OBITUARY: Tom Burns

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The Independent Online
Tom Burns, the Roman Catholic publisher and editor of the Catholic weekly the Tablet from 1967 to 1982, was an influential figure on the Catholic scene in Britain. The Catholic faith was the foundation of his life, the backdrop for everything he did. His confidence in the Church supported him when, in 1968, he had to cope with the crisis caused by the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical reaffirming the traditional ban on contraception. No editor of the Tablet, Burns thought, had ever been confronted with an issue of conscience and policy so grave.

Burns was born in Chile, in 1906, the seventh of nine children. His father was a Scottish businessman, his mother a Chilean of mixed English and Basque descent. The family settled in London. Burns was educated by the Jesuits, first at Wimbledon College, and then at Stonyhurst as one of the special charges of the brilliant and formidable Martin D'Arcy. He went on not to university but to Paris, where he threw himself into the world of the Catholic revival.

Back in London, Burns was invited by Frank Sheed to join him in launching the new publishing house of Sheed & Ward. Tirelessly making social contacts from morning till evening with huge conviviality - Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton were among his acquaintances - Burns tackled the job with his usual energy. By 1931, in only five years, the firm had published 191 different titles.

In 1936 Burns left Sheed & Ward for Longman Green, across the road in Paternoster Row. He set himself in particular to revive the Catholic list, which had become virtually defunct. One of his successes was to persuade the board at Longmans to back a visit to Mexico by Graham Greene. Out of his venture came Greene's first great novel - The Power and the Glory (1940). Greene never forgot, and supported Tom Burns in his turn by becoming one of the Tablet's trustees, and publishing in the Tablet instalments of his novel Monsignor Quixote as it was being written. There was a friendship also, which died out of disrepair, with Evelyn Waugh.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, knowing Spain and the Spanish language, Burns found himself press attache at the Madrid embassy under Sir Samuel Hoare. His brief was to do everything possible to encourage Spain's neutrality and he found his task congenial. It was his conviction that the Spanish Civil War had been a peculiarly Spanish phenomenon; for him, that belief was confirmed when Franco kept Hitler at arm's length.

It was in 1944 that Burns married his beloved wife, Mabel, daughter of the Spanish physician, historian and liberal Gregorio Maranon. For all who knew them in their later years, Tom and Mabel were a unit: it was impossible to think of one without the other. Burns was a patriarch to the manner born, and he and Mabel with their four children became the centre of a devoted extended family which opened its arms to all manner of visitors and guests.

After the war he became managing director of Burns & Oates, the leading Catholic publishing house originally founded by his great-uncle James Burns. Tom Burns and his colleague Douglas Woodruff, the then editor of the Tablet, built up a small empire, consisting of the publishing firm (a thousand titles were added to the list) and bookshops; R. and T. Washbourne, specialists in devotional articles such as rosaries and statues of Our Lady and the saints; the biggest-selling religious weekly, the Universe; and the Tablet.

Woodruff had great influence on Burns's career, but the two men were very different. Before taking over the editorial chair of the Tablet in 1967, Burns had composed a memorandum of his intentions. Though couched in general terms, it caused Woodruff such alarm that there was an attempt, which came to nothing, to revoke Burns's appointment. It was clear that the Tablet would change. Woodruff never came to terms with the Second Vatican Council, the reforming council of the Church which met in Rome from 1962 to 1965, whereas for Burns it seemed the realisation of his dreams.

The crisis over contraception broke in 1968. Burns was clear in his opposition to the papal encyclical and despite the pressures brought to bear on him, he held courageously in conscience to his opinion. He called his leading article "Crisis in the Church" and correctly forecast that it would quickly become a crisis of authority. Very large numbers of Catholics shared his standpoint and among them were those who found the Tablet a lifeline. He gave them hope.

The paper lost some readers and gained others. In an open letter "on loyalty" to a colonel who had cancelled his subscription, Burns wrote: "We are a very old family: we have lived together for nearly 2,000 years. But we may be still in our infancy. I believe, as Coventry Patmore said, in the Catholicism of 2,000 years hence." In that spirit, year by year, never afraid to do battle, he pushed forward his vision of a renewal of the Church from the standpoint of the "extreme centre".

His political line, however, was conservative. All his life he would have no truck with socialism and was robustly anti-Communist, abhorring the spiritual lie at the centre of Marxism-Leninism.

In 1968 he paid a visit to Nigeria and against the stream of Catholic opinion gave whole-hearted support to General Gowon in his struggle with General Ojukwu, the separatist leader of the mainly Catholic Ibos. Deeply antagonistic to Ojukwu's cause, Burns refused to publish the letters of protest against his editorial policy.

He greatly expanded the Tablet's international coverage of the Church. One of his concerns was to build bridges to the Irish Catholic community; he launched an Irish supplement which continues to appear every year in the issue nearest to St Patrick's Day.

Financially, the paper was in difficulty. Part by part, the Burns and Oates Holdings empire dissolved, and eventually the Tablet was on its own. With characteristic optimism, Burns enlisted a group of eminent trustees, headed by the Duke of Norfolk, who became the paper's owners, and launched several appeals for funds. This brave decision paved the way for the Tablet to turn the corner.

The last great event he covered as editor, before handing over the chair to me, was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Britain in 1982. This was during the Falklands war on which, again, Burns took an independent line. In his retirement he and Mabel spent increasingly long periods at their villa on the coast of Andalusia. Here he wrote his memoirs, published by Sheed & Ward under the title The Use of Memory (1993). They are a record of a journey of faith, of friendship and love, coming at the end through all vicissitudes to fulfilment.

John Wilkins

Thomas Ferrier Burns, journalist, publisher: born 21 April 1906; director, Tablet Publishing Company 1935-85; chairman, Burns & Oates 1948-67; Editor, the Tablet 1967-82; OBE 1983; married 1944 Mabel Maranon (three sons, one daughter); died 8 December 1995.

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