A welcome new biography of one of England's greatest Catholic apologists
THE WINE OF CERTITUDE:
a Literary Biography of Ronald Knox
by David Rooney
(Ignatius Press, 2009, 412 pp, $35.90. Available from Freedom Publishing)
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the writings of a number of Catholic authors who wrote in the first half of the 20th century such as Chesterton and Belloc. There is some evidence that Ronald Knox's writings may be set for a similar revival, if the forthcoming re- publication of the Knox translation of the Bible is a guide.
The author of this new Knox biography, David Rooney, is Associate Professor of Engineering at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. He demonstrates an exhaustive knowledge of the subject matter and this work addresses a dearth in contemporary scholarship, since most of the studies of Knox's life and work were written soon after his death.
The Wine of Certitude commences by surveying the main details of Knox's life, so as to place the literary works in their biographical context. The son of an Anglican bishop, Ronald Knox was educated at Oxford before being ordained an Anglican clergyman. As a member of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, he began to have serious doubts about the Catholicity of the Established Church.
Eventually, he was received into the Catholic Church, ordained a priest and became the Catholic chaplain to Oxford University and later chaplain to the Acton family. He died in 1957.
The focus of The Wine of Certitude is on Knox's literary output which can only be described as prodigious. Rooney surveys the writings according to genre, adhering as closely as is practical to their chronological sequence.
Knox had already established a reputation as a writer by the time of his conversion and it would grow as the decades progressed. It is hard to say what he is best remembered for.
His numerous apologetics works, written during the course of his priestly ministry, were in response to the issues of the age, particularly those that caused many to doubt either the existence of God or Church teachings. Rooney argues that Knox had a genuine concern for those who seriously doubted the faith.
He recognised the force of arguments against the faith, which had to be taken seriously and addressed. This concern is reflected in the pastoral manner with which Knox corresponded with Arnold Lunn, with Knox's letters having a seminal influence on Lunn's conversion. However, with his wicked sense of humour, Knox was not shy of directing satire against liberal versions of Christianity nor did he hesitate to point out the illogicality of anti-Christian positions with his wonderful turn of wit.
Akin to Knox's apologetics works were those which systematically explained aspects of Catholic belief and practice, such as The Mass in Slow Motion and The Creed in Slow Motion. Easy to digest, they were originally composed for a girls' school to which Knox became the chaplain when it was evacuated to the Acton family home during World War Two.
Indeed, one could argue that one of Knox's greatest strengths was his ability to present the faith not only to the very learned, but to a mixed ability group of school students.
Knox also spent these years translating the Bible into English, a project which he had been commissioned to undertake by the hierarchy. The task was undertaken as Catholics lacked a translation that accurately reflected the meaning of the original texts in language that contemporary readers could understand.
The main translation of the Bible used by Catholics at the time, the Douay-Rheims, had last been substantially revised by Bishop Challoner in the 18th century. Knox's intention was that the prose be dignified, yet accessible, what he described as 'timeless English.' Unfortunately, the translation would be put aside within 20 years, largely due to changes following Vatican II.
Based on the Latin Vulgate, as was then the practice for Catholic translations of the Bible, the Knox translation was considered inappropriate for use in the post-Vatican II new liturgy. However, Knox's Scripture commentaries display a keen understanding of the original texts.
He also showed a mastery of the art of translation through his translations of Thérse of Lisieux's autobiography and the Imitation of Christ, both arguably the best of these texts.
Knox's profound knowledge of Scripture and spiritual writings is also reflected in his sermons. He had earlier gained a reputation as a preacher whilst an Anglican clergyman and as a Catholic priest he was frequently called upon to deliver occasional sermons throughout England. Some anthologies were published during his life, others posthumously.
Given the theological bent of most of his writings, it is fascinating to read about the detective novels he wrote. Although largely forgotten, except amongst enthusiasts, Knox was considered a prominent enough detective writer to be commissioned to write an introduction to an anthology of mystery stories.
His other fiction works include a sequel to the six novel Barchester Chronicles series written by Trollope and a book of acrostics (a type of word puzzle). Rooney suggests that Knox wrote these works when a teacher at Wells College and chaplain at Oxford because he had the time to do so.
The Wine of Certitude is a fascinating survey of one of England's most distinguished 20th century writers. The biographer's thorough knowledge of Knox's works, together with those of his contemporaries and their historical and social context, is reflected not only in his analysis but also in the interesting and extensive footnotes.
The main thing lacking is an appendix listing Knox's published works, together with an indication of their current availability.