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
Born 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.
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.
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.
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