Thursday, September 18, 2008

C.S. Lewis and Roman Catholicism

The following is from a write up about a book currently on the shelves of bookstores.
“There are many Protestants and Catholics who have been deeply affected and spirituality changed by the writings of C.S. Lewis, including many converts to Catholicism who credit C.S. Lewis for playing a significant role in their conversion. But the ironic and perplexing fact is that Lewis himself, while 'Catholic' in may aspects of his faith and devotion, never became a Roman Catholic. Many have wondered why.”
The presumption that underlies this alleged mystery reveals a heavy dose of ignorance. The presumption is simply that having Catholic beliefs ought to lead every serious thinker to Rome. But, the question is not ironic or perplexing at all. Traditional Anglicans who are of a serious Catholic mind see no mystery here, much less "an ironic and perplexing" one. C.S. Lewis did not become Catholic because, as an Anglican, he already was Catholic.
It helps to understand the words “Catholic” and “Protestant,” and how these words relate to Anglicanism. We have ancient Creeds, two of which speak of the Catholic Church, and one that speaks of the Catholic Faith. The Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe in… the Holy Catholic Church.” The Nicene (or Nicene/ Constantinopolitan) Creed says “I believe one [Holy,] Catholic and Apostolic Church.” The Creed of Saint Athanasius, or Quicumque Vult, says, “Whosoever would be saved needeth before all things to hold fast the Catholic Faith.”
The very word “Catholic” is a creedal word, and therefore we cannot remove the word, or its meaning, from our life of Faith. It is forever fixed in our doctrine about who we are as the Church, and about what we believe concerning the Church. We cannot, out of politeness, give it up to any other Communion as its exclusive property, no matter how large that Communion is. That the Church of Rome and the churches under its obedience call themselves the Catholic Church, creates a problem of communication, because we cannot give up our own beliefs and identity. Furthermore, with all due respect, we do not believe in the exclusive claims made by that large Communion. Therefore, our position is due not to disrespect, but due, rather, to our own sense of identity and of the truth. To be Catholic is to be Christian, and the opposite of being Catholic is not to be Protestant, but to be unbelieving.
There is no such thing established by God as the Protestant Church. Our relations with the many and various Protestants bodies are different in nature from our relations with other Catholics (be they Roman or Orthodox). Furthermore, in modern times especially, it makes more sense to speak of Protestantisms, using the plural, than of Protestantism, because the word has many different meanings and speaks of many various different traditions that have existed over about the last five hundred years, as well as many new ones that have continued to pop up. It has no theological definition, because a Protestant can be a Calvinist, a Fundamentalist, a Pentecostal, a Lutheran, an Evangelical who is either a traditional Evangelical, a modern Evangelical or some other kind. He may be a genuine believer who is firmly committed to Christian basics, such as the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, Christ’s death and resurrection, etc.; or, a Protestant may be a “Liberal” theologian, such as John Shelby Spong, who denies every major tenant of the Christian faith. The word “Protestant” is not the opposite of the word “Catholic,” and, frankly, may have become a useless word meaning so many things that, to many people today, it means nothing.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the word had an understood meaning in England. In those days the question for members of the Church of England was never whether or not they were Catholics, but what kind of Catholics they were. Were they Protestant Catholics or Papist Catholics? Those were the terms of that time, a fact which demonstrates very clearly the shifting definition of words. Anglicans who are truly learned about their own patrimony have much in common with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox that we do not have in common with even the most sincere and faithful of Protestants. Above all, we have a valid Apostolic Succession and Eucharistic theology.
Lewis himself
Far from it being a perplexing and ironic question, about why the Catholic beliefs of C.S. Lewis never led him out of Anglicanism, it is perplexing that the question is asked at all. C.S. Lewis did not have Catholic beliefs despite being Anglican, nor did he have them in addition to being Anglican. He had Catholic beliefs because he was Anglican. As an Anglican, he held to the ancient Creeds of his Church.
Recently we drew attention to the implications made by the Anglican Use Society of the Roman Catholic Church concerning great men who were leaders of Anglo-Catholic thought; that is, the implication that the correct way to follow them is to swim the Tiber. And, indeed, Lewis was one of those names mentioned. In spite of Lewis' own testimony to the contrary, it has become common knowledge, of the sort that once contained a flat earth, that J.R.R.Tolkien had converted him to a life of faith, and simply came up a bit short. However, anyone who has read Surprised by Joy,1 Lewis' own account, is aware that he told a different story. He does mention Tolkien, but no more than he mentions H.V.V. Dyson. He mentions the influence of G.K. Chesterton's book, The Everlasting Man, but not over and above writings of George MacDonald. Surprised by Joy is about the whole process that led to his awaking as a man out of sleep during his famous ride to the zoo.
"I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. "Emotional" is perhaps the last word we can apply to the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake." p.237
Without losing appreciation for the aid of Tolkien and Chesterton's classic book, the seed of faith in the soul of C.S. Lewis was planted much earlier. It was planted by Anglicans who knew how to teach the Faith with conviction. Speaking of childhood years at school, he mentioned, as early as page 34, "the most important thing that befell me at Oldie's."
“There first I became an effective believer. As far as I know, the instrument was the church to which we were taken twice every Sunday. This was high ‘Anglo-Catholic.’ On the conscious level I reacted strongly against its peculiarities-was I not an Ulster Protestant, and were not these unfamiliar rituals an essential part of the hated English atmosphere?…What really matters was that I here heard the doctrines of Christianity (as distinct from general ‘uplift’) taught by men who obviously believed them…I feared for my soul…The effect, so far as I can judge, was entirely good. I began seriously to pray and to read my bible and to attempt to obey my conscience. Religion was among the subjects which we often discussed; discussed if my memory serves me, in an entirely healthy and profitable way…How I went back from this beginning you shall hear later.”2
In the words of St. Paul: "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase (I Cor. 3:7)." Lewis was not an atheist converted by J.R.R. Tolkien. He was a backslidden Christian trying to be an atheist as a young man; and he was brought back to a lively faith by the Holy Spirit Who made use of many influences to bring His lost sheep home.
Had Lewis ever been convinced by his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, to swim the Tiber, he would have done so. It requires a kind of blindness or a mighty stubborn streak to suppose that a man, who made his most important decisions with very clear thought and in accord with his conscience, simply failed to get around to something he meant to do- especially about his soul. The fact is, the life of C.S. Lewis is a testimony first of all to Christianity, and in particular to the valid sort of Anglican Christianity that he embraced, lived by, and in which he remained for the rest of his days.

1. Originally published, 1956 London. This book is currently available, like most of Lewis' work.
2. I have never forgotten my first reading of this passage long ago. It has influenced my manner of preaching, and made me more appreciative of the need to follow the advice of Solomon: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Prov. 22:6)


Glastonbury said...

Thank you for writing this excellent posting. It is something that more of us need to say. As Anglicans we ARE Catholics and we need make apologies to no one. It astounds me that a supposedly large number of the Continuum wish to cast aside Classical Anglicanism and submit to the Roman Communion. How can an Anglican submit to post-Patristic and non-catholic (e.i. non-universal)teachings concerning the Papacy and other dogmas? As Anglicans we have have always insisted that we posses no peculiar teaching of our own, but teach only that which was taught by the ancient Fathers, the Creeds, the Councils of the Undivided Church and Holy Scripture interpeted in light of these. I ferverently believe that Classical Anglicanism is worth preserving, and worth fighting with all our strength to preserve.
My prayer is that God will "put it into the hearts of many to offer themselves for this ministry."

The Midland Agrarian said...

Thank you for this post. I bought the book referred to, and found it one of the least helpful works on Lewis I ever read. I am not smart enough to put my finger on it, but the book has a disturbing undertone. I think you identified at least part of the cause of my disturbance.

poetreader said...

Let me see if I get this right.
I am confronted with a man of Lewis' mental and spiritual stature, a vanishingly small category to be sure. I find that he has not made a decision that I would have made in similar circumstances. The decision in question is arguably of eternal import. Obviously, since I am always right, he must have seen things my way. Therefore the only explanation is that he just didn't get around to such an important action.

Hmmm. Could one treat another in a more insulting fashion? Whether one always agrees with Lewis or not (in my near-hubris I sometimes disagree), a respectful attitude would seem to require recofnizing that he had reason for his decision, unless, that is, we wish to accuse the great man of sloppiness or sloth.


Canon Tallis said...

This book as well as a number of the postings on the Internet are no surprise to me. Indeed, they are a part of why no one, and I really mean absolutely no one, should ever make the trip across the Tiber. And if you have the misfortune to be born there, you should get out as quickly as possible.

Now amid the very loud gasps of disbelief that one should be so rude and crude, I will explain why. Christianity is about truth and our Lord is the truth. Therefore, we as his followers (if we indeed are) should in all things be attached to Truth and the more especially to absolute Truth. And this alone should require that we reject in the world of religion all pretense, all falsehood whether deliberate or not. And in the religious world this is precisely what we cannot escape in the institution of the papacy. From the very beginning it was based upon a series of untruths, the least of which is that Rome is an "apostolic See," i.e., a see founded by an apostle. A close reading of Paul's epistle to the Romans should make that clear to everyone. But even very bright Anglicans are so attached to the legend, the myth that they will not attend to what the earliest councils said about the position of Rome and to the evidence as it is and has always been.

Books such as this and the like remind me of nothing so much as those as those agents of the Soviet empire who after its fall admitted that they knew of its great crimes against humanity but thought that hardly mattered because of its great promise. Rome plays the same game and we are all too polite - if not something much worse - to call them on it.

Our problem as Anglicans is that we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we should be ashamed of ourselves and despite the vows which as deacons, priests and bishops we have all made to God and the Church, that it would somehow be bad form to hold any particular cleric to what he promised. Too many of us will not even hold ourselves to what we have promised.

The marvelous thing about Lewis was that he would not allow himself to be anything but honest about his judgment of both himself and the matter of faith. People in his lifetime attempt to persuade him to "pope" especially Tolkien, but he made fairly clear the reasons why he would not. But Rome has decided to try to take him after his death even as the Morman's baptise the dead. And he is not the only one. They have made the same sort of moves on Dorothy Sayers, Walter Howard Frere and a number of others. We, as Anglicans, recognize this as dishonest but we should also recognize that they never will.

I am entirely in agreement with Glastonbury. But I also believe that the best way to preserve Anglicanism is to insist that all who call themselves Anglicans stop pretending to be papists or Presbyterians, Methodists or whatever and honestly take up the last classical Books of Common Prayer and use them to their fullest. But I am beginning to believe that classical Anglicanism is likely to completely disappear from the earth before some of our brother clerics will so demean themselves to do what they promised.

Anonymous said...

It would be more apropos to ask why the RC admirers of Lewis do not become Anglicans!

Lewis has had strong appeal amongst RC's, but probably even more appeal amongst conservative Evangelical Protestants. But I have never heard one of them ask why Lewis didn't become a Baptist.

The ethos of Roman Catholicism is to become eclectic, absorbing the local culture wherever it takes root. This is not intrinsically wrong, Christianity being the incarnational and redemptive religion that it is. But for Rome, Scripture does not hold primacy and consequently there are no safeguards or controls. In an Anglo-Saxon Evangelical culture, we hear even the conservative liturgies of EWTN singing the words of Charles Wesley and the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with the homilist quoting from C S Lewis. In Latin America, they would have statues of Aztec or Mayan gods (refurbished with the names of Christian saints). Either way, it is syncretistic, frequently bordering on paganism.

Reynaldo said...

Very interesting article, I understand the meaning and content of your position in been called a Catholic. May I inquire, in the Nicene Creed when you profess your faith to believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic Church”. How can I profess to be a member of the one holy universally belief faith? Today we find so many Christians with non-universal beliefs in other words different dogmas. Doesn’t this mean one Church, one universal belief, be it Anglican, Catholic or Orthodox, one, but not the many.

Alice C. Linsley said...

"He had Catholic beliefs because he was Anglican. As an Anglican, he held to the ancient Creeds of his Church."


I recently read The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, and Mere Christianity. It is evident from what CS Lewis wrote that he was fully and unashamedly Catholic.

Robert Easter said...

Excellent post. We do need to point that out, don't we, that without the depth of heritage in the Faith- the Fathers, the Creeds, Sacraments, etc., we wind up clueless of who we are in a narcissitic culture, awash with no real knowledge of the work of God in our lives or in that world. A young Irish lad, near Canterbury, asked me during the Troubles, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" As an honest Anglican, I answered, "Catholic."

Oh yeah? Let me hear you say the Hail Mary!

Which I did,

You don't say it like a Catholic!


Without getting into discussions on veneration and the Theotokos, we do need so badly to find a way, as you said so well, to rescue that word back to Athanasius' proper, catholic, meaning!

Anonymous said...

Alice wrote:

"I recently read The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, and Mere Christianity. It is evident from what CS Lewis wrote that he was fully and unashamedly Catholic."

I recently re-read The Great Divorce also. I first read it just after finishing high school in 1956. It was a graduation gift (along with the Screwtape Letters) from a very Calvinistic and learned Presbyterian pastor who had done graduate studies at Edimburgh. I seriously doubt he thought of Lewis as "Catholic."

This word "Catholic" is a very slippery word and it would take a long article to count all the various ways it is inconsistently used. We have seen already the sleight-of-hand in which Catholic can be a cover-up for Roman Catholic. Can we not take Lewis at his word, when he used the phrase (which he learned from the Puritan Richard Baxter), "Mere Christian"?

Reynaldo writes:
"Today we find so many Christians with non-universal beliefs in other words different dogmas..."

Let's see: Papal infallibility, IC, Co-redemptrix.... Let me count the ways!


Canon Tallis said...

Robert Eastor's comment about being asked if he were a Catholic or an Anglican reminded me of a similiar event which took place in St Julian's Church in Norfolk. My answer was that I was a Catholic but not a papist. It ended up with the Roman priest asking, an Anglican nun and I all saying the office together. As it was the modern Roman office in the pews the nun whispered to me as we left, "Where is Cranmer when we need him?"

I very much appreciate Father Williams answer to Renaldo. If I believe anything not believed by the fathers of the first four councils or of which St Vincent would approve, I would not believe myself a Catholic. And while I am very fond of Richard Baxter's term, 'Mere Christian,' I find it a great shame that his Puritanism kept him from being one. It is a shame that his sympathies led him out of the English Church when they most could have used such a pastor. But first we must believe and keep "the apostles' doctrine. . ."

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Robert Easter wrote:
A young Irish lad, near Canterbury, asked me during the Troubles, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" As an honest Anglican, I answered, "Catholic."

Oh yeah? Let me hear you say the Hail Mary!

Which I did,You don't say it like a Catholic!


That'll teach you. Next time say it with a brogue.

Anonymous said...

Canon Tallis: Richard Baxter did not leave the Church, but remained in it. Gregory Dix argued that his Eucharistic theology (articulated in the rather odd rite he proposed) was
"higher" than that of the Prayer Book. He attempted a middle way between strict Calvinists and Arminians. Now what truly essential Catholic doctrines do you feel he betrayed?

Canon Tallis said...

Father Wells,

Baxter may not have left the Church of England, but they threw him out. The truth, painful as it may be, is that he rejected episcopacy as early as taking up his position as preacher at Kiddermaster. He sided with parliament during the civil war. And while he helped in the restoration of the monarchy, he argued for a right to maintain a position in the Church of England while not accepting the theology of the Book of Common Prayer.

I am not fond of Dix either as The Shape of the Liturgy is a fraudulant piece of scholarship. In my opinion he was a hopeless romantic when it came to the papacy and the Roman Church who somehow could never bring himself into leaping into the Tiber. He did, however, do much to spur other and more competent scholars to address the early form of the liturgy.

The Parsoun said...

Methinks the prots do protest too much! Seriously, had Anglicanism been, during Lewis' lifetime, in the condition it now is, can any doubt that he, the author of "Women Priests?" would have joined his friend Tolkien in the barque of Peter?

Of course he would have done! And would now, were he yet in the Church Militant!

The "continuing" Anglican bodies are the lifeboat from the good ship Canterbury...and the port is Rome, my friends.

Blessed Jack of Oxford, pray for us!

Carlos said...

The Parsoun,

All speculation... nevertheless, I don't think Lewis would have tolerated the ridiculousness that we see today. Where he would have gone to, or what he would have done is all supposition...

But yes, Lewis of England, ora pro nobis...

poetreader said...

Dear Parsoun,

If the only existing port is Rome, with its problematic teaching of papal infallibility and its chronic inability to provide either enough priests or enough priests of a godly inclination to meet the needs of the faithful, as also with its serious devaluation of liturgy, then, sir, we are in deep trouble indeed, and the gates of hell look perilously close to defying Our Lord's prediction. You do no more than speculate about Blessed Jack, but I can ask you whether he'd have been likely to put up with the million varieties of nonsense to be seen within the Roman obedience. I doubt that just as heartily.


William Tighe said...

"I am not fond of Dix either as The Shape of the Liturgy is a fraudulant piece of scholarship. In my opinion he was a hopeless romantic when it came to the papacy and the Roman Church who somehow could never bring himself into leaping into the Tiber. He did, however, do much to spur other and more competent scholars to address the early form of the liturgy."

"To each man his own taste, the good wife said as she kissed the cow's ye-wot-what" -- this "old saw" that I encountered once in a manuscript from the 1580s comes to mind. But I deny, and dare you to prove, that *The Shape of the Liturgy* is a "fraudulant (sic) piece of scholarshid." Thirty years ago the late Bishop Stephen Neill said almost the same thing in my hearing as a dinner guest, but he went on to provide "details" -- a word which I place in inverted commas, because when I was in a position to investigate his allegations some years later they all proved to be without foundation.

Some Anglicans have always disliked Dix's "Cranmer was a Zwinglian" argument, but it is interesting to see how Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his magisterial *Thomas Cranmer: A Life* (1996) comes to essentially the same conclusion as Dix about the 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books, with this one qualification -- that MacC says that Cranmer's views were identical with those of Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1574), Zwingli's successor as "antistes" in Zurich, that is, definitely "lower" than Calvin's, but that it is not an easy matter to resolve whether Bullinger's views were substantially identical with those of Zwingli (as Bullinger claimed they were), although expressed rather differently; or whether there was a real, if nuanced, difference between them.

In any event (as I just learned yesterday) my article on "Gregory Dix and the Shape of the Liturgy* will be appearing in the November 2008 issue of Touchstone, so you will be able to read my views at length there if you have any inclination to do so.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


The fact is that Lewis lived and died with the same exact form of faith and practice as we who Continue Anglicanism. That is the only fact we have; he is one of ours.

Carlos said...

What about the charge that Lewis was an "Anglo-Catholic". I believe in some book about him I read his secretary asked him what about High and Low Churchmanship and he replied something to the effect of "Madaam, this is something that we shall not speak of again." I always get the feeling Lewis didn't want to deal with Churchmanship and always presented himself (what he considered himself is a different matter) in his books and to the public and your joe-shoe classical, middle of the road Anglican. When... he had some openly expressed belief in a purgatative state which contradicts the Articles... I personally think he was in the High Church camp... what are your thoughts?

poetreader said...

I'll cheerfully call Jack Lewis a Catholic Christian and acknowledge (with thanks) that he was faithful to an Anglican view of what that meant. Beyond those bald statements . . .

Well, he would probably have been furious that the question was even asked. Catholic Christianity is not a matter of party loyalty, nor of denominational comnnection, but of faithfulness to the Word and Sacraments as handed down from the Apostles to this day.


Fr. Robert Hart said... his books and to the public and your joe-shoe classical, middle of the road Anglican.

Not middle of the road, but the Middle Way (via media), which is very different.

C.S. Lewis made his position clear in The Screwtape Letters. See Letter XVI, in which he criticizes partisanship, and ends with the little victory of Screwtape, who writes to Wormwood: "And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that, the variety of usage within the church of England might have become a positive hot bed of charity and humility."

Merely Christian in a sense, more practically, Lewis was merely Anglican.