Pope Benedict the 16th recently announced his retirement, and the search for a new Pope will begin soon. It’s the first retirement of a Pope in 600 years, which has many scratching their heads—along with the usual speculation as to who might be the next Pope. Elephant activists, however, wonder not who will take up the papal crook, but what they’re going to do with it.
As the largest Christian organization in the world, the Roman Catholic Church has a large audience and its words have weight with potential poachers, ivory buyers, governments in charge of protecting elephants. In the past, the Vatican hasn’t take a strong stance against elephant poaching, leaving many of its flock to participate in the exploitation of endangered species, and allowing it’s clergy to participate directly in illegal ivory dealings. However, the Vatican may stop turning a blind eye to the problem, thanks to recent work by elephant journalists and activists.
Recent History of Catholic Church & The Ivory Trade
National Geographic’s 2012 investigative report Ivory Worship, revealed the Catholic Churches’ complicity with illegal poaching. From the tusk-adorned alters of Filipino churches to the ivory gifts received the by Vatican, Ivory Worship provided an unavoidable indictment of Christianity’s largest church. Readers of the article took action, writing the press office of the Vatican, and tweeting @pontifex (the Pope’s twitter handle).
The Vatican responded, with a 2,500 word letter expressing its moral support for elephants and other critically endangered species:
“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”
What the Vatican Said it Might Do
In that same letter, the Pope’s people laid out a few steps it would take to reverse the trend of poaching by Catholics and in predominantly catholic countries. There are three main points, summarized below:
- Research elephant poaching by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This body, responsible for advancing peace and justice in the world, could help make elephant protection a priority in Rome.
- Promote the fight against the ivory trade and elephant poaching with programming on Vatican Radio, which has a large reach in Africa in many languages (in English, French, Portuguese, and Swahili.)
- Publicize existing work on elephants, the environment and biodiversity by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
What the Vatican Could Do
The steps suggested in the Vatican’s letter are pretty tame. But the Vatican has man more powers both material and symbolic that weren’t mentioned in the list. Here a three more things that the church would do if it really wanted to send a message about ivory:
- Boycott the purchase or gifting of all ivory-based religious objects. Existing sacred objects could be destroyed. The Vatican would publically reject any and all gifts containing ivory.
- Punish individuals who participate in ivory trading, especially if they use their position in the church to do so. For example, Msgr. Cristobal Garcia—who openly admitted marketing illegal ivory for use in spiritual objects—would be suspended or any of a number of punishments that church doles out for other violations of its principles.
- Prohibit clergy from blessing objects made from ivory.
- Publically condemn shops that sell religious objects made from ivory.
What You Can Do
The Vatican is clearly open to doing more to help elephants, but only when public applies pressure. Their original gestures only came after the scathing National Geographic article, and hundreds of letters from angry readers. Here are a few ways you can let the Vatican know that they should stand up for elephants.
- Write directly to Father Lombardi of the Vatican press office (Lombardi@pressva.va) and CC Cristina Ravenda: Ravenda@pressva.va.
- Tweet the current Pope @pontifex and encourage him and his staff to make good on their promises. Use hashtags like #StopPoaching #killthetrade, and tweet @juliettespeaks so that she can retweet you!
- Write and tweet again when the new Pope is chosen, just as a reminder.