About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

The Decline of Dogma and the Decline of Church Membership | Ronald Knox | From The Belief of Catholics | Ignatius Insight

Print-friendly version

Editor's Note: Originally written in 1927, Ronald Knox's The Belief of Catholics remains a fresh, engaging, and timely work of apologetics. Part of the reason is that Knox was a brilliant stylist. Another is that he had a gift for going to the heart of a matter. In this excerpt he considers the growing skepticism and faddish denial of dogma of his time, and in so doing sheds light on problems that continue to perplex Christians today.

It appears, then, that the two processes are going on side by side, the decline of Church membership and the decline of dogma; the evacuation of the pew and the jettisoning of cargo from the pulpit. I have been at pains to adduce instances of the fact, though indeed it was hardly necessary, for the two tendencies are pretty generally admitted; the one openly deplored, the other openly defended. Are the two processes interrelated? And, if so, does the decline of Church membership cause the decline of dogma, or result from it, or is it a parallel symptom? Reflection shows, I think, that there is truth in all three suggestions.

To some extent, the decline of Church membership causes the decline of dogma. Obviously, the grievance of the man in the street against organised religion is partly an intellectual one. Other influences may prevail to keep him away from Church; as, a general unreasoning dislike towards all forms of authority, or absorption in pleasures and in worldly distractions. But the reason he alleges, at any rate, for his nonattendance is commonly his inability to believe "the stuff the parsons preach." What wonder if this attitude makes the preacher reconsider his message? He would blame himself if he allowed souls to lose contact with religion through undue insistence on any doctrine that was not true--or even not certainly true-- or even not theologically important. Hence comes the impetus to take stock afresh of his own theological position; is he really convinced of the truth, the certainty, the importance of such and such a doctrine? He is bound, indeed, to declare the whole counsel of God. But what is the whole counsel of God? If he could accept the inerrancy of Scripture, like his fathers before him, he would have at least a chart to guide him. But he has no ground for believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, unless it be guaranteed to him by the Church. What Church? His Church? If the Church of England be meant, or "a fortiori" any of the Nonconformist bodies, he can find no help in such a refuge; for a religious connection which claims no infallibility for itself can hardly be justified in investing the Bible with inerrancy! If, on the contrary, he appeals to the Catholic Church, he knows that he is appealing to a tribunal by whose judgments he himself does not abide. Somehow, then, he has to construct his own theology for himself, and to take responsibility for the construction; in doing so, would he be human if he were not influenced a little by the unbelief of those about him, by those unfilled pews which reproach him, Sunday by Sunday, with preaching a message unacceptable to the spirit of the age?

I do not mean to suggest that the desire to meet infidelity half-way is the sole or even the main cause responsible for the loose theology of our time. No preacher would deliberately judge the credibility of his message by the credulity of his audience. But the prevalent irreligion of the age does exercise a continual unconscious pressure upon the pulpit; it makes preachers hesitate to affirm doctrines whose affirmation would be unpopular. And a doctrine which has ceased to be affirmed is doomed, like a disused organ, to atrophy.

That modernism among the clergy and scepticism among the laity are to some extent parallel effects of the same causes, hardly needs demonstration. The confident assertions of the philosopher, the scientist, the historian--that truth is relative, not absolute; that we can no longer believe in Genesis; that Christianity descends straight from the heathen mystery religions-- will differ in their effect on different minds. One man will say, quite simply, "Then it's no good believing in Christianity any longer"; another will prefer to consider how the abiding truth of Christianity can best be reconciled with these apparently discouraging notions, how best restated in the light of these recent additions to human knowledge. Sometimes it is a matter of training and outlook; A is already looking out for, nay, is almost prepared to welcome, an excuse for abandoning his old religious ideas; B would sooner bid farewell to reason itself than impugn the veracity of the Church which has nourished him. Sometimes it is a matter of temperament; the world may be divided (amongst other convenient dichotomies) into the people who take it or leave it and the people who split the difference. Sometimes there is a real intellectual struggle in one conscientious mind as to whether any accommodation can consistently be made between the new truth and the old tradition.

It must not be supposed that we have finished with materialism. Yesterday, it was the concept of Evolution that was in the air. To one mind, it seemed a disproof of the very basis of religious truth; it had knocked the bottom out of Christianity. To another mind, this same concept of Evolution seemed a convenient solder for patching up the holes in a leaky system; apply its doctrines to the Christian faith, and it would begin to hold water once more. Today the rage is for psychology; to some minds the new psychology has already destroyed, or is beginning to destroy, the whole notion of free will. Others, within the Christian camp, are beginning to take up the jargon of the new empiricism and apply it to the problems of religion, not less joyfully than their fathers did yesterday. What is one man's poison is another man's drug.

In a sense, then, the decline of Church membership explains the decline of dogma. In a sense, it is a parallel effect of the same causes. But there is a sense, also, in which the decline of dogma explains the decline of Church membership.

Such a suggestion is, of course, clean contrary to the fashionable platitudes of our day. When "the failure of the Churches" is discussed in public print, our well-meaning advisers always insist, with a somewhat wearying reiteration, on the need for a more comprehensive Christianity, which shall get away from forms and ceremonies, from dogmas and creeds, and shall concentrate its attention upon those elementary principles of life and devotion which all Christians have at heart. Each prophet who thus enlightens us makes the curious assumption, apparently, that he is the first person who has ever suggested anything of the kind. As a matter of fact, the brazen lungs of Fleet Street have been shouting these same directions at us for a quarter of a century past. And have "the Churches" taken no notice? On the contrary, as I have suggested above, the pilots of our storm-tossed denominations have lost no opportunity of lightening ship by jettisoning every point of doctrine that seemed questionable, and therefore unessential; hell has been abolished, and sin very nearly; the Old Testament is never alluded to but with a torrent of disclaimers, and miracle with an apologetic grimace. Preachers of the rival sects have exchanged pulpits; "joint services" have been held on occasions of public importance; even the inauguration of a new Anglican cathedral cannot take place nowadays without a fraternisation of the Christianities. In hundreds of churches and chapels everything has been done that could be done to meet this modern latitudinarian demand. And the result?

The result is that as long as a man is a good preacher, a good organiser, or an arresting personality, he can always achieve a certain local following; and among this local following a reputation for broad-mindedness stands him in good stead. But the ordinary man who does not go to church is quite unaffected by the process. He thinks no better of Christianity for its efforts to be undogmatic. It is not that he makes any articulate reply to these overtures; he simply ignores them. Nothing, I believe, has contributed more powerfully to the recent successes of the "Anglo-Catholic" movement than the conviction, gradually borne in upon the clergy, that the latitudinarian appeal, as a matter of experience, does not attract. Dogmas may fly out at the window but congregations do not come in at the door.

So much, as a matter of daily experience, will hardly be gainsaid. What follows is more controversial; indeed, it is a thesis which hardly admits of exact proof. It seems to me that (let us say) seven in ten of our fellow-countrymen, if they give a thought to the matter at all, think the worse, not the better, of our modem leaders for their willingness to throw dogma overboard to the wolves of unbelief. They are scandalised, rather than impressed, by the theological chaos which two generations of controversy have left behind them. It is the common assumption of all these modem prophets, whatever their school, that religious truth is something not yet determined, something which is being gradually established by a slow process of testing and research. They boast of their indecisions; they parade their dissensions; it shows (they say) a healthy spirit of fearless inquiry, this freedom from the incubus of tradition. Such sentiments evoke, I believe, no echo of applause outside their own immediate circles. The uneasy impression is left on the average citizen that "the parsons do not know their own business"; that disagreements between sect and sect are more, not less disedifying when either side hastens to explain that the disagreement is over externals, rather than essentials; that if Christianity is still in process of formulation after twenty centuries, it must be an uncommonly elusive affair. 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 this perennial need of discussion and restatement? Why should a divine structure send in continual bills for alterations and repairs? Moreover, he is a little suspicious of these modern concessions, these attempts to meet him half-way. Is the stock (he asks in his commercial way) really a sound investment, when those who hold it are so anxious to unload it on any terms?

It is not only the theological speculations of the modem Christianities which produce this sense of uneasiness. It is the whole accommodating attitude taken up by the religions of to-day and their professors--accommodating, and for that reason, not reassuring. It is an infinitely small point, but does the abandonment, total or partial, of the clerical garb by some modem clergymen really make the laity feel more at home with them? Does it not rather create the suspicion that they are ashamed of being what they are? Distrust may even be aroused, sometimes, by the modem sympathy of official Anglicanism for the movement towards democracy; to some minds, it comes too late to be impressive. The gesture made by "the Churches" at the time of the General Strike was, I fully believe, the result of a sincere desire for the national well-being. But this confidence was not everywhere felt; many preferred to think it dictated by panic, rather than by genuine concern. Even in matters of grave and practical moral import, representatives of the Christian bodies have, before now, given forth an uncertain sound, and affirmed the traditional ethics of Christianity with a minority protest. Most outside critics sympathised, no doubt, with the minority; but it is questionable whether they felt much respect for a religion whose spokesmen could differ so fundamentally.

Do the Churches know their own mind, or even their own minds? That is, in effect, the question which bewilders men to-day far more than any strictly theological problem. I do not mean that the ordinary Englishman is for ever worrying about the question; the sad truth is that he lacks the necessary interest in religious matters altogether. You will only catch occasional glimpses of his attitude; but they are, to my mind, unmistakable. "Let the Churches make up their own mind what they believe," he says, "and then come and tell me." Meanwhile, there is no sign that such an event is probable. The present effort to unify belief and practice within the Church of England is the heir to a long line of failures.

Related Ignatius Insight Links:

Ignatius Insight Author Page for Monsignor Ronald Knox
The Four Marks of the Church | Ronald A. Knox
The Mind of Knox | Preface to The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox | David Rooney
Monsignor Ronald Knox: Convert, Priest, Apologist | An Interview with Fr. Milton Walsh
Experience, Reason, and Authority in the Apologetics of Ronald Knox | Milton Walsh | From Ronald Knox As Apologist
Review of The Belief of Catholics | Carl E. Olson
A Lesson Learned From Monsignor Ronald A. Knox | Carl E. Olson
Ronald Knox, Apologist | Carl E. Olson

Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was the son of the Anglican Bishop of Manchester and it appeared that he, being both spiritually perceptive and intellectually gifted, would also have a successful life as an Anglican prelate. But while in school in the early 1900s Knox began a long struggle between his love for the Church of England and his growing attraction to the Catholic Church. He converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-nine, became a priest, and wrote numerous books on spiritual and literary topics, including The Belief of Catholics, Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes, The Hidden Stream: The Mysteries of the Christian Faith, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, and many more. For more on the life and work of Monsignor Knox see Ronald Knox as Apologist: Wit, Laughter and the Popish Creed, by Fr. Milton Walsh, and The Wine of Certitude: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox, by David Rooney. Also, visit Knox's IgnatiusInsight.com author page for further info.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius