Born in Britain in 1923, and educated at Eton and Oxford, Philip Trower is a Catholic writer of notable achievement. This alone merits attentionas there is much talk about the relative dearth of Catholic authors todaybut Trower’s life and work offer something more, as they speak to questions that are currently circulating within the Church.
Describing his personal journey, Trower recalls rummaging through his father’s library as a young man and finding a book entitled, “Trower on the Epistles.” Written by one of his ancestors, an Anglican Divine, it took issue with all things Catholic. Though still an Anglican himself, Trower was beginning to take an interest in Catholicism, and remembers closing the book after reading the phrase, “as the Church of Rome so wrongly maintains.”
Philip also recalls having a private audience with Pope Pius XII, after becoming a British soldier during the War: “I have come across few men in my life whom I have so instantly warmed to and liked.” Trower was affected by the surrounding culture, recalling what an Oxford don told him years before: “You will never find love until you find it in the tabernacle.”
For the next few years, however, Trower lost that opportunity, searching for fulfillment elsewhere. At the end of the War, Philip met the American Catholic Dunstan Thompsonby then a rising poetwho affected his life dramatically. The two became lovers, and went off to live in a small village in North Norfolk, abandoning their childhood faiths.
While visiting the town of Walsingham, however, a procession of the Blessed Sacrament passed them by. Dunstanwho had shown no signs of religiosity for yearsinstinctively fell to his knees, bowed his head and made the sign of the Cross. Philip was stunned. “At that point, I thought I had lost Dunstan forever. But I soon realized that I’d actually been blessed, by seeing who Dunstan really wasand that revelation, in turn, enabled me to re-discover my own spiritual calling.”
Dunstan returned to his childhood faith in 1952, and soon thereafter, Philip became a Catholic as well.
When Dunstan told him he had received the Sacrament of Confession, and reconciled with the Church, Philip knew what that entailed: an end to their intimate relationship. But the change liberated him, and gave him peace of soul: “The obvious unnaturalness and therefore wrongness of homosexual practice had been troubling me for years.”
This does not mean, however, “that there cannot be a love of friendship between men”far from it. In fact, Philip and Dunstan continued to live together, in a chaste, platonic relationship, following the guidance of their pastor.
They remained deeply committed to one another. When Dunstan became ill in the 1960s, Philip took care of him until Dunstan’s death in 1974. During all that time, through the grace of God, they never returned to their former lifestyle. Rather, both men “used their gifts, their time and their energy, in apostolic work for their local parish and the wider Church.”
After Thompson’s death, Philip became Dunston’s literary executor, and had all the poems from his Catholic periodwhich had not appeared during his life-printed under the title, Poems, 1950-1974. Now, a new collection of Thompson’s work will be published, under the title, Here at Last is Love (Slant Books). Edited by Gregory Wolfe and Dana Gioia, it will mark a triumph for Trower’s efforts, and a revival for Thompson, whom Gioia calls “the best Catholic poet of the latter half of the 20th century.”
Philip’s own work has left a major impact as well. After his conversion, he wrote a gripping historical novel, A Danger to the State, about the suppression of the Jesuits, which is among the best of its kind. There followed a long period of Catholic journalism, culminating in his two principal works, Turmoil and Truth and The Catholic Church and the Counterfaith.
The first focuses on Vatican II and its tumultuous aftermath; the second, on the intellectual currents that influenced the Council. Together, they constitute one of the finest accounts of the post-conciliar crisis, winning praise from historians and theologians alike. What sets them apart, from other works in this genre, is their comprehensive defense of Vatican IIas a natural and necessary extension of Catholic theologyagainst dissenters, left and right.
When I asked Philip about sincere Catholics who constantly worry about the pope and Church, he replied with a wisdom he has gathered over many years:
I would say pray, trust in God, and if you feel you must, speak your mind, respectfully and conscientiously, never forgetting you are talking about the successor of St. Peter; and if some events still leave you distressed, offer your sufferings up for the Holy Father’s good, and for the good of the whole Church.
I would also recommend praying for the grace to understand what God is trying to tell us through Francis. The three most obvious lessons appear to be: “Live more simply,” “Do as much as you are able for the poor and disadvantaged,” and “Don’t let the way you live and talk about the faith make it seem something grim and unattractive.”
At ninety-one, Philip Trower is still writing, his life and letters a luminous witness to the transformative love of God.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.