C.S. Lewis and Catholic Converts

While Lewis himself never entered the Catholic Church, his writings have led a dizzying array of converts across the Tiber.

On November 22, 1963, at 2:30 pm central time, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. An hour earlier, across the Atlantic, C.S. Lewis had died at his home in Oxford. A few short hours later, in Los Angeles, the English writer Aldous Huxley, author of the dystopian classic Brave New World, would also die. This strange and somewhat morbid coincidence would later inspire Peter Kreeft to write Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. 

The media coverage of Kennedy’s assassination totally eclipsed the deaths of Lewis and Huxley, whose passing went almost entirely unnoticed at the time, much as, many years later, the passing of Mother Teresa would go largely unnoticed in the wake of the death of Princess Diana.

Today, 50 years on, as the dust of time settles on the memory of that momentous day, it is intriguing to see how the inexorable passage of time has affected the respective reputations of Kennedy, Lewis, and Huxley.

There is no doubt, of course, that the anniversary of the assassination will once again overshadow the lesser-known anniversaries of Huxley’s and Lewis’ deaths. It is, however, ironic that Kennedy is best known to posterity for his death as opposed to his life, the tragic and violent nature of the former eclipsing the achievements of the latter. Although the more educated will no doubt be aware of JFK’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis or perhaps his symbolically charged visit to West Berlin, and the more sordidly-minded will be reminded of his alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s a sobering fact that he is probably associated in the public consciousness more with Lee Harvey Oswald than with Nikita Khrushchev. As for Huxley, there is no doubt that his authorship of Brave New World has earned him a place in the literary canon, but he has written precious little else that has survived the test of time. Lewis, on the other hand, seems to go from strength to strength. Today, fifty years after his death, his global readership dwarfs the readership that he enjoyed in his own lifetime. His classic children’s story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is one of the top ten bestselling books of all time, and it would be no exaggeration to say that there is now a whole C.S. Lewis industry generating millions of dollars in sales of his books and in the merchandising of ephemera connected to the film and television adaptations of his life (Shadowlands) and his work (The Chronicles of Narnia).

A lesser known but nonetheless powerful part of C.S. Lewis’ legacy is the impact that he has had on the conversion of countless numbers of people to the Catholic Church. This is indeed an astonishing phenomenon considering that Lewis never became a Catholic himself, unlike many other literary converts, such as John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene, to name but an illustrious few. Although the reading of Catholic authors, such as Chesterton, and the friendship with Catholics, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, played a crucial role in Lewis’ conversion from atheism to Christianity, he was never seriously tempted to cross the Tiber into the welcoming arms of Mother Church. And yet, in spite of the residual anti-papist prejudice that he inherited as a Belfast Protestant, many of the core beliefs he embraced as a “mere Christian” placed him decidedly on the Catholic end of the theological spectrum. He believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which he referred to as the Blessed Sacrament; he practiced auricular confession; he vehemently opposed female ordination, condemning in forthright terms the danger of having “priestesses in the Church”; he declared his belief in purgatory and in the efficacy of praying for the dead; and, last but not least, he crusaded against the errors and heresies of theological modernism. It is perhaps, therefore, not so surprising that C.S. Lewis has ushered so many people into the Catholic Church.

The great American literary convert Walker Percy, commenting on the numerous converts who had come to Catholicism through the writings of Lewis, remarked that “writers one might expect, from Aquinas to Merton,” are mentioned frequently as influences, “but guess who turns up most often? C.S. Lewis! – who, if he didn’t make it all the way, certainly handed over a goodly crew.”(1) Here is an overview of some of the “goodly crew” to whom Percy alludes, those who have been influenced on their paths to Rome by C.S. Lewis. As the present author owes his own conversion, in part, to the works and wisdom of Lewis, it is gratifying to know that he is but one of many whom Lewis led Romewards.

Beginning with prominent British converts, the most famous is Leonard Cheshire, who attained position number 31 in a BBC poll in 2002 to find the 100 Greatest Britons of all time. He was also listed in 1993 as one of “the 20 outstanding Christians of the 20th century”, alongside John Paul II, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Oscar Romero, Edith Stein, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Padre Pio, Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu, John XXIII, Teilhard de Chardin, Jackie Pullinger, Charles de Foucauld, Malcolm Muggeridge, Mother Teresa, and, last but not least, C.S. Lewis.(2)

Cheshire, who was received into the Catholic Church on Christmas Eve in 1948, was the official British observer of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, an event which led him to a deep skepticism about the future of modern civilization. It was in this frame of mind and heart that he found himself receptive to the works of Lewis, whose broadcast talks for the BBC were being published at this time. Grappling with the problem of evil and sin, Cheshire had been particularly impressed by The Screwtape Letters, which he described as “a rather good introduction to the Faith” and as “very compelling.”(3)

Two Newman scholars who owed a considerable debt to Lewis for their respective conversions were Meriol Trevor and Father Ian Ker. Trevor, the author of almost 40 novels as well as an award-winning, two-volume biography of Newman, credits the reading of C.S. Lewis for her return to Christianity. Father Ker, author of more than 20 books on Newman, fell under the influence of Lewis’ books, especially Surprised by Joy and Mere Christianity, as an undergraduate at Oxford.

One of the most unlikely converts to be helped on his path to Rome by Lewis was the German economist E.F. Schumacher, who became known throughout the world in the early ’70s as the author of the international bestseller Small is Beautiful. According to his daughter, Schumacher admired Lewis greatly, adding that Lewis’ books were a prized part of her father’s personal library.

Three prominent British journalists who were brought closer to Catholicism through the reading of Lewis, and who subsequently converted, were William Oddie, former editor of the Catholic Herald, David Quinn, former editor of the Irish Catholic, and Michael Coren, a well-known TV and radio talk show host and regular newspaper columnist in Canada, to which he moved from his native England in 1987. Amongst Coren’s published books are biographies of Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton.  

Al Kresta, who, like Coren, is a seasoned radio talk show host, recalls Lewis’ role in his own conversion:

I first encountered Lewis in 1973 while at Michigan State University … [His] words embraced reality with a simplicity, clarity and colorfulness that was wise, not merely pious. Having once thought that spiritual truths were purely subjective and beyond rational discussion, I rejoiced in Lewis’ reasoned presentation. Christianity was true to the way things are, good not merely pragmatic, beautiful not merely utilitarian, and true not merely consoling ….

Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” flowered into Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s “More Christianity.” Without the “mere,” I could never have recovered the “more.” Lewis formed me as a Christian. His overall vision, however, I found most faithfully and concretely embodied in the Catholic Church.(4)

Father Dwight Longenecker, to whose book More Christianity Al Kresta refers, is another convert who was prompted and prodded in the direction of Rome by his youthful encounter with Lewis. Longenecker was an undergraduate at Bob Jones University, that hub and hotbed of anti-papist Protestant Fundamentalism, when he first came across the works of Lewis. Received into the Catholic Church in 1995, Father Longenecker is now a popular talk show host on Catholic radio and the author of many books.

Francis Beckwith, an indefatigable Catholic apologist and the author or editor of more than a dozen books, cites Lewis as a significant influence on his journey from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. Mark Brumley, president and CEO of Ignatius Press, credits Lewis as being a major contributor to his spiritual and intellectual progress: “C.S. Lewis made me a Catholic. Well, of course, that puts it too simply. God made me a Catholic; Lewis was a human instrument in the process. And he was aided and abetted by G.K. Chesterton, Frank Sheed, Louis Bouyer, and others. Still, Lewis started it all for me.”(5)

Another well-known convert, Sheldon Vanauken, whose extraordinary book A Severe Mercy recounts his and his wife’s friendship with C.S. Lewis, once spoke of Lewis as “Moses”–one who led the way into the promised land of the Catholic Church yet never entered himself.(6)

H. Lyman Stebbins, founder of Catholics United for the Faith, was converted to Catholicism as a direct result of his correspondence with Lewis during the closing months of World War II. Stebbins had been given a gift of The Screwtape Letters for Christmas in 1942. “All at once,” his wife wrote many years later, “a light went on in him and over the dull landscape of his life …. That book, which obviously made a deep impression on him, opened the enormous C.S. Lewis door. He started reading all his books and was enthralled.”(7) It was, therefore, as a devotee or disciple of Lewis that Stebbins was emboldened to write to his mentor in April 1945: “I wrote to C.S. Lewis and got a fascinating and interesting reply. That letter of Lewis practically put me into the Church …. [Lewis] summoned all that he could dream up to say as an argument against my becoming a Roman Catholic and there was no substance in any of it.”(8)

The historian Warren Carroll, founder of Christendom College and author of the multi-volume History of Christendom, read Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain, becoming convinced of the Divinity of Christ: “Lewis does not let you evade the fundamental question: Who was this Man? He shows you why you must answer that He is God Himself.”(9)

Ronda Chervin, well-known Catholic philosopher and author of more than 50 books, was brought to Rome from a Jewish background: “When I first read C.S. Lewis I was an atheist, aged 21 …. Mere Christianity was the book I read. Lewis’ famous part about how we can’t see Jesus just as a great thinker or great holy man but either as divine, crazy, or a liar was absolutely decisive for my conversion to Christianity.(10)

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, GQ, and National Review, converted at the age of only 17. He summarized C.S. Lewis’ role in the process with unequivocal succinctness: “You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you’re reading G.K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic. I knew a lot of people who did that in their 20s—I just did it earlier ….”(11)

Thomas Howard is one of the finest prose stylists writing in the United States today and is the author of many fine books. His conversion story, Lead Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, was published by Ignatius Press. Although he owes his conversion, under grace, to great Catholic intellectuals such as Newman, Knox, Chesterton, Guardini, Ratzinger, Karl Adam, Louis Bouyer, and St. Augustine, he was accompanied on his journey by Lewis, whose abiding presence guided him toward Rome.

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and chairman of the Republican Governors Association, converted to Catholicism from Hinduism as an undergraduate, revealing that he had “spent many years reading books by authors like C.S. Lewis” prior to his conversion.

Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is perhaps the most prolific and lucid Catholic apologist in the English-speaking world. Like Bobby Jindal, he converted to Catholicism as an undergraduate. As with so many others, Lewis led him towards Rome:

I discovered CSL as an undergraduate at Calvin College, in the Fifties. My philosophy professor assigned The Problem of Pain, and I distinctly remember my reaction to it…. I had never read an author who thought and wrote that clearly. (I still haven’t.)

A second assignment was to make a detailed outline of The Abolition of Man…. My confidence that the clarity was there, if only I could find it, led me to hack through the jungles of my own confusion and into the light. I had never read anyone who could be both so clear and so profound at the same time. (I had not yet discovered Thomas Aquinas, one of the very few authors who is even better than Lewis at that.)(12)

Having caught the Lewis habit, Kreeft then proceeded, on his roommate’s recommendation, to read Mere Christianity, a book which he believes “has probably accounted for more conversions than any other book in the century.”

Lorraine Murray, writer, novelist, former professor of philosophy, and author of Confessions of an Ex-Feminist, recalls Lewis’ impact upon her as quite literally life-changing:

In college I turned my back on Catholicism, my childhood faith, and became a radical, gender-bending feminist and a passionate atheist …. Reading Lewis, I found something that I must have been quietly hungering for all along, which was a reasoned approach to my childhood beliefs, which had centered almost entirely on emotion. As I turned the pages of this book, I could no longer ignore the Truth, nor turn my back on the Way and the Life. Little by little, and inch by inch, I found my way back to Jesus Christ and returned to the Catholic Church ….

When I later read The Screwtape Letters, it helped me considerably in understanding how the devil works in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. I saw how thoroughly the prince of darkness had weaseled his way into my heart in those dark days when I persecuted Christ in the classroom….(13)

Jef Murray, an internationally acclaimed fantasy artist, best known for his illustrations of the works of Lewis and Tolkien, owes a considerable debt to both of the writers whose works are the subjects of his Muse:

I read The Screwtape Letters, and was simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the figures both of Screwtape and of his hapless nephew, Wormwood. Lewis convinced me that evil was real, and even that it took the form of Personality, even if I let that knowledge lie buried during my college years …. 

Mere Christianity, read for the first time as an adult, made an enormous impression upon me; but by this time, the Hound of Heaven was already nipping at my heels, and Lewis’ brilliant logic simply reinforced what my heart was already telling me.(14)

One of the most astonishing and dramatic conversions of the 20th century, or of any century, is that of Bernard Nathanson, one of the pioneers of the movement to legalize abortion in the United States. By his own admission, Nathanson personally performed more than 60,000 abortions before realizing that his actions were intrinsically and barbarically evil. In 1979, his book Aborting America exposed the ugliness and dishonesty of the abortion industry. In 1984 he directed and narrated The Silent Scream, a film that opened the eyes of many to the true horrors of in utero infanticide. In his autobiography, The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life, he cited Lewis as a significant influence on his path to conversion.(15)

Kevin O’Brien, founder and artistic director of Theater of the Word Incorporated, is another well-known Catholic who has made the journey from atheism to Catholicism, via C.S. Lewis:

The more I read Lewis, the more I liked him, and the more I began to read writers that he read—G.K. Chesterton in particular….  And so by the grace of God, Lewis led me to Chesterton, Chesterton led me to Belloc, and all three of them led me to the Catholic Faith.(16)

Carl E. Olson, author, poet, artist, and editor of CWR, is emphatic about Lewis’ role in his conversion: “Lewis was very helpful to me, in particular in helping me appreciate the intellectual and spiritual depth of the Christian faith, which aided me in later pursuing the fullness of that faith in the Catholic Church.”(17)

No overview of celebrated Lewisian converts would be complete without reference to Walter Hooper, who served as Lewis’ secretary in the final months of Lewis’ life and who has devoted himself tirelessly to promoting Lewis’ legacy for half a century since his mentor’s death. He is the author, with Roger Lancelyn Green, of one of the finest biographies of Lewis and is also the author of the Companion and Guide to Lewis’ work, an indispensable resource for scholars. He is editor of the three volumes of Lewis’ letters, a magnificent scholarly achievement in its own right.

As someone who might realistically be considered a lifelong disciple and devotee of Lewis, it is intriguing and surely noteworthy that Hooper was received into the Catholic Church in 1988, 25 years after Lewis’ death. Considering that few people, if any, are more steeped in the ideas of Lewis, Hooper’s conversion could be seen as a projection of Lewis’ own likely destiny if he had lived long enough to see the triumph of modernism in the Anglican Church. Hooper felt that he could no longer remain an Anglican following the decision to ordain women to the priesthood, a momentous decision on the part of the Anglican hierarchy that exploded any claim that Anglicanism was part of the universal Church. Hooper’s decision was the ratification of the conclusion which Lewis had himself reached in his essay, “Priestesses in the Church,” published in 1948, and in the talk, “Fern-seed and Elephants,” given shortly before his death, as Hooper himself explains:

[W]ould C.S. Lewis have become a Catholic had he lived? I think so…. What do you do, when, in fact, the Anglican Church becomes apostate—as it has truly become right now? Even long before the Vatican gave us the document Inter Insigniores in 1976, which is the statement on the ordination of women to the priesthood, Lewis had written about the issue as far back as 1948, in an essay called “Priestesses in the Church,” in which his arguments about the priest standing in the place of Christ predate those of the Holy See. His reasons are almost exactly those you find in the Vatican document.(18)

Today, 50 years after his death, the controversy continues to rage over whether or not Lewis would have converted had he lived to see the demise of Anglicanism. Regardless of Lewis’ own position, there is no doubt whatever that he has ushered many people into the Catholic Church. This living witness to his power as a teacher of Christian orthodoxy is an important part of this remarkable man’s astonishing legacy.

(1) Walker Percy, introduction to Dan O’ Neill, ed., The New Catholics: Contemporary Converts Tell Their Stories, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1987

(2) Sheilah Ward Ling, Your Glory Reflected: 20 Outstanding Christians of the Twentieth Century, Staten Island, NY: Alba House Books, 1993

(3) Leonard Cheshire, Where is God in All This?, Slough, Berkshire, UK: St. Paul Publications, 1991, p. 26

(4) Al Kresta, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(5) Mark Brumley, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(6) Ibid.

(7) Madeleine Stebbins, “The Boldness of a Stranger: Correspondence between C.S. Lewis and H. Lyman Stebbins”, Lay Witness, November 1998

(8) Ibid.

(9) Lorene Hanley Duquin, A Century of Catholic Converts, Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003, p. 170

(10) Ronda Chervin, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(11) Mark Oppenheimer, “Ross Douthat’s Fantasy World”, Mother Jones, January-February 2010

(12) Peter Kreeft, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(13) Lorraine Murray, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(14) Jef Murray, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(15) Quoted in Fr. John McCloskey’s review of the book in L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition), November 20, 1996

(16) Kevin O’Brien, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(17) Carl E. Olson, correspondence with the author, June 2013

(18) John Mallon, “A Conversation with Walter Hooper”, Crisis, July-August 1994 

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About Joseph Pearce 36 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome and Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays, as well as several biographies and works of history and literary criticism. His most recent books include Faith of Our Fathers: A History of 'True' England and The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: A History in Three Dimensions. Other works include Literary Converts, Poems Every Catholic Should Know, and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know, and literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He is the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

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