Monsignor Ronald Knox: Convert, Priest, Apologist | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh, author of Ronald Knox As Apologist: Wit, Laughter, and the Popish Creed
Throughout the first half of the past century, both as an Anglican and then as a Catholic priest, Ronald Knox was a well-known part of the English literary landscape. He was a favored preacher for occasions great and small; his articles on a host of topics found a place in the newspapers and monthly literary magazines; his voice was heard often on the BBC. Most significant was the tide of books that flowed from his pen and found a wide readership in Great Britain and the USA.
In his book, Ronald Knox As Apologist, Fr. Milton Walsh, an expert on Knox's writing, has analyzed and provided ample quotations from the most significant writings of Knox that fall under the genre of apologetics. Knox was a superb apologist because as a priest he was a man of deep faith, and as a writer he had a wonderful way of expressing the Christian truths in an elegant and clear language. Knox was also a man with a grand sense of humor and a keen wit, as well as empathy and kindness, and both his humor and charity are captured well in these writings. Ronald Knox stands alongside G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh as a great spiritual and literary British writer whose works are once again receiving wide readership and appreciation.
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Fr. Walsh about the life and work of Monsignor Ronald Knox.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How and when did you first encounter Ronald Knox? What attracted you to his writings?
Fr. Milton Walsh: When I was in high school I was introduced to the writings of Knox, along with those of Cardinal Newman, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. Those are formative years for all of us--a time when we are beginning to think for ourselves and become aware of the power of language. An added element in the mix for me was that I was in a minor seminary right after the Second Vatican Council, in the San Francisco area, which was certainly one of the centers of student unrest--re: Vietnam, etc. I found in these writers authors who could offer solid reasons for believing, and who expressed their convictions in a manner both profound and entertaining.
As I continued through the seminary my reading of Knox continued as well: both his more serious theological writings and his lighter essays. As an habitue of second-hand book stores I picked up copies of his works whenever I came across them. Later, as a priest and professor in the seminary I found him to be a good role model: in his writings Knox did not shy away from addressing serious theological issues, but in a way that was "user friendly". I have never tired of reading him. As with some other writers, he is initially attractive because of his cleverness; but repeated readings reveal the spiritual depth beneath the clever surface.
IgnatiusInsight.com: If I'm not mistaken, you studied in Rome. Was it there that you wrote a dissertation on Knox? What was the specific focus of that work? Was it a precursor of sorts to your book?
Fr. Walsh: In 1982 I was privileged to go to the Gregorian University to pursue doctoral studies. I had wanted to concentrate on spirituality (reasoning that if people had a right to expect expertise of some kind from a priest, it would be in prayer). My bishop had other ideas. He said that in his opinion I wrote very clearly, and that the Church needed people who could express clearly what we believe as Catholics. He told me he wanted me to do something in the area of apologetics. My idea then was to write a comparison of the apologetics of Ronald Knox and C. S. Lewis. However, there were time constraints and my director (Fr. Gerald O'Collins, S.J.), suggested I just write about Knox. Very little had been done on him.
In conjunction with my research I interviewed Dom Hubert van Zeller, who had been a close friend of Ronald Knox. Dom Hubert suggested that I contact the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who had Knox's papers. Lord Oxford and his wife were delighted that someone was writing on Knox and were most hospitable. In going through Knox's papers I struck oil: several conferences by Knox which had escaped the otherwise thorough attention of Evelyn Waugh, who years before had organized his friend's papers and published many of his talks posthumously.
In 1985 I successfully defended my dissertation "Ronald Knox as Apologist", which included not only my own research but also eleven previously unpublished conferences. When I returned home I sent a copy of my dissertation to Fr. Joseph Fessio, who told me that while Ignatius Press was interested in apologetic books, they had a policy of not publishing dissertations. He confided that they had made one exception--the dissertation of Karol Wojtyla! I admitted that he was setting the bar rather high for me. A few years ago I was able to significantly rework my dissertation, and am very happy that Ignatius Press has now brought it out.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You emphasize, in Ronald Knox As Apologist, that although Knox died prior the Second Vatican Council (in 1957, fifty years ago), his apologetic work is just as relevant as ever. How so?
Fr. Walsh: In a sense, his work is more relevant now than it was twenty years ago when I wrote my dissertation. At that time there was a kind of prejudice against apologetics in Catholic circles. (In the introduction to my dissertation I noted that in a standard English dictionary "apologetics" comes right after "Apollyon: the angel of hell.") I think Knox and other Catholic writers were set aside because they seemed to smack of pre-conciliar Catholic triumphalism, and there was a reaction against an emphasis on intellectual defenses of the faith. Discussing specifically Catholic doctrines was perceived as an ecumenical gaffe. Now the situation is different. We have a whole generation that has grown up without little or no exposure to basic Catholic beliefs, and those who want to remain Catholic need reasons for what they believe. We also have many converts who want to know why the Church teaches what she does.
As to what Knox himself brings to the table, there is a lot that could be said, but I will limit myself to two points. 1. He is among the finest proponents of traditional Catholic apologetics, which seeks to present a rational argument for our faith. 2. Along with his masterful intellectual presentation, Knox has a vivid imagination, which gives him a remarkable ability to appeal to the common experience of his readers. The first approach grew out of the Christian response to the Enlightenment: the only common ground between believer and non-believer was reason.
Later in life Knox felt that our Catholic apologetics tended to rely too much on reason alone, and he hoped to produce a new approach, which would not sacrifice intellectual rigor, but would find other ways to connect with non-believers as well. The fundamental contention of my book is that the problem he did not solve in theory he had already solved in practice: by his use of imagination and appeal to the ordinary experience of readers he could help them see the truth and beauty of our faith.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Knox was not only an apologist but a scholar and an acclaimed stylist. How did those three qualities work together? What were Knox's strengths as a defender and teacher of the Catholic Faith?
Fr. Walsh: Knox had a first-class mind, and was fortunate to receive a first-class education. He was part of a remarkable generation of Englishmen, many of whom died in the trenches of the First World War. Most of the leading figures in science, literature, philosophy and the arts in England in the first half of the 20th century emerged from the same intellectual world as Knox. As a scholar Knox could hold his own with any of these minds. In addition he wrote beautifully, and excelled in a variety of genres (everything from Limericks to biblical translation). He always read his talks, but those who heard them report that one never felt that Knox was reading to them; he wrote the way he spoke. He also "recycled" his talks many times, so that by the time they were published he had polished them perfectly. He also tended (for the most part) to shy away from polemics. When you read his books, especially his sermons and conferences, you find a combination of intellectual depth and imaginative expression. Some of his writings are definitely "period pieces"; but most have stood the test of time, because they deal with fundamental matters clearly and positively.
IgnatiusInsight.com: It seems that there are some interesting similarities between the lives and work of C.S. Lewis and Knox, notably their Anglo-Catholic backgrounds, their education, and their popular (but very learned) approach to apologetics. Is that an accurate statement? Do you know if Lewis was familiar with Knox or his writing?
Fr. Walsh: There are many similarities between Knox and C. S. Lewis, and I am currently writing a book comparing their thought. They both came from Evangelical backgrounds; they both combined a love of logic with a romantic view of life. They were both very much at home in the world of Oxford, and wrote in a variety of genres. Knox was about ten years older than Lewis, so they did not know one another in student days. I have found references to each man's writings in the other man's books and letters; they were familiar with one another's work.
When I went to Oxford a couple of years ago I made an interesting discovery. Every afternoon Lewis used to take a walk in the meadow behind Magdalen College, and Knox would take a walk in Christ Church Meadow. I found out they were practically across the street from each other! They had friends in common, and one of them reports that he invited them to lunch one day in 1936. They hit it off very well, and it is enjoyable to speculate what might have happened had Knox not left Oxford a couple of years later. They may have gotten better acquainted, although Lewis' discomfort with "Papists" (excluding such exceptions as Tolkien), and Knox's reticence to go "convert hunting" may have been enough to keep them apart. I like to think they're together now!
IgnatiusInsight.com: You state in the book that throughout Knox's life--"and in his apologetics--there is a tension between the rational and the affective. Both elements are always present, vying for center stage." Can you provide an example of this? How did Knox cope with this tension, and how did it affect his apologetic efforts?
Fr. Walsh: On the intellectual front, Knox had a reputation as a great debater at Oxford. Had he gone into politics instead of the Church, I think he would have made a significant contribution to the English political scene. When he applied this talent to the study of theology, it brought him into the Catholic Church. He recounts this journey in A Spiritual Aeneid. Upon examination of her claims, Knox became convinced that the intellectual arguments for the Catholic communion as the Church founded by Christ were true. In some writings, such as the first half of The Belief of Catholics and his conferences to Oxford students (The Hidden Stream and In Soft Garments) Knox sets forth an intellectual presentation of these claims.
At the same time, his earliest introduction to Catholicism came from reading a collection of short stories by R.H. Benson (written while Benson was still an Anglican) that described the Catholic ethos, which Knox found very attractive. You get a taste of this appeal in the second half of The Belief of Catholics in which Knox tries to convey something of the "feel" of Catholicism from the inside. I think Knox strove to aim for both the head and the heart.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Knox once told Arnold Lunn that he was "more of a crook than a hook." What did he mean by that and what does it say about his approach to being a pastor and apologist?
Fr. Walsh: This line is related to a very interesting story. When A Spiritual Aeneid was published, Arnold Lunn was an agnostic. He had known and admired Knox in his school days, but was horrified by his conversion and wrote a scathing review of the book; so scathing that he could not get it published. He then wrote a longer work called "Roman Converts" which attacked not only Knox, but Newman and Chesterton. Knox dropped him a note: "Thank you for the compliment. At least, I think it was a compliment--rather like the crocodile chasing Captain Hook."
Lunn was amazed that Knox could meet his diatribe with such equanimity. Later he wrote to Knox about apologetics, and observed that in most such books the believer presents both sides of the argument. Lunn proposed that they exchange letters with a view to publication, and this book came out in 1933 under the title Difficulties.  A couple of years later Lunn himself became a Catholic, and entered the lists as an apologist. Knox was still Chaplain at Oxford, and Lunn (along with Belloc) urged him to write more apologetics. Knox demurred, saying, "The Church gets along by hook or by crook--the hook of the fisherman and the crook of the shepherd. I'm more of a crook than a hook." Knox saw his job at Oxford as assisting students who were already Catholic, not seeking to make converts. He ordinarily sent would-be converts to the Jesuits or Dominicans. Many of his writings were directed at helping Catholics understand their faith better. I think this gives his approach a gentleness that is appealing. He was also aware of the real human problems converts face, and this suffuses many of his writings with a note of sympathy for others who do not see things as he does.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You note that one of Knox's greatest arguments for Catholicism was his own life. How hard was it for him to become Catholic? What finally convinced him that he must turn to Rome? What was the reaction to him becoming Catholic?
Fr. Walsh: It was an extremely painful process. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of A Spiritual Aeneid (and Knox himself was not enthused about having it republished in the 1950's), it does capture something of his struggles. Waugh's biography and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Knox Brothers also help us appreciate what it cost him.
Had Knox remained an Anglican, he would have had an illustrious career; he sacrificed that and entered a Church which in some ways did not know quite what to do with him. (I think Waugh exaggerates this a bit.) Conversion meant a parting from some of his dearest friends, and several others were killed in the First World War. Most painful was its effect on his relationship to his father, who was a bishop in the Church of England, and very hostile to Anglo-Catholicism. Knox and his father loved each other deeply, and the agony caused by Knox's entrance into the Catholic Church was excruciating for both of them.
In some ways, Knox's path to Rome was similar to Newman's. He began with the conviction that the Anglican Communion is part of the historic Catholic Church, and needs to recover elements of its identity lost in the wake of the Reformation. Upon closer examination, such a claim struck each of them as untenable as a matter of historic record; there was a fundamental discontinuity between the Church before and after Queen Elizabeth. On a deeper level, Knox recognized that the Christian faith is founded on the conviction of certain truths revealed by God in Christ, and that all theology must be built on the foundation of these truths. To his mind, the Church of England was abandoning this understanding of theology and seeking to present the faith solely in terms of human reasoning. He came to see that the magisterium of the Catholic Church was crucial to maintaining fidelity to Tradition while at the same time growing in the understanding of that Tradition with changing times.
Regarding reactions to his conversion: many people were surprised that he waited as long as he did, some mourned his loss to the Catholic cause in the Church of England. I have read through a collection of letters he received when his conversion became known, and even those who disagreed with him respected his integrity.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What can apologists and other Catholics learn from Knox?
Fr. Walsh: A lot! Along with his apologetics Knox offers solid fare for prayer and meditation. I would encourage people to pick up a copy of Pastoral and Occasional Sermons and read through his sermons on the Eucharist, or what he has to say for various feasts and seasons of the Church year. From his Evangelical upbringing Knox received a deep love for the Bible, and all of his writings are steeped in the Scriptures.
His sermons on the saints are delightful. His conferences to schoolgirls (The Mass in Slow Motion and The Creed in Slow Motion) are out of print, but available in libraries and second-hand book stores, and they combine spiritual depth with a lightness of touch. Similarly with his books of retreat conferences, which show a great awareness of our human condition. In his conferences Knox is hardly ever autobiographical, and yet his personality shines through. He combines intellectual conviction with great sympathy for those who struggle to come to faith, or to hold onto it.
 Editor's note: A portion of Difficulties is published in Controversies: High Level Catholic Apologetics (Ignatius Press, 2001), by Karl Keating, which also provides a detailed introduction to the Knox vs. Lunn debate (pp 75-116).
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:
IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
Experience, Reason, and Authority in the Apologetics of Ronald Knox | Milton Walsh | From Ronald Knox As Apologist: Wit, Laughter, and the Popish Creed
The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Foreword to A History of Apologetics | Dr. Timothy George
"Be a Catholic Apologist Without Apology" | Carl E. Olson
"Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasars Apologetics" | by Fr. John R. Cihak
"Kreeft On Apologetics" | An interview with Peter Kreeft
Fr. Milton Walsh is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He wrote his dissertation on Ronald Knox and is a longtime reader and researcher of the works of Knox. His next book, Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and Ronald Knox in Conversation, will be available in May 2008 from Ignatius Press.
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