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Why Didn’t C. S. Lewis Ever Become Catholic?

C. S. Lewis: Almost a Catholic?”

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Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 05/22/13

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 Fuzzy on doctrinal issues and liberal on moral values, we view Anglicanism as an outdated national church desperately trying to be relevant by adopting women’s ordination, same-sex marriage and every form of political correctness.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.


Nevertheless, C. S. Lewis was in nobody’s pocket. He was his own man. He had the strength of character to overcome the social problems of becoming a Catholic and the strength of mind and character to overcome the Ulster problem. So why didn’t he convert? We have to press further to comprehend Lewis’ understanding of the Church.

Lewis did not believe that onecould be “spiritual but not religious.” In his classic apologetic work, Mere Christianity, he stated that one needed to join a church. 

“I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into the hall, I will have done what I have attempted to do. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.”


Furthermore, you are not to choose simply on matters of taste. Lewis goes on to explain:

“When you do get into your room, you will find the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise, but you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light; and of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house, and above all you must be asking which door is the true one, not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular doorkeeper?’”


We can only conclude, therefore, that Lewis really believed the Church of England was the truest church. To understand his viewpoint, we have to examine the Anglican view of the Reformation.

The classic Anglican understanding is that the Christian church existed in the British Isles from the earliest times, and that it was semi-independent of Rome. Over the centuries, the Roman Church exerted increasing power, and with that power came corruption of doctrine and practice. At the Reformation – according to this view of history – the accretions and corruptions were removed and the true British Catholic church was restored. Lewis would no doubt have subscribed to this view and seen himself (as many Anglicans still do) as an “English Catholic” rather than a “Roman Catholic.”

In addition to this was the typical Protestant understanding that what is most important is your personal walk with Jesus Christ. While Lewis stressed that you must join a church you consider most true, like most Protestants, his personal life in Christ was the more important priority. 

Bolstered by his Ulster prejudices, his Protestant worldview and an inability to see or consider Roman Catholicism’s claims to universal authority, Lewis was content to stay with the Church of England – a church where he could follow Jesus Christ as a “mere Christian.”

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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