Vatican Responds to National Geographic’s Correspondence About Religious Use of Ivory

“We are absolutely convinced that the massacre of elephant is a very serious matter,” writes Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, in a response today to our correspondence about the use of elephant ivory for devotional icons by some Catholic followers.

As Father Lombardi points out, it was emails from readers of A Voice for Elephants blog to his office that encouraged him to write this letter. Please continue the conversation by commenting on this page beneath Father Lombardi’s letter and also, if you wish, by writing directly to his office: Lombardi@pressva.va, copying Ms. Cristina Ravenda: Ravenda@pressva.va.

In Father Lombardi’s response, presented in full below, he explains Church doctrine and concludes by stating that, “For our part, we can certainly undertake a program of information and empowerment through some ‘Vatican’ organizations.” He commits the Vatican to three principal initiatives: (1) “To bring this issue to the attention of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. (2) To raise awareness of the problem through programming on Vatican Radio. (3) To publicize more widely research by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on environmental issues and biodiversity.

From Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office:


(An interlocutory response to National Geographic and its readers)

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).

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

Oliver Payne is articles editor at National Geographic.

    Dear Mr. Lombardi,

    I had the opportunity to read carefully your letter to National Geographic Magazine about ELEPHANTS MASSACRES AND THE ILLEGAL IVORY TRADE, dated January 22nd, 2013.

    The letter was detailed, very thoughtful and extremely well written. Nevertheless, the content was very disappointing, bureaucratic and defensive. Alleging lack of responsibility or power to contribute effectively to the mitigation of this serious problem, it is clear that the writer, I suppose yourself, was more concerned to exempt Vatican of any relationship with the problem instead of presenting valuable contributions to the cause.

    Legal or Illegal Ivory are both immoral. Both processes leave mutilated elephants after inflicting pain and great suffering to defenseless animals.

    I fully understand urgencies and priorities, but I refuse to believe that this is all that the Catholic Church can do. I strongly encourage you to review your position and enthusiastically lead the process with more tangible and effective measures to stop such crime against the Mankind.

    Yours faithfully,

    Nilton Fontes

    São Paulo, Brazil

  • Daniel Stiles

    While it might be true that the Vatican does not officially promote the use of ivory in religious icons, I found when investigating ivory markets in Africa that it was common practice for Catholic priests to commission ivory carvers to make large crucifixes for visiting dignitaries. The Pope and Vatican should discourage this practice.

  • Tatjana Gallist

    Egregio Signor Lombardi,

    I have also read your letter on the ELEPHANTS MASSACRES AND THE ILLEGAL IVORY TRADE, dated January 22nd, 2013.

    Thank you for answering the letter sent to you by Mr. Oliver Payne. It is important that in the internet and social media world we live in today, the Vatican and Pope’s Office acknowledges the need and urgency to reply to the concerns of the community. This community is vaster and broader than just the Catholic Community and people of all beliefs can have their say.

    Due to the enormous speed of the flow of information and flow of events, we are required to act and review our responses at a much quicker pace than this has been the case in the past. Not only must we react timely to criticism but also take action to document our promises to perform.

    it is this that I implore you to do – initiate immediate action. The Elephants, Rhinos and other species are dying now and need protecting now!

    We all know that changes take time in the Vatican to take place; it is a big, hierarchical institution. However, if need be a clear and immediate approach is possible (may I remind you of the immediate reaction to the use of condoms to prevent the spreading of HIV/AIDS).

    I believe it is the wish of many Christians (not only Catholics) that the Vatican become a more humane institution in the world we live in today and show it is a modern, responsible and reliable partner in protecting Creation and standing up to other institutions in this respect. The world needs an institution that reminds humanity of the moral rights needed for man, fauna and flora to coexist. The Vatican once was this “Moral Voice”. People used to listen – can it still be this today?

    Kind regards,
    Tatjana Gallist

  • David F Prettenhofer

    For those that think the Church should speak out for elephants, but not the pre-born: CCC 2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.

  • Victoria

    I didn’t see him say the church would no longer purchase or accept gifts with ivory in his action plan.

  • LAMINI Petra von Zezschwitz

    For the Good of All Beings

  • Junia Machado

    Dear Father Frederico Lombardi, thanks for hearing and aswering.

    I could comment many parts in your letter, but I prefer to make clear that, if you really want to help elephants and avoid their extinction, the Pope and all of the fathers in the Catholic church around the world must tell to the catholics, in a very clear and massive way (statements to all the main international TV networks and newspapers, besides your internal communication networks), that IVORY images (no matter the origin) must NOT be used anymore or allowed to be used in their homes or churches. They must know that both the Pope and God are against its use since it represents the massive killing of inoccent beings (no matter if it’s is a small piece, it’s a poached elephant, that must probably have left calves, that are probably also dead now). The ivory trade (legal AND illegal) is killing all the elephants still left in Africa. I hope you understand how serious is your role in this situation.

    Regards from Brazil.

  • Alfonso

    Dear Mary C. Robinson,

    I do not know of any religious ceremony which involves animal cruelty. Shoul you discover any two, please tell me so I can be as cross as you might be.

    I pray for you to come back to the true faith. Please pray for me to become a better christian, thank you.

  • Amina

    As one of the individuals who wrote to Fr. Lombardi, I was dismayed with the response. His letter was full of rhetoric that attempted to deflect any responsibility. Of course the church doesn’t advocate for icon worship and of course the church doesn’t advocate for the use of ivory – no one said it did. But the fact is, the church does have the kind of influential authority that, should they display any moral strength and leadership, others will follow. This is just another example of the Catholic church trying to absolve itself of any responsibility for, and/or hide the bad behavior of those who who claim to be Catholic. Its no wonder many of us who were baptized choose to not identify as Catholic anymore.

  • Pamela

    I agree with Amina that the Vatican has responded with rhetoric that side steps any kind of responsibility. The Catholic Church is respected by many and a public stand on the sale of ivory and moral implications of poaching and having anything to do with any part of it would be heard by a very large population. I am hearing that the Vatican also takes no responibility for the Priest that represent their religion, The Roman Catholic Church has the opportunity to make a difference…for God’s sake take it.

  • Isaac

    It seems a bit obsessive concern NG commentators about elephants. Bringing the voice of elephants worldwide? I live in a developing country and a lot of people do not even know what it is ivory, not even seen an elephant! Many animals die, farm or business, but also thousands of people die of hunger every day in my country and many others, but for them there is no help for the population, and the planet will thank? It is a complete joke!

  • Lauren

    Sounds like LOTS of finger pointing and no help at all!

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