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Dr. Thomas Howard was
raised in a prominent Evangelical home (his sister is well-known author
and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot), became Episcopalian in his mid-twenties,
then entered the Catholic Church in 1985, at the age of fifty.
Dave Armstrong writes of Howard: "He cites the influence of great Catholic
writers such as Newman, Knox, Chesterton, Guardini, Ratzinger, Karl Adam,
Louis Bouyer, and St. Augustine on his final decision. Howard's always
stylistically-excellent prose is especially noteworthy for its emphasis
on the sacramental, incarnational and 'transcendent' aspects of Christianity."
Howard is a highly acclaimed writer and literary scholar, noted for his
studies of Inklings C.S. Lewis (C.S. Lewis: Man of Letters )
and Charles Williams (
Novels of Charles Williams ), as well as books including
Christ the Tiger (1967),
Chance or Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism (1969), Hallowed
be This House (1976),
Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament
If Your Mind Wanders At Mass (1995),
On Being Catholic (1997), and
The Secret of New York Revealed. He has also produced a video series, aired on EWTN, titled
"Treasures of Catholicism."
The story of his journey to Catholicism,
Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, was recently published
by Ignatius Press. Howard recently spoke to IgnatiusInsight.com about
his Evangelical upbringing, his time as an Episcopalian, and his journey
to the Catholic Church.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Raised in an Evangelical home, what were you taught
about the Catholic Church and Catholics?
Thomas Howard: Catholicism, from the point of view of the evangelical
household in which I grew up, seemed like an immense, tumescent travesty
of the simple Gospel that we espoused. All the trinketsmedals, rosaries,
relics, holy water stoups, dash-board St. Christophers, and so forth:
we thought that Catholics had substituted magic for faith, since their
conversation (heavily laced with profanity) didn't seem to evince much
in the way of an inner desire for holiness.
We also suspected that there was probably a gigantic,
secret power-play in process of forming, whereby Irish and other immigrants,
having got hold of every town's police and fire departments, and post
offices, would "take over" one fine day. The Catholics whom we knew well
were perfectly fine people: but the great, unknown mass of Catholics "out
there" (Philadelphia had hundreds of thousands of them) frightened us.
As far as Catholicism itself went, we felt that it was shot through with
accretions (The Blessed Virgin, purgatory, penances, indulgences, the
papacy, transubstantiation) to, again, "the simple Gospel."
IgnatiusInsight.com: You have written at length about liturgy. Was that
a major reason why you became Anglican in your twenties? How different
is Anglicanism/Episcopalianism today than it was forty or fifty years
Howard: The major reason why I became Anglican in my twenties was
aesthetic. Their worship, their church buildings, their vestments, their
language (the sixteenth-century Prayer Book), and, most notably, their
hymnody, left our johnny-come-lately Protestantism looking like a flea-market,
to my mind. Of course, living as an Anglican, I "grew in the faith" so
to speak, in that I found that there was much more at stake than aesthetics.
A whole Incarnational, sacramental theology, a fathomless history, and
a universality of vision, again, seemed to reduce our little efforts to
The Anglicanism/Episcopalianism of today differs violently from the Church
(of England) into which I was received in l960. Back then, the worst feature
of the Anglican communion was sheer Modernism, which had taken over 100%
of the seminaries in the U.S., and l9% of the parishes and priests. But
now, that Modernism (springing as it did from l9th century German biblical
criticism whose axiom was that miracles don't occur, hence the Bible is
a tissue of fairy tales) has reached its tentacles into the moral realm,
and, whereas most Episcopal clergy back then would have vaguely espoused
the general tradition of Western decency, now they are loud and vicious
in their insistence on re-drawing the moral map of the universe. It is
an inevitable development, but nonetheless shocking and dismaying.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Speaking of change, what has changed the most in
American Evangelicalism since you were a young man? Specifically, how
have attitudes towards Catholicism and Catholics changed?
Howard: American Evangelicalism has not changed one iota in its outlook
towards Catholics. Oh, to be sure, certain influential evangelicals (e.g.,
Chuck Colson) evince an open mind towards Catholics (but perhaps not Catholicism);
but "your average evangelical" is, to this day, quite satisfied that Catholics
need to be saved. Again, it must be stressed that there are convocations,
symposia, colloquia, and so forth, in the interest of evangelical/Catholic
cooperation: but the great mass of the laity and clergy remain unaffected.
On other fronts, evangelicalism has changed drastically, having bought
almost completely into a jazzy, breathlessly contemporary ambience, registered
most obviously in their hymnody, which is now limited to "praise songs,"
in the place of the immensely rich, 500-year-old treasury of hymns which
were Protestantism's greatest glory. Also, evangelicalism has bought heavily
into the "therapy" vocabulary and industry. And in the seminaries, the
trustworthiness of Sacred Scripture is being more and more closely questioned,
which is inevitable in Protestantism, since there is no "church which
is the pillar and ground of the truth" (St. Paul), and hence no Magisterium,
and hence no apostolic voice which can speak the truth into the muddle.
IgnatiusInsight.com: If you were to speculate, what does the future hold
for Evangelicalism in North America in the next few years? What should
Catholics know or understand about Evangelicalism?
Howard: Evangelicalism will continue to explode in size over the next
decades. Catholicism, unless a genuine "second spring" occurs, will dwindle
tragically because of the flaccid and generally modernist stance of its
seminary professors who train the clergy who train the laity. Evangelicalism
is immeasurably dynamic, viz., Brazil and the Philippines, where the pentecostals
and evangelicals are about to outnumber the Catholics, a development unthinkable
fifty years ago.
On the other hand, evangelicalism will continue to fray and fray, with
endless new movements, ideas, and fashionable currents of thought crowding
each other, so that, while there may still be a phenomenon identifiable
as "evangelicalism" thirty years from now, the two poles (or ten poles)
of it will have scarcely anything in common with each other (e.g., the
strict Calvinist Reformed wing vs. the charismatics and independent "Bible"
churches, not to mention the mega-churches).
IgnatiusInsight.com: What was the range of reactions among friends and
family when you became Catholic?
Howard: My family "reacted" with nothing but good will and charity.
They are all mature Christian believers, and, while none of them could
espouse all that I had espoused in becoming Catholic, there was no notion
amongst us that I had "left" the Christian fold. Our fellowship continues
undimmed. The same would be true of my friends. I received only two "poison-pen"
letters, neither from anyone whom I knew well. One was from a then-famous
evangelist (not Billy Graham), and the other was from a woman in my Episcopal
parish who felt that I had betrayed them all by becoming Roman Catholic.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Was there a specific turning point in your journey
across the Tiber? If so, what was it? What do you find most surprising,
or intriguing, about conversion?
Howard: It would be hard to track down a specific "turning point"
in my journey to Rome, since about twenty years of reading and mulling
had preceded my move. If I had to isolate a single incident, it would
be the moment when my wife turned to me, in the autumn of l984, during
the liturgy at our Episcopal church, and said, to my immense alarm, "You
are not here any more, are you." I knew that she was right, and her holy
perspicacity jolted me into action. I sought out a priest and began instruction.
I don't use the word "conversion" myself in referring to my having become
Catholic. I prefer to say that I was "received into the Ancient Church."
I suppose the surprising elements which follow along from such a move
were, at least in my own case, the seemingly endless discoveries of greater
and greater riches in the Catholic understanding of the Faith. The books
I read (Romano Guardini; Dietrich von Hildebrand; Walter Ciszik, for example)
seemed titanic next to the best that evangelicalism had ever had to offer.
Also, the sheer zeal exhibited by thousands of Catholics of whom I knew
nothing before becoming a Catholic. I had known only the perfunctory (not
to say profane) sort of Catholics whom one encounters in public high school.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What were the major obstacles or issues that you
had to deal with on your journey to Rome? How did you address them?
Howard: Having been an "Anglo-Catholic" (that is, an extreme "High
Church" Episcopalian) for some years before being received into the Catholic
Church, I had already faced, and settled, most of the "issues" that Protestant
would-be converts struggle with, e.g., the Marian dogmas, transubstantiation,
the papacy, etc. In my own case, it was hard to discern much that was
recognizable as "faith", much less ardor, in the great multitude of Catholics
in the churches. Most of them seemed to want to get through with Mass
and get out. I missed the "fellowship" that is really the ensign of evangelicalism,
where people love the Lord quite articulately, and talk endlessly to each
other about Him. You don't get this in Catholicism at all. The single
dogma that gave me the most trouble was the Immaculate Conception; but
as I grew in knowledge of the Faith, this took its place quite naturally
in the whole panoply of mysteries.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your estimation, what are the most significant
points of contentiontheological, cultural, even emotional--between
Evangelicals and Catholics? Areas of greatest solidarity or agreement?
Howard: The most significant points of contention between evangelicals
and Catholics are the obvious ones: the Marian dogmas; the Mass; the papacy;
purgatory; indulgences; and the priesthood. Culturally, one could say
the obstacle iscultural! That is, evangelicalism is a mid-nineteenth-century
English and American product, and is, I suppose, characteristically "middle
class." Catholicism has strong, even fierce, ethnic underpinnings. This
creates a difficulty in mutual understanding (e.g., an American from Michigan,
say, has a terrible time seeing anything but rank paganism in various
forms of Mexican, Filipino, or Spanish, Catholicism).
Emotionally, one would have to say that evangelicalism is a much more
"up front" form of piety, and very talkative. Evangelicals are stymied
by Catholics' refusal to pipe up about their faith. Most Catholics seem
embarrassed, or even surly, about the Faith, to eager evangelicals. As
far as areas of agreement go, one would have to say that the Nicene Creed
would be an anchor point for both; and also biblical sexual morality (although
evangelicalism, having no Magisterium, is fraying badly here), with major
seminaries seeming to compete with each other in re-reading the Bible
on such questions as sodomy.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Of the books you've written, do you have a favorite?
Of books written by others, what are some personal favorites?
Howard: I would have difficulty picking any single one of my books
as a "favorite." They have different purposes. I suppose that if I were
told that only one would survive me, it would have to be On Being Catholic.
My favorites among books written by others would be: An Essay on the
Development of Christian Doctrine by Cardinal Newman; Transformation
in Christ and Liturgy and Personality by Dietrich von Hildebrand;
The Lord (and everything else he wrote) by Romano Guardini; Msgr.
Ronald Knox's Enthusiasm; and all of C. S. Lewis's and J.R.R.Tolkien's
IgnatiusInsight.com: Are you currently working on another book or books?
Howard: I have two books in the works, and some reprints in the pipeline.
But I have no plans for another book at the moment.
Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome
by Thomas Howard
Through his prolific and highly regarded writing, Thomas Howard's name
is familiar to Protestants and Catholics alike, but many have never heard
the story of his conversion to Catholicism. With grace, charm, and wit,
Dr. Howard describes his journey from Evangelicalism to Anglicanism, and
finally, to the Church of Rome. In a world saturated with fashionable
unbelief, Howard's testimony inspires and informs. Fr. Richard Neuhaus
calls it "a marvelously engaging remembrance."
"Dr. Howard is keenly aware that there are many reasons why one might
become a Catholic, some of them very attractive reasons. But he knows
that the only consideration that 'will stand up when the foundations are
shaken [is] whether something is true or not.'" Fr. Richard
John Neuhaus, From the Foreword
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