Although C.S. Lewis made fun of Catholics as a teen, he was actually incredibly close to being Catholic himself, associate professor of Literature and Writer-in-Residence at Ave Maria University Joseph Pearce said in a lecture Tuesday.
Pearce’s lecture was the third of four in the “Close to Catholic: A Celebration of Kindred Spirits” series, sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture.
Pearce has a close personal connection to Lewis’ story. Both converted after reading G.K. Chesterton’s writings — Pearce from agnosticism to Catholicism and Lewis from atheism to Anglicanism.
Having published “C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church” in 2003, Pearce is considered a C.S. Lewis expert.
Pearce began his lecture with a story. Russell Kirk, a prominent American conservative thinker, was once asked, “”If C.S. Lewis were alive today, would he be Catholic?’ Kirk responded, ‘Probably.'”
Pearce traced the four phases of the Catholic literary revival, which began with Wordsworth and Coleridge and concluded with “the Inklings,” a club of Oxford professors that included Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The conundrum, Pearce said, is that Lewis was not Catholic.
“Lewis saw himself as resolutely on the side of orthodox theology and as a great enemy of theological modernism,” Pearce said. Lewis saw theological modernism as a poor dilution of Christianity, he explained.
“He was a great ally of Chesterton’s view that orthodoxy is something dynamic that changes hearts, changes minds and changes society.”
Pearce said Tolkien attributed Lewis’ steadfast Anglicanism to his patriotic roots, since he was born in historically Protestant Northern Ireland.
“If you asked Tolkien why Lewis never became Catholic, he’s answer you in three words,” Pearce said. “The Ulsterior motive.” Ulster is another name for Northern Ireland.
As a teen at boarding school in England, the atheist Lewis wrote home to his father about “the crazy Papists and popery” of the Anglican High Church, but it was there that he first thought religion could have substance.
Lewis served in World War I and he first encountered Chesterton while recovering at a hospital in France. Chesterton’s “Everlasting Man” showed Christ as the center of history. Reading this view of Christianity was “a major milestone on Lewis’s path back to Christian belief.”
Lewis began to believe in God, but “he didn’t much like God” since he saw God as a vivisecting, controlling being, Pearce said.
The final crucial step in Lewis’ conversion was a conversation with J.R.R. Tolkien, whose love of mythology had originally made the two men friends.
“Lewis said that myths are lies,” Pearce said.
Christianity, meanwhile, is itself a myth “but it’s the true myth, with God Himself as the storyteller,” he said.
Shortly after this conversation, Lewis converted to Anglicanism.
Later in his life, Lewis attended the sacrament of confession, referred to his love for “the Blessed Sacrament” and repeatedly wrote about his belief in Purgatory.
Lewis never converted, but he wrote on his deathbed that he expected to be in Purgatory soon.
“To return to the Russell Kirk question, ‘Is C.S. Lewis a Catholic?'” Pearce said, “I would say, if he’s in purgatory, he is [Catholic] now.”