Thomas Howard

Born into an evangelical Christian family, a Philadelphia native and prolific book writer, he literally read his way to the C a t h o l i c Church 14 years ago. By his own admission, he is “head over heels” in love with his faith still. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Jim Malerba.

Malerba: Tell me about your early background.

Howard: I was brought up in Protestant fundamentalism in Philadelphia. Now, while fundamentalists tend to be the most anti-Catholic, I did not experience this feeling within my family at all.

Before coming to the Church, were you actively involved in evangelical work?

After graduating from college, I worked for a year as a staff member of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship in Chicago, an evangelical organization. What I did was go around the country, visiting student Christian groups in various colleges and universities. I was assigned to focus on the foreign mission aspect. After that, I spent two years in the Army.

Did you then begin your journey to the Church?

I guess in the broadest sense, you could say that. I went to England in the late 1950s and taught at Kingsmead School, for boys, from 1961 to 1963. In 1960, I went across the Anglican bridge and was received into the Church of England. I was an Anglican for 25 years. I was received into the Church in 1985. The Anglican contribution to the whole thing was to familiarize me with the notion of Church history, which fundamental-ists do not have, and the sacraments, which are also absent from fundamentalism.

What happened in those 25 years that ultimately led you to Catholicism?

I literally read my way into the Church. I studied Church history, rites of liturgy and most notably the early Church fathers. Before I was finished as an Episcopalian, I called myself what many Anglicans like to call themselves, namely an Anglo-Catholic. On the surface, the High Church has the smells and bells of the Catholic Church. In one sense, the Anglican Church is close to Catholicism in that most Anglo-Catholics believe in transubstantiation and in devotion to Mary. What's more, they call the eucharistic celebration the Mass. They also have bishops. So, in one sense I had been ready for the move in many ways, but the point of no return came over the question “What is the Church?” You can't do the reading I was doing without being forced up to the threshold of Rome. I realized there were only two bodies in Christendom — Rome or Orthodoxy — which could made a realistic claim to apostolicity. After reading everything I could about Orthodoxy, I came to accept the Roman claim, the Petrine nature [apostolic succession from Peter] of the Church. Eventually, I ran out of reasons not to become Catholic. By 1984, all the reasons had turned to ashes in my hands. I had to get in touch with a priest and ask, “How do I become Catholic?”

Did your wife also become Catholic when you converted?

No. She entered the Church in 1995 — 10 years to the day after I did. But I want to say my conversion did not in any way affect our marriage. Lovelace (she comes from the American South and that is her given first name) was delighted, and knew that my becoming Catholic was the right move for me. Our son and daughter continued on as Episcopalians, though my daughter was received into the Church in '98. Our son is still an Anglican, but he is aware the Catholic claims are true.

You were teaching at evangelical Gordon College in Massachusetts at the time. How did they receive the news of your conversion?

I lost my job. Here I was, 50 years old, and “unhirable” anywhere else. That's because I had tenure at Gordon and no dean at any college was about to hire an old whippersnapper. That is how I came to become professor of English literature at St. John's Seminary College in Boston in 1985, where I've been ever since.

And you are happy there?

Yes, because as far as I know, I'm in the place God wants me to be. To teach at a Catholic seminary is what I like to call a professor's paradise. Any young man in this era who feels called to the priesthood and is studying here is making such a commitment and is serious about being there. He's done some pretty heavy-duty thinking. There's nobody sitting in the back row chewing bubble gum. Everybody here has consciously chosen to be here and is serious about what is going on. This is a so-called minor seminary, where the young men are studying toward a bachelor's degree. If they continue to discern a priestly vocation, they then move on to St. John's seminary here.

Have you noticed an upswing in the number of vocations at the seminary?

Not a significant one, but we do have more young men with us now than we have had for some time.

Let's talk about your book writing. How did you come to it?

Back in 1965, I published an article in an evangelical journal, Christianity Today. A publisher, Lippincott, read the article and liked it a lot. I was just back from my honeymoon when I wrote the article. An editor at Lippincott wanted me to write a book-length work based on the article, which was on art and Christianity. I wrote back and said I couldn't do that, since I had put everything I knew about the subject into the article. He wrote back and said, well, write a book about anything. You don't always get a publisher pawing your arm. It's usually the other way around. That's how I got started.

What was the title?

I named the book Christ the Tiger, getting the title from a T.S. Eliot quote. It was an autobiographical book about my own religious odyssey from early childhood in a very good evangelical childhood to the point of marriage. Unlike 99 out of 100, I didn't throw in the sponge on my faith. The book made a big splash in the evangelical wing of Protestantism when it came out in 1967. The amazing part is, I wrote it in one month! The editor had gotten to me in the summer, so I just set aside the time and wrote it all day, every day.

What came next?

My next book was called Chance or the Dance, which was an aesthetic apologetic for Christian belief. The idea was, is the universe flung together by chance, or is it choreographed like a dance? By the time [1969] I wrote that one, I was an Anglican. I was familiar with evangelical par-lance and also Anglican parlance. I could interpret one to the other.

How successful was Chance or the Dance?

It sank without a ripple.

In 1996, you wrote On Being Catholic. What led you to this topic?

I have to say it was very difficult to become a Catholic, and I wanted to show this to people. My head was there, and so was my heart, in many ways. But there's a big difference in knowing what is on the other side of the Atlantic and stepping onto the Mayflower and sailing away. Cradle Catholics have no idea how daunting it is for an evangelical to make that step. They have no idea of the Himalayan nature of such a move, especially for one from such a fundamentalist background. I wanted to show people I made the move for the utterly stark, simple reason that the Church spoke the truth. This is what I was trying to convey, and to do it from the layman's point of view. I also wanted evangelicals to understand it, and equally important, to educate cradle Catholics.

And how was this one received generally?

On Being Catholic didn't make any big splash, but it seems to be selling well. However, I'm not getting rich on the book; in fact, I could probably buy paper clips with the royalties I'm receiving. Catholics have commented very favorably on it, but what is really pleasing is the positive reaction in letters I'm getting from some evangelicals — those who appear to be on the bridge to Rome.

You've also written about C.S. Lewis. Did he have a particular interest to you?

I was a great devotee of his writings, and I taught about him in the classroom. While he was never a Catholic, the shape of his religious vision was Catholic. Indirectly, he inspired me in my journey to the Church by his sacramental vision. Cardinal John Newman also was very influential as I was reading my way to Catholicism.

Any other books in the works?

No, and yes. My daughter is a writer and just sent in her first novel to a publisher. I might write a book with her on men and women and marriage.

How has becoming Catholic influenced your daily life?

There's no question that faith, family and life form a seamless package. I go to Mass daily, read the Office, and perform other spirituals that are an integral part of my daily prayer life. I am truly happy for the intercession of Mary. My wife also is a daily churchgoer. I consider her the happiest woman in the Church. In fact, she's much holier than I am. In my church, I teach a class on Friday nights. I guess you could say that, overall, I'm head over heels in the faith.

What can you say to others to help them live the faith more fully?

The ultimate bottom line is to love and fear God and keep his commandments. Holiness and our formation in charity are what we need in life. They give life meaning. I'm lucky, because the English literature material I teach represents religious questions and merges with it. In teaching the seminarians, I try to inculcate in practical ways the imperative of getting comfortable in the harness of the charity sweepstakes.

—Jim Malerba