C. S. Lewis is undoutedly one of the most important Christian authors of the previous century. His writings are able to reach a remarkably wide audience, transcending ancient divisions that exist between Christians.
As a recent convert to Catholic Christianity from evangelical Protestantism, my thoughts about the Anglican Protestant C. S. Lewis have evolved. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a huge fan of Lewis. I still read passages of Mere Christianity for spiritual encouragement from time to time, The Chronicles of Narnia contain some of my favorite expositions of critical Christian concepts (such as ‘invincible ignorance’ and ‘implicit faith’ and atonement theory), and The Great Divorce is one of the best explorations of Christian eschatology that I am familiar with. For me to criticize Lewis is arguably comparable to a four year old soccer player criticizing a competitor in the World Cup. And yet, as a Catholic, I find it necessary to comment on how I feel about Lewis’s rejection of certain aspects of my faith, especially considering the ways in which Lewis’s faith has shaped mine.
This is not to say that comments about Lewis’s views on Catholicism haven’t already been made, nor that Lewis’s thought as a whole is in fundamental tension with the teaching of the Catholic Church. As a matter of fact, Lewis sometimes agreed with Catholicism where many of his Protestant brethren would not. He explicitly and in multiple works endorsed a version of Purgatory, and his explanation of the salvation of Emeth in The Last Battle is reminiscent of Pope Pius IX’s teaching on invincible ignorance. Since Emeth obeyed whatever vision of the true God he was able to encounter in the technically false religion of the demon Tash, the true God welcomes him into Heaven. These are two examples of how Lewis’s thought on some points shows a noteable harmony with Catholic doctrine.
On other doctrines, however, Lewis famously demurs. He speaks for many non-Catholics in his revulsion for the veneration of Mary (as Catholics practice it), and in his skepticism for the dogma of papal infallibility. I wish to comment on why I, as a Catholic Christian, do not share Lewis’s reservations about these two important topics.
Before I can explain why I disagree with Lewis on these two topics — Mary and the Pope — I must define succinctly what it is a Catholic is supposed to mean by giving honor to Mary (it is common for Catholics to refer to her as “the Blessed Mother”) and believing in papal infallibility. I suspect that my clarifications might be surprising. In this post, I will address what seems to me the simpler topic first, namely, the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. Surely my Catholic sensibilities are responsible for my wish to devote more than merely half a blog post to discussing the Blessed Mother — I will address my disagreement with Lewis on Mary in the future.
It is probably easiest to start with what papal infallibility does not mean. Papal infallibility does not mean that everything that every Pope says is correct. (Sometimes it feels like this is what our critics think we believe.) Basically,  as understood by the Catholic Church, papal infallibility means that, in matters of faith and morals (i.e., matters of salvation), the Pope will never commit an error of judgment in such a way as to commit the whole Church to it [1]. If the Pope intends to commit the entire Church to a doctrine regarding faith and morals, then the Catholic can be confident that Christ will protect the Pope from error.
Technically, the Catholic Church teaches that the Church’s Bishops in communion with the Pope (the ‘Magisterium’) are infallible in this sense. The infallibility of the Pope presupposes the prior infallibility of the Church’s Bishops as a whole. If one is willing to accept that the Church’s Bishops in communion with the Pope are collectively infallible in solemn teachings regarding faith and morals, then papal infallibility is fairly easy to accept, but if one denies an infallible teaching authority in principle, then accepting papal infallibility is nigh impossible.
Note that the Church does not claim that each individual Bishop is subjectively infallible. Obviously, validly ordained Bishops throughout the ages have, left to themselves, embraced destructive heresies. The controversy surrounding the theology of Arius is but one of many sobering examples. The Church claims that when Bishops convene — such as at an Oecumenical Council, like Nicea or Trent — and together define doctrine in such a way as to commit the whole Church to it — for example, when the Council of Chalcedon affirmed Pope Leo the Great’s understanding of Christogy and when Vatican I affirmed the validity of natural theology — they will be free from errors in matters of faith and morals. To deny this would be tantamount to calling the doctrine of the Trinity into question once again (though one theoretically could affirm the Trinity while denying the readily apparent conciliar basis of the doctrine). In a way, the Church’s infallibility is related to its Catholicity (‘universality’); Christ’s will that His Body everywhere be capable of saving souls through its teaching. (“Go therefore and make disciples… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 20).)
It is critical to understand the necessity of infallibility. Fr. Thomas Joseph White argues that infallibility is a logical corollary of divine revelation [2]. What would it mean on the level of semantics, Fr. White asks, to say that God has truly revealed Himself, but that we cannot be certain of what He has revealed? That would essentially mean that God simply has not revealed Himself. If we cannot be certain of the things God has revealed, then does it make sense to say that He has revealed anything?
Something else I suspect troubles many people (to be completely forthright, it troubles me) is the way in which certain Popes attempted to consolidate for themselves temporal power; that is, authority in matters not merely of salvation (faith and morals), but also of politics, as if becoming an orthodox Catholic would necessitate believing that Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam infallibly taught on the relationship between Church and state in subverting the latter to the jurisdiction of the former. This is not the teaching of the Church. A Catholic could in good conscience side with Dante in his book The Monarchy III.12-16, rather than with Boniface VIII [3]. By ‘faith and morals’, the Church does not refer to political theories (any more than mathematical or scientific theories, for that matter). The Church’s (and therefore the Pope’s) infallibility is limited to matters of salvation (“faith and morals”). As the carpenter’s expertise is limited to carpentry, the physician’s to medicine, and the chemist’s to chemistry, so also is the Church’s ‘expertise’ limited to matters of faith and morals.
So be it. But when push comes to shove, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, the Catholic must believe whatever the Church or the Pope defines regarding faith and morals in the future (perhaps in another Oecumenical Council, say, Vatican III, Florence II, or something like that) will be infallibly correct. Perhaps Lewis thought this would be to concede too much intellectual freedom, but if you asked me, I would say this objection of his is simply a manner of restating, “I do not believe in papal infallibility” (or ecclesial infallibility as a whole — which can get odd when discussing the canon of the New Testament). If one believes in ecclesial infallibility, one does not worry that the Church will err in dogmatic definitions anymore than one who trusts a spouse will worry that the spouse will later commit adultery. Is it conceivable? Perhaps. Will it happen? That is (often) another question altogether.
One thing that reinforces my faith in papal infallibility is the strength of the historical evidence for the antiquity of the papal office. According to very early lists, such as one finds in the corpus of Irenaeus (Irenaeus probably copied the list from someone else, which would make it even older), there was a line of specific Bishop successsors to Peter in Rome, including the author of 1 Clement (who apparently did not think the Greek city of Corinth was too far from Rome to be given orders from Rome). We know also that Bishops began to exist very early on. It is not terribly difficult for me to believe that this evidence coincides with the Catholic Church’s view on the matter: that since the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome there has been a Bishop in that city to inherit the special authority of Peter. In fact, I believe it would be more difficult for me to justify with rigorous historical argumentation the denial of the papacy’s antiquity.
To address every common objection to the papacy here would take more ink than I care to spend now, so I will bring this post to a close. To contradict C. S. Lewis is by no means pleasurable; I have considerable respect for the man. But regarding Mary and the Pope, I side instead with Lewis’s friend, the Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien.
References:
[1] Fr. Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy. I am indebted to Fr. Fortescue for his careful exposition of what papal infallibility does and does not mean, and for his verbiage in discussing the concept generally.
[2] Fr. Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ.
[3] Fr. Adrian Fortescue, The Early Papacy.