The Business of All


This August 24 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ronald Knox, one of the most popular Catholic writers of the first half of the twentieth century. Among his unpublished papers is a 1928 speech that is remarkable for several reasons.

First, the subject is pertinent: it is an address on pacifism delivered to a peace rally in Glasgow. As a young man, Knox frequently debated political questions at the Oxford Union, but once he became a Catholic priest in 1919, he avoided such topics. Both as an Anglican and as a Catholic (he converted in 1917), he felt that the church had a mission to promote unity across ideological divides. Even during the Second World War, he reminded British Catholics that their communion with their German coreligionists remained unbroken.

His speech is also remarkable for its audience: the League of Nations Union. From its inception in 1919, the League of Nations had been viewed with mixed feelings by many Catholics: On the one hand, any enterprise that sought to create greater cooperation among nations was to be welcomed; on the other hand, many harbored doubts about the League: doubts about both its membership (a self-selected constituency made up of the victors in the First World War) and its ideological principles.

The timing of the speech was also important. Knox gave it in 1928, ten years after the end of the “Great War” and ten years before the outbreak of World War II. It is chilling to read his warning that if nothing was done at that time to further the cause of peace, people would be surprised by the outbreak of another war in ten or twenty years-just as they had been in 1914. He cautioned: “You cannot abolish war by forgetting about it.”

Finally, it is an unusual address because of the circumstances in which Fr. Knox delivered it. An angry crowd of some two thousand people, including Communists, Protestants, and others, had gathered to oppose his presence at the rally. Knox seized on their hostility to describe himself as an unwilling illustration of the basic point of his address: that a movement for universal peace must be universal; that peace will not be attained as a sectarian endeavor by members of a particular political party or religious affiliation. “It takes all sorts to make a world, even my sort,” he observed.

What warning did Knox make to the peace movement of the 1920s that might be relevant today? Knox’s fundamental argument was that the cause of peace should not be presented as inextricably bound up with any other cause, “however noble, however cherished.” He offered two examples: internationalism and socialism. Regarding internationalism, Knox noted that some believe the only way to avoid war in the future is to merge national identities into some kind of international “super state.” Knox cited H. G. Wells as a proponent of the idea that the way to abolish national dissensions is to abolish national distinctions. In a wry poke at the author of The Outline of History, Knox said “there is no reason we should grudge him this return of his to the great dream of the Middle Ages.” Knox’s fundamental criticism was that Wells’s approach excludes those who, rightly or wrongly, see nationalism as a good thing.

Similarly, many of socialism’s followers held that the problem was not the vertical divisions among nations but the horizontal divisions among classes within nations. Knox reminded his listeners that many others viewed socialism with apprehension, and that to insist war and capitalism were inseparable alienated those who did not accept the doctrines of Karl Marx. Many people were motivated to work for peace on religious grounds, he said, for example Pope Pius XI, whose motto was, “The peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.” Yet, if the cause of peace is identified with the advancement of religion, it excludes those who hold no religious belief. Although Knox praised the efforts of Pius XI and his predecessors, he based his Glasgow appeal on the wider claim of common humanity: “We need not be angels to desire peace on earth.”

More dangerous than the identification of peace with any particular movement or party was the assumption that peace between nations is “bound to come.” Knox used the example of dueling: it had been an accepted practice in society two centuries before; since then, Europe had outgrown it. It would be disastrous, however, to think war would disappear that way. War is not simply dueling on a grand scale but the ultima ratio, the final sanction upon which all international relations have been built up. Some alternative system must be found to do its work: “No amount of humanitarian progress will guarantee us against its recurrence. The progress we boast of may have softened all other human relations; war it has made more desperate, more destructive, more pitiless than ever.” Knox knew only too well how mistaken is the presumption that we have become too civilized for war; many of his closest friends had died in the First World War. In the years before that war some people believed that Europe would not have another war because it could not do so without ruining itself. “We forgot the possibility,” Knox reminded his hearers, “that Europe would have another war and would ruin herself.”

He also cautioned them against assuming that a reaction to the horrors of that bloodbath would protect Europe from future conflict. He observed that the mood in 1928 was decidedly against war, with writers predicting just how indiscriminate and appalling the slaughter would be in another major conflict. “There will be no sanctuary and no noncombatants,” he declared. It was the fashion at the time for young men to say they would refuse to fight if there was another war. But moods can change. Nations in the 1920s wanted disarmament, Knox noted, “quite frankly, because the nations are hard up.” Still, disarmament is not an irrevocable step, and in the absence of other safeguards, the uncertainty about weapons can breed distrust and become an incentive to war. For a belligerent party, the temptation is to declare war “at the precise moment when you have just completed the designs for your super-aeroplane, before the other man has quite had time to complete the designs for his super-tank.” The events of the next ten years show how well founded the speaker’s misgivings were.

The solution Knox pleaded for in his speech was to make the machinery for declaring war more complicated than it was, and to create a body of public opinion in every country, irrespective of sect or party, that would make launching a war of aggression by that country morally impossible. He admitted he did not know whether such a thing was possible-to establish a body of people who could act as a pendulum to redress the balance of foreign policy. But if the League of Nations Union could accomplish this, “it will be the one spoil civilization has wrested from its barren conquest of yesterday; the one trophy we shall have been able to set up...over the graves we still tend and honor on the battlefields of France.” In fact, the League did not prevent atrocities in the 1920s and ’30s, nor was it able to keep Europe from creating more graves on the battlefields of France.

As we continue to search for an effective alternative to the “final sanction” of war, we might draw some useful lessons from the speech of Ronald Knox, so controversial at the time, and since forgotten. His observation about the unsteadiness of a societal “mood” of pacifism speaks to our current situation: after Vietnam, the mood of America was certainly antiwar, but that mood quickly changed after 9/11. The argument that disarmament is a means, not an end, seems especially compelling today, when the search for new weapons to fight the war on terror undercuts the gains made in disarmament at the end of the cold war. Some of the elements that seemed to bode well for pacifism in the 1920s-disillusionment with war, economic incentives, confidence in humanitarian ideals and progress-remain today what Knox said they were in 1928: “the scaffolding which we are to use in building the temple of peace, not the mortar which will bind it.”

Ronald Knox recognized that people are motivated to serve the cause of peace for a variety of reasons. His plea was that pacifism not be held in thrall to any one of these reasons, but that there be a general, united effort to banish war from the counsels of humanity: “I claim, then, that peace between nations is neither something which will come of itself, as part of a general improvement in the habits of mankind, nor yet something which can be achieved indirectly, so that we have to wait for the success of other movements before the success of this movement can be achieved. It is a cause which stands by itself, the desire of all men and therefore the business of all men.”

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 

Rev. Milton T. Walsh is author of Ronald Knox as Apologist (Ignatius Press). He is currently writing a book about Knox and C. S. Lewis.

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