Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Didn't C.S. Lewis Become a Catholic?

Review of C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press, 2003)

Somebody joked with me recently that, rather than me bothering to tell him my opinion on any particular subject, I should simply give him a page reference from C.S. Lewis. It was a fair comment. I quote C.S. Lewis an awful lot. I quote from him more than I quote from anybody else but my beloved G.K. Chesterton, and perhaps even just as much.

I fell in love with Narnia, the fantasy world of Lewis's books for children, when I was in my teens. Back then I had little interest in his religious opinions, though I vaguely understood Aslan stood for Jesus.

I returned to Lewis in my late twenties, not through fiction this time (I had long since stopped reading Narnia, and a recent attempt to rediscover its magic was less than successful) but through his philosophical and critical writings. A lecturer (Father Brendan Purcell, as a matter of fact, who readers might know from hearing him on radio) recommended that his class should read The Abolition of Man, Lewis's brief and bruising counter-punch to fashionable moral relativism.

Compelling as I found that, it took me while to explore Lewis's thought further. What really won me over was a volume of his selected essays, which included the brilliant piece "High and Low Brows"-- in which Lewis rejects the division of books into "serious" reading and mere entertainment, arguing that it is how we read a book and not what book we read that shows how "seriously" we are reading. Reading that essay was one of those moments we all have, where we feel like shouting, "Yes! That is what I have been thinking all along-- if only I knew it!".

It was not long after this that, through the infinite mercy of God, I was hit by a spiritual crisis that sent me scampering after any volume that I thought might answer my questions. Surprised by Joy, Lewis's account of his own conversion and partial autobiography, was (I believe) quite literally heaven-sent at this time. It has become, after Chesterton's Orthodoxy, my second-favourite book of all time.

In my spiritual quest, Lewis was a great help because he answered my questions plainly. He didn't hide behind purple prose or mysticism. In blunt Anglo-Saxon words, he asked: Is there any reason to believe in the divinity? Did Christ rise from the dead? Are miracles possible? And he did not make these arguments easy for himself, but fairly made the opposing case as powerfully as any antagonist might have done.

So of course I am rather intrigued by the question: Why didn't CS Lewis become a Catholic?

I am not the first person to ask the question. In fact, Pearce is not the first person to write a book about Lewis's attitude to Rome. The question is, in fact a natural one. It does not arise simply from a kind of confessional chauvinism ("how could some one so wise and inspired not become a Catholic?"). There is much in Lewis's writings and story that might have made Catholicism the natural end of his earthly pilgrimage.

He was, first of all, an ardent anti-modernist, both in literary and theological matters. He had little patience for books like Honest to God, a 1963 bestseller by the Anglican bishop John A.T. Robinson, which sought to revise Christian theology to the point where it was unrecognisable as the faith of the Apostle's Creed. Lewis had no time for such muddied waters. He stood by the physical resurrection of our Saviour, the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, sin and salvation, petitionary prayer, the four Last Things, and the whole kit and caboodle of orthodox Christian belief.

He also believed in some things which were rather Romish for an Anglican-- Purgatory (which is in fact denied by the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church), the auricular confession of sins, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He was also concerned at the influence of modernists in the Church of England, and questioned the advisability of ordaining "priestesses".

Finally, the writings of Chesterton were an important factor in Lewis's initial conversion to Christianity. He shared a great deal of Chesterton's outlook on life and the modern world. In Surprised by Joy, he remembers that, before his conversion, he thought Chesterton "the most sensible man alive, apart from his Christianity". Considering this, it would not have been too surprising for Lewis to follow Chesterton's lead in a second conversion, this time to the Roman Catholic Church.

But it never happened. And in this book, English author Joseph Pearce-- who is himself a convert to Catholicism, chiefly through Chesterton's influence-- asks why.

One possible answer, and one that has been advanced before, is Lewis's Ulster Protestant background. Lewis's great friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who was another important influence of his conversion to Christianity, held this view. Pearce quotes some of Lewis's early writings that give this theory some plausibility, such as this entry in his diary when he was nine years old:

We were obliged to go to St. John's, a church which wanted to be Roman Catholic, but was afraid to say so....in this abominable place of Romish hypocrites and English liars, the people cross themselves, bow to the Lord's Table (which they have the vanity to call an altar), and pray to the Virgin.

It may seem ridiculous to quote Lewis's theological opinions as a nine-year-old. But, as Wordsworth wrote, "the child is father of the man", and any evidence that bears on our question has to be taken into account. Nobody is immune to prejudice, especially prejudice implanted early in life. I don't believe that an intellect as self-questioning as Lewis's would be remain in bondage to such early preconceptions, but it's not unreasonable to suppose that it coloured his thinking to some degree.

Lewis lost his childhood faith fairly early in life, and remained resolutely unbelieving even through the carnage of the World War One trenches-- thus disproving the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. It was only in his late twenties, as a result of philosophical reflections rather than for any emotive reason, that he returned to religious belief-- at first, a philosophical belief in an Absolute Spirit that lay behind the material universe, and eventually to full-blown orthodox Christianity. (A long conversation with Tolkien, a fellow academic at Oxford, was the decisive factor in this.)

Ironically, although Lewis did not follow Tolkien into the Catholic Church, many people assumed he had when he announced his conversion to the world, via his allegory of a soul seeking faith in the modern world, Pilgrim's Regress. This features a character called Mother Kirk, a personification of the Church which many took as a symbol of, specifically, the Roman Catholic Church-- especially since the language she uses is Latin.

One reviewer of the book was so certain that Lewis had joined the contemporary torrent of converts to Rome (such as Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox, Alfred Noyes of "Highwayman" fame, and Chesterton himself) that he wrote: "Anglicans may wish that he had come their way, but Mr Lewis, who is a Roman Catholic, does not see it so..."

But Mr Lewis had not become a Roman Catholic, and showed no inclination of doing so. In fact, when his friend Dom Bede Griffiths converted to Catholicism, Lewis refused to discuss doctrinal differences with him, and a "certain reserve" entered their friendship, according to Griffiths.

This is part of what I find fascinating about Lewis's Anglicanism. Nobody was more committed to argument and debate than Lewis-- it was, in fact, his bread and butter, or "red beef and strong beer" as he once put it himself. And yet he shied away from the comparison of denominational differences, not just on this occasion, but later on when he set himself up as a defender of "mere Christianity" (his famous umbrella term for the core tenets of the faith, common to different denominations). Was Lewis perhaps aware that his loyalty to Anglicanism was not based upon reason so much as emotion? Or is this a cheap shot in hindsight?

The adult Lewis, Pearce suggests, was not immune to the anti-Romish prejudice that was evident in the boy Lewis's above-quoted diary entry. He gives a detailed account of Lewis's adversarial attitude towards Joseph Campbell, a Catholic poet who visited Tolkien and Lewis at Oxford, and who had described the outrages committed by Spanish Republicans against Catholic nuns and priests during the Spanish Civil War. Lewis's hostility to Campbell's claims, and his pro-Franco stance, was so pronounced that Tolkien wrote "if Catholic priests are slaughtered-- he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it)..."

Perhaps Lewis's most successful book of Christian apologetics is Mere Christianity, based on BBC lectures he gave during the Second World War. The very title proclaims his reluctance to discuss the differences between Christian denominations.

Pearce relays some relevant anecdotes that seem of rather questionable plausibility-- one being that Lewis had asked a Jesuit for prayers that he might make "the final gesture" and that "the prejudices instilled in me by an Ulster nurse might be overcome". Another story has Lewis arguing his brother Warnie, his lifelong friend and companion, out of conversion to Catholicism.

In the final chapter, Pearce makes an argument that must have occurred to all contemporary readers of Lewis: "As the mire of modernism advanced relentlessly within the Anglican church, C.S. Lewis...would find himself increasingly isolated as a 'protestant' Catholic within the Anglican communion." This process has only accelerated since Lewis's death, and Pearce suggests that Lewis would find it very hard to remain with today's Church of England.

Pearce quotes a survey conducted in 2002 that found "a third of Church of England clergymen do not believe in the Resurrection of Christ and that only half believed in the Virgin Birth. The survey also revealed that priestesses were more likely to be unbelievers than their male counterparts, with only a third of those questioned professing a belief in the Virgin Birth."

Walter Hooper, who, in the last phase of Lewis's life, acted as his secretary, and subsequently edited many of Lewis's posthumously published books, was asked in 1994 if Lewis would have become a Catholic if he lived longer, and answered: "I think so...What do you do when, in fact, the Anglican church becomes apostate-- as it has truly become right now?"

Hooper himself converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1988, so perhaps he is biased, but as an insider of what one might call the "Lewis industry" (he is literary advisor to Lewis's estate), he has an intriguing perspective:

"I can say with absolute confidence that more and more Catholics are buying his books now...We know of course that there are a great many Protestants who read Lewis but I think there is a shift since he died in that he is read a great deal by the evangelical Protestants and less and less by the liberals...I was surprised to see what used to be very Anglo-Catholic magazine from America now saying, 'why did we ever read Lewis, he's far too doctrinal, he's far too Roman Catholic now."

Happily, Hooper adds: "the number of Lewis's books which are read today is far in excess of anything that happened in his lifetime."

It is easy to speak on behalf of a dead man. Perhaps C.S. Lewis would not convert to Catholicism even today. After all, there are still conservatives within the Church of England, like the journalist Peter Hitchens. In Hitchens's poignant book The Abolition of Britain, a whole chapter (wittily entitled "Hell Freezes Over") is dedicated to the modernist takeover within the Church of England. And yet Hitchens remains an Anglican, and is rather impatient at calls for him to jump ship.

I must admit I find myself asking the same question people ask of battered wives. Why do they stay? Why don't they go? What would it take to make them leave?

I think it is only fair to give the last word to the Lewis himself, who wrote in a posthumously-discovered address addressed to a Catholic audience:

To you the real vice of Protestantism is the formless drift which seems unable to retain the Catholic truths, which loses them one by one and ends in a "modernism" which cannot be classified as Christian by any tolerable stretch of the word. To us the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness (as we hold) with which she has added to the depositum fidei-- the tropical fertility, the proliferation, of credenda. You see in Protestantism the Faith dying out in a desert; we see in Rome the Faith smothered in a jungle.

I tend to think that, if Lewis was alive today, developments in the Church of England would have solved this dilemma for him.


  1. This post of yours is well written and interesting.

    However, continuing in the tradition of Roman Catholic historiography and historical framing of Anglicanism, Protestantism, and Catholicism, that goes back at least to Cardinal Newman, you leave out one key factor. Like Newman with his quip that when you're deep in history you cease to be a Protestant, you forget the Orthodox Church.

    The issue of the Orthodox Church seems to complicate the implicit position that Roman Catholicism is the single embodiment of pre-modern Christianity. This would give more support to Lewis's 'Mere Christianity', as well as his being able to square his general 'Romish' proclivities without thinking he need convert to Roman Catholicism. It also offers a different option for us beleaguered, conservative and 'Catholic' Anglicans. If (probably when) I jump ship it will almost certainly be to Orthodoxy.

    One may also ask whether, after Vatican II, the Roman Church itself is in a much more healthy position than the Anglican Church, but that is a topic too broad for such a setting.

  2. Hi Westcountryman

    Thank you so much for your very kind comment.

    As for the point you make-- I have to admit I'm rather stumped. I have a deep respect for the Orthodox Church, and I pray continually that the long schism between it and Roman Catholicism will be soon healed. I would not pretend to any but the skimpiest knowledge of its theology.

    I suppose the reason I am Roman Catholic rather than Orthodox is because the New Testament seems to me to clearly establish the Petrine supremacy. I understand that the Orthodox Church disputes that this refers to the bishop of Rome, but that interpretation seems convincing to me.

    Also, it seems to me that the Catholic Church best fulfils Christ's imperative to "go forth and make disciples of all nations", since it has taken root in all continents and in such extremely different cultures.

    I don't think it's a question of prizing pre-modernism per se, but rather doctrinal purity and continuity. The Amish and Mennonites and the Plymouth Brethren are plenty pre-modern. Also I believe that Vatican II was a gift of the Holy Spirit-- it is only the so-called "spirit of Vatican II", beloved of liberal Catholics, that is to be opposed.

    But as I say, I admit I haven't got a sufficient answer for you. I need to learn more about the Orthodox Church. Maybe Joseph Pearce should write a sequel-- CS Lewis and the Orthodox Church!

  3. My mother, Anne Scott (nee Renwick), knew Lewis slightly, as she was an undergraduate who attended his lectures, and she became very close friends with Charles Williams - another great Anglican and, along with Tolkien, one of Lewis' closest friends at Oxford. There are letters between them in the published collections.

    She recounted that you could ask any question, however naive, ignorant or ill-informed, of Lewis and he would always answer with patience, courtesy, learning, and generally wisdom; any question but one: why do you not convert to Roman Catholicism? That was a question with which he had no patience. As she understood it, his reasons were not to do with Ulster prejudice at all, but rather with his belief that as an Anglican, he was part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. (I think Newman held to the same belief before his conversion?) I wonder if his impatience with the question betrayed an unease about the strength of his answer...

    I agree with Walter Hooper that Lewis would no longer be able to hold onto that belief, were he alive now.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Andrew. I wish I had such a connection to "Jack"!

    Interestingly, Peter Hitchens (of whose writings I am a big fan, and whose blog I keenly follow) reacts with the same kind of grumpiness when people ask him why he doesn't convert to Catholicism. He says that "the bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England" and that he considers Catholicism to be a "foreign" religion. I suggested to him that it's a good thing the first Christian missionaries to England wouldn't have had much luck if everybody followed that logic, but he didn't take up my comment.

    Newman did indeed hold the same belief, as he says in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, until (he says) the Church of England made it (in his opinion) clear in various ways that it did not really consider itself a Catholic church, such as its reaction to Tract 90.

  5. I too am a great fan of Peter Hitchens. However, religion is definitely a blind spot for him. For example, he likes to state that God's existence cannot be proved or disproved. He resolutely ignores the Christian, and fellow travelers, rational and Intellectual arguments in favour of Theism and Christianity. At the very least he should pay attention to the utter philosophic and rational barrenness of the materialism, naturalism, and scientism that forms the background for much popular nonsense on the subject of religion. I suppose one reason is he simply doesn't want to be involved in such discussions. I have surmised another reason is his experience of philosophy has largely been the philodoxy, consisting of the word games, hairsplitting, and rank sophistry, that modern 'philosophy' has become (indeed largely was from its beginnings). This is understandable up to a point, but getting Mr.Hitchens to realise there is a completely idea and practice of philosophy in the great classical tradition of Plato, and Aristotle, as well as in the Fathers, the Schoolmen, and the great Christians sages, thinkers, and mystics has proved a problem so far.

    More than that, Peter lets cultural aspects have too great a role in theological, philosophical, and spiritual matters. He often seems to slight communion, such as in his The Abolition of Britain, not on theological grounds, but on its supposed Catholic attributes.

    The same goes for his claim that Catholicism is somehow foreign to England. Yes, the full Counter-Reformation Catholicism may not have been culturally, and in ambiance, quite the same as medieval, English Christianity. However, England is hardly simply a puritan or Calvinist nation either, and has many, many survivals of popular Medieval Christianity, and even many Catholics survivals in its established Church.

    When it comes to Vatican II I tend to agree with those like Rama Coomaraswamy who consider it a massive, almost fatal, blow against traditional Catholicism and an almost total surrender to modernism. But, as I said, this is not the place to have such a debate. If I were a Roman Catholic, however, if I didn't attend a Sedevacantist church I would make sure I attended one with a traditional Tridentine mass.