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Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics


By James J. Thompson Jr. | May 1984

When Fr. Ronald Knox died in 1957 Roman Catholicism lost one of its most illustrious converts of the 20th century, an Englishman whose elegant intellect and lapidary prose had graced the Church for 40 years. Those who mourned him consoled themselves with the conviction that his accomplish­ments would long survive his passing. Not only had he written a shelfful of apologetic works but he had also labored 10 years to produce a revised translation of the Vulgate, had contributed to En­glish letters several volumes of poetry and fiction, had published an authoritative history of enthusi­astic religion, and — as if this had not been enough to keep him busy — he had effortlessly tossed off a half dozen detective novels. In addition to his writ­ing and scholarly labors he had instructed seminar­ians in the New Testament in the early 1920s and from 1926 until the outbreak of World War II he had served as chaplain to the Roman Catholic stu­dents at Oxford, from which post he had captured the devotion of a generation of young English Catholics. Soon after Knox’s death Evelyn Waugh, one of England’s foremost novelists and men of let­ters, published his loving biography of his late friend. Knox’s fame was secure for generations to come.

Or was it? In America, where he once enjoyed a wide and devoted following, not one Catholic in a thousand could today correctly identify him. The “Knox Bible” no longer commands much attention and most of his books, save a few scattered and un­important titles, have been dropped from publish­ers’ lists. Detective-story buffs would probably rec­ognize his name sooner than would those Roman Catholics who once read his apologetic works with relish.

No Roman Catholic introduced me to Knox; I discovered him at the insistence of two friends — one Lutheran, the other Greek Orthodox — whose zeal for Knox compelled them to force his writings upon even passing acquaintances. In defense of American Catholics one could argue that writers come and go and that Knox has simply fallen vic­tim to one of those inevitable shifts in reading tastes. Unfortunately, the real reason for Knox’s eclipse is less innocuous: given the current procliv­ity of Catholics for books on sexual freedom, fem­inist religion, and liberation theology, a writer who propounds the sturdy demands of orthodoxy stands little chance of attracting many readers.

Poor Fr. Knox is sadly out of date; but what does the calendar have to do with the truth? Knox continues to be read by those who seek the bracing tonic of orthodoxy in an intellectually debilitated age. The bookshelves of Knox’s admirers invariably hold a dog-eared copy of the old Image edition of The Belief of Catholics, a volume once much read (especially by adult catechumens) and now lamen­tably out of print. More than any other of Knox’s two dozen or so titles, this one appears to enjoy the widest circulation among orthodox Catholics in America. Though published nearly 60 years ago, The Belief of Catholics still possesses that myster­ious power of persuasion that enables a book to change a man’s mind; more than one unwary skep­tic has been startled by the capacity for belief that Knox has awakened in him.

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