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Taste Test

I once had sent to me a scurrilous attack on one of my favorite writers, Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957). The attack was written by two Catholics who were defending their young-Earth and anti-evolution ideas. Knox, who never wrote on the age of the Earth or on evolution, came into their argument in a roundabout way.

The two controversialists began by complaining about an article that had appeared in the New Oxford Review. The article concerned human evolution and had cited The Church Teaches, a 1955 compendium of selections from Church documents. One of those documents was Humani Generis, the 1950 encyclical on human origins issued by Pope Pius XII. The encyclical had been written in Latin, and The Church Teaches included an English translation. The translation was by Ronald Knox.

The two controversialists did not like his translation. Instead of sticking to their cosmological arguments, they went after Knox—and rather crudely. First they suggested that he could not have been much of a Catholic because, at his death, he had received “warm eulogies” in The Times of London and in Time. (The next year, at his death, Pope Pius XII also received “warm eulogies” in those publications. I guess he wasn’t much of a Catholic either.)

Having presented their opinion of Knox, they wrote: “Rather than present our own opinion of his cynicism and pretentiousness, let the Knoxious prose that has caused his readers to be troubled in the faith and beset with doubts speak for itself.” How clever the two must have thought themselves with that word “Knoxious”—sort of like schoolboys seeing who can work up the best insults based on classmates’ names or facial features.

What followed were out-of-context snippets from several of Knox’s books. Let me look at just one: “[M]ost of the literature about [Mary] and the popular devotions connected with her leave me cold.” This, and snippets like it, were listed to show that Knox was “left-leaning,” a strange epithet to use against someone who asked the very conservative, even reactionary, Evelyn Waugh to be his literary executor and official biographer!

Back to the snippet. It is taken from Off the Record, a collection of Knox’s correspondence published in 1954. In letter XLIV he wrote to an unnamed woman who, not yet a Catholic, was “now much nearer the Church” yet “was afraid of finding the atmosphere of Catholic piety uncongenial.” The letter appeared under the rubric “On Devotions which don’t appeal to us.” A convert himself, Knox was writing to someone who was contemplating entering the Church not from a High Church Anglican background, as he had done, but from an Evangelical background in which one becomes suspicious of devotion to saints, particularly to Mary.

Almost in passing, Knox said: “I have had a devotion to our Blessed Lady ever since I was a schoolboy at Eton, but most of the literature about her and the popular devotions connected with her leave me cold; I don’t think that matters, as long as you are prepared to go your way and let other people go theirs.” The two controversialists thought that by expressing such thoughts Knox was reading himself out of the Church.

I guess they might have to say something like that about me (in fact, those two have, in other contexts), because I share Knox’s view. Like him, I am not attracted to sentimental or syrupy devotional writing or to the devotions that stem from such writing. Similarly, I don’t care for the holy-card art of the 19th century. I know Catholics who say such art suits their spirituality well even while (strange to me!) they are quite unmoved by a Masaccio fresco. If it is okay for Catholics to respond in differing ways to art, why is it a sign of apostasy for someone to acknowledge that much popular devotional writing leaves him cold?

Which brings me to the prime question: Who appointed those two yahoos as arbiters of taste and judgers of souls?

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