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Pinoy Kasi

Ivory lust

/ 10:12 PM September 27, 2012

Since 1898, the Philippines has been the subject of more than 50 feature articles, including several cover stories, in the widely read National Geographic magazine. The stories were about ethnic groups, archaeological findings, environmental conservation, even politics.

The October 2012 issue carries an article by Bryan Christy with prominent coverage of the Philippines, but with a focus on a dark side: the link between Filipino Catholic religious culture and a global illegal ivory trade which results in the slaughter of hundreds of elephants each year and the killing of people involved in protecting the elephants.


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed in 1989 to ban ivory, but Christy writes that the emphasis has been on confiscation of ivory rather than cracking down on the poachers, and working on the demand factors.

The Inquirer has been carrying front-page articles about this National Geographic exposé the whole week, and I thought I should contribute more insights. The October 2012 issue of the magazine still isn’t available locally but you can find Christy’s article online (

Christy starts out with a heartbreaking account of poachers killing hundreds of elephants in Cameroon in January 2012 and leaving behind the carcasses because they were only after the tusks.  From the air, Christy writes, “you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year.”

The wanton slaughter comes about because of a demand from Hindus, Buddhists and Catholics for ivory religious images. Note that I’m mentioning Catholics rather than Christians because Protestants tend to view images almost negatively, seeing them as idolatrous.

The demand for ivory, which dates back many centuries, has been attributed to its color and the association with “purity”—but one can argue that even bone, or shells (mother of pearl, for example), can be used to project this “purity.” I am sure ivory became revered because it was so difficult to obtain and was therefore expensive. Possessing an ivory image became a status symbol.

Ivory is used locally for many of the religious santos (saints), usually for the face and hands, although an entire statue might also be sculpted out of it. It takes special skills to carve ivory, especially for the fine details. Christy was able to interview some of the Filipino carvers, who also offered him some tips and tricks to evade authorities (for example, painting the ivory with washable brown paint so it can pass Customs inspection as wood).

Ivory is particularly favored for images of the Santo Niño or the Holy Child. I’ve written about Santo Niño devotions in the past, including the observation that Filipinos are inclined to pray to “Mama Mary” and to “Baby Jesus” perhaps because they seem more accessible than some remote old man in the sky, aka God.


But the veneration for Mary, the Santo Niño and the saints has produced a national fetish for these images, and I am using the original anthropological definition of a fetish as a bundle of objects used in religious rituals and believed to have powers. In the case of our santos, the fetish includes beliefs that the more expensive the materials used for the images, the more powerful the image is—and here, ivory is premium.


This fetish has actually been promoted by the Catholic clergy, with parishioners urged to donate for creating more images, the more lavish the better, and with all kinds of religious rituals created for the images. All this is done often invoking “tradition,” with Christy quoting a Fr. Vicente Lina Jr., director of the Diocesan Museum of Malolos, as saying: “If you are not devoted to the Santo Niño, you are not a true Filipino.”

Yet so much of the religious talk camouflages more secular, more mundane motivations. In the case of the Santo Niño, we don’t just see devotees but dilettante collectors, who try to outdo one another with expensive santos.  The images are also given a wardrobe, with ceremonial undressing and dressing. Christy describes the “hubo” ceremony in Cebu, where the image of a Santo Niño is undressed, bathed and then dressed.  The water in which the ivory image is bathed is then considered holy water.

Every January we see a contrast in two major Catholic religious observances. First we have the macho Nazarene processions with millions of devotees, mainly lower-class men, jostling to get close to the statue. Later in the month, there is a less frenzied devotion as more middle- and upper-class Santo Niño devotees come out in Manila, Cebu and other parts of the Philippines to parade their images, with the collectors and their statues all dressed up in finery. While the Nazarene commemoration is collective, the crowd so packed that you cannot move except as part of a human wave with everyone focused on one image, the Santo Niño devotees are individual, each one displaying his (still male, but much less macho) image or images.

Christy notes that the demand for ivory statues in the Philippines is strongest among the clergy, and is ruthless in implicating Msgr. Cristobal Garcia of Cebu with his collection of ivory religious images. Christy also quotes an ivory dealer as describing the main buyers of ivory images as “priests, balikbayan and gay men.”

There is indeed some following among gay men (maybe gay balikbayan priests?) for the Santo Niño, and much of it is probably out of honest piety. But I also see in many cases a disturbing convergence of social status, conspicuous consumption, gender and sexuality. The Santo Niño devotions have become a niche within Catholic religious culture for gay men who want so much to be part of a church that has cruelly discriminated against homosexuals and homosexuality for centuries. Here comes the Santo Niño, allowing gay men, including those who become priests and bishops, not just to participate in the Catholic mainstream but also to become alpha males of high status.


Yet, all this is disturbing because it trivializes the Santo Niño, turning it into a doll to be dressed up, sometimes ending up looking like Lady Gaga.  Photographs of ivory Santo Niños with curled eyelashes, sometimes resplendently naked, only reinforce negative stereotypes about gay men.  What we are seeing here is not gay culture, but a darker and more sinister hint of pedophilia. It was not surprising to read that Monsignor Garcia was investigated for sexual abuse charges dating back to 2005 in the United States.  Christy writes that Garcia was dismissed from his post in the United States, returned home to become a bishop, and was made chair of Cebu’s Archdiocesan Commission on Worship.

It’s time our Catholic bishops spoke out categorically about the issues surrounding the unholy lusting for graven images, ivory, and more.

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TAGS: catholic religious culture, ivory trade, Michael l. tan, Philippines, religious images
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