Catholics to eBay: Stop Auctioning Relics
BY TIM DRAKE
REGISTER SENIOR WRITER
February 24-March 1, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/19/08 at 11:18 AM
VAN NUYS, Calif. — It was eBay that hosted the auction of a consecrated host three years ago. To its credit, the company removed that listing, which for Catholics was the sin of sacrilege.
Now, say Catholics, if only they’d stop what amounts to simony.
In April 2005, the online auction company received significant criticism and calls for boycotts from Catholics worldwide for allowing a seller to list and sell a host consecrated by Pope John Paul II. In response, the company made a commitment to remove future listings of the Eucharist and other sacred items.
“We understand that the listing of the Eucharist was highly upsetting to Catholic members of the eBay community and Catholics globally,” eBay said in a May 1, 2005 statement. “We consulted with a number of our users, including members of the Catholic Church, concerning what course we should take in the future should a similar listing appear on our site. As a result of this dialogue, we have concluded that sales of the Eucharist, and similar highly sacred items, are not appropriate on eBay. We have, therefore, broadened our policies and will remove those types of listings should they appear on the site in the future.”
Yet, whatever precautions the company put in place, some critics say they haven’t gone far enough. The site continues to allow sellers to list the reputed relics of saints, despite its own guidelines which prohibit the sale of human remains.
But this month, a Vatican cardinal strongly urged an end to such dealings, saying the sale of relics of the saints is “totally unacceptable business.”
Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, also warned that the relics offered for sale on sites such as eBay could end up being used for satanic purposes.
The cardinal’s remarks, made in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa, were reported in the United States by the Denver-based Catholic News Agency Feb. 12. He said the online auctioning of pieces of bone and clothing are for the most part of doubtful origin and may be stolen.
Recent bids for alleged strands of hair from St. Thérèse of Lisieux started at $40. A reliquary containing bone fragments from six saints being sold by a dealer in Belgium started at $625.
Such listings led Los Angeles photographer Tom Serafin to create a “Boycott eBay” website where he lists items that he believes violate eBay’s own policies. He has also created an organization devoted to preserving sacred relics.
Serafin’s efforts to get eBay to stop selling relics online have met with little success.
According to the company’s policy, “Humans, the human body, or any human body parts are not permitted on eBay.” Its policies also forbid the sale of other sacred items, such as American Indian masks and “prayer sticks.”
eBay did not respond to the Register’s inquiries. But a spokeswoman told Newsweek: “We have a team of 2,000 people working around the clock to identify and remove prohibited items. With nearly 7 million new items being listed every day … we may not immediately identify infringing items, but if concerned individuals bring them to our attention we will promptly take action.”
In 2005, when Marcellino D’Ambrosio, director of the Crossroads Initiative (an apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization), called for a boycott of the company, he wrote: “[eBay’s] response is that if the sale of a particular item is not prohibited by the law, it is fair game to be traded through their business no matter how offensive it may be to any religious group. eBay’s attitude is not only an outrage to Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but an affront to Christ and to all believers who hold anything sacred.”
Serafin, who has tried to stay on top of offending items, said he no longer contacts eBay regarding each item. He said that he’s not aware of any other websites where human remains are bought and sold.
He said that something similar showed up on the Amazon website back in 2000, but the company immediately removed the offending item.
“I’ve been fighting it for about 10 years,” said Serafin. “eBay isn’t doing anything to shut down the sale of parts of Catholic saints.”
Catholic retail store owners who have used eBay previously for sales, have said the company’s recent non-action will make them think twice before offering their products for sale on the site.
“I thought it had been dealt with and gone away,” said Ian Rutherford, owner of the Aquinas and More Catholic Goods in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has used eBay in the past to sell hand-painted religious items. “If eBay isn’t responsive we certainly wouldn’t want to be selling our stuff there. It seems that it would be pretty easy to have something flagged ‘reliquary’ and not sell it,” Rutherford said.
That’s Serafin’s point as well.
“They won’t sell guns, drugs or pornography,” said Serafin. “They can stop all that, but they can’t get a grip on the bones of the saints. That mystifies me.”
To help eBay, Serafin even provided eBay with a glossary of common relic terms, in both English and Latin, for words such as hair, flesh and bone.
“They aren’t being as thorough or they’re being selective,” concluded Serafin. “I wonder if they’re just being selective.”
eBay user John Haas of Landenberg, Pa., who is not Catholic, said he doesn’t have a problem selling the Church’s relics. He has sold more than 100 relics over the past 15 years. He recently sold a French reliquary containing five relics for $179.
Haas said that eBay actually does prohibit the sale of human remains, but that those who sell relics have figured out a way around the policy.
“Their computerized system catches key words, such as ‘human bones’,” explained Haas. “If I had put ‘human bones’ in the description they would have kicked it off.” Rather than describe it that way, Haas describes them as “first-class relics.”
But, he said, “If people call and complain about an item to eBay, they’ll take the item off.”
Serafin, who was unable to effect much change with outgoing company President Meg Whitman, wonders whether the new president, John Donahoe, might be more receptive to enforcing the company’s policy. Donohue will start on March 31.
“The reason so much of this is available is that so many of these have been cast aside in the refurbishment of churches around the world,” said Msgr. Francis Weber, archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “When you buy something on eBay, you have no certification that it’s valid or real.”
During the 1990s, documents from Nicholas Ferrante, postulator of the Redemptorist Fathers, were photocopied and used to sell thousands of false relics.
The Code of Canon Law states that, “it is absolutely forbidden to sell sacred relics” (No. 1190). Those who sell them often say that it’s not the relic they’re selling, but the reliquary, which often has a material, historic, or artistic value.
“The Church has never countenanced the notion of selling relics,” Msgr. Weber added. “Church law says you shouldn’t sell pious objects, especially relics of saints. You can’t sell indulgences, relics or blessings. These are all things you have to get as gifts. The Church has always frowned on things like this and always will.”