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A Catholic gentleman: the inspiring life of Philip Trower

Philip Trower

Trower was an erudite and strongly orthodox Catholic writer with an extraordinary past

The word “gentleman” has largely fallen out of favor, which is a shame, because there isn’t a better word to describe Philip Trower, an elegant Catholic writer whose long life came to an end on January 9th. He was 95, and leaves behind a rich legacy.

I was good friends with Philip for many years, but what I learned during the last ten of them made me admire him even more.

I discovered Philip when he began writing incisive essays about the post-Conciliar crisis for The Wanderer, an American Catholic weekly. One series he penned, about the heresy of Modernism and its re-emergence in our time, was so well done it was later collected in a book, The Church Learned and the Revolt of the Scholars. This was followed by two more accomplished works, Turmoil and Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church, and The Catholic Church and the Counter-Faith: A Study of the Roots of Modern Secularism, Relativism and de-Christianisation.

The titles might lead one to think that Trower was highly suspicious of modernity, but that would be a mistake. Philip was strongly orthodox, but also a renaissance man who welcomed the spirit of Catholic inquiry and development, provided it was rooted in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

The brilliance of his books is that they offer a nuanced but convincing defense of Vatican II, while showing where both “progressives” and “traditionalists” go wrong (sometimes disastrously so) in interpreting it.

Though Philip was not a professional academic, he certainly had the knowledge of one. His work has been praised by Father Aidan Nichols, James Hitchcock and Tracey Rowlands, among other Catholic luminaries. In a recent interview, in fact, Dr Rowlands made it a point to complement Trower’s perspective on the warring divisions within the Church: “I agree with Philip Trower that these two groups have been engaged in a ‘theological star wars’ over the heads of the faithful. The fall-out from these stellar battles lands in parishes but Catholics who have not studied theology are unable to identify the origins of the bits of ‘space junk’ they encounter.”

That’s an apt description of the disorientation so many Catholics feel after decades of fractious debates.

As a young Catholic trying to make my way through the maelstrom of post-Vatican II conflicts, I recall reading dozens of books on the subject, until finally finding clarity and peace by reading Trower’s masterful trilogy, alongside St John Paul II and (future pope) Joseph Ratzinger.

Trower could make devastating critiques of Karl Rahner and Hans Kung, yet be equally generous toward those engaged in more noble pursuits: “One has only to recall the immense good achieved by faithful Catholic scholars and theologians to feel grateful to God for their gifts.”

Impressed by his erudition – and especially his ability to convey complex topics in lucid terms – I wrote Trower a letter of appreciation. He replied, and our long-distance friendship, between America and Britain, was born.

We kept our correspondence going, invariably surveying the Catholic controversies of the day. They irritated me to no end, but Philip always handled them with aplomb, owing to his serene confidence in the Holy Spirit and knowledge of what the Church had already endured. He helped strengthen my faith by encouraging a strong prayer life, self-discipline and proper focus, lest Catholic dissenters throw me off stride. I called him whenever I was perplexed by a topic, and he was unfailingly patient and polite in answering all my questions. I soon learned I was but one of many of his informal “students.”

I became so engrossed in our lively exchanges that it never occurred to me to ask Philip about his earlier life (all I knew was that he was a convert); but when I did, the dramatic journey he recounted both stunned and inspired me.

Born into a prominent Anglican family, and educated at Eton and Oxford, Philip appeared destined for a legal career, until World War II intervened. Commissioned by the British army in 1942, he joined the Rifle Brigade, and took part in the Italian campaign, where he was wounded but survived to complete his military service as an intelligence officer in Egypt.

During the War, he told me, he had drifted away from his Christian faith, and his personal life subsequently “went off the rails.” Knowing how stable and mature he was, I could hardly believe this, but, as Philip gently reminded me, “the devil can bring down anyone.”

Toward the end of his service, Philip met the American émigré, Dunstan Thompson, a fallen-away Catholic who by then had become a prominent “gay” poet. The two became lovers and went off to live in a small British village. Dunstan continued writing poetry and Philip became a successful novelist and writer for the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement. Their childhood faith in Christ appeared to be long gone.

But, as God often makes unexpected appearances, He did so in their lives as well. Philip and Dunstan were visiting Walsingham one weekend, not far from where they lived, when a procession of the Blessed Sacrament passed by. Dunstan suddenly fell to his knees and made the sign of the Cross – all before his shocked companion. Philip immediately sensed there was something much greater than his earthly relationship with Dunstan, and that it would have profound consequences for their lives. It did. After Dunstan told Philip that he had made a complete confession and reconciled with the Church, Philip knew that meant an immediate end to their sexual relationship. At first, Philip felt isolated and abandoned, but soon realised it was a great blessing, for it liberated him from a life of sin which he always knew to be wrong. Better yet, Dunstan’s Catholic reawakening led Philip to become a Catholic as well, discovering what he had providentially been told, by a friend, as a young man: “You will never find love until you find it in the tabernacle.” The two remained very close companions (Philip served as Dunstans’ literary executor after the poet’s death in 1975) but, faithful to Catholic teaching, never sinned with one another again.

For all the years I corresponded and spoke with Philip, there was one regret I had, as he approached 90: I never had the honour of meeting him in person. In 2012, however, an opportunity arose, as I was invited to England for a major Intelligence Squared debate over Pope Pius XII’s wartime record, at the Royal Institution in London. Might Philip be able to attend? He was in his late eighties by then, but said he would try to make it.

When the night arrived, Professor Ronald Rychlak and I, supporting Pius XII, took part in an intense debate against two relentless critics. When it was over, I felt then, and feel even stronger today, that our side is winning the “Pius War” and will ultimately prevail. But on that night, after the verbal fireworks had ended, I only wanted to know if Philip was amidst the large crowd. After 20 minutes passed, and most of the large audience had filed out, I saw no trace of him, and so concluded he had not been able to come, sadly. Then, just as I was ready to leave, I heard a gracious voice behind me, with a delightful British accent, “William, is that you?”

I turned around and there saw my great friend.

“Philip! Philip!” I exclaimed, like a typical overexcited American. “How wonderful it is to finally meet you!”

He was equally pleased (I trust), but more composed and responded by removing his cap and nodding his head. I thought he was being playful, but quickly realized he was serious, and responded accordingly. “To what do I owe this honor?”

“I just wanted to thank you for combating the campaign against one of the great Popes of my lifetime.”

In 1945, while he was still in the military, and almost a decade before his conversion, Philip had gotten a rare opportunity to meet Pius XII in private, and said of the papal encounter: “I have come across few men in my life whom I have so instantly warmed to and liked.”

I thanked him for his kind words, but said I was but one cog of a much broader movement determined to clear the good name of Pius XII with unassailable evidence.

There wasn’t much time left before the Royal Institution asked those remaining to clear out, but as this was my first – and, as it turned out, only – time I would ever meet Philip, I wanted those fifteen minutes with him to last, and they have. I can still recall our fruitful conversation – about the ineffable beauty of the Catholic faith – and remember him as a classic English gentleman, impeccably dressed, with flawless manners, a sympathetic demeanor, and above all, a clearly expressed, deeply held faith. There was a sparkle in his eyes and a broad smile on his face when we spoke. He must have known, along with his hero, John Henry Newman, that being a Catholic is a precious gift, and that those of us blessed to have it should rejoice in devoting ourselves to the Kingdom of God.

Now Philip has died, after an extraordinary life, and has surely been granted his Heavenly reward. May he rest in peace and everlasting glory with Christ Our Lord, whom he so loved.