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J.R.R. Tolkien was a staunch Catholic, and his religion heavily influenced his life and career. His mother Mabel was born an Anglican, but after the death of Tolkien's father, converted to Catholicism in 1900. Many of Tolkien's father's family were Baptists, and strongly opposed to Catholicism. Mabel was cut off from both families, who stopped providing the single mother any kind of financial support. In 1902 she moved Tolkien and his brother Hilary to Edgbaston outside Birmingham to be near to the Birmingham Oratory and its associated St Philip's School. The Oratory had been established in 1849 by Henry Newman, then a recent convert himself. Newman was one of the leaders of what became known as the Oxford Movement which attempted to reform the Church of England by returning to many of the doctrinal and liturgical practices which existed before the Reformation. When the most radical proposals of the Oxford Movement were rejected by the hierarchy of the Church of England, Newman and many of other Anglicans converted to Catholicism. Those who remained within the Church of England became known as Anglo-Catholics. The Oxford Movement remained influential in twentieth- century Oxford, and T.S. Eliot was a notable convert to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927.

At the Oratory Mabel was befriended by Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who would become Tolkien's guardian two years later when she died of diabetes. Nine years afterwards Tolkien was to write: 'My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.' The quote indicates something of the connexion Tolkien made between his mother's faith and his own. In some way, Tolkien's deep devotion to Catholicism reflected his love for his mother.

Tolkien's Catholicism would again affect his life in 1908, when he was sixteen years old. He met his future wife, Edith Bratt, and by the summer of 1909 they were in love. Father Francis forbade Tolkien from seeing her, ostensably because she was a distraction from his efforts to gain acceptance to Oxford, but perhaps also because she was an Anglican. Tolkien had to wait until 1913 to contact her, when he reached the legal age of majority -- twenty-one. They announced their engagement only after Tolkien had convinced Edith to convert to Catholicism, not an easy thing because she had been heavily and publicly active in her local Anglican Church. Tolkien wrote: 'I do so dearly believe that no half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly'. When Edith converted, she was promptly cut off by his family.

St Aloysius -- Tolkien's parish church

Tolkien's Catholicism also coloured his intellectual life and may have influenced his famous dislike of 'modern' literature from Spenser and Shakespeare onwards. These, of course, were the first great authors after the Reformation, when England abandoned the Catholic Church, and Tolkien may have felt that these authors were impoverished or diminished, like the Church of England, which he called 'a pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs'. But the most famous intellectual application of Tolkien's Catholicism is to be found in his relationship with C.S. Lewis. Lewis became Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College in 1926. Lewis had been brought up in Ulster in Northern Ireland as a Protestant. In adolescence he had embraced agnosticism, but was gradually leaning back towards religion when he met Tolkien. The two spent a great deal of time discussing Christianity. In an episode in 1931 which Tolkien wrote about in his poem 'Mythopoeia' -- and which Humphrey Carpenter later dramatised in the chapter entitle 'Jack' of his biography of Tolkien -- Lewis was persuaded by Tolkien's arguments and became a Christian. However, Tolkien's success would later turn to disappointment, for Lewis became, not a Catholic, but an Anglican. Lewis went on to become a public apologist of Christianity in print and on radio. Tolkien would later write on this: '[Lewis] would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up again, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant'.

All this does not represent a direct influence of Tolkien's Christianity on his writing. In fact, Tolkien recognised that much of his early work was incompatible with Christianity, particularly the material in The Silmarillion (The Lord of the Rings he described as consciously planned with religious compatibility in mind). At the time of his death, he was struggling to re-write material from The Silmarillion to make it compatible with Christian philosophy. 

One way in which Christianity obviously influenced Tolkien's writing is in his treatment of the centuries-old debate over the nature of evil. The official Church position was formulated in 410 AD by St Augustine in his De Civitate Dei (The City of God). In Book XII, Augustine asks why the angels who rebelled against God are miserable. He concludes that the condition of blessedness comes from cleaving 'to Him who supremely is', which amplifies one's own being. In turning away from God, the angels therefore diminished their own existence. He then turns to his classic treatment of the nature of evil:

If the further question be asked, 'What was the efficient cause of their evil will?' there is none. For what is it which makes the will bad, when it is the will itself which makes the action bad? And consequently a bad will is the cause of bad actions, but nothing is the cause of a bad will. For when the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil -- not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.

I know likewise that the will could not become evil, were it unwilling to become so; and therefore its failings are justly punished, being not necessary but voluntary. For its defection is not to evil things, that is to say, not towards things that are naturally and in themselves evil, but the defection of the will is evil because it wills contrary to the order of nature, abandoning that which has supreme being for that which has less. For avarice is not a fault inherent in gold, but in the man who inordinately loves gold to the detriment of justice, which ought to be held in incomparably higher regard than gold. Consequently he who inordinately loves the good which any nature possesses, even though he obtain it, himself becomes evil in the good, and wretched because deprived of a greater good.

And thus we are driven to believe that the holy angels never existed without a good will or the love of God. But the angels who, though created good, are nevertheless evil now, became so by their own evil will. And a will cannot be made evil by a good nature, unless there is a voluntary defection from good; for not good, but a defection from good, is the cause of evil. These angels, therefore, either received less of the grace of the divine love than those who persevered in the same; or if both were created equally good, then, while the one fell by their evil will, the others were more abundantly assisted, and attained to that pitch of blessedness at which they became certain they should never fall from it -- as we have already shown in the preceding book. We must therefore acknowledge, with the praise due to the Creator, that not only men, but primarily and principally of angels it is true, as it is written, 'It is good to draw near to God' (Ps. 73:28).

From: St Augustine, On the Two Cities: Selections from the City of God, ed. F.W. Strothmann (New York: Fredegar Ungar, 1957).

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