January 20, 2015

C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church

By Joseph Pearce *
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!

Taken and translated from the Spanish magazine Alfa y Omega: http://alfayomega.es/?p=8691

Joseph Pearce is Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville. His book, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church is available from Saint Benedict Press.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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