Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero
Catherine Wolff, editor
HarperOne (February 2013), trade paper original (ISBN 0062223739 / 9780062223739)
Nonfiction (essays/biography/religion), 352 pages
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour
Opening lines (from the Introduction): “This book has been a long time coming. I grew up in a Catholic family in San Francisco during the 1950s and ‘60s. when it seemed like everybody was Catholic: Irish or Filipino or Italian or Mexican. Catholicism was the medium in which my five siblings and I thrived.
“Our family was well-educated, staffed by Jesuits, devout. But we were not unquestioning.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Joan of Arc, Mother Mary MacKillop, Ignatius of Loyola, and Bartolomé de Las Casas. All of these people have one thing in common—they are Catholics whose beliefs caused them to be persecuted, but who, through the test of time, proved to be figures revered in the Church.
In fact, many of the Catholic figures who intrigue and inspire us are the men and women who found the great strength—personal, spiritual, intellectual—to challenge the Church. Some were called heretics, denounced for denying doctrine. Others were condemned for not submitting to the control of the Church. But they have much to teach us in our own efforts to live out our faith.
It is difficult to know what to do when Church doctrine is at odds with cultural developments. From gay marriage to contraception, stem-cell research to required celibacy for priests, Catholics today are struggling with the conflict between tradition and the Church’s need to come to terms with modernity. In Not Less Than Everything, some of the best Catholic writers of our time, including Alice McDermott, Ron Hansen, Mary Gordon, Tobias Wolff, and Ann Patchett, share their personal accounts of people who have influenced the way they view the intersection of faith and culture. Not Less Than Everything is a riveting exploration of how to face the challenge of living our faith in the real and messy world.
The “heroes of conscience” that are the subjects of the essays in Not Less Than Everything are drawn from centuries of Catholic history, including the most recent one. The “professionally religious”–priests, nuns, monks–are well-represented, as you might expect, but there are secular “heroes of conscience” portrayed here as well, demonstrating that morality and theology don’t necessarily operate in tandem.
My date on this TLC Book Tour came up before I was able to finish reading Not Less Than Everything, but I should finish it soon; most of the pieces in the book go quickly, and few are more than 15 pages long. That said, the writers in the collection are a mix of religious and secular, scholarly and populist, and this results in noticeable inconsistencies in tone. While some essays are evocative and literary–Bo Caldwell’s piece on missionary Henry Bartel reads almost like a short story–others are dryly academic, and when that dryness is coupled with a less familiar subject, a ten-page selection takes more time to read than, perhaps, it should.
A more even blend of styles would have made Not Less Than Everything an engaging collection that I’d eagerly recommend. As it stands, I’d suggest not reading it cover-to-cover unless you’re sincerely interested in every story presented; I appreciate the concept of the book, but feel it could have been executed more effectively and for broader appeal. That said, I also appreciated learning about others who have challenged and dissented and still identified–like it or not–as Catholics.