Thursday, January 24, 2008

Saints' relics on eBay cause a stir

On eBay on Jan. 3, a would-be seller posted a wheat-colored envelope, fastened with a red wax seal, said to contain remains of the Apostle Bartholomew.

Another posting showed a beveled glass reliquary inset with pieces of five saints' earthly matter.

The sale of what the Catholic Church terms first-class relics -- bits of bone, hair and flesh -- outrages Tom Serafin, a Catholic activist and the president of the International Crusade for Holy Relics, a Los Angeles-based organization that maintains a traveling exhibit of venerated articles.

It's not the prices that get Serafin hopping mad. It's the fact that pitches appear on the site for the remains of saints and objects of worship, such as Eucharist wafers used in holy communion.

Church law forbids the buying and selling of the items.

"Just as you would not go around selling portions of one of your beloved deceased for money, for the church, these (saints) are our family members," said Father Mark Weisner, spokesman for the Oakland Diocese.

On Tuesday, Weisner, stunned to learn of the online sales, ran an eBay search for "holy relics." Up popped a posting for an authenticated piece of the papal collar of Pope Leo XIII (a second-class relic).

"If someone were to ask for my blessing, I wouldn't say, 'OK, that will be $10,'" said Father Michael Sweeney, president of the Dominican School for Philosophy and Theology. "It's not to be treated as having profane value."

EBay prohibits the sale of human remains.

Hate literature, body parts, babies, relics of executions and much more appear on eBay's long list of barred items.

But Serafin and a handful of others, including a Russian archbishop and a retired FBI agent, have monitored the site and wrangled with the company for 10 years.

Their conclusion is that eBay does nothing to enforce its own rules.

"EBay is like a big monster," he said. "You can't even beat a conscience into them."

A company spokeswoman rejected the allegations. The San Jose-based trading site continuously hunts down postings that violate its policies, said Kim Rubey.

But with users trading in more than 50,000 categories, some offenders slip through, she said.

"At any given time, there are 102 million items on the Web site worldwide, and 6 million are added every day," Rubey said. "We do have a team of people working around the clock to remove listings that violate any policies."

The company encourages visitors to report offenders, she said.

Prompted by Serafin's http://www.boycottebay.net, Catholics barraged the company with angry e-mails when sellers posted Eucharist wafers. The company pulled the postings and vowed not to allow future sales of the Eucharist "and similar highly sacred items."

Catholics believe that when they partake of the Eucharist wafer, it becomes the body, blood and soul of Christ, and the sacrament unites heaven and Earth. Its sale is a profound abomination, Sweeney said.

To transfer a relic from one entity to another requires the approval of the Holy See, Weisner said.

Along with the traffic in genuine relics comes the inevitable bogus trade, Serafin said. A counterfeit skull of Saint Thomas More and hand of Saint Stephen have made their way onto the site.

Serafin's is not the first organization to do battle with eBay over its trade in items that offend faith groups. The Anti-Defamation League challenged the online auctioneer in 2000 over its sale of Nazi memorabilia, including Hitler's monogrammed bedsheet and telephone book.

A year later, the company expanded its rules to ban anti-Semitic articles, but last week's offerings included a Nazi armband.

"Catholics, all Christians, and those of African, Jewish or Asian ancestry should be outraged by the lax attitude that one of our nation's biggest e-commerce sites shows to offensive items on their site," Serafin said.

Yet even critics sympathize with the enormity of policing the site.

"How do you know the values of every faith?" Weisner asked. "It would be a huge undertaking. It would be an interesting challenge.
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