Whenever I agree to review a book on my blog I try my best to keep an open mind about it. This seems to be only fair, both to the author and to those who might read the review. Going in with preconceived notions about the author or the topic can keep one from gleaning valuable insights and enjoyment based on interior disposition rather than the merit of the work.
Admittedly this can be difficult, as was the case with Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero. On page two editor Catherine Wolff had already turned me off with her list of “grave concerns about the state of our Church.” While I can agree that increased financial transparency and accountability would benefit the Church, claiming bishops are “intervening in politics and public policy” ignores the reality that it was changes in public policy that put the Church in a position necessitating a response, while calling 2000 years of teaching on sexuality and marriage “retrograde, even ignorant” is unbecoming anyone who has made it out of their teens.
Unfortunately some of the essays didn’t make a more favorable impression. While I enjoyed Tom Beaudoin’s writings 10 years ago, I have to question his assertion that St. Ignatius of Loyola would approve of his move away from the Catholic Church. (Beaudoin describes himself as post-Catholic, which makes him a curious choice for a book of essays from Catholic writers.) Sr. Joan Chittister’s essay on Hildegard von Bingen is standard fare for anyone familiar with her writing, while Martha E. Stortz offers a dizzyingly incomprehensible portrait of Martin Luther.
That having been said, I’m glad that I persevered on, for there are some delightful gems to be found in the book. Patrick Jordan’s reflection on Servant of God Dorothy Day (aided by his own recollections of her during his time working at a Catholic Worker house) paints a beautiful portrait of this saint-in-the-making; Cathleen Kaveny’s biography of Mother Mary Mackillop (St. Mary of the Cross, Australia’s first saint) challenges anyone who naively believes in the impeccability of Church officials; and Paul Elie offers a striking picture of fidelity through the artwork of Caravaggio.
These essays belie the emptiness of their lesser neighbors, which tend to leave the impression that acting on behalf of one’s beliefs is a noble pursuit in and of itself. This makes an idol of the will, which is a gift meant to be used in pursuit of greater goods. Mother Mary Mackillop’s excommunication is not a vindication of her principles; it is the grace and holiness with which she accepts that excommunication that demonstrates her virtue and shames those who persecuted her. Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom is inseparable from his commitment to Christ and his Church, from whom he learned to love the persecuted.
I can’t help but think that Not Less Than Everything could have benefited from a greater inclusion of the diversity of Catholic thought. Certainly writers such as Ross Douthat, Amy Welborn, and John C. Wright would have added additional perspective and insight. As it is, the book is a mixed bag; readers would do well to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book for free from TLC Book Tours.