C.S. Lewis on “Christian Reunion”

cs-lewis-christian-reunionSubtitled “An Anglican speaks to Roman Catholics,” the essay first published in 1990 as “Christian Reunion” is one of the hardest C.S. Lewis short pieces to get your hands on. Editor Walter Hooper notes that this is one of the only full pieces we have that addresses the divide between the Roman Catholic church and Protestants. Found on a few scraps of paper and dating from the mid-1940s, Lewis briefly cuts to the heart of this disturbing rift of faith to offer a glimmer of practical hope.

In his own life, some of C.S. Lewis’ closest friends were Roman Catholic, including J.R.R. Tolkien–no doubt overcoming a good deal of the childhood in Belfast to form such friendships. In the cultic ideas of his anglo education, Lewis had been taught never to trust an Ulsterman or a philologist. Tolkien was both. And as Lewis matured in his faith, he came to appreciate the more sacramental aspects, particularly the experience the eucharist and the practice of confession.

The work of Vatican II was complete after Lewis passed away, so he never got to see the new world of Protestant-Catholic relationships. In some ways, though, he was a prophet. C.S. Lewis scholar Peter Kreeft has quipped that the “Protestant Reformation began when a Catholic monk rediscovered a Catholic doctrine in a Catholic book”–a sentiment that Lewis is getting at below. Kreeft calls Catholics (and Protestants who hope for reunification) to the same practice that Luther underwent. It is in this faithful discovery that Lewis hopes the nexus between Catholics and Protestants will occur–and indeed can occur in no other way.

In my own life I have seen some of these hopeful connection points. I remember attending Catholic events as new Christian young adult, and have had the chance to worship side by sides with Catholics. Our university’s strong Catholic Studies department recognizes as allies faithful Christians of whatever background. The Taizé worship movement crosses denominational lines, as does much of the street-level activism and charity that takes place in so many cities and towns in the world. Many of the Protestants I know are deepening their faith in traditionally Catholic habits and books.

There are also more formal signs of fidelity, including the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” document facilitated by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. The International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission is hopeful, though pressures in both churches strain that development. The Pope Emeritus was a scholar on the topic of justification by faith, and the Lutheran-Catholic “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was a hopeful sign–especially as the global Methodist communion later adapted it. Popeinsistent has been inistent on the need for dialogue, and in the 499th year since Luther’s 95 Thesis, Catholics and Lutherans have released “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.”

Only God knows where this is all going, but a great deal of ground has been covered since Lewis sketched out these thoughts. At the centre of his essay is what I still think is key:

“When therefore we find a certain heavenly unity existing between really devout persons of differing creeds … we must ascribe this to the work of Christ who, in the erroneous one, sterilizes his errors and inhibits the evil consequences they would naturally have … and opens the eyes of the other party to all the truths mingled in his friend’s errors, which are, of course, likely to be truths he particularly needs.”

Here is the full text of the essay that makes up part of the Christian Reunion collection.

Christian Renunion 

I have been asked to write on Christian reunion: but I am afraid that what I have to say will amount to little more than a rough analysis of the actual disunity and a suggestion as to how most of us ought to behave while our tragic and sinful divisions continue. I will begin by saying that, whether for good or ill, the nature of the disunity has changed with the centuries: it has become more strictly, or clearly, theological. I have been well placed for noticing this because I grew up in a very archaic society – that of Northern Ireland – amidst conditions which had even then long since passed away in England. I have thus had a glimpse of the old disunity – the kind that descended from the sixteenth century. In it the strictly theological differences were hopelessly entangled with differences of nationality, class, politics, and the less essential differences of ritual. (I do not suggest that all differences of ritual are unessential.) They were also very embittered. A Protestant
mother whose son turned from Atheism to Rome, or a Roman mother whose son turned from Atheism to Protestantism, would both have felt (I think) simple grief.

That state of affairs has passed away. On the question of ritual, indeed, it has almost turned upside down. In southern England the Romans are now not ritualistic enough to please the High Anglicans, and Congregationalists may (I am told) be as “high” as either. Whatever the barrier now is, it is no longer a barrier of candles: whatever the fog, it is not a fog of incense.

And on the purely theological level I think may say that the barrier is no longer that between a doctrine of Faith and a doctrine of Works. I am not myself convinced that any good Roman ever did hold the doctrine of Works in that form of which Protestants
accused him, or that any good Protestant ever did hold the doctrine of Faith in that form of which Romans accused him. At any rate I feel certain that no man of good will today hopes to see God either by Pecca fortiter [by sinning strongly] or by founding an abbey. It would still be difficult (especially in Germany) to get an agreed formula: but I think that difficulty now springs rather from the mysteriousness of the subject itself than from two clearly held and mutually exclusive doctrines.

The difficulty that remains, and which becomes sharper as it becomes narrower, is our disagreement about the seat and nature of doctrinal Authority. The real reason, I take it, why you cannot be in communion with us is not your disagreement with this or that particular Protestant doctrine, so much as the absence of any real “Doctrine”, in your sense of the word, at all. It is, you feel, like asking a man to say he agrees not with a speaker but with a debating society. And 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 you the real vice of Protestantism is the formless drift which seems unable to retain the Catholic truths, which loses them one by one and ends in a “modernism” which cannot be classified as Christian by any tolerable stretch of the word. To us the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness (as we hold) with which she has added to the depositum fidei [the deposit of faith] – the tropical fertility, the proliferation, of credenda. You see in Protestantism the Faith dying out in a desert: we see in Rome the Faith smothered in a jungle.

I know no way of bridging this gulf. Nor do I think it the business of the private layman to offer much advice on bridge-building to his betters. My only function as a Christian writer is to preach “mere Christianity” not ad clerum but ad populum [not to the clergy but to the people]. Any success that has been given me has, I believe, been due to my strict observance of those limits. By attempting to do otherwise I should only add one
more recruit (and a very ill qualified recruit) to the ranks of the controversialists. After that I should be no more use to anyone.

I have, however, a strong premonition as to the way in which reunion will not come. It will not come at the edges. “Liberal” Romans and “high” Anglicans will not be the ones who will meet first. For the odd thing is that the nearer you get to the heart of each communion, the less you notice its difference from the other.

It is important at this point that I should not be misunderstood. What I am trying to say might be interpreted to mean that doctrines “don’t matter”, and that the essence of the spiritual life lay either in the affections or in some “mystical” experience to which the
intelligence is simply irrelevant. I do not believe it is so. That the spiritual life transcends both intelligence and morality, we are probably all agreed. But I suppose it transcends them as poetry transcends grammar, and does not merely exclude them as algebra
excludes grammar. I should distrust a mysticism to which they ever became simply irrelevant. That is not the way in which the divisions grow less important at the centre. To the very last, when two people differ in doctrine, logic proclaims that though both might be in error, it is impossible for both to be right. And error always to some extent disables.

When therefore we find a certain heavenly unity existing between really devout persons of differing creeds – a mutual understanding and even a power of mutual edification which each may lack towards a lukewarm member of his own denomination – we must ascribe this to the work of Christ who, in the erroneous one, sterilizes his errors and inhibits the evil consequences they would naturally have (“If ye drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt you” [Mark 16:18) and opens the eyes of the other party to all the truths mingled in his friend’s errors, which are, of course, likely to be truths he particularly needs.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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13 Responses to C.S. Lewis on “Christian Reunion”

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A good follow-up to this, chronologically and in terms of detail and the fact of being a conversation and discussion, is his correspondence between 1 September 1947 and 8 April 1961 with St. Giovanni Calabria – in Latin, and edited and translated by one of Lewis’s old students, the late Martin Moynihan (first published after Don Giovanni had been beatified, but before he was canonized).

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    • Well done! I’ve read the essays in the Collected Letters, but just order the Latin collection a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to see what pulling them out does.
      Plus, I want someday to read Latin at that level. These letters, and Harry Potter.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’m hoping to arrive at the level (and ownership of a copy) of Winnie Ille Pu! – checking the spelling of which led me to new knowledge via:

        http://mentalfloss.com/article/28021/winnie-ille-pu-latin-versions-10-modern-stories

        (The Latin version of some famous Dutch children’s stories for the youngest readers by Annie M.G. Schmidt wildly departs from the style of the originals by introducing allusions to and echoes of Golden Age Latin poets – which does not make it easier for this reader! Sadly, almost nothing of hers is available in English, but one that is, Minnie – a sort of comic science fiction love story – is well worth reading, if you can get hold of a copy – it seems to be out of print, though available second-hand, and, I hope, in libraries!)

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  2. Pingback: How to Read All of C.S. Lewis’ Essays | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  3. shelley merritt says:

    I am so grateful for this essay. Thank you very much, Brenton, for sharing this! My father (and hero) converted to Catholicism 16 years ago. To say that he is happy and in love with the Church would be an understatement. To say his most ardent prayer is that his firstborn (me) would also join him there would most likely be an understatement as well. We have had countless discussions and debates. It’s a painful thing to feel the divide in Christendom also within your dearest relationships. Many years ago, I came across the paragraph by Lewis here that ends with: “For the odd thing is that the nearer you get to the heart of each communion, the less you notice its difference from the other.” I always loved that and shared it with my father. Now it’s good to have the entire essay . . . and the gem at the end. Peace of Christ to you ~

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      If you’ve got, or can get, access to Lewis’s published letters, do have a look at that of 25 November 1947 to St.Giovanni Calabria, where Lewis says (in Moynihan’s translation), re. More and Tyndale, “(what racks and astounds me) their disagreement seems to me to spring […] from their virtues and the depths of their faith, so that the more they were at their best he more they were at variance” – !

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Shelley, thanks for this note and for telling your story. I understand his instinct entirely and hope for reunion (though in my view it will take more than merely the errant brothers–Protestants–to repent).

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  4. salooper57 says:

    Thanks for sharing the reunion essay – it’s the first time I’ve seen it. On a related note, the Wheaton College Theology Conference this year (April 6-7) is titled, “Come, Let Us Eat Together: Sacraments and the Unity of the Church.”

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  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow, that sounds rich in controversial opportunities (however magnanimously approached)! The Church of England and it’s descendants have a very interesting place ‘in this picture’, especially in the century-and-a-bit since Kikuyu (which I know of from Stephen Neill’s Anglicanism (1958) – by the way, an interesting Neill-Lewis connection is to be found among the posthumously published essays, re. ‘Modern man and his categories of thought’). But various theologically orthodox Anglicans argue today about what are sacraments and which of them (or ‘the contenders’?) the C of E et al. in fact recognize!

    Do you happy to have a handy link to a list of papers, and details of published proceedings plans, if any?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Eek: “happy”>”happen”! (and I thought I had made this as a reply indented under salooper57’s comment!)

      Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t played out those links. That’s interesting. I do think that Anglicanism itself is in a global crisis: as attractive as it is for thinking Christians, that very space for thought and art and sacrament may be pulled to its limits.
      I have details of publishing plans–actually, are there? Is Walter Hooper at the end of the task?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I quite agree about the global crisis (though it would be interesting to try to ponder its contours more than I have: also interesting glimpses of its earlier history in Neill’s book, as indeed, in various of Lewis’s essays, etc.!).

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