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john f. kennedy and c. s. lewis

At 5:30pm (UK Time) on November 22, 1963, C.S. Lewis collapsed in his home in Oxford after a long illness and died a few minutes later. At the same time, across the Atlantic, John F. Kennedy was landing at Dallas airport after the short flight from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. Within an hour, the fatal shots were fired that ended the President’s life. Not surprisingly, the assassination of the American President eclipsed the news of the death of the British writer, the latter’s death going almost unnoticed, buried in the small print beneath the JFK-dominated headlines. Today, it is interesting to ponder how the reputations of the two men have fared. How have they weathered the inexorable passage of time?

Whereas Kennedy went out in a blaze of glory, albeit not the sort of glory or exit he would have chosen, and whereas Lewis departed in unnoticed silence, not with a bang but a whisper, it is ironic that JFK has been eclipsed more totally by his own death than Lewis ever was. Today, if the average American is asked what he knows about John F. Kennedy, he is much more likely to mention the assassination than any of the actual achievements of Kennedy’s term in office. Almost every American, however ignorant of history or politics, has heard of the assassination; very few know anything of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Kennedy’s symbolically-charged speech in West Berlin. Almost every American associates JFK with Lee Harvey Oswald; very few have even heard of Nikita Khrushchev. Indeed, it says a great deal about the sordid side of Kennedy’s legacy that more Americans will know of his alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe than of his diplomatic stand-off with the Soviet leader.

jfkIf Kennedy’s reputation can be said to have been totally eclipsed by his assassination, Lewis’s reputation has been in the ascendant ever since his unnoticed and understated death.

Rather charmingly, Lewis was convinced that his works would not be read following his death and that he would be completely forgotten within a generation or so. How wrong he was. More people are reading Lewis today, half a century after his death, than ever read him during his own lifetime. It would be no exaggeration to speak of a Lewis industry, which churns out new editions of his books with unceasing regularity and makes film adaptations of his works (The Chronicles of Narnia series) and movie dramatizations of his life (the Hollywood and BBC versions of Shadowlands). From Screwtape on Broadway to Aslan in Hollywood, Lewis and his characters seem to go from strength to strength.

In a purely worldly sense, JFK is now remembered for the wrong things while Lewis is remembered for the right ones. JFK is remembered for the very thing that stripped him of his power (the assassination) and not for anything he did with his power. He is remembered as a womanizer who had secret affairs with Hollywood stars or, to rephrase these activities in the language of the Catholic faith that he claimed to profess, he has the reputation of having been a serial fornicator who betrayed his wife and children in his egocentric wanderlust. Lewis, on the other hand, is remembered as he would have wished to be, as an indefatigable Christian apologist and as one of the finest writers in English literary history. Never in his wildest dreams did he foresee the enormity of the popularity of his works. Never would he have imagined that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would become one of the top ten bestselling books of all time.

In short, and to cut to the chase, posterity has been much kinder to Lewis than it has been to Kennedy.

between heaven and hellThere is, however, another judgment that is much more important than the judgment of time, and that, of course, is the Judgment of God. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the world thinks of us. It is what God thinks of us that matters. It is for this reason that Catholic art and literature through the ages has given us the memento mori, the reminder of death which leads us to contemplate the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. One such work of Catholic literature is Peter Kreeft’s wonderful book, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. Inspired by the providential coincidence that Kennedy, Lewis and Huxley all died on the same day, Kreeft supposes them meeting in the after-life and discussing the meaning of life and the meaning of life after death. Such ponderings bring us to the most important question about John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis: Where are they now?

Lewis in his life was outside the Church but looking towards it and leading numerous others towards it also. He has played a significant part in the conversion of countless people to the Catholic Church, the present author and the aforementioned Peter Kreeft included. He not only believed in purgatory, he believed that he was going there. Shortly before his death, he asked his friend, Sister Penelope, to visit him in purgatory, if visits from heaven were allowed.

Lewis-and-Aslan-SMALLERIs Lewis in purgatory? It is not for us to say, but surely it is inconceivable that one who loved Christ so much and led so many others to Christ and His Church could be in hell.

Is John F. Kennedy in purgatory? Again, it is not for us to say. It is true, however, that he was a cafeteria “Catholic,” like his latter-day “Catholic” counterparts Nancy Pelosi and Melinda Gates, who had turned away from the Church, preferring to serve the zeitgeist to the Heilige Geist, the spirit of the age to the Holy Spirit. There has to be a price to pay for those “Catholics” who have led so many others away from the Church in their open defiance of Rome and their scarcely concealed contempt for Her teaching. There is little doubt that Dante would have consigned JFK to hell. We should hesitate to do likewise.

Where are Lewis and John F. Kennedy now? Let’s just say that purgatory leads to heaven and that heresy and apostasy leads to hell.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the National Catholic Register and appears here with gracious permission. 

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18 replies to this post
  1. I too have pondered the question of whom was more likely to enter heaven JFK or Lewis. And like you, it would seem that the actions and fruits of Lewis’ life would more likely recommend him than JFK’s. But in the last analysis, who would be humble enough to confess his unworthiness and cry, “mea culpa, miserere mihi?” I hope that it wasn’t stubborn pride that kept Lewis standing outside the door of Catholicism which ultimately could have been a fatal stumbling block.

    • I would hope that a charitable Roman Catholic might attribute Lewis’s adherence to the Church of England to something other than stubborn pride. I’ve seen nothing of that in his written work.

      I suspect Lewis’s course had to do more with his interest in what he called “mere” Christianity over sectarianism, familiarity with the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, and a residual discomfort with what used to be called popery (he was, after all, born and raised in Belfast, a scion of the Ulster Protestant establishment).

      For what it’s worth, I am not sure that Lewis, had he lived longer, would have necessarily gone to Rome, even if he had considered something other than the C of E. In one of the biographies I have read, there is a description of a trip he and his wife took shortly before her death. They went to Greece, and apparently Lewis was impressed with the Orthodox priests he met there. Who knows where that might have led? After all, it was not long before that trip that another Englishman, Timothy Ware, stepped into a Russian Orthodox Church in London, with amazing consequences.

      A priest in the Orthodox Church in America once, in a conversation we were having, characterized Lewis as “proto-Orthodox.” Wheaton College in Illinois, a bastion of the American Evangelical tradition, has a major collection of Lewis’s papers. And, yes, the Roman Catholics are eager to claim affinity with his work, and to assert, ever so hopefully, that, if he had lived just a few years longer . . .

      . . . it’s interesting.

  2. There are no grounds for believing, much less suspecting, that pride kept Lewis from becoming a Catholic. Isn’t what keeps most Protestants from becoming Catholics the Bible?

  3. It’s very likely that JFK ordered the assassination of then Catholic President Diem of Vietnam in 63 causing that area of the world to spiral uncontrollably into war and chaos.
    If he isn’t in hell he sure is spending a long time in purgatory.

  4. Lewis’s novel “The Great Divorce” seemed to hold open the possibility of posthumous salvation. At the very least, Lewis seemed open to non conventional views on heaven, hell, and salvation. Some have even gone so far as to try to recruit Lewis into the rank of Christian Universalists. While that is probably going too far, Lewis appeared loathe to write off anyone when it came to the possibility of entering the heavenly ranks. We would be wise to do likewise.

    Lewis penned many a great quote. There was one that seems particularly relevant here: Hell is locked from the inside.

  5. It might well have been “pride” that kept Lewis out of the Roman Catholic Church. The kind of pride that speaks so comfortably and cavalierly of “THE CHURCH”. Unlike the author of this piece, it seems impossible to think that Lewis would want to associate with those who felt all Orthodox, Anglicans and other Christians were “heretics” and that any Roman Catholic who moved toward Orthodoxy or Anglicanism were “apostates.” That level of certainty suggests “pride” to many; and it was this kind of pride Lewis seems to have shunned in all of his writing. It is in stark contrast to his humility and generosity of spirit — and these are among the qualities that means his readership continues and are so wide ranging, including “heretics,” “apostates,” and even atheists. Very few 20th century authors are in virtually all Christian bookshops — from Catholic, Anglican, Baptist and evangelical — and very few who have brought so many readers to Christianity.

    • Mr. Schadler, I’d like to clarify that my article never attacked Lewis for either “heresy” or “apostasy”. If you read more carefully I was simply stating the doctrinal reality that heresy and apostasy lead to hell. I also state explicitly that I don’t believe Lewis in in hell. The logic is, therefore, inescapable: Lewis was neither a heretic nor an apostate.

  6. JFK was one of the popular kids. Although the writer of the gospels said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, I suggest that “rich man” is an ancient rendition of “popular kid.” Why we are so eager to bend ourselves backward into pretzels to give passes of one sort or another to the popular kids has astounded me since childhood. It is evil.

    I suggest this thought experiment: Had JFK not been murdered and had been therefore forced to own the consequences of his antics in southeast Asia and otherwise, would he have become iconic? I highly doubt it. But not being one of the popular kids, I often guess wrong about these things.

    OTOH, CS Lewis was a mensch, pure and undeniable. And no one who deserved heaven would ever think — much less claim — that they did.

  7. Mr. Pearce’s article tackles the most important matter there is: “at the end we are going to be either in Hell or Heaven… forever.” I was very glad reading this article, being impressed one more time with Mr. Pearce’s uncompromised truth pointing attitude. In today’s world, people, especially “intellectuals,” really need such truth reminding essays. I have been searching for a conservative catholic editor that I could hire to help me edit my book, so I had a pleasure to communicate, and even engage in a pleasant debate, with a very decent catholic man who holds a view that hell perhaps exists but is pretty much unpopulated. It is mind boggling that despite overwhelming accounts of Scriptures, Tradition, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, logic, private apparition, and apparition of Our Lady, most “Catholics” hold an opinion that hell either doesn’t exist or basically nobody goes there. And they hold this opinion even though they (those who actually attend Sunday Masses) proclaim reciting Profession of Faith: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” If everyone eventually ends up in heaven, what’s the judgment really for? What’s the struggle, “the good fight” on this earth really for?

    • FYI—Thanks to his Mother -imo, Ted received last sacraments just before he died from the family priest-friend.

  8. Two things about JFK … First, from what specific teachings of the Church did JFK dissent? I have never heard that he refused to believe this or that Church teaching, or that he thought the Church was wrong about this or that issue. His violations of the sixth commandment are well documented, but there is a difference between failing to live up to Church teachings on the one hand, and believing the Church is wrong and therefore thinking yourself unbound by Church teaching. So, what specific Church teachings did JFK not give assent of the will and intellect to? I’m not asking this facetiously, I am asking because I do not know much about JFK’s Catholicism. Secondly, for what its worth, the book “Killing Kennedy” by Bill O’ Reilly states at least once. maybe more, that Kennedy went to Confession. I’d be curious to know if other books on JFK document him going to Confession or his views on Catholicism in particular. If he went to Confession with some regularity, then we must hope that he humbly confessed his sins and was in a state of grace when he died. Like with all people who die, I hope he is in Heaven, or at least in Purgatory.

  9. Robert Frost also died in ’63 and Kennedy appreciated literature. Say what you want, JFK had serious weakness as a person, but I heard he had reconciled w\the Lord (and Mrs. Kennedy) shortly before Dallas.

  10. Lewis and Kennedy demonstrate two important aspects of Catholic doctrine regarding salvation:

    Lewis demonstrates the possibility of salvation for sinners held out to those of true and reasonable faith in Christ.

    Kennedy demonstrates the possibility of salvation held out for sinners who are baptized in the Catholic Church.

    To weigh their sins and virtues against one another has its limits, particularly since the Man of Letters will almost always better the Statesman in virtue, since the chief virtue of the Statesman is prudence. Prudence is not a virtue in literature.

  11. Dante probably would have placed JFK in either the second (most likely) or eight ring of the Inferno. I think maybe Peter welcomed Lewis with open arms.

  12. I read somewhere that Saint Pio told an anxious woman on that very day that JFK had recently made his confession and was heaven bound, albeit with a stop in purgatory first. It is also said that the death of Presient Diem weighed heavily on his conscience, as well it should. If this is so, this would be quite an example of the mercy of God. Not that I was or am a fan of JFK, but one would not want to wish the worst for anyone.

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