The Problem of Monsignor Ronald Knox — A Painful Post-Mortem

From The Point for July, 1958

The Times of London is not normally given to eulogies of Catholic priests. But when Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox died last August, at the age of 69, The Times paid its respects in 1500 words of deeply-touched obituary (“one of the individually great in his generation . . . wittiest Churchman in England since Sydney Smith . . .”). The American Time of Henry Luce is likewise no friend of Catholic convictions. But when Monsignor Knox died, Time offered a glowing, misty-eyed tribute (“Britain’s outstanding Roman Catholic scholar, most versatile writer, and gentlest man . . .”).

With such extravagances the Masonic world saluted the memory of a man who through a long and busy life had served it well.

It might be argued that Ronald Knox did not always know what grave damage he was doing to the church when he sat down to his typewriter; but there is no disputing the reality of that damage — or its lasting effect. For despite his recent passing, Monsignor Knox as an influence is still very much alive. Wherever English is spoken and the Catholic Faith held, from London to Los Angeles, there the cold touch of his prose is still being felt.

With all of the gusto of a British imperialist, Monsignor Knox has sallied into every field of Catholic utterance, declaring his supremacy in the name of the Queen’s English. He has discoursed on apologetics to Oxford students (In Soft Garments ); he has analyzed the Holy Sacrifice for schoolgirls (The Mass in Slow Motion ); he has developed a theology from his newspaper readings (God and the Atom ); he has translated and commented on the Holy Bible. And the effect of all this has been everywhere the same. When the tide of Knoxious eloquence has receded, Catholics who have left themselves exposed to it find their footing in the Faith less sure than it had been. They are amused — perhaps — but troubled. They are beset with doubts and indecisions. They are, ultimately, left in that confused state that the Masonic enemies of the Church (and their Jewish progenitors) rejoice to see: when they are ready to surrender the uniqueness and certitude of Catholic doctrine in favor of some anti-Catholic interfaith creed.

When the Apostles preached to the crowds of Jerusalem on the first Pentecost, they spoke with such fervor and excitement that some of their listeners accused them of being “full of new wine.” That first Apostolic utterance, on the birthday of the church, set a precedent. The news of the Gospel has been spread ever since by men with tongues of fire.

Ronald Knox finds this tradition of ardor most distasteful. He himself has never been able to get worked up about the Faith, and he wishes that others wouldn’t. A few years before his death, Oxford University Press published a history of the heresies that was written by Monsignor Knox to support his let’s-be-gentlemen ideas. This volume, the fruit of a lifetime’s study and composition, is titled Enthusiasm — after the villain of the piece.

It is the Monsignor’s novel contention that heresies are fostered not by those least anxious to lead Catholic lives, but by those most anxious. “You have a clique, an elite, of Christian men and (more importantly) women, who are trying to live a less worldly life than their neighbors. . .” That, he says, is how the trouble begins. In discussing the heretics, however, Monsignor Knox is characteristically careful to express no enthusiasm for orthodoxy. He was, as he puts it, “more concerned to find out why they thought as they did than to prove it was wrong . . . there is so much right on both sides.”

There is in Ronald Knox’s unenthusiastic writing a tireless determination to be off-handedly clever — as though he were perpetually trying out for the role of chaplain in a Noel Coward play. Actually, such mannerism is necessary to Monsignor Knox. He hopes it will cover a multitude of deficiencies in his training (less than two years in the seminary) and the conspicuous flaws in his faith. For illustration, we propose the following excerpts from one Knox volume, Off the Record .

Here is his attitude toward the Holy See: “The (papal) pronouncements are the expression of that (inner) life, and an inadequate expression of it — perhaps particularly so when they are compiled by Italians, with their vice for the superlative . . .” And he adds: “Don’t let piety cheat us out of the reflection that Roman documents are always meant to be interpreted in the most liberal sense.”

Here is his studied burlesque of Indulgences: “I can’t see why Almighty God shouldn’t indulgence all sorts of pious practices which aren’t indulgenced by the Church; shouldn’t give you or me the equivalent of a seven years’ indulgence when we get up to make room for an old lady in a bus.”

This is a bid adroit depreciation of the Church’s belief in the resurrection of the Body: “I do not see why God should not give me a Resurrection Body which is continuous with the body in which I write now, without having to search round for bits and pieces of the multitudinous matter which has, in my time, gone to the making of me.”

Here is his account of Judas’ betrayal: “O felix culpa , the church says of it; it was a blessed crime — the paradox reflects the mystery.” (Which anyone familiar with the Missal knows is ponderous ignorance. The Church says felix culpa , happy faults, of the Fall of Adam, which necessitated Our Lord’s coming. She never says it of the sin of Judas, which effected Our Lord’s death on the cross.)

And here is his summary statement on Our Lady: “. . . most of the literature about her and the popular devotions connected with her leave me cold.”

In 1912, at the age of twenty-four, Ronald Knox became a full-fledged Protestant minister, and chaplain to the Church of England students at Oxford. Five years later he entered the Catholic Church; two years after that he was ordained a priest. In 1926, he was back at Oxford, this time as the Catholic chaplain. During the next thirteen years Father Knox produced a bulk of jaunty literature, both sacred and profane; established a reputation for proficiency in polemics and shorter verse forms; and received the title of Right Reverend Monsignor.

Monsignor Knox’s departure from Oxford in 1939 was the successful culmination of a well-laid plot — not on Oxford’s part but on the Monsignor’s. For years, the dream had possessed him of making a new translation of the Bible into English. Such a text might well have a revolutionary effect, coming from Oxford’s limerick-and-detective-story-writing chaplain, and thus the project could not be rushed into.

To prepare the ground, there appeared in 1936 The Holy Bible, Abridged and Re-Arranged , by Ronald A. Knox, which while using the traditional English of the Douai-Rheims version, set a sizeable precedent for innovation. Monsignor Knox carved up the Bible to fit a pattern that, he explained, made the Holy Scriptures, “more brief, more connected, and more intelligible.” The Monsignor’s proposal that God had run a bit low on continuity and intelligibility when He inspired the Bible, found surprisingly little opposition. The Knoxian “feeler” served its master well. It was really only a matter of months before the Catholic hierarchy of England and Wales had been apprised of Monsignor Knox’s further biblical ambitions, had approached him on the subject, and had, to no one’s astonishment, received his modest assent to put the whole Bible, Saint Jerome’s Vulgate, into whatever sort of English he might care to chose.

Lord Acton’s estate, Aldenham Park, in Shropshire, was offered as a suitably cloistered and comfortable site for Monsignor Knox’s undertaking. There with typewriter in hand, pipe in jaw, and Oxford very much in mind, he turned out an average of twenty-four translated verses a day. The New Testament was completed first and appeared in print in 1944; the Old Testament, two volumes, followed in 1949 and 1950. Subsequent editions have put all the Knox translations into a conventional single volume: Genesis to Apocalypse, the whole gamut of Divine revelation, Knoxized, in one flip-through-able book.

And just in case you miss the spirit of the work (if Job still seems to you more patient than bored, Saint Peter more loveable than laughable), Monsignor Knox has provided ample notes in the margins of the text and three additional volumes of depreciatory comment.

In a previous issue, The Point has decried Monsignor Knox’s malicious and willful attack on the Blessed Virgin Mary, in his translation of the sacred text from Isaias, Ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium: which can only mean, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son.” In complete sell-out to a centuries-old Talmudic tradition, Monsignor Knox refused to use Saint Jerome’s Latin or even the Greek texts for this verse. He went to the post-Crucifixion Babylonian rabbis for their version, and came up with, “Maid shall be brought to bed of a son.” This rendering, which takes all portent out of the prophesied event — meant to be a wondrous sign from God — completely discredits the inviolate virginity of Our Lord’s Mother and the virginal manner of His birth.

There is further abuse waiting for Our Blessed Lady in Monsignor Knox’s marginal note on chapter two, verse four of Saint John’s Gospel. In that place, where the marriage feast at Cana is told, the Monsignor has Our Lord rebuke His Mother (after she informs Him that their host has run out of wine) with the haughty rejoinder, “Woman, leave me alone, do not interfere with me.” There is no grammatical justification for this. But there is a well-known heretical precendent. Tyndale did it in his Reformation Bible, and Cranmer copied it in his. They thus established the pattern which all Protestant England, and Monsignor Knox it appears, afterwards followed.

Writing on chapter twenty-two of Saint Luke’s Gospel, Monsignor Knox says, “Luke omits the story of Mary anointing our Lord’s feet, presumably because he was not certain that he had not already told it.” An indefinite number of such quotes, from Monsignor Knox’s Bible commentaries might be strung out to display every shade of Knoxian cynicism, smartness, snobbery, derision and doubt. But that would leave no room to introduce the Monsignor’s particularly burning malice toward the Gospel of Saint John.

It is the Church’s clear teaching, codified in the Councils of Florence, Trent, and Vatican, that God is the true author of all that Saint John, or any of the Bible’s human writers, has recorded. Pope Leo XIII summarizes this teaching by saying that the books of the Bible, “with all their parts, have been written under the dictation of the Holy Ghost.” This in no way deters Monsignor Knox from the following description of Saint John at work on his inspired Gospel: “He will recall, as if conjuring them up with difficulty, details about names and places and relationships which have nothing much to do with the story. He will give us little footnotes, as if to make sure we are following; often unnecessary, often delayed instead of being put in their proper place. He will remember fragments of a conversation, passing on from this utterance to that by mere association of memory, instead of giving us a reasoned precis of the whole. He will alternately assume that we know the story already, and narrate it in meticulous detail . . . Probably no author but John could have begun his story in this topsy-turvy fashion . . . But, as we have seen, this is the way in which John’s memory works.”

As the above comments are phrased, one might get the impression that Monsignor Knox thinks that Saint John (despite all the doting senility he ascribed to the Saint) actually wrote the Holy Gospel according to Saint John. Not so. “Saint John,” writes Knox, “never really sat down and wrote a Gospel; what we’ve got is the result of a series of Press Conferences, at which his disciples were plying him with questions all the time.” The series of reminiscences that were thus “elicited from him piecemeal” were later shuffled together, the Monsignor says, and made into the Fourth Gospel. And so it happens that Monsignor Knox in the Gospel of Saint John, readily and without scruple blames those unknown disciples: “It looks as if their notes got muddled.”

A few weeks before his death, Monsgnor Knox completed work on a new English translation of the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus. The book has just been published in this country and has been hailed as witness to the “abiding influence” of the late Monsignor.

Nothing, however, could be better calculated to show him up and finish him off than his current literary association with the Little Flower. For if ever there were antipodal personalities they are Therese of the Child Jesus and Ronald Knox of Oxford. In clothing her thoughts with his words — adjusting her style to his standards, dressing up her images, enlarging her vocabulary — he has done his best to transform her into a stuffy, British, slightly less masculine, more pious version of himself. Typical example: Saint Therese writes, “I laugh now at some things I did.” (Je ris maintenant de certaines choses .) Monsignor Knox elaborates this into, “It makes me laugh now to think what heavy weather I made over nothing at all.”

But in the end it is Therese, her brightness and clarity, who prevails, and Monsignor Knox who gets snowed under — as in his miserable attempt to portray her as an inferior theologian for having called Our Lady the “Divine Mother” of Our Lord. After correcting the text to read, “his own Mother,” Monsignor Knox adds the footnote: “The Saint by a slip of the pen has written ‘his Divine Mother.’ It is evident that she never revised these last few paragraphs.”

Among the scores of Saints who gave Our Lady that most fitting title, Divine Mother, and who showed no inclination to revise their paragraphs, were the following Doctors of the Universal Church: Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Bernard, Saint Ephrem, Saint Peter Damian, and Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.

The Point’s battle against the influence of Ronald Knox is a long-standing one. But we have lately determined to entrust its outcome to Saint Therese. During her last illness, this gentle French Carmelite exclaimed: “How happy I would have been to fight at the time of the Crusades, or later on to fight against the heretics.” Taking her at her word, and knowing her present influence at the court of Heaven, we confidently leave the problem of Monsignor Knox in her hands.