You Start Reading Lewis, Then Chesterton, Then You’re Catholic
This past November we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. Friends know how much I love Lewis, but few know how responsible he was for my conversion to Catholicism. His compelling defense of tradition and his winsome sacramentality helped break down my Evangelical resistances to the Catholic Church. Like many others I consider him my “Catholic Moses”, a prophetic guide who led me to the promised lands of the Catholic Church without entering it himself.
Lewis was also my gateway to G.K. Chesterton and his classic books Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, both influential in Lewis’ own conversion to Christianity. Chesterton, that whimsical apostle of common sense, picked up my conversion where Lewis left off and helped me take my final steps into the Catholic Church.
I have several friends who have followed the same Lewis-Chesterton-Catholic trajectory, and I meet more all the time. Thanks to the new expanded edition of Joseph Pearce’s book, C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, that list has grown even longer.
Pearce included a new Appendix listing several of Lewis’ Catholic-convert disciples. Thankfully, Catholic World Report recently posted the entire Appendix. Check it out:
“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.”
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. . .
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.”. . .
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.)”
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.”. . .
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.””