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C.S. Lewis: A Mere Catholic?

December 30, 2019


Speculation about whether C.S. Lewis would have, could have, or should have become Catholic is hardly new territory to explore. But as a relatively new Catholic and lifelong Lewis fan who spent two years in the same Oxford college where Lewis had lived decades earlier, I can’t help briefly treading this well-worn ground. I recently conducted a 24-hour Twitter poll asking “If C.S. Lewis had lived 5 more years, would he have become Catholic?” The result was close. Of a modest 300 responses, 55% said yes and 45% said no. One follower remarked, “5 years, no. 50 years, yes.” Others noted the obstacles often mentioned by Lewis’s biographers, including an incurable allergy to Catholicism contracted from his Belfast upbringing, as well as his devotion to his late wife, an Evangelical divorcée. In any case, at some point it is fruitless to wonder what someone would do; but with a figure as large as Lewis in modern Christianity, we can hardly help it. And almost all the Catholics I know cite him as a major influence on their faith.

Joseph Pearce notes in his book, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, that “in spite of the limitations that ‘mere Christianity’ had placed upon him, Lewis groped progressively towards ‘more Christianity’, accepting as integral to the Christian faith, doctrines and dogmas that would have made Cranmer cringe.” Ian Ker writes in an essay on Lewis and the Church that he found himself facing a dilemma of living the kind of Christian life Lewis prescribes: “Quite simply, there was no Mere Christianity church.” Indeed, Ker and I share the biographical distinction of reading and being inspired by Lewis, becoming Anglican, and then continuing the journey along to the Catholic Church. Walter Hooper, a former Anglican priest and the executor of Lewis’s literary estate, shared a similar story on EWTN’s The Journey Home in 2003: “I kept on following mere Christianity until it led me to where it is standard fare.”

Simply put, whatever Lewis might have done himself, his vision of the Christian faith has inspired many people to become Catholic. At the outset of Mere Christianity, Lewis famously argues that his job is to lead his audience into “a hall out which doors open into several rooms.” He declares that Christians must go into a room to live out their faith, but he declines to commend one over the others. Lewis leaves it to those who have been transformed by his work to insist upon the right place for the “more Christianity” that Joseph Pearce mentions. And while Evangelicals dating back to Clyde Kilby at Wheaton College have claimed Lewis as one of theirs, prominent Catholics in recent decades have done so too. Why? Because the New Evangelization demands a simple, sensible, and Christocentric entrée to the faith that Lewis is famous for. Bishop Barron has commented frequently on Lewis, including a 2017 video praising The Great Divorce. None other than St. John Paul II was a great admirer of Lewis’s The Four Loves.

More subtly, the “mere” Christianity apologetic strategy for the Catholic Church has been championed by Pope Benedict XVI, who quotes Lewis’s Surprised by Joy in his Jesus of Nazareth. Many of his apologetic turns of phrase have a strong ring of Lewis’s influence. In the opening lines of his seminal Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger notes, “Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with ecclesiastical language and thought (whether by vocation or by convention) soon comes to the sense the alien – and alienating – nature of such an enterprise.” In his recent Last Testament, the Pope Emeritus comes close to identifying himself as just such an alien. One of the greatest theological minds of our time declares himself “an entirely average Christian.” When pressed on the riches of Catholicism that stretch beyond something akin to “mere” Christianity, he demurs: “My theological formation was very Christocentric and patristic, from which Mariology is not absent but it has not yet gained inner vitality.”

The Catholic Church has done with Lewis what it has done with countless other beneficial outside influences. She has received him as a gift and now shares him with the world in the service of Church’s teachings. Moreover, Lewis offers vast safe space for ecumenical dialogue and a warm welcome, especially to Evangelicals, to explore Catholicism. Would Lewis have become a Catholic if he had lived longer? Who knows? But is Lewis in many ways a teacher of Catholic truth? Yes indeed. He has been for me anyway.