Friday, February 01, 2013

Crossing Out Ivory

After prodding from National Geographic, the Vatican recently took a stance on using ivory to make crucifixes or other holy objects. They are officially against it. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, explained in a long letter in response to a report and questioning by National Geographic that "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." He added:
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.
Noting that hunting elephants (some species of which are endangered) for ivory can be illegal, Lombardi added that the Vatican also does not condone "illegal practices such as poaching, smuggling, illegal trade, etc." Lombardi then makes an interesting claim regarding the relationship between a holy object and the material from which it is created:
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.
Is there a connection between the material and the religious value (not to be confused with monetary value) of the cross or other religious object? Lombardi says there is not, but his letter also seems to suggests there is. He is, after all, saying that the Vatican would never support making crucifixes out of ivory that came from an illegal slaughter of an endangered animal. Thus, he is saying such an object is less religiously valuable--and perhaps even religiously void. That is an interesting thought. Can a cross be made from material that would make it an unholy object? National Geographic seems to have done a great job getting a Vatican official to implicitly admit such a status. If someone illegally slaughters an elephant, the ivory can never be made holy no matter what shape it is carved into. I wonder what other types of materials we should avoid. Perhaps crosses made by poor workers being taken advantage from in other nations. Such crosses would seem quite unholy. Perhaps crosses mass produced out of cheap plastic. Such crosses would seem quite unholy. So as Lombardi suggests with the illegal ivory, it seems that we should think carefully about the materials we use to make holy objects.

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