is some confusion that needs to be clarified.

I am 70 years old and I know quite well the Catholic Church and the authorities that, from Rome, serve the Church 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. 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. Much less is there any organization promoted or encouraged by the authorities of the Catholic Church to trade or import ivory. Also, in Vatican City—that is, in the tiny State that is governed by the Catholic Church—there is no store that sells items made of ivory to the faithful or to pilgrims.

The investigation “Ivory Worship”, published in National Geographic, talks about some specific cases that have to do with catholics, and  therefore many put them in relation to the “Vatican” (that is, the Church authorities that, from Rome, serve the world community of the Catholic Church).< /p>

However, a priest in the Philippines who seems to be responsible for illegal trade in ivory has absolutely nothing to do with the responsibility of the “Vatican”, which knows nothing about and has nothing to do with him. The responsibility for what a priest in the Philippines does lies first of all with him, and the civil authorities of the Philippines can and should punish him if he is participating in illegal trafficking. The ecclesiastical authorities of the Philippines must check whether the devotions he is promoting are acceptable or condemnable from the standpoint of faith and reason.

Also mention is the Savelli shop near St. Peter’s Square. It is just a few dozen meters from my office so I am very familiar with it. It’s a shop where one can find many things, including many devotional items and all kinds of souvenirs for tourists and pilgrims. Among these are very few objects of ivory.

The shop is privately owned and does not belong to a Vatican institution. It is not within the Vatican (and does not even have the “extraterritorial” status enjoyed by the Vatican offices that operate in Italian territory), but is entirely subject to Italian jurisdiction and the scrutiny of the Italian State Forestry Corps, which is responsible for monitoring the implementation of CITES. In short, the “Vatican” has no responsibility and no control to exercise over the Savelli shop or over the other businesses that are located in the neighborhood around the Vatican. If the Italian authorities discover any illegal activity they do well to intervene. But thinking that there is an important ivory trafficking center to uproot here in order to save African elephants makes no sense.

Perhaps there are cases of illegal trade in ivory that is used in some parts of the world for Christian religious images used by Catholics. If such cases are identified they must clearly be condemned by the competent authorities—civil or religious—but there is no reason to attribute responsibility that it does not have to the “Vatican”.

There has also been talk of gifts made from ivory. I have followed the activities of the Pope, in Rome and in his international travels, for many years. Personally, I have never seen a gift in ivory given by the Pope to his visitors. (They are always made of metal, ceramic, mosaic, or books, prints, or medals…) The National Geographic article recalls a gift that would have been made by Pope John Paul II to President Reagan over 25 years ago. If this is true then it is certainly an exception, as I confirmed with the person who, for many years, has organized the popes’ trips abroad and who also does not remember any gift in ivory having been given by the Pope. Sometimes, but rarely, I have seen a gift given to the Pope that was in ivory. Recently, in November of last year, the President of the Ivory Coast visited the Vatican and presented the Pope with a gift, characteristic of the country’s artisanal crafts, made of ivory (it was a chessboard and not a religious image!). While he was presenting it however, in order to avoid any possible embarrassment, he explicitly told the Pope that it was made from legal ivory.

Mention was also made of the “Vatican’s” adherence to international conventions against money laundering and for the prevention of terrorism, with the invitation to also ratify the CITES Convention for the protection of flora and fauna. Actually, these are different situations because, in the Vatican City State and at the service of the Holy See, there are institutions with significant economic and financial activities. However, as mentioned before, there is no institution of Vatican City or of the Holy See that deals with the commerce of endangered plant or animal species. What is done by priests or Catholic institutions throughout the world in this area is legally subject to the laws and controls of the countries where they are and signing a convention on the part of the “Vatican” would therefore have no practical importance.

The only international conventions that the “Vatican” has so far adhered to, on the grounds of the “moral encouragement” of the international community, are the those most urgently related to its mission of announcement of the Gospel and peace, that is those on disarmament, human rights and religious freedom. Participating in an international convention requires personnel and commitment, so a “small” entity such as the Vatican must choose where its participation can be more effective.

Moreover, let me point out that the same article, “Ivory Worship”, attests that the greatest development of the ivory trade today is to Asian countries. This is confirmed by the many other articles and testimonies on the subject that I have been able to read. As everyone knows, with the exception of the Philippines, which are the only Asian country with a Catholic majority, in the other countries (China, Japan, Thailand, etc.), Christians—and even more so Catholics—are a tiny minority.

Poaching in Africa is generally carried out by criminal gangs and often by militant rebel groups that are seeking to finance themselves through the smuggling of ivory. Among other uses, ivory in Asia seems to be used in products of traditional medicine and in various objects that have nothing to do with any religious devotion, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or any other religious tradition.

For all these reasons it is impossible to think that the “Vatican” might have at its disposal powerful and effective tools for combatting the massacre of elephants by destroying the burgeoning illegal trade in ivory.

Nevertheless, we are absolutely convinced that the massacre of elephants is a very serious matter, against which it is right that everyone who can do something should be committed. For our part, we can certainly undertake a program of information and empowerment through some “Vatican” organizations. What we commit to today are mainly three things:

1) To bring this issue to the attention of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which is the Vatican dicastery responsible for studying precisely those problems associated with justice and peace, but also with the environment. It is in contact with analogous national commissions “for justice and peace” of Catholic communities around the world. I believe that the killing of elephants and the illegal trade of ivory are topics that effectively lie within the jurisdiction of this dicastery.

2) To propose to the sections of Vatican Radio that prepare programming for Africa (in English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili) to investigate into this topic and to speak about it in radio programs in order to encourage the ecclesial communities it addresses to engage in the fight against poaching and the illegal ivory trade, as well as to propose informational material to the other sections of Vatican Radio in order to raise awareness among their audiences.

3) To make the contributions of the research of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on environmental issues and biodiversity more widely known. In fact, these are issues to which the Pontifical Academy often returns in the course of its activities and its work.

The slaughter of elephants will not stop because of these initiatives, but at least we are working together to seek practical solutions to stopping it with the possibilities of information and training available to us.

Federico Lombardi

Rome, 22nd.1.2013

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