Religion

C.S. Lewis, Catholic Gateway Drug

Fifty years since his death, it’s clear C.S. Lewis’ writings have been incredibly effective for helping others do what he never did: join the Catholic Church.

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November 22, 2013
Howard Stanbury
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest Christian minds of the 20th century, the apologist, poet, and novelist, C.S. Lewis.

He authored over forty non-fiction books, eighteen novels, and four books of poetry, including such masterpieces as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the children’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia. Publishers report that his books have been far more popular since his death than they were during his lifetime.

Lewis’ writings are not only appreciated by Catholics but have been influential in actually leading numberless converts across the Tiber river to the Catholic Church. Though he remained an Anglican until his death, Lewis has been one of the most effective evangelists for the Catholic faith in the last hundred years.


“A Strong Anglo-Catholic Trajectory”

“It was C.S. Lewis that led me to G.K. Chesterton, and it was G.K. Chesterton who led me to the Catholic Church,” says President of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist. “Lest it be forgot, Lewis himself was an atheist until he read The Everlasting Man by Chesterton. He said it was the first reasonable defense of Christianity that he'd ever read.”

“In personal letters he continued to refer to it as the best book on Christian apologetics. And anyone who has read both Mere Christianity and The Everlasting Man understands quickly where Lewis gets his clear and eloquent arguments for Christ's divinity. Lewis read over forty of Chesterton's books, so his thinking is fairly soaked with Chesterton. And the point is, Chesterton's thinking is Catholic. So the reason, it seems to me, that Catholics are drawn to C.S. Lewis is that while he is consciously Christian (though he calls it ‘mere’ Christianity), he is unconsciously Catholic. He plays an important role as one the great ecumenical writers of the 20th century, appealing to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”

David Deavel, Associate Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and Contributing Editor for Gilbert Magazine, had a similar experience. “For me, Lewis was the 'gateway drug' to all things Catholic. He introduced me, a Protestant teenager, to his Catholic friends (e.g., Tolkien) and his Catholic influences (e.g., Chesterton).”

“He also explained Catholic teachings I already held as a Protestant in a way that was different from what I had heard before, and he put before my eyes specifically Catholic teachings including purgatory, prayer for the dead, and the intercession of the saints in heaven in a way that was eminently reasonable and attractive. While his failure to think coherently about the nature of the Church in books like Mere Christianity later became obvious, like many other Catholic converts it was his introduction of the other Catholic things that helped spur me on to think about topics on which he had punted.”

Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary Ronda Chervin was also deeply influenced by Lewis. “I was very influenced by C.S. Lewis to become a Catholic because his argument about how Christ had to be either a madman, a liar, or divine, totally convinced me of His divinity. Most Catholics think C.S. Lewis was a Catholic! He had many Catholic friends and much of his writing sounds Catholic.”

Assistant Professor of Modern and Classical Languages at Benedictine College Edward Mulholland says Lewis’ writings have a sacramental worldview which attracts Catholics. “Lewis, although a Protestant, presents a vision of the world that is eminently sacramental, and I think this is what draws Catholics to him and many of his readers to Catholicism.”

Keep reading on the next page

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest Christian minds of the 20th century, the apologist, poet, and novelist, C.S. Lewis.

He authored over forty non-fiction books, eighteen novels, and four books of poetry, including such masterpieces as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the children’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia. Publishers report that his books have been far more popular since his death than they were during his lifetime.

Lewis’ writings are not only appreciated by Catholics but have been influential in actually leading numberless converts across the Tiber river to the Catholic Church. Though he remained an Anglican until his death, Lewis has been one of the most effective evangelists for the Catholic faith in the last hundred years.


“A Strong Anglo-Catholic Trajectory”

“It was C.S. Lewis that led me to G.K. Chesterton, and it was G.K. Chesterton who led me to the Catholic Church,” says President of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist. “Lest it be forgot, Lewis himself was an atheist until he read The Everlasting Man by Chesterton. He said it was the first reasonable defense of Christianity that he'd ever read.”

“In personal letters he continued to refer to it as the best book on Christian apologetics. And anyone who has read both Mere Christianity and The Everlasting Man understands quickly where Lewis gets his clear and eloquent arguments for Christ's divinity. Lewis read over forty of Chesterton's books, so his thinking is fairly soaked with Chesterton. And the point is, Chesterton's thinking is Catholic. So the reason, it seems to me, that Catholics are drawn to C.S. Lewis is that while he is consciously Christian (though he calls it ‘mere’ Christianity), he is unconsciously Catholic. He plays an important role as one the great ecumenical writers of the 20th century, appealing to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”

David Deavel, Associate Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and Contributing Editor for Gilbert Magazine, had a similar experience. “For me, Lewis was the 'gateway drug' to all things Catholic. He introduced me, a Protestant teenager, to his Catholic friends (e.g., Tolkien) and his Catholic influences (e.g., Chesterton).”

“He also explained Catholic teachings I already held as a Protestant in a way that was different from what I had heard before, and he put before my eyes specifically Catholic teachings including purgatory, prayer for the dead, and the intercession of the saints in heaven in a way that was eminently reasonable and attractive. While his failure to think coherently about the nature of the Church in books like Mere Christianity later became obvious, like many other Catholic converts it was his introduction of the other Catholic things that helped spur me on to think about topics on which he had punted.”

Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary Ronda Chervin was also deeply influenced by Lewis. “I was very influenced by C.S. Lewis to become a Catholic because his argument about how Christ had to be either a madman, a liar, or divine, totally convinced me of His divinity. Most Catholics think C.S. Lewis was a Catholic! He had many Catholic friends and much of his writing sounds Catholic.”

Assistant Professor of Modern and Classical Languages at Benedictine College Edward Mulholland says Lewis’ writings have a sacramental worldview which attracts Catholics. “Lewis, although a Protestant, presents a vision of the world that is eminently sacramental, and I think this is what draws Catholics to him and many of his readers to Catholicism.”

Keep reading on the next page



Michael Dauphinais, Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University, also sees a sacramental worldview in Lewis’ writings. “[T]here is a strong anglo-Catholic trajectory to his sacramental approach to faith and life that brings him close to Catholic doctrine on a number of points. Thus, in A Grief Observed, he expresses the possibility of the purifying suffering of the dead, and later, in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, he affirms that he prays for the dead and states simply, ‘I believe in Purgatory.’”

Would Lewis join the Catholic Church if he were alive today? Church historian Fr. C. John McCloskey thinks there’s a good chance he would, given the state of Anglicanism today. “In his heart and in his writing he was Catholic and only Belfast prejudice held him back. If he had lived to see the crash of Anglicanism, he most likely would have ‘Poped’.”


A Far-Reaching Influence

Since Lewis wrote books for children as well as books for adults, many people are influenced by him throughout their lives. “I was first influenced by Lewis as a young teen reading his ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series.” says Tim Drake, New Evangelization Coordinator with the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud. “I was deeply attracted to the stories and to Aslan, the Christ-like figure. Re-reading those stories as an adult, to my own children, I was able to find so much more in them, especially in the final book of the series. I've read and discussed many of his other works in a men's group to which I belong. Lewis consistently points to Christ, and offers analogies which readers find helpful in their faith.”

John Bergsma, Associate Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, also says Lewis has influenced him his whole life. “Like many children raised in evangelical Protestant households, I read Lewis in my youth, starting with the Chronicles of Narnia and moving on to his more serious works. His basic Christian apologetics, as represented in works like Mere Christianity, provided me with the intellectual resources I needed to see through the secularist ideology I was exposed to during my years of public education.”

“I strongly recommend that Catholic high schools make their students intimately familiar with Lewis,” says Andrew Seeley, Professor at Thomas Aquinas College. “Mere Christianity is unbeatable as an introduction to Christianity.”

“That Catholics have derived so much from Lewis, many even pointing to his importance for their conversions or reversions, is no doubt a sign from the Holy Spirit that Protestants really are our separated brethren, and that He did not abandon them when their fathers abandoned His Church. What a great witness to His desire for reunification through our growing mutual understanding and love! May his soul rest in peace.”


And the C.S. Lewis of Our Generation Is...

Does anyone alive today deserve the honor of being seen as successor to Lewis?

“Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, and Fr. Dwight Longenecker come to mind,” says Fr. McCloskey.

Bergsma also mentions Peter Kreeft, as well as others. “Without doubt, I would recognize Peter Kreeft as an intellectual heir of Lewis, in the breadth of his thought and his ability to write deeply for the non-specialist. Michael O'Brien, the novelist, also carries on something of Lewis' legacy. William Lane Craig, the philosopher and apologist, continues Lewis' legacy of public debate on the rationality of God and Christianity.”

Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University Alice Ramos adds the Jesuit Fr. James Schall to the list. “If any Christian at present can be said to be a successor to Lewis in his thinking and style, it might be Fr. James Schall, S.J.”

Mulholland is more skeptical there’s someone today who has the breadth of skill Lewis had. “I don’t think there is a C.S. Lewis out there today, firing with both barrels as essayist and novelist. We have Fr. Schall or Fr. Rutler or Dr. Peter Kreeft as essayists, we have Michael O’Brien as a novelist, but they themselves would admit C.S. Lewis surpasses them.”


The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:

Dale Ahlquist is the President of the American Chesterton Society.

John Bergsma is Associate Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He specializes in Old Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Ronda Chervin is a Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

Michael Dauphinais is Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University.

David Deavel is Associate Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and Contributing Editor for Gilbert Magazine. He also teaches at the University of St. Thomas and the St. Paul Seminary.

Tim Drake is the New Evangelization Coordinator with the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is an award-winning journalist, the author of six books on religion and culture, and a former radio host.

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC. His personal website is www.frmccloskey.com.

Edward Mulholland is an Assistant Professor of Modern and Classical Languages at Benedictine College.

Alice Ramos is a Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University.

Andrew T. Seeley is a Professor at Thomas Aquinas College and the Executive Director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He co-authored Declaration Statesmanship: A Course in American Government.
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