C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church
© 2013 Joseph Pearce
When C.S. Lewis began writing on Christian belief and practice in the mid-20th century, reviewers at the time took it for granted that he had joined the Catholic church, despite his Mere Christianity purposely avoiding controversial issues that divided Christendom. Despite that assumption, however, Lewis never converted to Catholicism, and often made pains to insist he was no papist –even as he took theological positions more in keeping with historic Christendom than protestant modernism. Joseph Pearce here offers a biography of Lewis focusing on his background and conversion, shifts to a study of Lewis’ theology that examines his overlap and differences with the Catholic church, and ends with Pearce’s suggestion that Lewis never fully escaped the anti-Catholic prejudice of his Ulster youth.
Although Americans may naively think of Lewis as an Englishman, he was born in northern Ireland and raised in what he’d later dismiss as “Puritania”, a Protestant enclave created by King James to assert authority in Catholic Ireland. Lewis’ autobiography suggests that his faith was shallow indeed in his youth, little more than praying to God to give him what he wanted, and the tragedy of his mother’s death overwhelmed it. In college, Lewis developed his critical thinking skills, explored philosophy and occult, and began developing friendships that would alter his life. During this period of exploration and debate, Lewis encountered the work of G.K. Chesterton, and that famed convert to Catholicism was instrumental in Lewis’ own reconversion. The final push, however, came from friendships Lewis developed around the same time, particularly with Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien — the latter a devout Catholic whose religion permeated the works he’d eventually create at Lewis’ urging. Lewis and Tolkien were alike not merely because of their interest in myth, but for their contempt for modernity: they rejected not only the shape of early 20th century society, but the conceits that drove it. After his conversion, Lewis was particularly concerned with the invasion of modernism into the church, and used works like The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce to mock clerics who were more concerned with what academics had to say about Christ than with what Christ had to say to the world. Theologically, Lewis’ views were often square with the Church’s: he rejected, for instance, the Manichean idea popular among Puritans and kindred protestant denominations that the body is irredeemable. Lewis pointed instead to God’s use of the material world to embody grace – through Christ and the Eucharist, most notably. His view of sin and the afterlife were far more Catholic than protestant, including a belief in Purgatory borne not not just by The Great Divorce, but by letters to his friends. Of the Sacraments, Lewis received all seven despite including only three in his Mere Christianity. Most interestingly, in one letter penned in the 1950s, Lewis hinted that he was considering conversion but never took the final step.
The only major departure Pearce could consistently find in Lewis’ writings from Church teaching was his emphatic rejection of Marian devotion, and relatedly, his skepticism about the large profile that saints play in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition. Pearce suspects that for Lewis, Marian devotion was a signal-flag for Catholicism, and that his ingrained prejudice against Catholicism was invariably triggered by it. This prejudice, Pearce suggests, hurt Lewis’ scholarship in other ways: his Discarded Image analyzing medieval literature neglects to mention the role Mary would have played in medieval culture. Although Pearce is successful in illustrating how formative Catholic sources were in Lewis’ adult faith, and how compatible much of Lewis’ beliefs were with Catholic doctrine, the core issues dividing protestants from Catholicism (the authority of the pope) are never directly addressed. Pearce ends the book with biographical listing of writers and other personalities who attribute their conversion to the Catholic church to Lewis, despite his own Ulsterian reservations.