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C.S. Lewis’ assent and ascent to Christianity would be laborious and always deeply intellectual, guided and influenced by Catholicism even as the Romanists repulsed him…

“Outside a life of literary study, life has no meaning or attraction for him,” W. T. Kirkpatrick, C.S. Lewis’s tutor, informed his father. “He is adapted for nothing else. You may make up your mind to that.” [1] 

Entering the world on November 29, 1898, C.S. Lewis would become arguably the most ardent and effective Christian apologist of the twentieth century, despite his relatively short life; Lewis was just a week short of his sixty-fifth birthday when he passed away on November 22, 1963, the same day on which Aldous Huxley and John F. Kennedy passed into eternity. Only G.K. Chesterton could rival Lewis as the greatest of Christian apologists of the last century, though the former’s conversion to Roman Catholicism will always limit his appeal among Protestants. Lewis’s return to Protestantism, however, will never hinder his reputation among Catholics; indeed, Catholics tend to find much in Lewis to their liking, often downplaying those elements in his theology that cannot possibly mix with Roman Catholicism.

Lewis’ assent and ascent to Christianity would be laborious and always deeply intellectual, guided and influenced by Catholicism even as the Romanists repulsed him. Born into a culturally Protestant Northern Irish family, Lewis carried his family’s anti-Catholic prejudices with him throughout much, if not all of his life. “His mother’s people were Hamiltons and Warrens,” one of his students, John Bayley, argued in 1974, “and his maternal grandfather had been a navy chaplain and became a powerful and eloquent preacher who enjoyed shedding tears in the pulpit and regarded Catholics as the ‘devil’s own children.’”[2] Many in and out of the Catholic world assumed Lewis was Catholic due to his friendships with Roman Catholics and because Sheed and Ward bought and published his first theological work, Pilgrim’s RegressAs Barfield remembered it, when Lewis “was first converted, I was very doubtful that he wouldn’t become a Roman Catholic.” Innumerable “people assumed, I think, that The Pilgrim’s Regress was written by a Catholic, and not a cleric, and so forth.”[3] Strangely, a Jesuit priest claimed that Lewis had, in letters, asked for prayers to find the grace to convert to Catholicism during and after World War II.

“Dear Sir, I had the good fortune to be in fairly regular correspondence with Professor C. S. Lewis during the war years and for some years after there. I have since bitterly reproached myself, for having allowed that pleasant exchange of letters to lapse-mainly on account of a great pressure of work on my side. After reading the excellent little study of Professor Lewis by Mr. Christopher Derrick in your current issue, I feel that I should add one thing. Mr. Derrick refers to the perplexity expressed by Catholics that the Professor showed “so little awareness” of his “anomalous position “. In the letters which I received from him he time and time again asked specifically for prayers that God might give him “the light and grace to make the final gesture.” He even went so far as to ask in a postscript to one of his letters for “prayers that the prejudices instilled in me in my childhood by an -Ulster [sic] nurse might be overcome”. [4]

This misunderstanding during his own lifetime, however, only brought him a chuckle on good days and annoyance on bad ones. His wife, Joy Davidman, tried to explain why Jack could never become Catholic.

“Lord, no; Jack is about as likely to turn Roman Catholic as I am to be made Pope. That canard is a hardy perennial; the Romans always indulge in wishful thinking about anyone who has theological influence. But Jack isn’t even High Church. He’s a tough Ulsterman, after all, half Scot and half Welsh, with the sort of views you expect of an Orangeman.” [5]

In the late 1940s, David Soper interviewed Lewis for Zion’s Herald, asking him specifically about his views on Catholicism.

“Lewis’ thought about Rome was comprehensive yet simple. The difficulty with joining the Roman church was that you were, so to speak, ‘buying a pig in a poke;’ you could not possibly know at what hour something new would be added, as essential for salvation, to the worship of Christ as God and Saviour. Rome had an unfortunate tendency to pile Pelion upon Ossa, in every generation to require allegiance to a new set of ideas not only in the New Testament, but clearly foreign to its letter and alien to its spirit.”[6]

Whatever his faith, Lewis would always remain an Ulsterman, at least culturally and in his prejudices.  

His parents had him baptized on January 29, 1899, though faith would lessen in importance after his mother died of a prolonged battle with cancer on August 23, 1908. [7] Whatever he thought of individual Roman Catholics and Catholicism as a religion, Lewis would also wield a hostility toward Protestantism until his conversion in the autumn of 1931. Earlier that same year, on May 9, 1931, Jack’s brother, Warnie, found himself praying, and, perhaps even more surprisingly, at least for him, he enjoyed it and found he had come back to his childhood faith of Christianity. “This was no sudden impulse but the result of a conviction of the truth of Christianity which has been growing on me for a considerable time,” he recorded in his personal diary, noting that if pushed, he could not explain his newfound beliefs in any logical manner. Science and materialism had failed to explain the meaning of existence to him, and Christianity, at the very least, made the attempt. “I feel happier for my return to the practice which is a fact that no material explanation will cover.” [8]

Soon, Jack would follow his brother into the Protestant church.

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*For my own views, I am deeply indebted to Joseph Pearce’s work on C.S. Lewis.

[1] Kirkpatrick to Lewis, quoted in John Wain, “C.S. Lewis,” American Scholar 50 (Winter 1981): 75.

[2] John Bayley, “A Passionate Pilgrim,” Times Literary Supplement (July 12 1974): 747.

[3] Interview with Owen Barfield, WCWC.  Date: November 19, 1983.  Location: Kent, England.  Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett.

[4] Guy Brinkman, S.J., letter to The Tablet, December 7, 1963, pg. 1317.  No letters to or from Brinkman appear in Lewis’s collected letters, edited by Walter Hooper.

[5] King, ed, Out of My Bone.

[6] David W. Soper, “An Interview with C.S. Lewis,” ZION’S HERALD (14 January 1948): 29.

[7] On Lewis’s baptism, see Hooper, C.S. Lewis Companion, 121.

[8] Diary entry, May 13, 1931, in Brothers and Friends, 79-80.

 

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2 replies to this post
  1. The central idea of this piece includes the claim that Lewis was deeply influenced by Catholicism. That is an interesting idea to explore, but it is never dealt with here.

  2. What Lewis failed to understand is that it is not the Church as an Institution which randomly adds things to Scripture, it is God through humans acting in time who continues to reveal Himself to us. From Nero’s times to the present, Saints witness to Christ’s Love. This does not undermine Scripture, it fulfills it.

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