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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Beware the Rumors of a Quake When It Comes to Anglicans Flocking to the Ordinariate

by Martin E. Marty, special contributor

Archbishop Vincent Nichols ordains five priests for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in Westminster Cathedral on Friday, June 10, 2011. (photo: ©Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, famines, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions, and many other natural disasters — supernatural disasters and signals to Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson — are prime global and local topics. They inspire prayer and practical responses, but they also provide metaphoric language for religion. Try this, from National Catholic Reporter: “NO EARTHQUAKE FROM OVERTURE TO ANGLICANS,” a story by John L. Allen, Jr. This week he could have communicated as well by writing “No Hurricane after overture to Anglicans.” “Earthquake” works better, so let it stand.

The overture in question is the new Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, a two-year-old structure instituted by Pope Benedict XVI to make it possible for hosts of Anglican clergy — and, less-noticed, laity, into the Roman Catholic communion. Don’t know where and why Walsingham is? We don’t need to. Don’t know what an Ordinariate is? Neither did the authors of the Catholic dictionaries on my shelf, but you can figure it out, and may need to if this issue interests you. It made possible the group reception of clerics into Catholicism as opposed to one-at-the-time processing through “conversion.” By the way, Allen wrote on June 8 that the ordinariate numbered 900 laity and 60 clergy “including some newly minted Catholic priests who had already retired from Anglican ministry at 70.”

Some nervous Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and ecumenically-minded “others” had foreseen a surge — see how that metaphor creeps in? — of Anglican priests who oppose the ordination of women. Allen foresees some more ordinariateers when Anglicans welcome women into the priesthood. (By August 19 he revised the statistics to “1,000 laity and 64 clergy…” scattered across 27 different communities.)

Allen says “there’s scant evidence of a revolution,” so this earthquake has to be “downgraded” to near zero on Richter scales, since it represents “roughly .02 percent of the five million Catholics in England and Wales.” That number, he thinks, could go down, or a bit “up” if, as foreseen, Anglicans will begin ordaining women to the episcopate next year. By the way, Allen, when interviewing leaders, makes a point of describing them as “thoughtful” and not antic or frantic. Still, despite all the predictions: “No Earthquake.”

Such a judgment applies outside the U.K. as well. In 1952 when I was ordained, without the help of an ordinariate, we would hear on occasion of a minister in our communion or others who had “defected” from the Catholic priesthood and been “converted” to some Protestant group. Perhaps because the events were rare and the gulf between Catholics and Everyone Else then was cosmic, such pastors became celebrities. Like “apostates,” of whom Max Scheler wrote, they “spent their whole subsequent careers taking revenge on their own spiritual past.” The gulf between communions has now narrowed; the ecumenical spirit has taken the roughest edges off the old abrasions.

Now and then we hear of the move of a Protestant minister to the Catholic priesthood, news accompanied by predictions of a forthcoming surge of such moves. In some circles of the church these predictions create tremors. However, eased ecclesial relations, the sense that the vocation of others is sacred and not to be judged by uninformed people at a distance, and an awareness that even if the statistics rise to .03 percent, we must still say “No Earthquake.” The rumblings may even provide opportunities to listen and learn and not merely to yawn. Or quake.

Martin MartyMartin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


The Substitute Saints of Drug Trafficking: An Interview with U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte

by Susan Leem, associate producer

U.S. Marshal Robert AlamonteWhen the leader of a fast-growing drug cartel, La Familia, was arrested in late June, Mexican authorities proclaimed the end to their reign in the state of Michoacán. They gained notoriety for the grisly act of tossing five human heads onto a dance floor in western Mexico in 2006. But their moral behavior defies their moral identification. In fact, La Familia has demonstrated an affiliation with Christianity.

NPR describes them as “cult-like” and “pseudo Christian” while the Christian Science Monitor notes that “the group has supported communities with public works like street light or church repair, giving them a certain amount of credibility.” The spiritual lives of some criminals have a real dimension whether or not it appears to contradict itself.

Robert Almonte, a federal marshal for the Western District of Texas, investigates narcotics cases. He’s made it his work to educate law enforcement officers about the telltale signs and religious markers of drug traffickers. And, it’s his Roman Catholic upbringing that gives him fascinating insights into how he sees criminals taking advantage of religious traditions, rituals, and iconography.

Shrine to Saint MuerteA marketplace shrine to Santa Muerte. (photo: Patricio López/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Does faith motivate criminals differently than greed or fear?
The greed comes before the faith. The faith is what makes them believe that they will be successful and not get caught.

How did you become an expert on the spiritual/religious activity of criminals, particularly drug traffickers?
While working as a narcotics detective with the El Paso Police Department in the mid-1980s, we encountered religious items in the houses of several drug dealers. Occasionally we would find the drugs hidden in and/or around the different statues. On one such occasion, we executed a search warrant at a home of a bruja (“witch”) who was a street-level heroin dealer. She actually had notes or prayers asking for protection from us. Obviously this did not work as this was the second or third time that we had arrested her. It was then that I realized the extent that some criminals were praying for protection from law enforcement. I found this to be very disappointing.

I was raised as a Catholic, attended Catholic school, and served as an altar boy. I was taught that everything about the Catholic religion and Catholic saints was beautiful and involved only good things. However, once becoming a police officer, I began seeing the misuse of the Catholic saints and a perversion of the Catholic religion.

José de Jesús Méndez Vargas, leader of the Mexican drug cartel La Familia was recently arrested. Part of the reason I wanted to interview you is because we’ve heard this particular cartel described by mainstream news as “quasi-Christian” and “pseudo-Christian.” 
I am somewhat familiar with this description. They even have some kind of a “bible” whose rules include prohibiting their members from using drugs. Yet, it’s OK to distribute them? I don’t know how anything can be considered “quasi-Christian” or “pseudo-Christian” when the same people in this are involved in brutal killings and beheadings.

What are some of the rituals or patron saints you’ve observed as important figures in the lives of the drug traffickers you pursue, and where do these icons/figures come from? Why have the popularity of these figures spread throughout Mexico beyond only criminals?
There are several patron saints that I have observed as important figures in the Mexican drug underworld. There are those that are legitimate Catholic saints and there are those that are not, but instead have been given saint-like status by their followers. All of them are being used by the criminals as well as by people not involved in criminal activity. The criminals who invoke the Catholic saints believe that, by doing this, the saints will protect them and their drugs from law enforcement.

I think it is important to share with your audience a little bit about the concept of Catholic saints first. Many non-Catholics do not understand the concept of Catholic saints. Many people mistakenly believe that Catholics worship and idolize the saints and they believe that to be wrong. It would be wrong, if that is what was occurring. Catholics do not worship or idolize the saints. We honor them.

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Conference of Catholic Bishops Stance on Sister Johnson’s Book Is a Move Against Conversation

by Paul C. DeCamp, guest contributor

Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson and Her Book "Quest for the Living God"

If you ban it, they will read it. That seems to be true thus far in the case of Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested should be banned from Catholic schools in a statement on March 24.

Statement from US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's BookBy April 1, after national media coverage of the USCCB statement, the book was in the top 100 of the Amazon.com Religion & Spirituality Bestsellers list at #39, not far from the works of popular spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle, an impressive feat for an academic theologian.

Johnson has been respected for her work in Catholic theology especially because of her engagement with feminism, which was the subject of her now classic She Who Is, a 1993 book that sought to rediscover the “feminine God” in the Christian tradition. When asked for comment, prominent Catholic theologian David Tracy said that, while he had not yet read this book of Johnson’s, “…this much is clear to me: based on her previous work, I consider Elizabeth Johnson one of the most original and impressive theologians of our period. The range and depth of her published work is a model for contemporary Catholic theology.”

This particular work of Johnson’s explores the diversity of current thought in the theology of God, and as the subtitle indicates, maps “frontiers” in areas such as liberation, womanist, black, and political theologies, areas that have been the subject of great controversies within the Catholic Church.

The Conference said that while it did not have the authority to order the removal of the book from Catholic institutions (only the Vatican could do that), it wanted to draw attention to certain “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” of Catholic doctrine in the book. Among these were assertions by Johnson that all names for God are metaphors, that God is continually suffering, and that all religions bear some presence of God. Because the book was “by a prominent Catholic theologian” and “written not for specialists in theology but for a ‘broad audience’,” the Conference believed it was necessary to make the public aware of its problems.

Boston College theologian Stephen J. Pope, speaking to The New York Times, said, “The reason is political. Certain bishops decide that they want to punish some theologians, and this is one way they do that. There’s nothing particularly unusual in her book as far as theology goes. It’s making an example of someone who’s prominent.”

The American bishops are continually drawing lines in the sand. Restrictions had been placed on politicians, such as the refusal of several bishops to allow John Kerry to take communion during the 2004 presidential election. The bishop of the Archdiocese of Wilmington stated that he would not permit Vice President Joe Biden to speak in Catholic schools. And now the Conference suggests that certain books should be kept from Catholic classrooms. The Conference has proven itself to be an organization that does not tolerate change or ambiguity, and Johnson’s work confronts both.

While the Conference claims to be interested in dialogue with Johnson, she indicated in a statement that no such invitations had been extended. She said in this statement, “I have always taken criticism as a valuable opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject. The task of theology, classically defined as ‘faith seeking understanding,’ calls for theologians to wrestle with mystery. The issues are always complex, especially on frontiers where the church’s living tradition is growing.”

While the USCCB’s statement may be interpreted as a move against conversation and debate among the divided American Catholics, the stir over Johnson’s book can serve to promote more open dialogue in Catholic circles. American Catholics, after all, are a group that continues to support politicians whom they are told not to vote for and to consume books that have been deemed dangerous for them to read.

Paul C. DeCamp is an M.A. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Lafayette College.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

I don’t practice as a Catholic anymore. It’s so hard to reconcile what the men at the top do with what Jesus preached.

Marie Collins, a 64-year-old Dubliner who was abused by a hospital chaplain, Rev. Paul McGennis, when she was 13, as quoted in The New York Times Magazine article "The Irish Affliction."

Two decades later, she confided in another parish priest about what happened. He suggested it was her fault because she may have tempted McGennis, but that he would forgive her. And then ten years later, she wrote to the archbishop of Dublin, now a cardinal in the Vatican, who told her McGennis was a good priest and she should not “ruin his life.”

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer