The Church of England was a different institution in his lifetime than it is today
Catholics love C. S. Lewis, but did C. S. Lewis love Catholics? We know that Lewis never converted to the Catholic faith, and there is little indication that he ever considered it seriously. If he was so devoted to his Christian faith, and was clearly very highly intelligent and well educated, wouldn’t he have seen the breadth, beauty, and truth of the Catholic faith and wish to follow in the footsteps of G. K. Chesterton and join his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien in the Fellowship of the Faith?
Joseph Pearce examines the question in his book, C.S.Lewis and the Catholic Church.Pearce explores Lewis’ family background and agrees with other commentators that Lewis had a blind spot when it came to Catholicism. To understand the blind spot, we first have to understand the politics of Northern Ireland. In the 16th century, the English tried to assert more control over Ireland, but the Irish rejected the revolution of Henry VIII and were constantly in rebellion. Later, in the early 17th century, the English confiscated all the land of the northern part of Ireland and imported Scottish Presbyterians and English Protestants to colonize the country in an attempt to subdue the Irish and to transform Ireland to a Protestant nation.
Their plan failed; the Irish never gave in, and four hundred years of bitter conflict ensued. The northern Irish Protestants despised and feared the southern Irish Catholics and vice versa. Lewis was born into a Protestant family in the midst of this historical setting in 1897 in Ulster, Northern Ireland. A deep and abiding distrust of all things Catholic was thus bred into him from generations of Protestant ancestry. For Lewis to become Catholic was as much of a paradigm shift as it would be for a Palestinian to convert to Judaism.
In addition to Lewis’ Ulsterman credentials, we also need to understand the atmosphere of the Church of England in his lifetime. Today, the Anglicanism stands as a classic example of a modernist, vacillating Protestant institution. Fuzzy on doctrinal issues and liberal on moral values, we view Anglicanism as an outdated national church desperately trying to be relevant by adopting women’s ordination, same-sex marriage and every form of political correctness. It was not so in Lewis’ time.
The Church of England emerged from the Second World War with a strong reputation. In the 1950s, there was a resurgence of spiritual interest. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church was strengthened by increased vocations to the priesthood, a strong lay movement, and a literary revival that included not only C.S.Lewis, but his friend Dorothy Sayers, T. S. Eliot, the preacher and spiritual writer Austin Farrer, and a good number of outstanding theologians, scholars, artists, and musicians. At the same time the Evangelical wing of the church was also surging, with the success of Billy Graham crusades and an active and popular movement of church growth in the burgeoning suburbs. There were murmurings of the modernist theology that would eventually destroy the Anglican Church, but in Lewis’ day, the Church of England was traditional, orthodox, and truly the church of the English people.
Catholicism, on the other hand, was still viewed by the English as a dangerously foreign church. Catholic worship was in Latin; the rituals were ornate and devotions to the saints were alien and suspect. To go to a Catholic Mass would involve making your way to a tin hut on the edge of town to worship with Italian immigrants and Irish ditch diggers. Furthermore, to become a Catholic was to thumb your nose at the entire English social system. Converts were blacklisted from professions, excluded from top table, cut off by friends and family, and ostracized by all. That so many top notch Englishmen like John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, the Wilberforcebrothers, Ronald Knox, and others took this step was remarkable at the time.