HELD FAST BY BELFAST
S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2003),
$14.95, 220 pp. Sewn Softcover.
Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.
Why didn’t C. S. Lewis become a Catholic?
The question haunts many of his readers, particularly Catholics, and more particularly, those guided into the Church by his writings.
Perhaps the question is prompted among some Catholics by an erroneous interpretation of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, or, among some Protestants, by a lingering suspicion that there is no salvation inside the Church otherwise known as the Whore of Babylon. Was his refusal to enter the Church a refusal of the Divine Will? Or obedience to it? Was he a closet Catholic or adamantly anti-Catholic? Then, of course, there’s discomfort over the suggestion that an Oxford don could be invincibly ignorant about the identity of Christ’s Church.
Writing in Lay Witness (November, 1998), Thomas Howard answers succinctly: “He didn’t want to. Period.” Alternatively, “Lewis thought Rome was wrong.” As Howard suggests, these are “embarrassingly simple” explanations. Simple, but perhaps true.
The reason Lewis did not want to become a Catholic is well-known: He was an Ulsterman. In other words, he was unable to overcome his ethnic and religious background. The reasons Lewis thought Rome wrong are perhaps less clear, although one is tempted to say they flow from the same source, his Ulster background. Indeed, one could characterize them as rationalizations rather than reasons.
Howard concludes that, writing as a “mere Christian,” Lewis “avoided ecclesiology, and hence his thinking never reached that point of no return (cf. Newman, Knox, et al.) at which a man has no choice but to follow the light across the Tiber.” Howard thus brings a tidy but unsatisfying end to an otherwise illuminating article. Lewis’s avoidance of ecclesiology may as easily be the result, not the cause, of his failure to cross the Tiber. Lewis’s refusal to address ecclesiology in his writings may only mean he reached the point of no return but nevertheless refused to go farther. He would try in his writings not to deny the truth, but he would not embrace it fully, either.
Thomas Howard also wrote the Foreword to Joseph Pearce’s C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, and here he is more pointed. “Lewis wishes us to accept his identity as a ‘mere’ Christian; but we find that the truth of the matter is that he was a mere Protestant. Quite ferociously so, as it happens,” writes Howard. “His Ulster background colored his attitudes more garishly than he, in his coldly rational moments, might have wished to admit.”
In the Introduction, R. A. Benthall asserts “Joseph Pearce is just the writer to answer” the question, “why did Lewis himself never convert?” A blurb on the book’s back cover repeats that claim. But, as Benthall notes, Pearce’s purpose seems more limited: “Rather than attempting to solve the puzzle once and for all, Joseph Pearce has done both Catholics and Protestants a tremendous service by putting all the pieces on the table and letting the reader assemble them himself, with only occasional hints from the author as to where a certain piece might fit.” Perhaps that is best, for as Christopher Derrick indicated in C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome (Ignatius 1981), “in any strict sense, it is of course an unanswerable question.”
Conceding he writes from a Catholic perspective (the book comes from a Catholic publishing house), Pearce strives not “merely to score points for the Catholic Church,” but instead to be “balanced,” hoping the book “could be read with equal enjoyment, or at least with equal fruitfulness, by Protestants and Catholics alike.”
Lewis spent his “childhood in the Puritanical atmosphere of Protestant Belfast,” writes Pearce, so it would “be a mistake to ignore the extent to which the poisonous twins of pride and prejudice exert a vice-like grip on those brought up in the sectarian shadow of Ulster in general, and Belfast in particular,” although overemphasis on Ulster should not “substitute for any serious consideration of Lewis’s religious position.” Lewis “inherited” anti-Catholicism, so his attraction to Catholicism begot a “love-loathe relationship” full of “contradictions” throughout his life. “The revulsion from Puritanism might have fed the attraction to Anglo-Catholicism, whereas the ingrained revulsion from Catholicism would have attracted Lewis back to his Protestant roots.” Initially, though, the contrasting revulsions led him to reject Christianity.
As a student at Oxford, and in the world war that interrupted his studies, Lewis was an “immature” atheist “introduced to real Catholics and would-be Catholics for the first time (as distinct from the bogey-Catholics of the embittered and bigoted imagination of Protestant Belfast).” Most importantly, he discovered G. K. Chesterton in 1918 while convalescing from trench fever. (Curiously, Pearce identifies Chesterton as then a Catholic (p. 24), although Chesterton came into the Church later, in 1922.) Lewis read Chesterton’s works “enjoying the charm of their goodness but refusing to be charmed by their Christianity.”
Lewis’s atheism, though, was “shaken to its foundations” by Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1925), in which, Lewis wrote, he “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” Lewis did not accept Christianity for years, but, Pearce comments, “there was no going back to the naiveté of his youthful atheism.”
Friendship with J. R. R. Tolkein proved the catalyst for Lewis’s embrace of Christianity. In a September 1931 conversation, Tolkein explained that Christ’s story was the True Myth, “a myth that really happened – a myth that existed in the realm of fact as well in the realm of truth. In the same way that men unraveled the truth through the weaving of story, God revealed the Truth through the weaving of history.” Shades of Chesterton. Tolkein’s words resonated deeply with Lewis: “the edifice of his unbelief crumbled and the foundations of his Christianity were laid.”
“As with the influence of Chesterton five years earlier, Lewis was discovering that the old prejudiced notion that he should ‘never trust a Papist’ was a cankerous and cantankerous lie. Had he never trusted a Papist, it is at least possible that he might never have met Christ. Certainly the path he had taken to ‘mere Christianity’ was very largely the Roman road along which guides such as Chesterton and Tolkein, and Patmore and Dante and Newman, had led him.” But the Roman road did not circumvent the Orange highway of Ulster.
Pearce devotes more than a chapter to The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis’s autobiographical allegory that began his vocation as a Christian apologist, tracing its structure directly to Dante and at least indirectly to Aquinas. Indeed, so prominent was the Church and Catholic thought in the book, and so clear was its anti-Puritan slant, that many thought Lewis a Catholic. Surprised by this reaction, Lewis thereafter tried to distance himself from the book’s Catholic slant. Following Derrick, Pearce finds this distancing maneuver unconvincing. “The problem,” Pearce writes, “was that Lewis’s conscious mind was under the powerful influence of subconscious prejudice,” a prejudice demonstrated by Lewis’s comment that he “didn’t much like” having the second edition “brought out by a papist publisher” trying “to make Dublin riff-raff buy the book.” Derrick comments, “To a quite exceptional degree, Lewis’s voice is there the voice of incoherent sectarian anger.” Pearce nevertheless thinks Tolkein’s assessment that Lewis became “again a Northern Ireland Protestant” is “ultimately a trifle unjust;” he believes instead that Lewis compromised between the Catholicity of his central beliefs and his Ulster prejudices.
Pearce recounts how Lewis’s anti-Catholic prejudice inhibited his discussions with friends and intruded into meetings of the Inklings, while his beliefs, writings, and theology, often under the influence of Dante or Chesterton, nevertheless overlapped with the teaching of the Church. Again following Derrick, he points out that dramatic dialogue in That Hideous Strength called for an appeal to the pope, but Lewis omitted it. According to “Lewis’s residual Ulster Protestantism,” he writes, “‘No Pope of Rome’ meant ‘no Pope of Rome’ even when artistic considerations appeared to point insistently at his presence.” As Derrick noted, Lewis did not bash the pope, he merely omitted him. “The embarrassing silence was the deafening silence,” writes Pearce, “the scream in a vacuum of a soul trapped in the no-man’s-land between affirmation and denial.”
Pearce does not wear kid gloves in his treatment of Lewis’s failure in Mere Christianity to address ecclesiology or the Blessed Virgin, saying that avoiding the questions does not explain mere Christianity but instead explains it away. “He is fudging the central issues to try to please most of the people most of the time. He is succumbing to the politician’s approach to Christianity. The kissing of the Baby but the refusal to recognize His Mother!”
“The principle difference between Lewis’s ‘mere Christianity’ and Chesterton’s ‘orthodoxy’ is a difference of principle. Chesterton placed at the centre of his quest for the essence of Christianity, the Apostles’ Creed; Lewis placed at the centre of his quest, the Book of Common Prayer. … Chesterton began with the Apostles’ Creed and discovered the Church of the Apostles; Lewis began with the Book of Common Prayer and was caught between the Church of the Apostles and the Compromise of Cranmer.”
As Lewis approached his life’s end, Pearce asserts, Lewis “was continuing the ascent towards the ‘High Church’ principles of Anglo-Catholicism” due to “his assent to those truly Catholic principles that represented not mere but more Christianity.” But, Anglo-Catholicism is not Roman Catholicism. Thus, even in his final book, “Lewis cannot announce his belief in a ‘papist’ doctrine without attacking the ‘papists’. He might be rejecting Protestantism and accepting one ‘papist’ doctrine after another,” writes Pearce, “but he would not tolerate being called ‘Roman’.” Pearce thus seems a bit disingenuous concerning the meaning of Lewis’s assent to “truly Catholic principles:” while Lewis was accepting some Catholic doctrines, he also rejected others. That is not a rejection of Protestantism, but its embrace. For if there is one thing on which Protestants agree, it is the rejection of Rome. That is, perhaps, the irreducible nub of mere Protestantism.
C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church is a well-written, thoroughly researched analysis of the biographical, literary, and theological evidence on Lewis’s relationship to the Catholic Church that depicts sympathetically a committed, public, and esteemed Christian apologist unable nevertheless to overcome his Ulster background to enter the Church.
But parts seem derivative of Derrick’s book from the same publisher. Where he differs with or goes beyond Derrick based on materials unavailable to Derrick, Pearce is not altogether convincing. And he avoids some issues addressed by Derrick, for example, Lewis’s views on contraception. Derrick notes Lewis can be said to have given “a certain imaginative endorsement to a moral principle which has … come to be regarded in some quarters as a peculiarity of the Roman Catholics, and indeed of the most ultramontane among them; in That Hideous Strength, he laid great emphasis upon contraception or willed sterility as a central symbol of all that is evil.” Pearce instead characterizes That Hideous Strength as a reaction against modernity that contains “all the ingredients of Lewis’s loathing for state-centralized social engineering and the ‘synthetic men’ it produces.” This differing emphasis perhaps best illustrates the difference in tone between Pearce and Derrick. While Pearce hopes his book can be read “with equal enjoyment” by Protestants and Catholics alike, Derrick is so unambiguously Catholic that even he comments that “the one-sidedness” of one of his chapters “will be apparent to every Christian reader.”
Ultimately, Pearce’s C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church encourages the reader to consider an issue more important than why Lewis didn’t convert to Catholicism: Why am I, or why am I not, a Catholic? For, if the Catholic question is important to understanding Lewis, it is even more important to understanding oneself and God’s will.
James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.
This review was published in the November, 2006 issue of Culture Wars.
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