Book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism by Terry Tastard

Ronald Knox and English Catholicism  by Terry Tastard (Gracewing, Leominster 2009)

There was a time when every serious Catholic bookshelf contained something written by Ronald Knox, one of the most outstanding converts to Catholicism of his generation.  As Catholic chaplain to the University of Oxford in the inter-war years and a gifted writer and broadcaster, Knox became the voice of a brand of witty, self-confident Catholicism which attracted many to a faith he helped to make feel familiarly English. 

A convert from Anglicanism himself, the author offers telling insights into the complex and often contradictory character of one of the best-known figures of twentieth-century English Catholicism.  We find tools with which to read Knox’s melancholy and insecurities in the childhood loss of his mother and the subsequent shattering of family bonds.  Sent away to school when very young, as were so many of his class and generation, a certain loneliness and isolation haunted him throughout his life.  While he found compensation in close friendships with the likes of Harold Macmillan and Evelyn Waugh, the tragic losses of childhood were revisited when many of his friends died in the carnage of World War I.  The author shows a sure hand in analysing Knox’s close relationships, especially the conflict with his father who, as an Evangelical bishop, was never able to reconcile himself to his son’s conversion.

While an engaging and beautifully-written book, this is not a hagiography, and Tastard does not hesitate to delve into sensitive areas of Knox’s character.  We see the financial constraints behind the phenomenal output, the social anxieties behind the sparkling wit and the ideological aloofness from many of the key questions of his day.  There is searching analysis of his lack of social engagement, in an era when many outstanding Christians of all persuasions used their skills and their faith to combat the poverty and social deprivation that caused such massive unrest and political upheaval in inter-war Europe.  It would be tempting, against such a background, to see Knox as something of a dilettante, a social butterfly at home among the privileged and wealthy but increasingly estranged from the realities of his world.  Tastard’s skill lies in uncovering the questions while offering ample evidence from Knox’s life of a man too complex and sophisticated to fit neatly into any pre-judged box.  His sympathy for Knox’s spiritual journey, above all, makes one itch to go back to books like the Mass in Slow Motion and rediscover the engaging spiritual writing which captivated Catholics for decades.

If there is any criticism of this book it is that it is too short to do justice to the author’s research and to the wider questions that lie behind it.  Social attitudes in England and Catholic thought, culture and liturgy especially, have moved worlds away since Knox’s time.  For some the distance is so great that he is now barely worth a passing thought.  But his influence in his day, whether as translator of the Bible, broadcaster or writer of detective novels, was enormous, and this new biography is a timely insight into a Catholic past which, although a place in which things were done differently, no longer seems quite such another country.
Ronald Knox and English Catholicism by Terry Tastard can be bought from the ICN shop on our home page.

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