C.S. Lewis on Why He Wasn’t Roman Catholic

I was Anglican for a long time before I knew it.

Having been in the Anglican tradition (officially) for about 8 months at this point, I continue to have unexpected moments of child-like delight when I discover that a theologian, philosopher, scientist, novelist, or artist that I have long and deeply admired turns out to be Anglican. It’s like this running inside joke between the Holy Spirit and me. Sometimes I’ll go off on a mysterious rabbit trail in my research, thinking I’m wasting valuable time, only to end up at, “Oh my, I didn’t know she was Anglican! How did I not know?” The rabbit trail ends there, and I laugh, again.

Image result for c.s. lewisC.S. Lewis, who has significantly influenced my philosophical and theological thinking, captured my attention years and years before I knew anything at all about Anglicanism. It never crossed my mind, really, to look into Lewis’ faith background. Sometime in my early thirties I finally stopped to absorb the fact that Lewis was a member of the Church of England, and it was a bit later that I came to understand some of the defining characteristics of Anglicanism as a Christian denomination.

I’ve done quite a bit of biographical reading on Lewis, and one of the things I love about him is how well he related to Christians of other traditions. He truly lived out his “mere Christianity” philosophy, which so beautifully reflects Christ’s heart for the universal church. It is a philosophy that I strive to emulate both professionally and on a personal level. As a champion for the mere Christianity ethos, Lewis very rarely wrote publicly about why his chosen “room” of Christendom was Anglicanism, or why he chose Protestantism over Roman Catholicism. However, he carried out private conversations and correspondence with his academic colleagues, acquaintances, and friends who were Roman Catholic laypersons or clergy about why he was so firmly Protestant. Importantly, he did so without being argumentative and with admirable graciousness.

So what were Lewis’ reasons  for choosing Canterbury over Rome?

According to the available body of evidence, it seems that there were three main issues that prevented Lewis from embracing Roman Catholicism. Brothers and sisters, please note that I do not offer these as my personal arguments; I outline them because I find the information both fascinating and helpful in understanding Lewis, the Anglican. (I would like to give full credit to Dr. Stewart Goetz’s excellent, thoughtful book, A Philosophical Walking Tour with C.S. Lewis, from which I gleaned the following excerpts.)

Here are the three issues that seem central to Lewis’ non-Catholic position:

The Papacy. In a letter dated November 1947, addressed to a Father Calabria, Lewis explained that “we disagree about nothing more than the authority of the Pope: on which disagreement almost all others depend.” In another letter, dated May 1945 and addressed to Hart Lyman Stebbins, Lewis said that the papacy seems “foreign to the attitude of St. Paul towards Peter in the Epistles.”  In the Stebbins letter he goes on to say, “In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claim [concerning the papacy].” Essentially, Lewis rejected the concepts of papal supremacy and infallibility and the “one true church” claim of Roman Catholicism.

Mariology and Devotion to Saints. In the Stebbins letter, Lewis says that part of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary “seems utterly foreign to the New Testament: where indeed the words ‘Blessed is the womb that bore thee’ receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction [Jesus’ rejoinder is ‘blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it’ (Luke 11:27-28)]” In a letter to Mary van Deusen dated June 1952, Lewis elaborates upon what he sees as the theological dangers of Mariology and devotion to saints:

Hail Marys raise a doctrinal question: whether it is lawful to address devotions to any creature, however holy. My own view would be that a salute to any saint (or angel) cannot in itself be wrong any more than taking off one’s hat to a friend: but that there is always some danger lest such practices start one on the road to a state (sometimes found in [Roman Catholics]) where the [Blessed Virgin Mary] is treated really as a deity and even becomes the centre of the religion. I therefore think that such salutes are better avoided. And if the Blessed Virgin is as good as the best mothers I have known, she does not want any of the attention which might have gone to her Son diverted to herself.

System of Dogma. In an ecumenical essay entitled, “Christian Reunion: An Anglican Speaks to Roman Catholics,” Lewis said:

the real reason why I cannot be in communion with you is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but to what he’s going to say…To us the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness (as we hold) with which she has added to the depositum fidei [deposit of faith]…the proliferation of credenda [what must be believed].

In other words, Roman Catholics are required to believe any doctrine that is declared by the Pope (at any point, past or future) to be dogma (a non-negotiable of the faith). One example of a Roman Catholic belief that didn’t become official dogma until quite recently is the doctrine of the Assumption, the teaching that the Blessed Virgin Mary did not experience physical death, but rather was assumed into Heaven bodily. Pope Pius XII exercised his “papal infallibility” when declaring this doctrine to be Roman Catholic dogma on November 1, 1950.  

So there you have what seem to be Lewis’ main reasons for being a layman of the Church of England rather than the Church of Rome.

 

 

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