C. S. Lewis, one of the most popular writers of the last century, had a complex and complicated relationship with the Catholic Church. Joseph Pearce, author of C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, discusses Lewis’s relationship with the Church in this interview.
Lewis is still presented by some people as Catholic, quasi Catholic or crypto-Catholic. Is that fair to the truth, and to him?
It would certainly be inaccurate, and therefore unfair to the truth, to describe Lewis as a Catholic. There is also little doubt that Lewis would have considered the description unfair. On the other hand, there are grounds for considering him a quasi or crypto-Catholic as my book
demonstrates. He held many beliefs that were far more Catholic than Protestant. To give but a few examples of this quasi-Catholicism: he described the Eucharist as the “blessed sacrament” and seemed to believe in the Real Presence (though not apparently in transubstantiation); he went to auricular confession, an extremely eccentric practice for an Anglican; he opposed the ordination of women in the Anglican church on the grounds that the priest at the altar is in persona Christi; and, last but not least, he professed not only a belief in purgatory but a belief that he was destined to go there!
Your book was first published more than a decade ago. Why did you decide to write a book focused on the complex relationship of Lewis with the Catholic Church?
Actually I was commissioned by Ignatius Press to write the book at the suggestion of Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis’ former secretary and literary executor of the C. S. Lewis Estate. Initially Ignatius had intended to republish an earlier book, C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome by Christopher Derrick and had asked Mr. Hooper to write the preface for the new edition. Mr. Hooper was not in favour of republishing this book because of its acerbic approach to the subject and suggested instead that I should be asked to write a new book on Lewis’s relationship with Catholicism. As a convert to the Catholic faith who had been influenced by C. S. Lewis, I leapt at the opportunity to grapple with Lewis’s complex and problematic relationship with the Church.
How would you describe that relationship, in short, to someone interested in reading your book? What were Lewis’ greatest obstacles to entering the Church?
One of Lewis’s closest friends, the great Catholic writer, J. R. R. Tolkien, believed that Lewis failed to become a Catholic because of the deep-rooted and ingrained prejudices that he inherited as a Belfast Protestant. As the Troubles in Northern Ireland have shown, Belfast is one of the most sectarian cities in the world. It would indeed be a rare occurrence for someone raised in such an anti-Catholic culture to overcome the prejudices of his upbringing and there is no doubt that Lewis’s discomfort with the position of the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition and his unease with the institution of the papacy are typical of the prejudices held by Ulster Protestants. On the other hand, as my book seeks to demonstrate, Lewis seemed to be moving ever closer to Catholicism as he grew in his faith. It is this tension between Lewis’s ingrained opposition to Catholicism and his rational attraction to Catholic doctrine which makes the study of Lewis’s relationship with the Church so fascinating.
Lewis’ road (towards conversion and as an apologist) always was more of an intellectual nature, while his personal life (especially in the relationship with women) crossed rough patches (the loss of his mother at a young age, the cold relationship with his father, his ambiguous relationship with Mrs. Moore, the mother of a deceased friend; his secret civil wedding to Joy Davidman, his later religious wedding to her, asking a priest to disobey the local bishop…) You do not cover that in depth in your book, but do you think that may have influenced his relationship with the Church and the Virgin Mary?
I think it is dangerous to read too much into Lewis’s loss of his mother. Tolkien also lost his mother at a young age and yet Tolkien’s devotion to the Virgin Mary was profound. Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore was certainly unusual but I think it is difficult to connect this with his Christian faith. Similarly his relationship with Joy Davidman was also unusual, as was the nature of their marriage, but it’s difficult to draw definite conclusions with regard to its influence and impact on his religious beliefs in general, or its influence on his relationship with the Church in particular. There is no doubt that Lewis’s marriage to Miss Davidman alienated him from friends, such as Tolkien, but it could also be said that Miss Davidman’s illness and death enabled Lewis to see deeper into the mysteries of suffering, as shown in his book, A Grief Observed, a crucial element in the deepening of his faith in the final years of his life.
One highlight in Lewis’ life and conversion was his friendship with Tolkien. Unfortunately, that friendship ended cooling down. What role did their religious differences play, and was it the only factor? In your opinion, could Tolkien have done anything differently to save the relationship or his friend reach Rome?
The cooling of the friendship between Tolkien and Lewis is an enigma that has baffled and continues to baffle scholars. There is no doubt that the religious differences were a factor in their relationship, as can be seen in Tolkien’s references to them in his letters, but their friendship flourished for many years in spite of such differences. It is, therefore, too simplistic to see the cooling of their friendship as being primarily religious in nature. On the contrary, it seems to have had more to do with Tolkien’s lack of sympathy for Lewis’s work, especially his dismissive response to The Chronicles of Narnia. I feel that Tolkien’s view of Narnia was a little harsh, and perhaps even unjust, and in this sense it could be said that Tolkien was at least partially responsible for the cooling of their friendship. On the other hand, Tolkien’s philosophy of Creation and creativity was a key factor in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. Since it is conceivable that Lewis might never have become a Christian if he hadn’t met and befriended Tolkien, it would be somewhat harsh to blame Tolkien for Lewis’s failure to convert to Catholicism.
Many people say that, if he had lived longer, Lewis would have entered the Catholic Church. However, in your book you claim that the closest he was to do so was pretty early after his conversion, and that later on he seemed to take a step back. If time made him further apart from Rome, do you really think he would have been able to overcome his pride and prejudice? Would the existence of pastoral provisions or Ordinariates in his time maybe have made it easier for him to enter the Church without feeling “too papist”?
In many respects, of course, this is a moot and hypothetical point. We have to accept the fact that Lewis did not convert to Catholicism in his lifetime. And yet it must also be stated that Lewis would have been absolutely horrified by the Anglican church’s abandonment of orthodoxy. In my book, I allude to Anglicanism’s sinking from the “mere Christianity” that Lewis espoused to the “mire Christianity” of relativism masquerading as faith. It is very difficult to believe that Lewis would or could have remained in a church that had abandoned everything that he fought to defend and affirm in his life and work. I believe that Pope Benedict’s pastoral provision might well have helped Lewis “come home” as it has helped countless other Anglicans to do so.
Having followed a similar road to Lewis, what is your final opinion about him? Do you have any kind of personal relationship with Lewis (commending yourself to him, praying for him…)?
I have a deep debt of gratitude to C. S. Lewis. He was a significant influence on my own path to Rome, even though he failed to get there himself during his own lifetime. If, however, he is where he believed he would be after death, i.e. in purgatory, he is now a member of the Catholic Church! If he is there, I can begin to repay my debt to him with my prayers. I like to feel that such a possibility is confirmed by a letter that Lewis wrote to his friend, Sister Penelope, shortly before his death, in which he asked her to visit him in purgatory. It was implicit that he believed that she would be in paradise. I cannot visit Lewis in purgatory, though I hope that we may meet there one day. In the interim we are united in the communion of prayer. Deo gratias!
From a Jan. 20 posting on the website of the Catholic News Agency.
Taken and translated from article in the Spanish magazine Alfa y Omega.
C.S. Lewis was vehemently anti-Catholic. Given the spiritual richness already available in the Catholic tradition, I really don’t understand the need to keep trying to “claim” those outside Catholicism.
You can’t legally defame the dead, but your attitude toward Lewis is unjustified. His insights are limited by his Protestant upbringing (as are those of Dr. Johnson, Jeremy Taylor, and so on), but what justifies your reference to him as “vehemently” anti-Catholic? I am familiar with nearly all of his works, so try me.
Read Bradley Birzer’s book on J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis’s anti-Catholicism isn’t reflected in his writings as much as in his documented interactions with individual Catholics, including Tolkien. Of course he only reflected the bigoted attitudes toward Catholics that were common in that era.
I’ve read plenty on the interactions of Lewis and Tolkien. Their quarrels later in life were literary, not religious: the differing treatments of mythological material in Narnia versus Middle-earth. That Lewis did not agree with us does not make him a “bigot”, anymore than Johnson or Burke’s Protestantism made them bigots. Mere disagreement is not bigotry. Please cite an open attack on Catholic doctrines in Lewis’ work if you wish to make a point.
As much as I like Lewis but I do feel sad that he didn’t convert. In defense on what Dave’s comments here is a quote that proved that he was anti-Catholic:
C. S. Lewis wrote:
“The real reason why I cannot be in communion with you [Catholics] is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine [but see his quote below on some disagreements with several Roman Catholic doctrines], but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but also to what he is going to say.”
“Christian Reunion”, in Christian Reunion and Other Essays, edited by Walter Hooper, London: Collins, 1990, p. 17-18.
Here is another one in defense on what Dave was trying to convey, it does concern me though but it still he does have good other quotes that are like minded with our faith. We can discern on that. :
“The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specially from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the Blessed Virgin Mary I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament; where indeed the words “Blessed is the womb that bore thee” receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul toward St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists on defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claim: though this, of course, does not mean rejecting particular things they say.”
June 16, 1945
Letter of C. S. Lewis to H. Lyman Stebbins, “The Boldness of a Stranger”
C.S. Lewis was not Catholic. You can be Catholic or not-Catholic, not “quasi” Catholic. The Catholic Church is the visible society instituted by Christ with the Pope at its head. You cannot be a member of two societies at the same time which have contradictory objectives. Mr. Lewis was an intelligent, educated man who was fully aware of the issues and he chose to stay outside of the Catholic Church. It is a dogma of the faith that there is no salvation outside the Church. It’s fine that he held some Catholic beliefs. He has that in common with all Protestants. They are correct to the extent that they agree with Catholic doctrine. However, reading their works is dangerous in that you can absorb ideas which are contrary to the True Faith. I agree with Dave N. Read Catholic authors instead of Protestants.
Dante read Virgil (and one of the best commentators on Dante is the Anglican Dorothy Sayers). Aquinas read Muslim and Jewish commentators on Aristotle (and he read Aristotle). Should Catholics not read Dostoevsky or Soloviev (whose take on Anti-Christ is at points superior to Benson’s)? It is a tragedy that some great Christian writers did not return to unity with Rome. Let us not compound that tragedy with needless disdain. There is nothing dangerous in C.S. Lewis to an educated Catholic.
Good comments Tom Byrne I enjoy what you have to share with this knowledge. I actually like the writings of C.S, Lewis. Very wise man in many area’s.
” We have to accept the fact that Lewis did not convert to Catholicism in his lifetime. ” He rejected the Catholic Faith.
Catholics do not believe in conversion AFTER DEATH. (That is Mormanism.)
We must not presume on the eternal resting place of another.
This judgment of each individual belongs only to JESUS.
CCC: ” 2092 There are two kinds of presumption.
Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high),
or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit). ”
HAPPY JUDGMENT DAY !
I agree JOSE. That we should take into account on what you just said. For no matter how much knowledge or wisdom, one must still convert before one leaves this earth.
C.S. Lewis was a very well-educated, highly-respected British Protestant writer and lecturer, who converted millions, to Christianity! He was unquestionably Protestant, but never seemed to promote the Church of England, just a basic Protestantism, in his writings! It was unclear, as to whether he was active as an Anglican Church member, or had any favorite Anglican devotions. It was a great shock, his “marriage” to an American Jewish fan, Joy Davidman, who later became a friend. Lewis arranged a secret civil marriage (later blessed in an Anglican Church ceremony) only to protect Joy and her son, financially and emotionally, as he felt sorry for their situation! There was no love, no romance, or passion; I doubt the marriage was ever consummated! Joy was diagnosed with cancer, and died not long after that. Anyway— I never understood how Lewis, as a devout Protestant Christian— could enter a false, civil marriage, later blessed falsely, by his church! Didn’t Lewis, as a Protestant Christian, believe Marriage to be serious, before God, similar to a Catholic Sacrament, in his own church??
I will continue, with my post, above. C.S. Lewis, who died in 1963, wrote some excellent literature, and his books may be found on required reading lists, for many university classes, as examples of excellent contemporary Christian literature. Works such as the “Chronicles of Narnia” can be found on college reading lists, also, for courses in Children’s Literature. He was an outstanding Christian author! I have no idea as to what Joseph Pearce’s book on C.S. Lewis is all about, but I am sure it must be excellent, too! It does not matter to me, whether or not Lewis had any interest in the Catholic Church— I doubt that! But his books are excellent! I view them as excellent Protestant literature, not as something related to my own Catholic Faith! By the same token, I loved, when young– reading “The Cost of Discipleship,” by the young German Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer! That is an outstanding book, and on many college required reading lists, for a variety of classes, too! It is good to educate oneself, and read books by many excellent authors!
There are also people who claim that he did eventually convert to Catholicism in the end. What is the truth? Well it doesn’t matter. Lets just focus on Chesterton who was also a great writer in that near time.
Beware of no man more than yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.
G. K. Chesterton
I say that a man must be certain of his morality for the simple reason that he has to suffer for it.
G. K. Chesterton
It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.
G. K. Chesterton
It is interesting to note, that Lewis’ “wife,” Joy Davidman, was a divorced, American Jewish woman. I am not certain, how the Church of England felt regarding this– plus, the fact that her marriage to Lewis, was not a marriage of love and romance! There were other motives than love involved! I wonder what Lewis felt about all of this, as a Christian? (And what were his beliefs, about divorce, also?? Not at all “Catholic!”) Joy converted to Christianity, due to reading Lewis books— and I wonder if she was baptized into the Anglican Faith, before their marriage was blessed in the Church of England?? Perhaps Joy’s son was also baptized, at the same time. Joseph Pearce’s portrayal of C.S. Lewis as a potential Catholic, sounds very strange, to me! I think, overall, that C.S. Lewis was a bit like the Rev. Billy Graham, in that he mostly favored an individualized Christian commitment, instead of proclaiming a definite belief and membership, in any particular Christian denomination. Well, regardless– C.S. Lewis was a very excellent contemporary Christian writer!