Why C.S. Lewis Never Became a Catholic

Was it his upbringing in Belfast, or something else entirely?

Entitled ‘The Searcher’, this Belfast statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe was sculpted by Ross Wilson.
Entitled ‘The Searcher’, this Belfast statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe was sculpted by Ross Wilson. (photo: Photo credit: ‘Genvessel’, CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The great Anglican apologist C. S. Lewis (my favorite writer) was raised in Belfast. I believe it's “hearsay”, but for what it's worth, I once heard Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft in a radio interview speak about a discussion between Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame), in which Lewis was asked why he hadn't become a Catholic.

Lewis is reputed to have replied (paraphrase): “If you had grown up in Belfast, you'd understand and wouldn't ask me that question.” Tolkien also is reported to have referred tongue-in-cheek to Lewis' “Ulsterior motives” for not becoming Catholic.

If this is a true report, I think it is at least admirable of Lewis to honestly admit his biases (we all have them), and to acknowledge that they had a sort of irrational but profound effect on his position. Several Lewis biographers allude to very similar themes. The question comes up, among other reasons, particularly because there are reports that C. S. Lewis was very close to conversion to Catholicism especially around 1950.

For example, Joseph Pearce, in his book, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003) stated:

In summary, Lewis's religious upbringing seems to have been characterized by an inherited anti-Catholicism, whether implicit or explicit, . . . (p. 5)

Peter Kreeft in a written interview (Jedd Medifind, “Interview with Peter Kreeft on C. S. Lewis,” Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission, October, 2003), observed:

The fault is that that is the only subject Lewis didn't want to talk about, even with his friends, much less in public -- the differences between the churches, especially the differences between the Church of England and the Church of Rome. . . . he refused to deal with 1517 (or 1054, for that matter.)

Why? Both Christopher Derrick, Lewis's student [author of C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome: Ignatius: 1981], and Joseph Pearce, Lewis's biographer, give the same answer: he was born in Belfast and knew his prejudices sat deep.

. . . we must take him at his word in Mere Christianity when he says that the reason why he does not address the issues between the churches are these: first, he is not a professional theologian but an amateur whose “expertise” is in the “basics.” Second, that he thought God wanted him to address the “basics” because most Christian writers were not doing so; they were fighting on the flanks while the center was going undefended.

He also made very clear, in the preface to Mere Christianity, that “mere Christianity” is not an alternative to any church, nor itself a church. It is like a hall, from which different specific doors lead out, and only beyond those doors, only in the concrete churches, is there food and fire and bed.

Thus, both authors who wrote books specifically devoted to Lewis and Catholicism, give credence to this theory, and a major Lewis scholar today, Peter Kreeft, concurs with it. All three men are or were Catholics (Derrick died in 2007).

Lewis friend (and non-Catholic) George Sayer, author of Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, second edition, 1994), confirms much of this and adds further tantalizing tidbits:

I remember Dr. Havard saying, “Jack, most of your friends seem to be Catholic. Why don't you join us? Aren't you tempted?”

Lewis replied that the important thing was to make one's submission to a Christian church. Which branch of the Christian church one chose was far less important. And he said he was not tempted to share what he called “your heresies.”

“Heresies! What heresies, Jack?”

“Well, here are two -- the position you give to the Virgin Mary and the doctrine of papal infallibility.” But he refused to discuss them. He attributed his prejudice against the Roman church to his upbringing in Northern Ireland. . . . All the time I knew him, Jack was about as nonsectarian as it is possible for a devout Christian to be. . . . I agree with Derrick that Lewis was nearest to becoming a Roman Catholic in about 1950 . . . (pp. 421-422)

Mary and the pope! How familiar! Lewis' “nonsectarian” approach is almost summed up in a remark he made in a 1950 preface to a French edition of his book, The Problem of Pain: “I leave matters of religious controversy for theologians.” He felt deeply the scandal of Christian division, and as a result decided to not talk much about the deepest differences, thinking that it contributed to the scandal of Christian disunity.

This is an honorable motive in one large sense, but is ultimately unacceptable from a Catholic point of view, since we believe that there is only one Church and that there are compelling biblical and historical arguments in its favor. Lewis (as Protestants formally do) greatly underemphasized the importance of the doctrine of the authority of Church and tradition (or what is called “the rule of faith”) in a way that a Catholic must respectfully disagree with.

Fellow Michigan Catholic columnist and talk show host Al Kresta has noted that Lewis' book Mere Christianity was woefully deficient, insofar as it eliminated as basic what is essential to two of the three great divisions in Christianity: the Church. It presupposes Protestant relative ecclesiological minimalism.

I've offered one “Catholic theory”. Others think that the “Belfast  prejudice” hypothesis is implausible, and believe that Lewis was simply never convinced of Catholicism on sincere theological grounds alone. I highly suspect that both factors were in play.

But George Sayer (renowned Lewis biographer and close friend) did report, after all: “He attributed his prejudice . . . to his upbringing in Northern Ireland.” Why should we doubt his biographical appraisal? We're all affected by “what we eat,” so to speak. No one's perfect. Something other than reason and theological conviction seems to have been an influence on C. S. Lewis in this regard.