Timely musings | March 15, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

- March 15, 2013

Timely musings

In a new collection of essays, Catholic writers look at heroes of conscience, present and past

by Kevin Kirby

"Not Less Than Everything: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero," edited by Catherine Wolff; HarperOne; 352 pages; $16.99

Whatever else you might think about "Not Less Than Everything," a new book of essays by Catholic writers edited by Catherine Wolff, you have to admit this much: It is spectacularly well timed.

The book was released by Harper One, the spiritual wing of Harper Collins, in mid-February, sandwiched between the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, ostensibly for health reasons, and the resignation of Britain's highest-ranking Catholic leader amid accusations of sexual misconduct. Subsequent weeks have brought stories of infighting, financial malfeasance and a secret gay cabal within the Roman Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy that oversees the central governance of the church). The fact that many of these stories lack credible sources has not lessened the public perception that the church is in a state of crisis.

All of these events occurred after Wolff, a lifelong Catholic, composed her introduction to "Not Less Than Everything," in which she laments the church's "lack of transparency and accountability," its "increasingly isolated" hierarchy, its refusal "to welcome women into full membership and leadership," its "retrograde ... teachings on human sexuality," and its failure to respond to "the legitimate demands of the society in which we live."

Like many modern Catholics who have come to question the moral authority of those who — at least nominally — lead the church, Wolff began to look elsewhere for spiritual leadership and inspiration, for historical role models who had possessed the courage to find their own solutions to the age-old conflict between conscience and authority.

Ultimately, she solicited essays from a number of notable Catholic writers (some, professional theologians who happen to write; others, established novelist or essayists who happen to be Catholic), asking each to submit a portrait of his or her own "hero of conscience." The resulting collection presents 26 such portraits, personal meditations on the lives of exceptional men and women of faith, from such well-known historical figures as Mary Magdalene and Ignatius of Loyola to such 20th-century champions of social justice as Simone Weil, Charles Strobel and Father Horace McKenna.

Along the way, we meet Bartolomé de las Casas, perhaps the first Spaniard to decry the systematic slaughter of the West Indian native peoples by conquistadors hungry for land and gold; Mother Mary MacKillop, Australia's first saint, excommunicated in 1871 after exposing child sexual abuse by local clergy; and Sister Corita Kent, an irrepressible teacher and painter who turned the pop art of the 1960s into something holy.

With so many essays on a single theme, it's not surprising to find a certain uniformity creeping into the offerings. Many of the essayists have limited themselves to writing straightforward biographical sketches, and many of these sketches have the same basic shape: A young man/woman converts to Catholicism, becomes a priest/nun/Jesuit brother/etc., offends the church hierarchy by advocating a position that is too modern/socialist/American/etc., is summoned to Rome and ordered to renounce said position, refuses to conform and is subsequently censured/excommunicated/moved to an unappealing parish/etc. (Alternatively, one could blame this monotony not so much on the contributing writers as on the Vatican's woefully predictable response to principled dissent.)

The most memorable essays in the bunch, though, are those that move beyond mere biography to explore the writer's own relationship to his or her subject, as when Tobias Wolff (Stanford professor and husband of editor Catherine) compares his own experience as a U.S. serviceman during the Vietnam War to the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector during WWII. Jägerstätter chose execution in a Nazi prison rather than serve in Hitler's army. In contrast, Wolff gives an admirably candid account of his own reasons for participating in a conflict about which he harbored serious doubts:

"It did not meet the test of a just and necessary war, or even one we were likely to win. But I stifled my doubts, because I was going, and doubt would do me no good there. ... And, frankly, I was curious. What would it be like? War is interesting to young men — even to those who oppose it."

Another striking entry is Kathryn Harrison's portrait of Joan of Arc, in which she contrasts Joan's famous visions with her own shattering moment of epiphany while walking the labyrinth at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. As Tobias Wolff does, Harrison goes beyond the factual details of her subject's life to ask the thornier and potentially more enlightening questions: What is it that allows a hero to be a hero? How was this person different from everyone else? What are we to do when confronted with stories such as these?

Saint Joan and the beatified Jägerstätter notwithstanding, this is not a "lives of the saints" book. Fewer than a third of the individuals profiled herein have been canonized. One of them, the formidable Hildegard von Bingen, was finally raised to sainthood last year by Benedict XVI, more than eight centuries after her death. Some, like Dorothy Day or Oscar Romero, may someday be similarly elevated.

Others, though, had precious little saintliness about them. In one of the book's most engaging essays, Paul Elie considers the Baroque painter Caravaggio, known for such devotional works as "The Calling of Saint Matthew" and "The Entombment of Christ." Caravaggio led a decidedly carnal existence that would be scandalous even today. But Elie finds, in the visceral passion of Caravaggio's compositions, a kind of fidelity: to scripture, to his own artistic vision, and to the encompassing divinity that illuminates the human world in all its beauty and horror.

Colm Toibin makes a less compelling case for poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. His Hopkins comes across as a mistaken convert, unwilling to renounce the Jesuit vows that led him to a life of sublimated artistic impulses, repressed homosexuality and abject misery in an Irish city that hated him for his Englishness. The term "hero of conscience" seems to apply only if one assumes that being a Jesuit is, ipso facto, a heroic act that justifies the complete crushing of the self — a premise that many non-Catholic readers may be unwilling to grant.

It's worth noting that, while a few of the figures profiled in "Not Less Than Everything" (the post-1520 Martin Luther, for example, or Henry Bartel, founder of the first Mennonite mission in China) are non-Catholics, this is no interfaith volume. You will find no Dalai Lama here, no Aung San Suu Kyi, no Ghaffar Khan. The closest we get to a non-Christian view is in Paula Huston's sketch of Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk who, during nearly four decades in India, adopted elements of Hindu dress, meditation, and scripture into his daily sacrament.

Of course, Catherine Wolff never intended to create an interfaith book. She set out to create a book for people like herself: socially progressive Catholics, concerned that the church is actively running away from the promises of the Second Vatican Council (more than half the authors in this collection mention Vatican II in some fashion), and seeking examples of faith, courage, and integrity that resonate in the modern world.

And yet the finished product transcends that narrow goal, because conscience transcends the proprietary claims of any single religion. It is easy to imagine this volume finding a place in non-Catholic homes and in church libraries of all denominations, its stories providing inspiration to clergy and laypersons alike.

It would also be nice (though perhaps more of a stretch) to imagine this book finding its way into the Vatican library, or even onto the bedside table of the new pope. As the new pontiff and his advisers wrestle with a host of perennial problems — none of the "modern" issues facing Benedict's successor is less than a century old, and many have been debated since early in the first millennium A.D. — they could do worse than to seek inspiration from this volume of essays: a catalog of Christian men and woman who knew, above all else, how to follow the dictates of their conscience.