I once had the unenviable task of explaining to Thomas Howard what the alt-right is.
“They’re white nationalists,” I said, “but they also oppose the ascent of libertarians in the Republican Party.”
“I see.” He nodded. “And what’s a libertarian?”
That one I couldn’t bring myself to explain.
It would be an honor to say that Dr. Howard and I were friends, but that’s not one I can rightly claim. My pal Roger and I would visit him at his home on the coast of Massachusetts every once in a while, because… well, because we asked to, and he obliged. That was Dr. Howard’s way. I was a brand-new Catholic working for a British magazine and had absolutely no public profile, but that didn’t matter. He liked people; he liked talking to people, especially young people. I’m sure if Roger and I had been Hindu missionaries from Pondicherry, we would have received the same gracious welcome.
And, I’ll admit, these meetings weren’t exactly symposia. Roger and I couldn’t approach the breadth or the depth of Dr. Howard’s knowledge. We’d invite ourselves over so we could listen to him talk but, every time he took the floor, he’d ask questions of us—about our interests, our opinions, ourselves. So, we’d sit there, opposite one of the great minds of the modern Church, drinking his sherry and talking about memes. He couldn’t have been more solicitous of a cardinal-archbishop.
His orthodoxy was beyond question. Before he was one of the most popular and influential theologians in the Catholic Church, he was one of the most popular and influential theologians in the Evangelical movement. The Howards were a family of missionaries, among the most respected Protestant dynasties in the country. His conversion cost him his job at Gordon College and many of his friends. It certainly wasn’t a decision he made lightly. When he finally set off for Rome, it was because he knew he couldn’t really be at home anywhere else.
Getting to know him a bit through conversation and his books, what impressed me most was his love for Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, at once profound and childlike. He was fascinated by our great patrimony, and he wanted nothing more than to share it with everyone who would listen.
Joie de vivre doesn’t quite do it justice. Life to him wasn’t only a lot of fun: it was a constant fascination. In his own valediction, Father Dwight Longenecker remembers sitting next to Dr. Howard at a banquet at Christ Church, Oxford. Both men are converts from Evangelicalism—a fact that both men relished.
“Just look at us,” Dr. Howard said to Father. “This is quite something, isn’t it? We’re just a couple of Evangelical yokels from the backwoods. You from [Bob Jones University] and me from Wheaton College, and here we are in these paneled halls dining as if we were venerable dons at Oxford! It’s a great hoot, isn’t it?”
I think that’s why he wrote so many books about literature—Charles Williams, T. S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis. Christianity isn’t only a set of propositions that one affirms or denies. It’s an invitation to live in a world that God Himself called good—to share His nature, and to meet the folks whom He died to redeem. Where Dr. Howard was standing, everything could lead one to delight, to sanctity, to God.
Even the bathroom. In a meditation on the virtues of private latrines, he wrote:
We close the bathroom door, then, and in so doing, we declare our membership in the exiled race of Adam… We are most holy creatures. Our intercourse is holy. Dirt and dandruff and sweat and sin mar that intercourse. It is surely an ancient and gracious wisdom that set the lavers out of sight.
That’s from Hallowed Be This House, which many believe to be his finest work. It’s certainly one of his most timely, showing that, while not one for political gossip, he was certainly aware of the real inhumanities of our age. At the beginning of his chapter on the bedroom, he writes:
The bedroom is the room of beginnings and endings. Here we are conceived, here we are born, here we sleep, and here we die. (That hospitals have now taken birth and death from the household is, like packaged food and air conditioning, convenient but also, somehow, alarming. There lurks in our imagination the hunch that this is not how it should be…)
Kindly though he was, Dr. Howard was ardently opposed to secularism. He rightly believed that ideology would sap man of its wonder and, so, his joy. Without seeing how “fearfully and wonderfully made” the world is, one would lose an opportunity to be grateful to God. As he wrote in another outstanding book, Chance or the Dance:
The former mind, in a word, read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex—these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. This mind fancied that everything meant everything, and that it all rushed up finally to heaven.
That’s the sort of mind he possessed.
We took to calling Dr. Howard “the last Victorian,” and I think it was apt. Like the best of the Victorians, he was formal and warm in equal measure. He embodied that forgotten virtue Jane Austin prized most: amiability, a genuine regard for others and a real desire for their good. He wore his tweed and his tie every day, not only to look smart, but out of respect for the people he would encounter: men and women knit together in their mothers’ wombs by God, in His own image and likeness. That’s the very best reason for good manners.
Dr. Howard reminded me of two other Yankee gentlemen: George H.W. Bush and my grandfather. All three were possessed of a natural gentility totally unconnected to wealth or breeding. They were kind, honest, brave, and good. They really earned that name, the Greatest Generation. Our Church—and the world—would be a better place if we were more like them. We stand on the shoulders of those giants, though I think they may have seen farther than we.
Thomas Howard died last Thursday at the age eighty-five. God rest him.
Requiescat in pace.