Paul Griffin looks at Ronald Knox’s account of his spiritual journey and his reason for converting to Roman Catholicism
Recently I came across a book by Ronald Knox called A Spiritual Aeneid. This was originally published in 1918, and gives an account of his conversion to Rome in such terms as irresistibly recall our own present situation. The son and grandson of bishops, he was ordained in Anglican orders, then had a brilliant career before the Great War, until he was received as a Roman Catholic in 1917, still not yet thirty. He became a Monseigneur, and died in the Fifties.
What first surprised me was that even at that far-off time, when he was an Anglo-Catholic, he was concerned about the activities of people he referred to as liberals’ and ‘modernists’ on the same grounds as ourselves, and Spent years wondering what to do about it.
Now I have never heard anything but praise for Ronald Knox. He was clearly an intellectual prodigy and wrote books (Enthusiasm, for example) still highly recommended. Moreover, he was funny, witty, and of a pleasant presence. I ought therefore to have been impressed by his final solution. In fact the story filled me with doubt and concern.
His was a time, remember, not long after the late nineteenth-century fuss about comparatively unimportant church ornaments, now standard. Knox himself was in favour of so many Popish practices that he would have seemed to most on the near-lunatic fringe even today. He loudly proclaimed this extremity of Anglo-Catholicism in season and out of season, and must have upset many Anglicans whom soberer conduct might have impressed.
This was the time when the Foundations modernists were creating a stir. Knox wrote a lampoon against them, which he describes in his autobiography, with perhaps a trace of self-satisfaction. After the brilliance of his academic career, he had a restless time, being Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, doing war work in Whitehall, and teaching at Shrewsbury. He was much concerned about the basis of faith, which I think took him into an authoritative Church, for he greatly distrusted the ways of Evangelicals who he thought dealt, as it were, directly with God.
A matter of conscience
I may not be an Evangelical, but I cannot see how we can avoid dealing with God; or what is prayer and faith? The decision to go over to Rome is itself a matter of personal conscience. A Roman Catholic does not lose the guiding star of conscience.
Each day we have to ask ourselves in greater or lesser depth: ‘What do I honestly believe?’ and act on the
answer. Ronald Knox seems to believe that when we say ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ we really mean ‘through the Church, which is Christ’s body! This maybe true, but how can a point so subtle be an excuse for a change of allegiance? Is it really the vital turning point that invalidates our prayers and meditations and makes our Church Protestant as well as Catholic? Ronald Knox answered the question one way, because he could not believe in the efficacy of Anglican orders. If that belief is justified, which we think it is not, it is surely not so because of the reason he gives.
Whatever we do, I hope we shall not be tempted to describe our spiritual journey in verses from Virgil’s Aeneid, with a note of the English meaning at the bottom of every other page, as Knox did. It puts the whole business above the heads of the ordinary worshipper.
It is a great temptation to very clever people to generalize, which is necessary, but can lead to half-truths. I understand that the renowned Katharine Jefferts Schori recently said: ‘The great Western heresy [is] that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.’
Well, up to a point, Lady Copper, but many of us will stick to our obstinate heresy that being in a right relationship with God is the whole object of the exercise. The Church is very necessary, as the hungry Stylites well knew, but at the very end there is each one of us – member of the Body of Christ or not – and God. That is how it seems to the patient, and I suppose to the Almighty.
Our Churches have much in common, but what keeps us apart does not to me seem entirely the point that precipitated Ronald Knox’s departure.