e-mail us


Still challenging readers and changing hearts


Mike Leach has a peddler’s optimism and a knack for the over-the-top metaphor. But the executive director of Orbis Books gets away with it because he can make a case for it.

“Orbis Books is the Don Quixote of religious book publishing,” he said in an article for Maryknoll magazine. “When Don Quixote looked at Aldonza, the outcast, he saw the princess, Dulcinea. Orbis Books looks at the Aldonzas of this world and sees the face of Christ.”

Orbis (the word means “world”) is 30 years old this year. During a period when publishers have bellied up or merged almost as fast as computer companies, Orbis has maintained a steady pace of some 50 titles each year and still has 410 active titles in its catalog. Orbis seems to attract authors who value the cachet of a publisher that succeeds on the thin line between theology and the world -- just where the church and its people should be.

Orbis’ first books gave many official church policy setters a case of heartburn. Suddenly, books by people whose names were difficult to pronounce appeared from countries not known for addressing controversial issues. Pivotal writers such as Gustavo Gutierrez, Lucian Legrand and Ernesto Cardenal were being translated into English and were proclaiming a philosophy that became known as liberation theology. A little later, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s thoughts would appear together with a biography of the revered Dom Helder Câmara -- all of this three decades ago when such theologies were virtually unknown. In 1978, John Paul II would be elected pope and, soon after, liberation theology would be declared suspect. But Orbis stuck to its theological, moral and social vision, and the books continued to change hearts.

In reality, Orbis Books has been an ongoing journal of what the church can be. Recently, Christianity Today, a Protestant publication, selected 100 of the most significant books of the recently ended 20th century. Three of them bore the Orbis logo, a remarkable number for a publishing house in business for only 30 years. In addition, the International Bulletin of Missionary Research has highlighted 51 Orbis titles among the top 150 during the past decade, and Pax Christi has given Orbis four of it past eight awards. The Catholic Book Awards has given them seven first place awards in the category of spirituality in the past decade.

Orbis’ ancestral roots could be said to date to 1911 when Frs. James Anthony Walsh and Thomas Frederick Price, two diocesan priests, formed the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. Father (later Bishop) Walsh was the director of the Propagation of the Faith in Boston, which edited The Field Afar, a small mission magazine that later became Maryknoll magazine. Price was a veteran home mission priest from North Carolina. The American hierarchy approved their plan to go to China, and, in the years that followed, the image of the pith-helmeted missionary on his motorcycle captured the imagination of thousands of young men. By 1920, women, some of whom had helped put The Field Afar together, formed the Maryknoll Sisters out of a rib of the Dominican Sisters.

The first book under the Orbis logo appeared in October 1970. It was titled Violence of a Peacemaker: A Life of Don Helder Câmara by José de Broucker. It appeared under the founding directorship of the late Philip Scharper, earlier an editor at Sheed & Ward, and Fr. Miguel D’Escoto, a Maryknoll priest who later achieved some fame during his years as a cabinet official in the Nicaraguan government under Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.

Orbis has also done cutting edge books by Ernesto Cardenal and by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, former president of Haiti, but only a fraction of the publisher’s supple output deals exclusively with liberation issues.

Orbis remains intent upon amplifying the voices of the poor. Early efforts were largely confined to the experience of struggling Christians in the Third World. In the words of Robert Gormley, former executive director, “Our purpose was not so much to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable.”

In 1973, Orbis published A Theology of Liberation: A New Look at Scripture through the Eyes of the Poor, by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez. This book joined The Missionary Movement in Christian History by Andrew Wall and Transforming Mission by David Bosch as the three Orbis books on Christianity Today’s Hall of Fame list. Gutierrez’s book is still selling -- and persuading.

Gradually, Orbis has evolved into publishing Hispanic, black, Native American and feminist theologies as well as books on mission, evangelization and spirituality. More important, there is virtually no chaff on the floor of its warehouse. Most of its words are lucid, challenging, nurturing and inspiring.

Before Vatican II, there were about a dozen Catholic publishers, most of whom published intensely edifying books that bore an imprimatur (“it may be printed”), given by a bishop, or an imprimi potest (same meaning but required for religious who wrote) and a nihil obstat (“nothing hinders it”), given by a church censor. Such permissions often took longer than an annulment and were just as arbitrary. The need to be vetted scared away uncounted authors. This need was another result of the anti-Modernist syndrome that lowered Catholic IQ and made the church the object of intellectual ridicule.

Today, the Catholic Book Publishers Association has at least 80 members. Member publishers now get submissions from clergy, religious and the laity, some of whom are among the 8,000 members of the American Academy of Religion, or the 1,100 in the Catholic Theological Society of America, or the 900 in the College Theology Society. Hundreds of manuscripts arrive on editors’ desks, replete with floppy discs that can be edited, corrected and typeset in less time than a bishop could give his imprimatur.

Twelve percent of the 63,000 books published in the United States each year -- about 7,500 -- are about some aspect of religion. The secular, deep-pocket publishers are also in the market. Although they tend to publish largely inspirational New Age books, they can attract Catholic authors who are on the celebrity circuit and who are so well known that publishing simply serves to extend their reach.

Orbis is often left with difficult choices. Thus, Legrand’s Unity and Plurality: Mission in the Bible sold only 1,000 copies, while Fr. Henri Nouwen’s With Burning Hearts sold 50,000. Both are Orbis books. Both are books of substance. Quality publishers must not only adhere to their mission but also be willing to produce a quality book that will likely lose money.

Competition is keen. Computers have made shelf-stocking clerks ruthlessly efficient. If a book doesn’t move after about four months, it is often removed and returned. Regrettably, shelf life of a book is often shorter than an NBA season.

Orbis uses direct mail but, like other publishers, gets only about a 1 percent return on its mailings. In an increasingly reactionary church, diocesan papers review few if any books, lest they fail to meet the approval of the bishop. Most book advertising is confined to the backs of the books themselves or to publications like NCR, America or Commonweal. Telemarketing and Internet sales are increasing.

Some publishers connected with religious congregations now permit downloading of materials via computer in exchange for a donation. Still others enjoy subsidies from their congregations or outright gifts from interested benefactors, much as university presses do. Upselling -- that is, offering additional related books at an additional discount -- has increased significantly.

Editor-in-Chief Robert Ellsberg has been at Orbis since 1987. “He is our conscience,” says Leach. (Yes, he’s the son of Daniel Ellsberg, who provided the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971.) Robert Ellsberg is primarily responsible for sustaining Orbis’ character as it evolves into publishing interreligious dialogue, women’s studies, ecology, Biblical studies and modern spirituality, as well as some of the old masters. A graduate of Harvard’s Divinity School with a master’s in theology, he is a convert to the church, who discovered Orbis on the bookshelves of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker, where he worked as editor.

“Orbis is attentive to the church of the future,” Ellsberg said. “We have an advantage over other publishers who see only American culture and whose service to the church only emphasizes one area.”

One example of Orbis’ reach is its Modern Spiritual Masters Series -- a litany of great authors, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Teilhard de Chardin, Charles de Foucauld, Anthony de Mello and Thomas Merton.

“We look for old things that can be applied anew,” Ellsberg continued. “There is a tremendous hunger for stories of saints and the spiritual disciplines of the past. But we’re still doing some liberation theology each year to let people know that there are people suffering.”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he works in a monstrance factory. You can e-mail him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000