The Catholic Thing
Ronald Knox on “The Modern Distaste for Religion” Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 03 April 2013

Within moments of Pope Benedict’s announcement that he was abdicating the Chair of St. Peter, secularists began demanding that the College of Cardinals choose a less rigid, more progressive pontiff; in other words, a pope who would repudiate Church teachings on chastity, same-sex “marriage,” divorce, contraception, abortion, and priestly celibacy.

Leading the charge was The New York Times, which devoted plenty of front page, above-the-fold space to castigating the Church and Benedict. The op-ed editor published, ad nauseam, the usual tired-old Catholic critics, including Garry Wills and Hans Küng.

And the moment secularists realized that Pope Francis is not a South American liberation theologian, but a bona fide Roman Catholic, a smear campaign against him commenced. He was falsely accused of being sympathetic to authoritarian Argentine governments and responsible for the deaths of two outspoken anti-government Jesuits (who were liberation theologians).

We should not be discouraged by this viciousness: attacks on the Church and demands that it abandon dogmas are hardly new. Secularist objections to many Church teachings go back generations and in some cases centuries.

To get a sense of these age-old battles, I recommend readers turn to the writings of the British convert Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1885-1957) was the son and grandson of Anglican bishops, attended Eton and Oxford, became a fellow at Trinity College, and then an Anglican cleric in 1912. While serving as a chaplain at Oxford, he embraced Catholicism in 1917, and two years later was ordained a priest. A noted preacher, essayist, and literary stylist, he published numerous collections of sermons, retreat talks, and radio broadcasts.

Like his contemporaries, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Martin D’Arcy, Knox was a champion of what T.S. Eliot called the “permanent things.”  He believed that to effectively combat modernists one must merely “trust orthodox tradition to determine what he is to believe, and common sense to determine what is orthodox tradition.”

The forebears of contemporary Modernism, who today promote pantheism in cosmology and voluntarism in ethics, were peddling a similar agenda in Knox’s time. He wrote that there existed:

philosophers who question the adequacy of thought itself as a method of arriving at speculative truth; there are psychologists who deny the reality of human free will; there are anthropologists who would explain away religion as an illusion of the nursery; and meanwhile, aiming their shafts more directly at the Church to which I belong, historians are for ever turning up flaws in our title-deeds, and prophets of the age arraign our narrow outlook before the tribunal of human progress.

To counter these and other assaults on faith, Knox penned a work of classic apologetics entitled The Belief of Catholics (1927).

        Msgr. Ronald Knox

In the first chapter, “The Modern Distaste For Religion,” he concedes that “agitators, publicists and quack physicians” have had a negative impact, with the result that religion “as a factor in English public life has steadily and visibly declined.”

For instance, the early twentieth-century Church of England experienced declining clerical vocations, falling charitable donations, weakening “Churchmanship” in the public square, and declining numbers of laity in the pews. In reaction, High Anglican churches panicked and abandoned many doctrines inherited from Catholic antiquity. They not only tolerated “the expression of views which their fathers would have branded as unorthodox” but became “infected by the contagion of their surroundings, and los[t] the substance of theology while they embrace[d] its shadow.”

To accommodate the latest secular trends, fundamental Christian dogmas were “subjected more and more to criticism and restatement.” Broadminded Anglican ministers preached that hell no longer existed and said very nearly the same about sin. Their churches became places one visited, not to hear a Gospel message, but to listen to good music and be served tea and cookies afterwards.

Knox concluded that the decline in church membership goes hand in hand with the decline in dogma: “The average citizen expects any religion which makes claims upon him to be a revealed religion; and if the doctrine of Christianity is a revealed doctrine, why all the perennial need of discussion and restatement? Is the stock [he put the question in a commercial context] really a sound investment, when those who hold it are so anxious to unload it on any terms?”

This is precisely what has happened to U.S. mainline Protestant denominations. The reducing of their doctrines to fashionable platitudes has not attracted people back to the pews, but instead has driven people out of institutions that seem now to stand for nothing much at all.

American Catholicism suffered similar losses after Vatican II for some of the same reasons. Vacillating bishops, rebellious priests and nuns, and revisionist theologians caused confusion in parishes, Church schools, and Catholic colleges. As a result, weekly Church attendance, 75 percent in 1960, dropped to 25 percent by 1980.

During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church once again promoted and defended its core teachings, and the results are promising: the Church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia; a generation of “John Paul II priests” has been ordained; orders of nuns loyal to the Magisterium, have waiting lists; and trendy bishops of the Seventies have mostly been replaced with orthodox ones.

But the effort to re-instill the doctrine that God, not man, is the measure of all things is far from complete. It will take years of patience and hard work to undo two generations of damage.

No doubt Pope Francis will carry on the work of his two predecessors and would agree with Monsignor Knox’s observation that as Catholics, “we shall have to face, more and more, the glare of the world’s hostility. For that reason, we must rally closer than ever round our bishops, our clergy, our churches, our schools; we must be active Catholics, instructed Catholics, if need be combative Catholics, to meet the demands of the new age.”

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic VoterHis most recent book is Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Manfred, April 03, 2013
"..we must be active Catholics, instructed Catholics.." Thank you for a fine essay on a fine Catholic, Mr. Marlin. I find it instructive that some writers at TCT feel it beneficial to write of authors who died before Vat. II. Who is going to instruct us? The Catholic Catechism states very clearly in para. 2357 that: "Under no circumstances can they be approved." in reference to homosexual acts, yet statistics show that many (most?) younger Catholics support homosexual "marriage". Cdl. Dolan does not seem disturbed when he gives Joe Biden Communion this Palm Sunday at St. Pat's even though Biden is pro same sex "marriage" and pro-abortion. Dolan is the president of the USCCB! No,the approach in the Church has to be the same as the police and the prosecutors follow in the predator priest criminal trials-any culprit, religious or lay, must be dragged before a Church tribunal and publicly excommunicated if they are foiund guilty of scandalizing (LEADING INTO SIN!) others religious or lay. As Benedict himself pointed out, the Catholic priesthood has become a homosexual profession and he pledged to remove this "filth" from the priesthood. Really? When will we see the dossier prepared by three cardinals at Benedict's behest which names CARDINALS world-wide, including the Curia, who are subject to blackmail because of their histories of homosexual behavior? A diocese in N.J. recently published that THIRTEEN percent of its Catholics attend Mass weekly. God spared Msgr Knox his having to witness this disgrace. BTW,Catholicism is thriving in Africa? My wife and I attended a Novus Ordo Mass in a upper class African American church on the campus of a Catholic prep school presided over by an African priest. When, after an hour and a half we had still not gotten to the Offertory, my wife and I excused ourselves and left.
written by Richard A, April 03, 2013
Manfred: The observation that you left an overlong (in your estimation) Mass before the Offertory is proof of what? That the Church is NOT thriving in Africa? Or that African priests expect their congregations will tolerate, maybe even welcome, a time of worship of the living God that lasts more than an hour? You had something better to do with your time?
written by KM, April 03, 2013
I really enjoy the columns written here each day. They are of great quality and spiritual worth.

Thank you for them. ;-)
written by Jacob, April 03, 2013
Let's hope more Catholics will realize the immense power they have to welcome in new Catholics.

Yes, we all have to find Christ on our own terms, but I don't think he's going to be very happy with those of us who ignore the members who are trying to find a community among us because "they should just learn the faith themselves like I did".

There are a lot of people who want to be Catholic but didn't grow up in Catholic families and they need people, not books or RCIA courses, to teach them the faith. If you leave them wandering around the churchyard you'll probably lose them and, again, I don't think God will be too happy when he asks why you abandoned your brother in his moment of greatest spiritual need and you reply: "Am I my brother's keeper?!?"

written by Michael PS, April 03, 2013
Mgr Ronald Knox was a biting satirist, in both verse and prose.

His description of the authors of the collection of Modernist essays, "Foundations,"

When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal
Corrected "I believe" to "One does feel."

is unforgettable
written by debby, April 03, 2013
This is a pickle and one can become more than confused.
It is hard to "rally closer than ever round our bishops,..." when many are remote, hard to speak to as a Father, have strange yet public behaviors...

Manfred - maybe you can explain this to me.
i have asked this question before, and NO ONE has EVER responded. this is not sarcastic:
IF the Roman Catholic Faith was so pure, and strong, and holy, and properly understood, and practiced, and loved, and preached, and known, and lived BEFORE VAT II, how did a few years of bishops from all over the world meeting for what amounted to almost a full year's worth of time CAUSE THE MASS EXODUS of priests, nuns, etc., to occur? What kind of priests and nuns were these people in 1959? How did 6 years "convert" them into something else?
how did all those lay people who knew their Faith so amazingly well Pre-VatII all of a sudden FORGET how to pass that on to their children? did these same Catholics all of a sudden use birth control? did they all of a sudden get divorced? did they all of a sudden act out homosexual fantasies? have abortions?
does the language of the county have some kind of satanic power and Latin have Holy Power?
was it hearing the Mass in English that caused this radical loss of Faith? what exactly were Catholics reading on the opposite side of their Missal all those years?
Has not every age had its Prophets and later Saints who preached reforming ourselves - the great change of heart?
When did the Holy Spirit forget to show up at a conclave?
If we haven't had a True Pope for the last 6, where has the Seat of Peter gone, and is Jesus then a liar, since He is "not with us until the end of the age"?
(unless of course you are a Protestant who has Jesus in "Spirit")
Has not Judas Iscariot always been in our midst?
Did Jesus cast him out?
Did Jesus not let him participate?
Did Jesus tell everyone to stay away from "that one"?
He gave him the wallet.
He gave him the same power to cast out demons and heal the sick.
He washed his feet.
He gave him communion.
He gave him another chance -
He received his kiss.
He said not to try and pull out the weeds, or we could destroy the wheat. He said to wait and let the Angels do that job at the end of time.

Waiting is my very hard cross sometimes. i want it (the Church, life, my sanctification,etc) perfect and good and easy to understand now, AND THEN......
somehow that is not the same as Faith in what i cannot see, evidence of The Hope. Some how that does not square with 1 Cor 13:7- Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (DRV)

i am not Jesus. i pray my heart grows to forget myself and only embrace His will before i die.
i do not advocate giving money to known anti-life, anti-faith groups; i am not a "liberal" anything goes Catholic.
i know i am not equipped with the infused knowledge that can judge another's heart, but i can acknowledge the fruit.
some trees take 10 years to produce one piece of fruit, though, so i must be careful - there's that temptation to pull out those weeds again.
So you see, IF i do not embrace the Magisterium, the Holy Father as Vicar (personally preferring him or not), i am worse than confused.
i am afloat on a stormy sea.
written by Charles E Flynn, April 03, 2013

The best explanation I have seen of what happened in the aftermath of Vatican II is the book "The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church", by Anne Roche Muggeridge (daughter-in-law of Malcom Muggeridge). There is a brief review that humorously describes the book as being written in "Canadian."
written by Mark K., April 03, 2013
Hello Debby,
I’d like to attempt to provide an answer to your question you posed to Manfred regarding how Catholics responded after Vatican II.

My perspective is one of a life long Catholic who attended Catholic Schools in the 1960s and was an alter boy in the late 1960s. I do have memories of the Latin Rite Mass that was replaced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I also remember my Polish aunts and uncles who lived in Connecticut and were very devout Catholics. Devout, it’s a term you seldom hear any more, and would never recognize in many Catholics today.

Changing the Mass from the Latin Rite to the Novus Ordo was devastating, absolutely devastating to my family. And please understand it happened at the exact same time America was at it’s Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam heights. This was the time of civil rights protests, college protests, drug experimentation, the music changed (think of the Beatles with short hair, then long hair). And of course, 1968, the so called year America “tried to commit suicide” (think of the assassinations etc.). The immediate post Vatican II changes collided with some of the greatest culture changes our country has ever experienced.

As an alter server I saw it at Mass as it continued to change and I recall asking my parents what was going on and they could only respond that they didn’t know. I have the feeling the Priests would show up one month and say this is how we are doing it now, then a while later repeat the process again, without any preparation for the congregation, most likely because they or the Bishops didn’t really know either. Beautiful organ music was replaced with kids with long hair and guitars, suits, dresses, and women’s church veils were replaced with blue jeans and tee shirts. It was OK to eat meat on Fridays. All of the culture changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s invaded the Church which was in a type of post Vatican II turmoil. And truthfully, I don’t think anyone really knew what was going on, looking back, it had the feeling that they were making it all up (eg the Mass) as they went along. In the later 1970s the “Kiss of Peace” and holding hands during the Our Father was introduced. It was not spontaneous as some have suggested.

Regarding my dad’s side of the family they all stopped going to Mass, it was too confusing to them and it felt wrong. My mother and brothers stopped going to Mass. Only my Dad continued to go, and I continued to go with him. To the average person, the Church and Mass simply no longer made any sense, people recognized very little from what they grew up with. What could they teach their children about the new order? Nothing, they didn’t know anything about it. I could go on with more, but I think you should be getting the picture by now.

My Catholic Church in Fairfax VA has slowly been bringing back aspects of the Latin Mass (thank you Pope Benedict), so it’s sort of a hybrid Latin/Novus Ordo Mass (or reform of the reform). I find it very appealing. Sadly girls were allowed as alter servers a couple years ago (Imagine we held out all those years only to fall now!). And before the progressive women reading this light into me, please try to understand, it’s not that girls can’t do it, but rather once these things, like so many others that open to women, the guys stop showing up and doing the job they once did. And yes, I consider that to be a problem with our current age. Women want to do "it all" (think women in combat) and what do the men do? They become sodomites and want to marry one another! With all of that said, please keep the faith, it is getting better.
written by Manfred, April 03, 2013
@Debbie: The pre-Vatican II Church was ordered. It was homogenized. Everyone was taught the same Faith. The Traditional Latin Mass was the Mass, with 22 minor changes, of Pius V, a Pope of the Counter Reformation in the 16th century. It wasn't that everyone understood Latin. Latin was chosen as it was a "dead" language and the meaning of the words could nt be changed. This Mass was abrogated (de facto) as well as the Faith which was taught with it. Why?
Msgr. Wm. Smith+ used to say "The Church lost Its mind." The Blessed Mother told Sr. Lucia that there would be a period of "Diabolical Disorientation" as God the Father was punishing the world for its sins. This was to serve as a warning for people to convert their lives as the next stage would be a horrible punishment by which even fools would know: God exists. He is terribly angry with His creatures for disobeying His commandments. The response from the world? Look around. Institutional sodomy, abortion, contraception, reception of the Body of Christ while the recipient is in the state of Mortal Sin. NO ONE IS GOING TO GET AWAY WITH THIS. Forget wishing on the Pope!It is because of the sins of the "faithful" that the last six Popes have been so ineffective and the sheepfold has been ravaged. The answer is what it has always been: conversion and prayer. I hope this is helpful.
written by debby, April 04, 2013
Thank You Mark and Manfred.

i get the Up-Side-Down world of the 60's and 70's. i was born in 1960 to 18 year old kids who had no clue and came from insane homes, lived in illusions, mixed up a bunch of Protestant old school religion with sexual me, i get the picture. long road to "recovery".

what i don't understand is - Mark, you might know this from your mom's Faith life - if someone was IN LOVE with JESUS CHRIST (read ALL the lives of the Saints) & loved the Church, how did the Church "losing its mind" stop someone from Loving Jesus? There isn't a Protestant church where one could go and receive Penance or Eucharist (maybe Anglican? i don't know-certainly not Evangelical).
i am sure your mom's mind was confused and her heart broken, but where is she NOW? Did Church=Jesus to her? how did she keep breathing without Him?
Manfred - you state that God the Father is punishing the world because the "faithful" have been unfaithful and to forget "wishing on the Pope." i don't understand you at all.(i wish i could sit down with you in person and look at your face when you speak. i would love to have you explain so many of your comments to me. i don't know if i would come over to your way of thinking, but i love to know others who are so different from me and love Christ with all their hearts.) i think from your prior comments that you are a father. would you ever punish your one child in a sneaky, deceitful way (sending false Popes to the Church) because of something your other child had done? (would you give a stone when asked for bread?)and what is "wishing on the Pope"?
My relationship with Jesus is guided by the Pope's teachings, example, leadership, but he doesn't have my relationship FOR me. Jesus forgives my sins in Confession after He Himself has revealed them to me by my seeking Him - in prayer, Adoration, holy reading and study, thorough examination and honestly before Him present in the Confessor. Jesus comes into my own body with His Body Blood Soul Divinity in the Holy Eucharist. The Pope doesn't change my Hope. He may help to reveal His Face to me more than i saw before, but salvation has never been by Peter's death on the cross, you know that.
When Jesus fed the 5000+ He was celebrated and followed by crowds. When He said, "My Flesh is Real Food and My Blood Real Drink....unless you Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood, you will have No Life in you..." He was abandoned by many in the same crowd. When He entered Jerusalem (Palm Sunday time) He was mostly cheered. When Jesus walked up Calvary, He was mostly abandoned. He didn't change. He didn't do things the way anyone expected either. He wasn't the Messiah people were expecting. He has never been reduced to a formula in spite of all mankind's attempts. How do you convert a Love Relationship into a formula? Impossible. His Mercies are New Every Morning.
Not being a Snarky NJian here - is it possible that the vast majority of "faithful" pre- Vat II Catholics were clinging to the form and not to Christ? it would be natural to do that - Mary Magdalen tried it and was warned not to; St. Paul tells us that Jesus Himself did not grasp His equality with God but emptied Himself. i am not blaming anyone for being human here. i trust in God and His infinite mercy for each soul.
Again, thank you for your time in responding to me.
Let us keep our eyes fixed on Him.
written by Achilles, April 04, 2013
Self-deceit is a reckless courtesan. Vatican II was and is a valid council. Read it without the lens of the radical individualism we have so carefully cultivated here in modernity and the only thing wrong with it is the heretics who misinterpreted it and tried to use it as license promote their own individualistic agenda. It is the other side of the coin to the traditionalists, for whom I have great affection. Sadly, the traddies have lost their way almost as badly and the liberals, and the root cause is the same, pride inculcated by Satan is a badly fallen world foisted upon our weakened and fallen natures.
I choose obedience over dissent.
written by Maggie-Louise, April 04, 2013
Dear Debbi,
(from Louise, the earlier one before the new Louise came aboard).

My own experience from growing up Protestant in a predominantly Catholic state, is that the Catholic layman or woman who engaged the Faith as you (and I, hopefully) do was very rare before Vatican II. As I see those same parishioners now (who did not leave) these many years later, they are still running the bazaars and picking up after the altar boys, running the bake sales at the school-- but it is a rare experience to find one who knows that those readings at Mass come from "THE BIBLE", for example, because everyone knew that The Bible belonged to the Protestants because Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible.

It was as if the Faith was something you did before and after Mass, during which time you said your rosary. It was not something that engaged their whole hearts and minds as you do, and it was not the operating principle of their lives.

Yes,of course, there were exceptions, but those people became nuns and priests because it was what was expected of them. Prayer was what THEY did. Prayer was what you read from a prayer book. When the Cultural Revolution engulfed the Church along with the rest of society, it brought the new Mass; when eating fish on Friday and fasting a whole night before Mass were no longer RULES, the struts were kicked out from under them. When they saw one discipline after another cast aside (and what we call "disciplines", they called "the Faith"), they asked themselves "What else is no longer true, necessary, REQUIRED?" And when they couldn't answer that, and when the new priests were telling them that those things were passe, they assumed it was all up for grabs--no longer true, no longer necessary, no longer required.

It's not my intention to judge their hearts or souls. I am only describing what the pre-Vatican II Catholics in my own family have told me (post Vatican II) of their own experiences, and what I saw from my classmates who were almost all Catholics. Recently, one person was angry and indignant when I suggested that she try to forgive someone who had mistreated her. "WHAT? FORGIVE HER? You've got to be kidding!"--and she went to daily Mass post Vatican II.

I think that, unless your own life has spanned those years from Pre- to Post-Vatican II, you can't really get the flavor of it or begin to understand it. You can sense what a struggle it was for the commenters above to describe it to you. It's probably best just to let it go. To misquote the title of an old movie, "Leave them to Heaven," and be grateful that God has chosen you to love Him as you do.
written by Graham Combs, April 04, 2013
As an Episcopalian, the name of Msgr. Knox never came up. As a Catholic convert it is was in no syllabus issued by RCIA. I recommend his book of sermons. In the Episcopal Church they won't leave you alone. In the Catholic Church you're on your own. Thank God for Msgr Ronald Knox and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. At the recent Bishops Conference in January, the Archbishop of Detroit asked Msgr Steenson, Ordinary for the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter if there would be any theological writings in the pipeline from the Ordinariates. Msgr. Steenson said he hoped to write at some point but had no time now. I would suggest that Archbishop Vigneron get a taste of what is to come from the writings of Msgr. Knox.

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