Canonize Non-Catholics?

A reader writes:

I’ve often wondered if the Church considers it possible to canonize non-Catholics.  If so, I wonder if C.S. Lewis would be a candidate?  I had drifted pretty far from my cradle Catholicism when reading Lewis brought me home, and my husband (by heritage Jewish, by belief an atheist) was converted by reading him.  I have heard of many others—Catholics and other Christians—who found or were renewed in their faith by his writings. 

I feel pretty confident that if I ever make it to Heaven, C.S. Lewis will be there, surrounded by a throng of souls who he helped find their way, and I just have no idea if it’s even possible for the Church to investigate his cause.

I share your conviction that Lewis (among many other non-Catholics) has a pretty good shot at Heaven and certainly hope to meet him there and thank him (assuming I make it myself).  Paul (and the Church following him) makes it clear that the judgment will be predicated not on our membership in the visible Catholic Church, but on our obedience to such light from Christ as we have (Rom 2).  He gets this notion from his Master, who likewise predicates the salvation of “the nations” not on their access to correct doctrine, but upon their charity to the least of these in whom Christ is present.  That does not, of course, mean that we can blow off the Church.  After all, if you are really serious about following Jesus, then when he speaks to you through the Church you will follow him there too.  But it does mean that we are neither to sit in judgment of, nor despair for, those who (for whatever reason) have not had access to the Catholic revelation in a way they could receive with full understanding or liberty. Lewis, an Ulsterman with anti-Catholic prejudice instilled into him with his mother’s milk, is, I think somebody who needs to be cut a lot of slack.  The remarkable thing about him is not that he never became Catholic, but that he came as far as he did in overcoming his prejudices.  Not only did he progress from atheist to convinced Christian, but to a form of Christianity that drank deeply from Catholic wells, even so far as to acknowledge the reality of Purgatory and to loves as a friend the “papist” Tolkien.

No, he was not perfected in sanctity in this life (how few of us are!).  But he is obviously someone who grew in holiness throughout his life and tried to obey Jesus according to his best lights.  The Church (including the Catholic Church) owes him an immeasurable debt in the 20th century for his fidelity to Jesus (at great cost to himself, particularly among his academic peers).  And, of course, he would be the first to say that the Church owes him nothing, but that he owes God everything since all he did was of grace.

So I hope to meet him in Heaven.  But I do not think he will (or should) be canonized by the Church.  Nor, indeed, does the Church canonize non-Catholics.  The reason is simple: that’s not what canonization is for.  Canonization is not intended to say that saints are in Heaven but nobody else is.  Rather it is intended to say, “This person shows us how to fully incarnate the life of Jesus in union with the Catholic Church, in which the fullness of the revelation subsists.”  Lewis can’t do this, precisely because (as Lewis would be the first to say), he did not believe the fullness of the faith subsisted in the Church.  To be sure, the paradox of the Faith is that everybody in Heaven is a Catholic.  That is, every person united with the Trinity and fully participating in the beatific vision now realizes (if they never figured it out on earth) that there truly is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and that the body of Christ is not ultimately divisible.  But the sad fact is, on earth it is tragically divided (a fact Lewis lamented despite his own participation in that division).  So while the Church can (and should) celebrate his personal holiness and his many gifts that were the fruit of grace, it does well, I think, not to canonize him, just as it does well not to canonize any non-Catholic.  To canonize non-Catholics is to pretend that division either do not exist or do not matter.  But they do exist and they do matter.  Jesus’ prayer is that we may be one.  But the unity and oneness of the Church has to be real.

Minor point:  When I say the Church does not canonize non-Catholics I should note that there are a couple of Arians (i.e. heretics) in the Roman martyrology.  This reflects something of the loosey-gooseyness of early canonizations by acclamation.  Basically, early Christians recognized (as we do of Lewis) that some people were obviously heroic disciples of Jesus (having suffered brutal martyrdom right alongside Catholic martyrs).  So they were hailed as saints.  Only later did canonization get formalized the reason for canonization ironed out more clearly (namely, to hold up models of fidelity to the fullness of Catholic faith).  With the development came the end of all possibility of canonizing non-Catholics.  So the Church holds upon the possibility of Heaven for those not in full visible communion with Her, but doesn’t canonize anybody outside the Communion.