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Stephanie Cottle

Orson Scott Card

ENG 375: Tolkien and Lewis

March 13, 2006

 

A Summary and Commentary on C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church

 

When Joseph Pearce set out to write a book about the rocky relationship that C. S. Lewis had with the Roman Catholic Church, he knew he was dealing with a touchy subject.  It is clear, however, from his preface, that he had every intention of discussing the “contentious and controversial issues…in a language that will engage, but not enrage, the reader” (xxvii).  I will address, as I summarize C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, how well I feel he accomplished this goal, but I would first like to present the issues that he admits probably will have an effect on his opinions and this book.  First, Pearce is a Roman Catholic.  His aim was to write a book that would appeal to lovers of Lewis and Lewis’s writing, regardless of their feelings toward the Catholic faith, but he understood that his beliefs would inevitably have an effect on his thesis.  As I will show later, I believe that Pearce’s Catholic viewpoint had more to do with his thesis than he suspected.  Secondly, Pearce never aimed to stay completely neutral.  He writes, “I have endeavored to treat the contentiousness and controversy that must inevitably surround this subject as an edifying and efficacious argument.  It is never (Heaven forbid!) a quarrel” (xxx).  Though never a quarrel, his obvious purpose in this book is to, after objectively presenting the facts, derive from them a logical conclusion.  I believe that his attempt was valiant, but his end result was unsuccessful in persuading me of his views.

Pearce’s book is organized chronologically, and he begins in Lewis’s childhood, where his first encounters and impressions of religion took place.  It is critical to understand “Lewis’s childhood in the Puritanical atmosphere of Protestant Belfast” (2).  The world of his youth was one of “inherent anti-Catholicism” (5), and that point of view, as Pearce argues throughout the book, made a strong impact on Lewis’s religious philosophies until the day he died.  In fact, as we will see, Pearce believes that had Lewis not grown up amidst such bias and prejudice, he would have converted to the Roman Catholic faith.  In any case, in Lewis’s young world, he became increasingly aware of the political nature of his childhood beliefs. His brother, Warnie, recorded, “We went to church regularly in our youth, but even then one sensed the fact that church going was not so much a religious as a political right, the weekly assertation of the fact that you were not a Roman Catholic Nationalist” (8).  Lewis decided that was not where he desired to place his faith.  Instead, he found himself touched by the “doctrines of Christianity…taught by men who obviously believed them….the effect was to bring to life what I would already have said that I believed” (10).  However, the confusion of the contradicting theologies of his youth resulted in his eventual 0“escape from Puritania” and his solace in the world of atheism.

It is interesting to note that, though Lewis’s atheism was sound and perhaps even logical for where he was in life, he still made an effort to hold himself to a moral standard.  He wrote:

 I believe in no God, least of all in one that would punish me for the ‘lusts of the flesh’: but I do believe that I have in me a spirit, a chip, shall we say, of universal spirit; and that, since all good and joyful things are spiritual and non-material, I must be careful not to let matter (= nature = Satan, remember) get too great a hold on me, and dull the one spark I have. (14)

It can never be said that Lewis was unintelligent in his beliefs—even as an atheist he was drawn to people with an inherent goodness.   As he continued his education, he grew to love such authors and friends as G. K. Chesterton and George MacDonald.  Of Chesterton, Lewis later wrote, “Strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness.  I can attribute this taste to myself freely (even at that age) because it was a liking for goodness which had nothing to do with any attempt to be good myself” (20).  In reference to MacDonald’s book, Phantastes, Lewis wrote that “the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence… What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize…my imagination” (22).

Though MacDonald was not Catholic, Chesterton and the works of others such as John Newman and Dante helped to expose Lewis to, as Pearce put it, “real Catholics” for the first time.  Though Lewis remained a “loyal Protestant atheist” (17), he began to become acquainted with good, religious men, and began to “dislike the anti-Catholic propaganda” out of fairness rather than faith (25).  He was slowly being prepared for the friendships that would change his views on religion forever.

Of one of his greatest friends, Lewis wrote, “At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both” (30).  The friendship between these two men grew until it was clear that each was deeply indebted to the other.  Tolkien felt that without Lewis, he would never have had the confidence to pursue his completion or publication of The Lord of the Rings.  Lewis, on the other hand, was “indebted to Tolkien for his final conversion to Christianity” (36).  Pearce narrates the pivotal after-dinner walk:

Lewis explained that he felt the power of myths, but that they were ultimately untrue.  As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths were “lies, even though lies breathed through silver”.

No,” Tolkien replied emphatically. “They are not.”

Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. (36-7)

Twelve days after their talk, Lewis wrote to his long-time friend Arthur Greeves that he had “just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ—in Christianity” (39).  Here, Pearce then begins to emphasize his major point.  He wrote, “Certainly the path [Lewis] had taken to ‘mere Christianity’ was very largely the Roman road along which guides such as Chesterton and Tolkien, and Patmore and Dante and Newman, had led him” (41).  Pearce’s goal is to show that, though he never became Catholic, Lewis’s beliefs were grounded in Roman Catholicism and all that prevented him from being baptized into the Roman Church was lingering childhood prejudices.  In order to completely ascertain this fact, however, it would help to give an overview of what Lewis did believe.

When Lewis wrote Mere Christianity, he outlined what he felt were the three highest common factors to “mere Christianity”: “baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names—Holy Communion, Mass, the Lord’s Supper” (127).  Lewis states that he bases his arguments on the following conclusions: “the divinity of Christ, the truth of the creeds, and the authority of the Christian tradition” (134). He accepted the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles’ creeds, believed in a “purification…after death” (132)—according to Pearce, a sort of Purgatory—and did not approve of the worship of the Virgin Mary.  He felt that there was something real and holy about the physical nature of the Eucharist.  He believed that there was much good to be had from confessions, but he did not agree with the Catholic viewpoint that it was necessary. 

It is easy to see why Pearce might argue that Lewis was Catholic at heart.  Actually, the majority of Pearce’s argument lies in the logic that Lewis believed many things similar to the Catholic Church.  For example, in much of Lewis’s Christian writings, he expresses a belief in a sort of Purgatory (a very Catholic idea) and doesn’t believe in sola fide, or the belief that faith alone is needed for salvation (what Pearce considers a very Protestant idea).  Also, Pearce sees much significance in the fact that there is “no significant difference” between Lewis’s beliefs in many of the Catholic sacraments, including baptism, the Holy Eucharist, marriage, confirmation, confession, and the Priesthood.  Pearce was very thorough when proving his point.  He even looked at the many authors of the time, listing such writers as Edith Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, and others, linking their anti-scientist views (which Lewis fervently shared) with their either current or soon to follow beliefs in the Catholic faith.  In doing so, his insinuation that Lewis was a reluctant member of the same club is obvious.  After taking all these points into consideration, however, one point remains: Is Pearce’s thesis valid, and would Lewis have become a Catholic but for his childhood bias?

I do not agree with Pearce’s points.  What I see in his arguments is shaky logic and poorly applied generalizations.  To summarize all his points, he shows that many of Lewis’s beliefs are in line with Catholic theology, that many of his beliefs differ from Protestant theology, and that (as he should have pointed out and I am grateful he did) the reason Lewis never converted was a learned aversion to the Roman ideas from birth.  However, I do not believe that because beliefs are similar they constitute total similarity, that because beliefs are different from a broad and varied (Protestant) base they are the opposite, nor that Lewis, intelligent as he was, was one to knowingly allow childhood prejudices to impact the most important part of his life—his faith.

Now, though I disagree with Pearce’s thesis, I am inclined to point out his fallacies in good humor and with no bad feelings toward him.  He did an excellent job of presenting the facts and astutely analyzing them.  As I mentioned above, I am very grateful that he took so heavily into account the anti-Catholic world Lewis was born into.  It certainly was a very important part of his life, and undoubtedly affected the way he saw the world.  I simply find it difficult to believe that as much as Lewis delved deep into the theologies of the world and the feelings of his heart to discover the truth, that he still allowed a confessed prejudice to keep him from that truth.  I cannot deny that Lewis did share many Catholic beliefs, but I cannot help but always come back to this excerpt from a letter he wrote to a good friend of his, Saint Giovanni Calabria: “We disagree about nothing more than the authority of the Pope: on which disagreement all the others depend” (136-7).  Lewis was intelligent, and I don’t believe an old bias would keep him from what he truly believed salvation to be.

Without a doubt, this book was an interesting and enthralling read.  I would definitely suggest it, as Pearce had intended, to any lover of Lewis’s writing.  After all, Pearce’s writing is not only astute and thorough—it is well written.  He is intelligent, and his only true fault is the one that invariably afflicts us all—he has beliefs (a strong faith in the Roman Catholic Church) and is changed by them.  He was inevitably inclined to look for the Catholic in Lewis, and I must admit, for the sake of fairness, that I am also, in all likelihood, inevitably inclined to look for the lack of Catholic in him.  This does not make us enemies.  I would like to conclude by recording something Lewis wrote in reference to his wonderful friendships in the Inklings—a group of religiously diverse individuals.  He wrote: “In this kind of love, ‘Do you love me?’ means ‘Do you see the same truth?’—Or at least, ‘Do you care about the same truth?’ The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance, can be our Friend. He need not agree with us about the answer” (64).


Works Cited

 

Pearce, Joseph. C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003.

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