Msgr. Ronald Knox - Priest of Heroic Modesty

 

 As I write this article, the USCCB is diligently working to approve the new translation of the Roman Missal.  This already monumental task has caused a clash between two schools of thought.  One group wants a translation that more accurately reflects the beauty and meaning of the Latin and the other group is afraid that “Joe Catholic” will be confused by it and leave the Church.  It is fitting that during this time of transition, the great English apologist Ronald Knox is becoming increasingly well known and appreciated. When he translated the Bible he had to deal with these same problems.

A Difficult Conversion

Pastoral Sermons by Ronald KnoxBorn the son of an Anglican bishop in 1888, it is no surprise that his journey to Catholicism took nearly thirty years.  But even at an early age Ronald found himself at odds with his father over the importance of theology in religion.  Bishop Knox belonged to the “evangelical” wing of the Anglican church while Ronald Knox became increasingly attracted to the “high church” theology and tradition.  The substance he found there gave his faith clarity.  In fact, he became so aware of what his Anglican faith was that he recognized it was not the true church founded by Christ.  It is interesting to note though that he believed his church was like a disobedient schoolboy who would eventually be reconciled with the school master.  In his early years at Trinity College he had no interest in becoming Catholic.

Time to Get Serious

Prayers, circumstances, friends and academic study eventually brought Ronald Knox into the Catholic Church in 1917.  He accepted a priestly vocation and was granted a chaplaincy at Oxford University. Always modest and unassuming, he found it difficult to be the shepherd for the young men at Oxford, but the setting allowed him to pursue his academic way of life and he was able to write many great books during this time.  His theological works included a book that concisely explained the Faith, The Belief of Catholics, but he also found time to write numerous mystery novels and even help found the Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton.

A New Bible Translation

Fr. Knox's Oxford years came to an end in 1937 when he became chaplain to the wealthy Acton family in Aldenham.  Free from the distractions of campus life, he was able to begin his greatest work, the translation of the Bible.  Up to this point, Catholics were primarily using the English translation of the Bible that was translated by Gregory Martin at Rheims and finished after his death by scholars in Douay.  This Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible reached its final form in 1598 and had changed little in the 300 years following.  In the mid-1800s Bishop Challoner updated the antiquated language but his version is often considered more of a revision than a new Biblical translation.  The problem with the Douay-Rheims and subsequent revisions was that it included too many “latinisms” that obscured the real meaning of the text and rendered some verses nearly unintelligible.

The Creed in Slow Motion by Ronald Knox

When Knox began his translation he opted for a literary translation of the Latin Vulgate rather than the literal translation that was used at the time.  This meant a translation of thought, not a translation of words.  His other books were aimed at clarifying the meaning of Catholicism as can be found in his Slow Motion books, and at the time there was not an English Bible translation that was reader-friendly.

But before we can set Ronald Knox on the side of “Joe Catholic” in the debate over the new translation of the Roman Missal we have to note that he did not intend for his literary Bible translation to be used in the liturgy.  It was important for Catholics to have a Bible they could read and understand in their homes but the Mass required more hierarchic language.  He believed you should never sacrifice complexity for simplicity.  Knox could not tolerate theologians who would suppress a difficult topic in order to make it more intelligible to the wider public.  

The finished Knox Translation was not without its critics.  Some argued that he should have just revised the Challoner edition while others faulted him for using the Latin Vulgate as his source rather than the Greek manuscripts.  This second argument was unavoidable at the time.  Knox had been commissioned by the Church hierarchy to write a new translation and he had to use the Church's official texts as a source.  Even now, his translation of the Pauline Epistles outshines the subsequent editions we use today.  The fact that the Knox translation is rumored to be in print again before 2010 speaks to the quality of his work and the value it still holds.

Finished Tasks

Near the end of his life, now Monsignor Knox, had not only finished his Bible, he had also completed a three volume commentary on the New Testament and the complete translation of the unabridged Autobiography of St. Therese.  In 1957 he was diagnosed with colon cancer and was operated on, but the cancer had already spread to his liver.  By July of that year he was too weak to leave his room and on August 24th he died after being in a coma for four days.

Msgr. Knox's literary output was tremendous and his apologetic works continue to inspire Catholics today.  There are now numerous modern biographies of this great priest and he is often placed on the same level as Blessed John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis.  We have recently expanded our selection of works by and about Msgr. Ronald Knox.  You can explore the contributions of this tremendous convert here.

This article brought to you by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.  Written by James Rutherford.

Bibliography:

The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox by David Rooney
Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation by Milton Walsh
Classic Catholic Converts by Fr. Charles Connor

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Lost Works of Ronald Knox The Lost Works of Ronald Knox
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Monsignor Ronald Knox was one of the most famous English converts of the twentieth century. His writings included spiritual sermons, popular theology and apologetics, a translation of the Bible, and even mystery fiction. The first-ever collection of its kind,  The Lost Works of Ronald Knox  unearths and restores to the Knox library six worthy works that have been out of print for …


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In Soft Garments In Soft Garments
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Classic Catholic Apologetics
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In Soft Garments - Classic Catholic Apologetics by Msgr. Ronald Knox When the Holy See gave general permission for Catholics to study again at Oxford and Cambridge, the stipulation was made that lectures be offered to provide support for their faith, as Catholics would be a minority in a rather hostile atmosphere. In the days when C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien trod the greens of Oxford, …


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Wisdom, Wit and Spiritual Guidance from a Master

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C. S. Lewis called him "the wittiest man in Europe," and Ronald Knox was a deft apologist, an astute translator of the Bible, and the preacher for occasions great and small throughout the first half of the twentieth century in England. But he was first and last a priest, and it is in his sermons and retreat conferences that we meet Ronald Knox the spiritual guide. A Retreat for Lay …


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Retreat for Lay People A Retreat for Lay People
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Wisdom, Wit and Spiritual Guidance from a Master
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C. S. Lewis called him "the wittiest man in Europe," and Ronald Knox was a deft apologist, an astute translator of the Bible, and the preacher for occasions great and small throughout the first half of the twentieth century in England. But he was first and last a priest, and it is in his sermons and retreat conferences that we meet Ronald Knox the spiritual guide. A Retreat for Lay …



Retreat for Lay People A Retreat for Lay People
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Wisdom, Wit and Spiritual Guidance from a Master
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C. S. Lewis called him "the wittiest man in Europe," and Ronald Knox was a deft apologist, an astute translator of the Bible, and the preacher for occasions great and small throughout the first half of the twentieth century in England. But he was first and last a priest, and it is in his sermons and retreat conferences that we meet Ronald Knox the spiritual guide. A Retreat for Lay …



Creed in Slow Motion The Creed in Slow Motion
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  During the WWII bombing of London, Ronald Knox--a priest, radio personality, detective novelist, scholar, and Catholic convert--found himself the chaplain of a girls' school where students were being sheltered. When his existing homilies were exhausted, Knox began to write new ones for his students based on the Apostles' Creed. The homilies were so well-received that they were …


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Pastoral and Occasional Sermons Pastoral and Occasional Sermons
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The highly esteemed Catholic convert, writer and apologist Ronald Knox, a master of the English language, was well regarded for his gifts both of writing and preaching. This volume combines both skills as it is a collection of his homilies on all the important themes of the spiritual and moral life, and on his favorite saints, men and women of history who were "inflamed with the love of …


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Church On Earth The Church On Earth
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The Nature And Authority Of The Catholic Church,
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  The nature of the Church and the authority of the Pope explained   Recent scandals have led many to claim that the Catholic Church is inherently flawed and that to save it, the Pope and bishops must yield decision-making authority to the laity. With clarity and verve, Ronald Knox here shows that by the very terms of its commission from Christ, the Catholic Church cannot become a …


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Belief of Catholics The Belief Of Catholics
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Ronald Knox   Ronald Knox was one of the most influential British convert-writers of the 20th century. Of his many works, The Belief of Catholics is his best-known book and his premiere piece of apologetics. While it deals extensively with Protestantism, its target is more the unchurched or lightly-church modern who, if he gives any thought at all to Catholicism, thinks it mildly foreign. …


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Imitation of Christ The Imitation of Christ
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  THE IMITATION OF CHRIST Thomas a Kempis Translated by Ronald Knox & Michael Oakley The spiritual classic by à Kempis, the second most widely read spiritual book after the Bible, has had an astonishing impact on the spiritual lives of countless saints, peasants, and popes for centuries. Even today, the soul-searching words of the fifteenth-century cleric Thomas à …


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Spiritual Aeneid A Spiritual Aeneid
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A Spiritual Aeneid The autobiography of Msgr. Ronald Knox.


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Beginning and End of Man The Beginning and End of Man
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The Beginning and End of Man (1921) by Ronald Knox


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