Whited sepulchers

The explosive exposé by writer Bryan Christy on the ivory trade in the Philippines—it will appear in the October 2012 issue of the National Geographic magazine, but is already accessible online—forces all Filipino Catholics to take stock of traditional devotions, and reconsider whether the pursuit of materialistic forms of piety is made possible by the proceeds of a terrible and continuing crime.

The National Geographic story implicates Filipino devotees of the Santo Niño, the Child Jesus, including priests of long standing, in the continued smuggling of ivory, and thus in the killing of tens of thousands of African elephants every year.

A passage in the story explains the appeal of ivory: “Many believe that what you invest in devotion to your own icon determines what blessings you will receive in return. For some, then, a fiberglass or wooden icon is not enough. For them, the material of choice is elephant ivory.” There is a whiff of the original National Geographic in these lines, and in other parts of the feature, which calls to mind some of the original stories that ran in the magazine after the Americans occupied the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century; it seems to be told from the universal point of view of a visiting Westerner, dutifully taking note of the exotic up close.

But the difference in cultural perspectives aside, there is no disputing the crime that lurks at the heart of a traditional devotion, one that is now exposed for all to see in the pages of the magazine.

At the center of the controversy is a remarkable character, a priest by the name of Msgr. Cristobal Garcia, one of the country’s leading ivory collectors. If the reporting is accurate, the Cebu-based Garcia is not only an outstanding devotee of the Santo Niño; he is also a savvy connoisseur of the illegal trade in ivory. He is supposed to have given Christy tips on how to smuggle ivory into the United States; he is alleged to have given Christy a detailed overview of the illegal ivory market in Metro Manila.

But, in our view, the more scandalous statements came from another priest, based this time in Malolos, Bulacan. As if the Catholic Church in the Philippines did not have enough problems relating to its sometimes restless flock, the story introduces us to Fr. Vicente Lina Jr. of the Diocesan Museum of Malolos, who possesses a mindset about the continuing use of ivory that can best be described as medieval. The following passage from Christy’s report, for example, is jaw-dropping: “‘It’s like straightening up a crooked line: You buy the ivory, which came from a hazy origin, and you turn it into a spiritual item. See?’ Lina said, with a giggle. His voice lowers to a whisper. ‘Because it’s like buying a stolen item.’”

Lina is describing what is in effect a form of laundering, using religious reasons to turn a contraband item, hidden from the authorities, into an object of devotion that one can display right in the living room. He was not speaking of genuine antiques alone, but also of ivory procured today (“The new ones are from Africa. They come in through the back door”), when the trade has already been declared illegal.

But that was not the worst thing Lina said. He tried to project the aura of a man who recognized the problem, and gave time and thought to it. “When it comes to Santo Niño devotion too much is not enough. As a priest, I’ve been praying, ‘If all of this stuff is plain stupid, then God, put a stop to this,’” he told Christy.

This is just mind-boggling. A Catholic priest who has apparently not heard of the golden mean, Lina thinks that because the illegal trade continues to thrive, then God must approve of it.

By his reasoning, abject poverty or heinous crimes or natural disasters, or any of the many crosses we have to bear in this vale of tears, is all right, is not plain stupid, has God’s green light, because God did not “put a stop to this.”

The fundamental Christian notion that grace builds on nature, and that for the most part God’s work is channeled through human enterprise, seems utterly lost to Lina.

We are reminded, not so much of white elephants, as whited sepulchers—Bible-speak for hypocrites.

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Tags: catholic priests , editorial , Fr. Vicente Lina Jr. , ivory trade , msgr. Cristobal Garcia , national geographic , Philippines

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