Msgr. Ronald Knox


One reason I mention Knox is that he represents the vast wealth of spiritual brilliance which has been neglected in the last generation.

Msgr. Ronald Knox

"When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal, corrected 'I believe' to 'one does feel.'" So spoke Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) even before he converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism. His satire was directed at those who would water down doctrine to mere opinion. That confused kind of thinking, often masked as "broadmindedness" or "liberalism," was what Blessed John Henry Newman said he had spent his life contending against. The two of them logically led up to Pope Benedict XVI who has called such misunderstanding and abuse of truth the "dictatorship of relativism."

When people inquire about good spiritual reading, I eagerly recommend anything by Knox, especially his collected sermons and retreat addresses, which are easily available. He is unique in his style, which is both easily understood and deceptively profound, woven with shining wit. As a young man he was heralded as the wittiest man in England. From the depths of his Christian consciousness, he said, "Only man has dignity; only man, therefore, can be funny." Most of his writing was pastoral: some for students at Oxford where he was Catholic chaplain, some preached in parishes or on ceremonial occasions, and some given as talks to schoolgirls during World War II. He was a genius as a classical scholar and translated the entire New Testament. He may well have been the finest preacher of the twentieth century; he almost always has some original insight and expresses himself artlessly as a supreme artist of English letters. He was popular on radio, and incidentally wrote entertaining literary criticism and detective novels. There is an admiring biography of him by Evelyn Waugh, who lacked a natural instinct for seeing the best in people, and a book about him and his remarkable brothers, gifted in their own spheres, was written in 1977 by his niece Penelope Fitzgerald.

While more reserved than G. K. Chesterton, they were close friends, and what Knox preached in Westminster Cathedral after the death of his hero in 1936 describes himself, too: "He had the artist's eye which could suddenly see in some quite familiar object a new value; he had the poet's intuition which could suddenly detect, in the tritest of phrases, a wealth of new meaning and of possibilities. The most salient quality, I think, of his writing is this gift of illuminating the ordinary, of finding in something trivial a type of the eternal."

One reason I mention Knox is that he represents the vast wealth of spiritual brilliance which has been neglected in the last generation. The light of those like Knox should not be hid under a bushel, but placed on a lampstand where it can give light to the whole house, and that means every parish church, which is God's own house.




Father George William Rutler. "Msgr. Ronald Knox." From the Pastor (October 17, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of Father George W. Rutler.


Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Ronald Knox was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford. In 1910, he became a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1912 and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College, but left in 1917 when he became a Roman Catholic. He explained his spiritual journey in two privately printed books, Apologia (1917) and A Spiritual Aeneid (1918). In 1918 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. While a Roman Catholic chaplain at the University of Oxford (1926-1939) and as domestic prelate to Pope Pius XI (1936), he wrote classic detective stories.

In 1939, Knox began a nine-year project which resulted in a new English translation of St. Jerome Latin Vulgate Bible into English. (see The New Testament translated by Knox) Highly praised at the time for its literary quality, it was a prime example of Knox’s mastery of the English language, a style greatly admired by many, among them Evelyn Waugh. His works on religious themes include: In Soft Garments: Classic Catholic Apologetics, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, Some Loose Stones, The Church on Earth: The Nature and Authority of the Catholic Church, and the Place of the Pope Within, Reunion All Round, The Belief of Catholics, Caliban in Grub Street, Heaven and Charing Cross, Let Dons Delight, The beginning and end of man, and Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes.

With the outbreak of World War II, Knox found himself in great demand as a radio personality. He also unexpectedly became the chaplain at a school for Catholic girls. It was his lectures to these schoolgirls which resulted in three of his most popular books: The Mass in Slow Motion, The Creed in Slow Motion, and The Gospel in Slow Motion. It was one of his last works, Enthusiasm, which Knox himself regarded as his greatest. In his typically balanced and charitable manner, Knox analyzes various movements throughout history, Catholic and non-Catholic, where religious emotion void of doctrine and authority has wreaked havoc.

Copyright © 2010 Father George W. Rutler

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