From Lewis to Hooper to Rome: A Conversation with Walter Hooper

Walter Hooper is the literary executor of the estate of C.S. Lewis. He also was Lewis’s friend and personal secretary during the last months of Lewis’s life, and is editor of Lewis’s posthumously published works. Five years ago he converted to the Catholic Church from Anglicanism. He was in the United States last summer to speak at the Defending the Faith conference held at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, on C.S. Lewis as his signpost to Rome. He offers here some reflections on C.S. Lewis, his own conversion, the situation between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as his remarkable meeting with Pope John Paul II. Hooper spoke with disarming modesty, genuine humility, and charm.

Many converts to Catholicism credit C.S. Lewis as being their sign-post to Rome. Can you speculate on whether Lewis would have become Catholic if he had lived longer?

I think so. Those who pick up just any book of his and read what he says about, say, the Church, might not think so. But what you have to do is to look at what he said over a period of many years, during which his view of the Church became increasingly more Catholic. One of the last papers that he wrote was to Anglican seminarians in Cambridge. And in that well-known paper — called Fern-seed and Elephants — he points out that, if they continue to talk that sort of liberalism that they were then talking — and increasingly more now — he said that their readers and hearers would leave the Anglican church and become either atheists or Roman Catholics. I think he would probably have had to include himself in that group. What do you do, when, in fact, the Anglican church becomes apostate — as it has truly become right now? 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. But I would stress the fact that his main point was that if you continued to talk about, say, God the Father, as a “she,” and if you do have the ordained woman, it would be hard to resist that trend, and then you will have to change religions. It won’t be the same as the Christian, Catholic religion. And so, it may be that if you find your religion has just changed, what else can you do except go where the faith actually still is Christian?

You converted to Roman Catholicism in 1988, is that right?

That’s right. It will soon be my fifth birthday. They have been the happiest five years of my life.

What prompted your crossing the Tiber?

Well, I never have had to struggle to believe any article of the Catholic faith at all. But being as it were, finding myself an Anglican all that time, I found it very difficult just to leave these people, especially when they were depending on me. For five years I was a college chaplain to two of the colleges in Oxford while working for the estate of C.S. Lewis. I served as a sort of honorary curate at the Church of Saint Rumbach in Oxford, one of the Anglo-Catholic parishes. But increasingly I felt that I should be a Roman Catholic because that is the faith I actually believe. Some years ago I followed very intently the Anglican/Roman Catholic international dialogue hoping, as I expected, that the two churches would be one. But I knew the Church of England wants to be Protestant — I don’t think it really intends to be Catholic. So for a while I was holding on because I felt the best I could do for my friends was to stay until 1992. But then I remember one particular evening when God told me, I felt, that I should give that up, that I was doing no good to anyone. So I went straight to Bishop Hollis who was the Catholic bishop in Oxford and I told him I’ve come to submit. And that’s what I did. But he allowed me to be received over in the United States. It would have been awfully awkward for everybody if I had just left the Anglican church and walked about 50 yards down to the Catholic Church.

You were received in the United States?

In North Carolina.

You were an Anglican clergyman. Do you intend to seek Holy Orders now as a Catholic?

Well, there has been some talk about that in England, and I am certainly very attracted to the Oratorians who are in Oxford. We have the Third Oratory in England, which was founded just recently. But the difficulty would be that I work full time for the estate of C.S. Lewis, and I’m not sure that I would be able to give the time that the Catholic bishops require for me to be ordained. So, by the time I retire, which might be just a few years, if I’m not too old and cranky by that time, if they want me, then they can have me.

What has been the response of Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists, who are Lewis fans, to your conversion?

I think they’re really vastly disappointed and many told me, sadly, that they just don’t consider me a Christian any longer. I knew that was a view that some took of the Catholic Church in this country, and to a certain extent in England, too. But I never really felt it personally until I converted. There were many who felt that it really was a disgrace for Lewis’s literary remains to be edited by someone who in their opinion isn’t a Christian. When I was Anglican, at least I was of the same church that he was. Even if I had been Baptist or something I would have been Christian. But, you know, I’m sorry. One of the Inklings, Father Gervase Mathew, told me years ago that he feared that would happen and that was why he wasn’t keen for me to convert, because if I did he was worried about the consequences. But it may be from over here [in the U.S.] you can see what the feeling is better than perhaps I do.

You said this has been the happiest five years of your life, so it couldn’t have been that bad, although it’s a painful kind of a shock when people treat you that way.

Well, in one way I would rather be treated as a bit of an oddball if that means that they do take the Catholic Church seriously. For instance, I would rather that these people know that I belong to a faith which is opposed to abortion and birth control, than for them to go along merrily imagining that the Catholic Church has views which are roughly Protestant on those issues, or that anything goes. I mean, the Pope is hated by many people but at least for the right reasons. One of my former friends, A.N. Wilson, who has written a biography of Lewis, really dislikes the Pope intensely, but generally for the right reasons. He dislikes the Pope because the Pope stands for the Catholic faith and doesn’t give in on the faith.

A.N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis created quite a stir, and seemed kind of like a bit of muckraking, stirring things up that were either questionable in their truth or at least not worth bringing up. Could you comment on that?

Well, as Wilson admitted, he lost the faith right before he began writing the biography of C.S. Lewis, and this is clearly reflected in the book. If you don’t believe what your subject believes, you tend to treat what is most serious with him with a little bit of contempt and perhaps amusement. He wrote not a biography so much as a novel, and when he was poking fun at the characters — and even suggesting that one of the characters of the Narnia stories was representative of the Pope — I mean, that was stupid. Nobody ever thought that at all. But this is the way a man hates when he hates his own religion. Right after that book was published he wrote a long piece about the Pope whom he chose as his victim — as his villain. And I’ve never seen such silly things written about the Pope. I don’t think anyone in England has written anything that silly before — they might dislike the Holy Father, but they wouldn’t say anything that would make even them look ill-informed. Anyway, from there he’s gone on to write a biography of Jesus which is very denigrating as well. So, right now in England people tend to regard him more as a poseur and not a serious scholar or biographer.

You mentioned the Pope, and you’ve also spoken about your meeting with him. Could you tell us a few things about that?

For many years — and this is an embarrassment for some people — I had been receiving much adverse publicity from several people in this country — it’s hard to juggle all the claims of so many people who like C.S. Lewis, and who claim him. Working on the Lewis estate, with a great deal of money involved, you have to be sure what is written about him is publishable. It’s very hard to adjudicate between all the rightful claims of these people. As a result of all this [adverse publicity] there built up in me something like a great stone resting its weight upon my heart causing me physical pain and mental anguish. When the Holy Father was coming to England in 198z, I got the idea — of which I was certain — that if I could only touch him, that burden and the pain would be relieved. I tried to plot out how I could possibly get near enough to touch him. His visit was being covered in all the newspapers. I couldn’t get enough of it. I thought, “I’ll never be able to touch him,” and this great pain continued.

But then I had a visit from a priest who had been in Rome writing his thesis on C.S. Lewis. He knew how much I admired the Holy Father, and he also knew how much the Holy Father admired C.S. Lewis’s writings. Right after that he wrote to me — and I think it was his phraseology that I didn’t take seriously — he said something like, “Do you have time, perhaps, to come to have a chat with the Holy Father?” Well, I never answered that question, I didn’t think it was a real question, I thought he was just being nice. Anyway, he wrote back after a couple of weeks saying, “Look, I know you’re very busy, but couldn’t you spare just a few minutes with the Holy Father, who wants to talk with you?” So I rang Rome and said, “My goodness! I didn’t realize you meant that seriously! I’ll come at any time.”

So I went there and bit my nails for several days. I was afraid to eat or drink for fear I might be poisoned before I met the Holy Father. I thought maybe I was being a little bit dishonest because he wanted to talk about C.S. Lewis and I mainly wanted to touch him. But when he appeared and I did touch him the stone was taken straightaway — just straight away. And he looked pained as if it was transferred to him. It was very nice talking to him, and I had no idea he would be so pastoral. You remember, that to him, the prayers for the dead are very important; the Catholic Church believes what it says. His first question to me was, “Do you still love your friend C.S. Lewis?” I’ve never heard anyone ask if you were still loving someone who was dead, as though we still have a responsibility, you know: “I must not change just because times may change.” It did me a world of good to talk to someone like that, and as we talked, and as I had flashes of his great humor, I thought, this is just like being with C.S. Lewis again. I always felt that because Lewis died so abruptly, it was as though we never finished a conversation, but meeting the Holy Father was like smoothing it out. It was almost like meeting C.S. Lewis as he would have turned out to be, had he become a Catholic.

And so with this experience of the stone being drawn out of you, you have mentioned before that the Holy Father actually winced.

Yes, one of the questions in my mind before the audience was, “Should I tell him this one particular reason why I wanted to meet him?” I guessed that he wouldn’t know anything about that anyway, and perhaps it would be pointless to say anything to him. But when I stood up from kissing his ring and felt the stone leave me, I looked at his face and it as though he were a man who had been stabbed in the back. I saw him wince with what I thought was a very sharp and terrible pain. When I saw him I told him, “I’m sorry, Holy Father, I hadn’t realized that would happen,” and he said, “No, that’s quite all right, that’s quite all right.” And so he did understand.

You didn’t mention anything about the stone, he just knew?

Yes, he seemed to just know it. I felt it would be superfluous to say anything more.

It sounds like the Way of Substitution that Charles Williams and Lewis used to speak of.

Yes. After the audience when I mentioned it to someone, I compared it to the woman with the issue of blood who was cured just by touching in faith, but I hadn’t thought about that until afterwards.

What can we look forward to from Lewis in the future? Are you working on any more manuscripts or projects?

I have to finish a handbook to C.S. Lewis, which wasn’t my idea originally, but that of the publisher in London. It will be a book that will be of help to people, because Lewis has written so much they feel that something like a definition of terms would help break up all the subsequent occasional mysteries. It’s one of those projects that I did not want to do when it was first suggested to me. What I hoped to do was get to work on Lewis’s letters. We hope to bring out three big volumes from the selected packets. I think the first volume will be something like 1915 up to his conversion in 1931, then the second volume up to about 1955, then the third up to the time of his death.

How many more manuscripts are still unedited and on deck for publication?

There are not many more things to be brought out, just straggling pieces. What is more important than anything is to ensure that the best of his works are still in print, because publishers are notorious about dropping titles in order to get new titles. And I have been fighting for many years to keep many titles in print, because if there’s a dip in sales, publishers begin to look at graphs and say, “Let’s drop something.” And if you drop a book then everyone goes around and says, “How come you don’t publish this book?” and the publishers say, “Because it’s not publishable.” Well, you can’t tell them that once it’s out of print it doesn’t get back into print. There are a number of Cardinal Newman’s books which I would love to be able to read, but which I can’t find because they won’t publish them.

A lot of people comment on Lewis’s role as a prophet. His Present Concerns seems as though it were written this morning. Also, The Abolition of Man, and That Hideous Strength virtually predict the so-called “Politically Correct” (P.C.) movement. P.C. has all the earmarks of the N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength, and what’s going on in higher education seems to reflect the issues Lewis identified in The Abolition of Man. At many universities today we are seeing that Hideous Strength on the move.

That Hideous Strength is my favorite book of all Lewis’s work. I agree with you that it’s prophetic. Lewis’s introduction makes a serious point which he made earlier in The Abolition of Man, which is about Natural Law, and what happens, or what could happen, in the event it were abandoned. That Hideous Strength will help us see what is going on in this country right now. It was published in 1945, and in some ways it is more up to date now than it was then. I think it really has a permanent usefulness to mankind, aside from being a jolly good story.

At the conference at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, they were very interested in The Abolition of Man and in Lewis’s great essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism.” I think that is because they see in these days that Natural Law just isn’t believed. It’s the same in England. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently said that, though he personally believed in the Resurrection of Christ, those bishops of the Anglican church who don’t are also right, they have their own integrity, whatever they believe is true for them. If they don’t believe it, then it’s not true. So if you’ve got a hundred Anglican bishops who all believe something different, all of them believing a truth — then things which we know to be contradictory are no longer contradictory. Because they say you make up your own truth. There’s no objective overriding truth, just things that are. I think this is the beginning of the end, or of a great deal of madness.

A physician active in the pro-life movement told me a few years ago that if this continues we’re on the brink of a dark age of the human spirit.

Yes. One thing that I’ve hoped for is what you see in That Hideous Strength. Lewis was in a debate one time with a relativist. This relativist’s understanding was that the universe didn’t exist, and he knew that Oxford was not really there, and that he was pretty certain that even he didn’t exist. When Lewis was asked to stand up and reply to this man, he said, “How do you reply to a man who’s not there?” But Lewis went on to point out that the interesting thing about these people who aren’t there is that if they’re sitting beside you at the table they still ask you pass the salt — well, where do they put the salt if they’re not there? So, I think in one way, this sometimes catches up with people who believe that they are not there, or something else isn’t there. When your foot hits a brick, it won’t get out of the way. So, they still ask you to pass the salt. But meanwhile, I think educators have got to get back and start talking about Natural Law.

It certainly came to the front in the hearings for our Supreme Court justices. It’s becoming a legal, not just a philosophical problem.

I think lots of politicians were fighting against Natural Law. I imagine once you’re a totally selfish society, everyone will see a certain advantage in not having a Natural Law. But it will catch up with you.

Many people now link The Abolition of Man with That Hideous Strength — and maybe this idea came from you — that The Abolition of Man was the theory and That Hideous Strength was the theory played out in the form of fiction.

Yes, that’s exactly right. A wise reader would want to read The Abolition of Man first, and then That Hideous Strength. But if someone finds The Abolition of Man is a bit too tough — it’s a philosophical book — then they should just go straight on to That Hideous Strength, and they’ll find out what Natural Law is all about.

I have been recommending That Hideous Strength to young women friends who have grown up under the rhetoric of feminism, and who are now, quite painfully, fighting to discover their femininity. They are now realizing that they’ve been influenced by something quite unnatural. I recommend they look at Jane Studdock. She has what could be called a conversion to the Goodness of the Normal. Young men today can also learn from the role of Mark.

Yes, I think the treatment of Jane Studdock is quite a tender treatment of a young feminist all involved with herself. She does, as you say, discover the Normal. I don’t know of another story of that period that treats so well and so tenderly such a discovery. It’s very important. I think it should be recommended to feminists, very strongly — especially those who aren’t so hard you can’t actually get close to them.

They are recognizing the split between themselves and the ideology.

There is a lot of talk today about endangered species, and I think their species is more endangered than the Normal.

Do you see anyone on the horizon coming along to pick up the torch of Lewis?

No, but I don’t think we need someone so desperately to pick up the torch as long as Lewis’s books are still available, but naturally it would be good to have someone who would rise up and think like Lewis. But today what I feel is missing are men who are brave enough to talk the way he does. I find — even within myself — one is always trying to trim the sails whenever you’re with a group of people. But for me this is one of the best things about being Catholic. Within Anglicanism, it was very difficult to take the view and insist that abortion was wrong because the Anglican church leaves that up to everybody, and so you might start defending pro-life views and find yourself shouted down by the Left. It’s a pretty lousy business trying to fight for right amongst people who feel they’ve got a right to make up the truth. At least within Catholicism one finds a whole vast army of people who are pro-life, and sometimes one’s strengths come out so much better when you feel at least you’ve got some cooperation from the people around you. So in that way it’s very lovely being a Catholic.

Unfortunately, it can be very lonely being an orthodox Roman Catholic — which is kind of a redundancy — at a Catholic university. I know from my own experience watching students and faculty suffer for their orthodox Catholic beliefs, while “The N.I.C.E.” is in charge of things in the theology department, the chaplaincy and so on. It is a battle.

I think Americans have handled this the best way they can by organizing things like Catholics United for the Faith; and what I saw at Franciscan University was just overwhelmingly hopeful. I didn’t know there was a place in the world where you had such a vibrant Catholicism as there.

By

John Mallon is the director of public relations for Human Life International and a contributing editor for Inside the Vatican magazine. Visit his Web site at http://johnmallon.net.

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