The popular and in some cases almost idolized Catholic writer Thomas Howard has died, at the age of eighty-five.
The scion of a major American Evangelical family — his older sister being the Evangelical superstar Elizabeth Elliot — he went to the Evangelical mecca, Wheaton College, and was expected to rise in that world, his gifts apparent to everyone.
In one of his early books, An Antique Drum (later republished as Chance or the Dance?), the dedication to his professor Clyde Kilby thanks him for taking him by the arm and saying, “Look.” I think that explains much of his appeal. Though a man of clear beliefs, he was not an ideologue: because he looked. Not a salesman or a preacher, but a man who shared what he saw and loved — and therefore a very good salesman and preacher.
I met him in the late seventies, as a newish and secularish Christian. He invited me to a small reading group he hosted called Beer and Bull. The first book I remember us reading was an Orthodox work called The Way of the Ascetics, all of which was new to me, and a little strange. I also remember being amazed that so lively a man, who loved living so much, took asceticism so seriously. Only later did I see that his deep prayer and liturgical life created the lively man. Behind the effortlessness with which he seemed to move through the world lay a great deal of sacrifice and discipline and self-giving.
Tom’s first book, Christ the Tiger, made him a minor Evangelical celebrity. Published in 1967, it seems Christ the Tiger came at the right time, feeding younger Evangelicals reacting against the rule-bound culture of their youth and wanting more of the freedom and liberation they’d been told the Gospel brought. In the book, he remarks with exasperation that people who talked so much about the heart cared so much for externals.
He and the Evangelical patriarch J. I. Packer became good friends when Tom was a teenager. (He introduced me to Jim, about whom I wrote three months ago when he died.) They later wrote a book together titled Christianity: The True Humanism, and taught classes together, the last of which ended (as described in my obit) with Jim throwing out an anti-Catholic declaration while walking out the door. Tom was bemused, but told the story with affection and respect for Jim’s honesty and conviction. I’d like to think that now he has met Jim and got to say, “I told you.”
Though a man of clear beliefs, he was not an ideologue: because he looked. Not a salesman or a preacher, but a man who shared what he saw and loved — and therefore a very good salesman and preacher.
The fame Christ the Tiger brought him got him a teaching job at Gordon College, the east coast Wheaton, when he finished his doctoral work at NYU on Charles Williams. He became, quickly, a very popular teacher. He became also a very popular speaker, not least on C. S. Lewis, whom he’d met and wrote about a lot.
Some years later when he entered the Church, he lost the job. When he delivered his resignation letter to the president’s secretary and walked back upstairs to his office, he’d barely sat down when she knocked on the door and handed him the president’s acceptance. It was a don’t let the door hit you on the backside on the way out gesture. We lived nearby then and knew the college. Insiders told me the donors would not tolerate a Catholic on the faculty, and there was never any chance the college would keep him.
The administration thought he couldn’t sign the school’s statement of faith. He thought he could, because he saw his movement into the Church as following to its end the trajectory Evangelicalism had set. He saw himself as a completed Evangelical, while the college saw him as not an Evangelical at all. He eventually came to see that the college had been right, though he never lost his near-reverence for the tradition that formed him and its many great Christians.
He published a series of books on Christianity, mostly on living as a Christian in the world, written in his high-spirited yet sedate style. His publisher titled his last Protestant book Evangelical is Not Enough. He told me he’d protested the title, because he did not want to speak negativity of his childhood home. The publisher knew a title that would bring in the buyers, because there were many in that world looking for a way out. Most I knew took the book as bringing them to Anglicanism, but many of those eventually made their way into the Catholic Church.
He saw himself as a completed Evangelical, while the college saw him as not an Evangelical at all. He eventually came to see that the college had been right, though he never lost his near-reverence for the tradition that formed him and its many great Christians.
I didn’t come from that world and the book seemed to me to be shooting fish in a barrel. Tom hit every one, of course, but it didn’t seem to be him at his most insightful. Catholic converts still tell me that book started them on the movement that brought them into the Church.
An Anglo-Catholic, Tom felt himself drawn to the Catholic Church not all that long after he became an Anglican. We talked about it when I still felt satisfied with the Catholic style in Anglicanism. He loaned me books that had influenced him. Among the ones I remember were Louis Bouyer’s Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, Jean Danielou’s The Bible and the Liturgy, Maurice Zundel’s Splendour of the Liturgy, and Romano Guardini’s The Lord, which we read at Beer and Bull.
Later Tom described his movement to and then into the Church in a small book called Lead, Kindly Light. It’s very good, but I think there was more to his movement than the logical dynamic he describes. All I can say here is that he found in the Church something thicker than he found in Anglicanism, as in Anglicanism he’d found something thicker than he’d found in Evangelicalism. I wish he said more, but a mix of gratitude for the religion of his youth and courtesy to those still there kept him from a more explicit kind of apologetics. His later books don’t analyze this thickness so much as exemplify it.
He taught for many years in the Archdiocese of Boston’s seminary, while continuing to speak and write. Students have told me how in teaching them the great books, he showed them a world and a way of seeing the world they would not have known otherwise. It made them, they said, a couple fervently, better priests.
I don’t think he was appreciated by the Church as much as he should have been. He was just a little too subtle for fame. Still, he was the first guest on Marcus Grodi’s new The Journey Home show. Ignatius Press has republished several of his Protestant books (including a slightly updated version of Christ the Tiger) and published all of his Catholic books. My own favorite is On Being Catholic, but the selected essays called The Night is Far Spent might be a better introduction.
Tom could be witty, the kind of wit that depends on an insight into things, not just plays on words. The Notre Dame theologian Francesca Aran Murphy gives an example. Over breakfast at a conference, the conversation turned to a debate in which a young scholar accused Hans Urs von Balthasar of tritheism. “He said he didn’t know what the whole argument was all about. I told him that the author accused von Balthasar of dividing the Father against the Son. Tom Howard replied to this information ‘Which side was the Holy Spirit on?’ I thought that was pretty good over breakfast.”
He could also be whimsical. He and his wife once tried to get the license plates “Alas” and “Alack.” Alas was taken, so they settled for alack, which must have puzzled drivers sitting behind them at stop lights. A friend reported that he once went to a costume party with two other people chained to a table. They went as a committee.
A final story, that illustrates Tom’s mundane kindness, the kindness of the man who cares for people, celebrity though he was. A friend, one of the brightest people I know, had a horrifically bad education in his city’s public schools. His first assignment in Prof. Howard’s intro to English class was a three-page paper.
No one had taught him how to write a paper. He found a writer who said what he thought, wrote an introductory paragraph, typed out a three-page block quote, and finished with a concluding paragraph.
Tom called him into his office. Apparently realizing — as some professors wouldn’t have done — that the young man had done his best, explained that this would not do. My friend replied that the writer had said what he wanted to say much better than he could. Tom worked with him patiently — doing a great deal more than most professors would have done — to teach him what he did not know about writing papers.
I grew up in an academic world and have spent most of my adult life working with academics. The number who would have seen the need and responded to it the way Tom did is small.
He is survived by his wife Lovelace, and his children Gallaudet and Charles, and a great number of friends, colleagues, and people who knew him only through his books and his talks.
Thomas Howard lived a life of integrity and honor — and less importantly, achievement — whose character influenced an astonishing number of people and therefore the people they influenced, in a knock-on effect that will continue for generations. It’s not many people of whom that is true. The world saw a very gifted man, but people who knew him saw first a very good man.
Rest in peace, Tom.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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