Why would a well-known evangelical writer and English professor at Gordon College become a Roman Catholic? To answer that question, CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked John D. Woodbridge, professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, to interview Thomas Howard.
Howard possesses strong evangelical credentials. He is a graduate of Wheaton (Ill.) College; a son of Philip Howard, the late editor of the Sunday School Times; and a brother of David Howard and Elisabeth Elliot.
His conversion to Catholicism last month represented the final step in a spiritual pilgrimage that began years ago. In Christ the Tiger (Harold Shaw) and Evangelical Is Not Enough (Thomas Nelson), Howard chronicled his growing disenchantment with a perceived shallowness in evangelicalism. He seemed to find luminous descriptions of the spirituality that he sought in the writings of Anglicans and Roman Catholics like C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and G. K. Chesterton. He encountered the symbolism and worship practices he so esteemed in the Eucharistic liturgy and The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church—the church he joined before becoming a Catholic.
In the abridged interview that follows, Howard discusses the factors that led him to embrace the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
When did you decide to become a Roman Catholic?
My becoming a Catholic is the fruition of a 20-year pilgrimage. During these last 20 years of reading Scripture and theology and church history, I had never known that I was going to end up being a Roman Catholic. That certainly had not been my plan. However, some time during this last fall I became aware that the ground had shifted under me. I realized that I was looking at Protestantism from across the fence, that I was no longer a Protestant or even an Anglican.
What were the principal reasons you decided to convert to Catholicism?
The question of the unity between Christ and his church is the fundamental one. A close corollary to that, if not virtually synonymous with it, is the question of authority, which immediately turns into the question of the magisterium—the teaching authority of the Catholic church. There is no magisterium in Protestantism. Also important for me was the sacramental understanding of the nature of reality, the nature of God, the world, revelation, the gospel, and the Incarnation.
Which individuals were most influential in leading you to this decision?
They are all writers. John Henry Cardinal Newman, a nineteenth-century Catholic convert from Anglicanism; Msgr. Ronald Knox, another convert from Anglicanism; Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton; Romano Guardini, a German Catholic theologian; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Karl Stern, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist who became a Christian; Karl Adam, a German Catholic theologian; and Louis Bouyer, a French Catholic theologian. Towering above them all would be Saint Augustine (354–430).
Would you have become a Catholic if Julius II or Leo X, popes with unsavory reputations from Martin Luther’s day, had been in office rather than John Paul II?
I hope the answer is yes. The Catholic church does not stand or fall with the personality or adequacy of any given pope at any given time. I would want to say that my reasons for becoming a Catholic are because I became convinced that the claims of the ancient church are true.
Do you believe that evil deeds can disqualify popes as Christians?
God is the only one who knows who is a Christian and who is not. There were wicked popes, and there were saintly ones. No Catholic has any problem with the notion of popes being damned if they are unfaithful or if they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Have you ceased being an evangelical by becoming a Roman Catholic?
Quite the contrary. Evangelical and Catholic are, or ought to be, synonymous. I will never be anything but an evangelical.
But are you not now defining “evangelical” in a sense that would be different from what a Protestant evangelical deems that expression to mean?
I would say the burden of proof would be on the evangelical. As a Catholic, I can lay claim to the ancient connotation of the word “evangelical”—namely, a man of the gospel, referring to the gospel, the evangelical councils, and so on. If, however, by evangelical we mean the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movements in the Church of England, or the Free Church movement, or if we’re speaking specifically of the American revivalist phenomenon, then I might find myself outside the circle that these people might like to draw.
Do you believe that evangelicals are Christians?
No question! How could anyone doubt it?
If that is the case, why did you need to become a Roman Catholic?
It’s a question of what the fullness of the faith is. I owe my nurture to evangelicalism. The evangelical wins hands down in the history of the church when it comes to nurturing a biblically literate laity. When we think of evangelism, evangelicals are the most resourceful, the most intrepid, and the most creative. But evangelicals themselves would say that they have never come to grips with what the whole mystery of the church is. I don’t know whether I’ve ever met an evangelical who does not lament the desperate, barren, parched nature of evangelical worship. They’re frantic over the evangelical poverty when it comes to the deeper reaches of Christian spirituality and what the mystery of worship is all about.
How do you account for a period in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries when three men were vying for the office of pope?
I would refer you to a canon lawyer on that question.
What kind of Roman Catholic theology do you espouse? Do you see yourself as a Tridentine Catholic (accepting the teachings of the Council of Trent, 1545–63) or a Vatican II Catholic, or some other kind of Catholic?
I would try to be faithful to whatever definitions of doctrine the Roman Catholic Church has finally settled on. Certain things, of course, change. We saw huge changes at Vatican II (1962–65). Some of the emphases of the Council of Trent have at least been sequestered or sidelined, if not controverted. I would try to be faithful to what the magisterium is teaching. I would not understand the Vatican II documents as opening the door to perpetual and endless innovation—not only in discipline, but also in doctrine.
If I understood you correctly, you indicated that some doctrines of the Catholic church have been controverted?
I didn’t mean to say that doctrines had been controverted. What I was trying to say was that some of the emphases that marked the Council of Trent, if they have not been controverted, have at least been sidelined or deemphasized.
At the Second Vatican Council, the scope of the Bible’s inerrancy was limited especially to matters that deal with our salvation. That is a change from what those in the Augustinian tradition had argued earlier. The position of Vatican II appears to be more than a mere change of emphasis. It would seem to be an actual change in a doctrinal stance.
I would like to demur on highly specific questions about Vatican II. I am neither a canon lawyer nor a historical scholar. I can’t give you an answer about certain things because there are regions I simply haven’t traversed. These matters are not germane to the story of my conversion to Catholicism.
But several of these points are major stumbling blocks for Protestants when they consider the claims of Catholicism. If they were not stumbling blocks for you, is it because you did not encounter them or did not reflect upon them?
I think it would be somewhere in the middle. I have probably encountered and reflected on most of them. Secondly, if there is a Protestant who is seriously interested in those questions, he can find the answer when he finds what Rome teaches. Where there is an apparent discrepancy or contradiction, he can find out what the faithful Roman Catholic theologian says. Thirdly, in my mind, the titanic edifice which is the Roman Catholic Church in all of its radiance and superabundance really was the thing which I found inexorable.
What are the key doctrinal beliefs that distinguish an orthodox evangelical from yourself as a Catholic?
The taproot of the matter would be the nature of the union between Christ and his church—the sense in which the church embodies Christ to the world. Obviously, one can take a disembodied view of this, a totally spiritual view. But that does violence to the whole fabric of revelation, which has always been massively physical, material, embodied. A second issue would be the Eucharist. Somehow it drained off into the sand in the sixteenth century. Certainly nobody in the church preceding the Reformation had any notion of that happening.
How do you define the doctrine of justification by faith?
I would espouse the traditional Catholic view set forth at the Council of Trent, which loudly asserts justification by faith.
Some Catholics have acknowledged that Martin Luther was largely correct in his understanding of Romans and Galatians. But in Luther’s reading of Paul, we are justified by faith through grace alone. God declares us to be righteous, not because of our own righteousness, but because of Christ’s. But from the point of view of many Roman Catholics, justification is linked very closely to the grace received through the sacraments, through right living, through a cooperative effort with God. Nonetheless, Catholics claim that people are still saved by God’s grace alone.
Yes. There’s no question. A rigorous doctrine of imputation is not only limiting but ends up doing a disservice to the nature of grace and justification. It makes the transactions of the gospel basically juridical. In the Roman view, justification and sanctification are a seamless fabric. It is more than a question of God simply seeing us through a legal scrim of Christ’s righteousness. Righteousness actually begins to transform us.
Do not many Roman Catholics, at the popular level at least, assume that the acts that they perform constitute a sufficient way to gain salvation?
Yes. But the operative phrase in your question is the phrase “at the popular level.” If we’re going to speak of popular misconceptions, then we’re off and running.
But in his day, Luther was dealing not only with popular opinion, but with some Roman Catholic teachers who advocated what amounts to a works-righteousness salvation.
Yes. But the Council of Trent dealt with that. As you know, Luther is an extremely popular and influential theologian in Roman Catholic circles these days. I think the judicious Catholic response is that Luther fired off salvos which needed to be fired off because of the appalling and chaotic state of late medieval piety and pastoral practice. But what you ended up with was Protestantism. The soul can’t feed on that. If one reads what the Council of Trent says justification is, you get a very unabashedly biblical doctrine of justification by faith.
What is taking place at the sacrifice of the Mass?
The Roman Catholic Church—along with the Orthodox church and certain groups in the Anglican church—affirms that the Eucharist is simply the church entering into the sacrifice of Christ which is perpetually offered at the altar in heaven. Christ is not slain over and over again. The Catholic church is very insistent on teaching that there was never anything more than one priest, never anything more than one altar, never anything more than one sacrifice, once offered.
Catholic scholars generally acknowledge that in the New Testament, the directors or heads of the church are always noted in the plural as elders or as overseers, terms that are used almost synonymously. How does one move from this church order to a full-orbed papacy with the bishop of Rome being superior to the other bishops?
Simply by the developing understanding of the doctrine of the episcopacy. It’s clear historically why and how and when the doctrine of the papacy developed early on. The words of Christ to Peter were applicable then to the successor of Peter, and those successors turned out to be the bishops of Rome. It isn’t a mystery to anybody how the Roman Catholic understanding came into being.
What role did your family and your educational background play in leading you in the direction you have gone?
The Reformation is my nursing mother in the faith. My father and his fathers and my whole lineage are, to me, icons of true godliness. I have nothing but gratitude and indebtedness to my father and his fathers. So, of course, there’s a certain amount of anguish in having found myself a Roman Catholic. Insofar as my father and his fathers are conscious of my pilgrimage, I assume and hope that they’re applauding.
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