C. S Lewis (1898-1963), Oxford professor and successful novelist, was also famous for being one of the most vigorous Christian apologists of his time. After converting to Anglicanism and renouncing the atheism of youth, he began a daily battle against what he considered the two endemic evils of modernity: irreligion and moral corruption. He preached an essential creed, summarized in the formula “Mere Christianity”, without dwelling too much on the doctrinal differences existing between the various Churches.
In the same way, his relationship with Catholicism was problematic to say the least, a story of love and hate which, however, shows some interesting aspects. A quick succession of facts will suffice to demonstrate this.
Lewis admired the writings of Dante, J. H. Newman, G. K. Chesterton and Coventry Patmore, and when Christopher Dawson’s essay Religion and Culture (1948) was published, in which the Catholic historian argued the importance of religion in the foundation and preservation of societies, the Northern Irish professor wrote him a letter full of admiration. Dawson and Lewis later also had the opportunity to meet in person, but the shyness of the former was an obstacle to any development of their relations (similar difficulties also occurred between Lewis and the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe).
Lewis had many Catholic friends including J. R. R. Tolkien, Dom Bede Griffiths and R. E. Havard. He also made the acquaintance of Msgr. Ronald Knox, but when the latter was forced to leave the university, the two never saw each other again.
From 1947 to 1954 Lewis had a close correspondence with Don Giovanni Calabria, a Veronese priest engaged in works of charity. Not knowing their respective languages, both wrote in Latin: Lewis with an elegant and refined style, almost Ciceronian, while Don Calabria, who had finished his studies with great difficulty, used a more limited and simple vocabulary. The letters, as well as testifying to an extraordinary friendship, tell something of Lewis’ singular approach to Christianity. With the exception of Latin – whose homologating power he recognized – it is difficult to understand, apart from the Symbolum Nicaenum, what Lewis called the “highest points of contact” among Christians of each denomination. For Don Calabria, on the contrary, things were very clear: unity simply meant a return to the Church of Rome.
Lewis, in the words of Walter Hooper, his biographer and friend of him, was absolutely loyal to Anglicanism and had no intention of becoming a “papist” (Tolkien, who knew something about it, tried to the last to persuade his friend to convert). Over the years, however, his conservative position within the Church of England – largely influenced by the writings of Richard Hooker, a theologian of the sixteenth century – became increasingly difficult: famous, for example, is the battle that he and the writer Dorothy L. Sayers engaged against supporters of the female priesthood.
In 1981, the publication of Christopher Derrick’s C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome aroused much controversy. Derrick analyzed the relationship between Lewis and the Church, suggesting different points of contact, but this was not very welcome to Hooper and many others who saw their hero’s Protestant orthodoxy questioned (ironically Hooper himself converted to Catholicism in 1988).
But it is perhaps Charles Smith, a former Anglican minister who later became a priest, who best describes the nature of what some have seen as a profound prejudice due to which Lewis never wanted to become a Catholic. In a 1996 interview with Joseph Pearce – author of an essay entitled C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (2013) which inspired this article – he declared that Lewis had a great influence on the “orthodoxy” of several Anglicans, but, according to him, he never thought about conversion; in him there was too much Northern Irish Protestantism and a strong aversion to “papism”.