Meet Joseph Martin McCabe (1867-1955), a mostly forgotten giant of Rationalism and scholarly criticism of the Catholic Church and its policies (among many other topics). The majority of his copious output was published during the 1920s and ’30s by the Haldeman-Julius Company of Girard, Kansas.
In a previous life, McCabe had been a Catholic monk. At the age of 29, however, the once pious and obedient man of God started on the path to becoming a crusader for reason and humanism. He dedicated the remainder of his life to understanding why humans are the way we are through the prism of our recorded history.
Fighter for Freethought
The arc of Joseph McCabe’s life was remarkable. In the biography Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought, author and fellow Rationalist Isaac Goldberg introduces the man thus:
The life-story of McCabe begins with a fight for freedom; it continues as a campaign to keep life free. Ever since that fateful Ash Wednesday of 1896, when he tore off the brown robe and flung aside the sandals that he had worn for 12 years, abandoning the life of a monk and his title as ‘The Very Reverend Father Antony,’ he has dedicated himself to the service of human liberation. (1936: Ch. II)
McCabe’s life, then, is one of two diametrically opposed eras: before and after his departure from the Church. Once he renounced the priesthood and Christianity/theism in general, he dedicated the entirety of the rest of his life to revealing hypocrisy not only in the Catholic Church, but in any and all entrenched or otherwise sacrosanct institutions. But even more than that, his liberation and affiliation with Haldeman-Julius allowed him to study and explicate scores of subjects, from the history of the popes to the theory of evolution.
The Stupidity of the Index
When first researching the Index as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I sought out materials on my topic wherever I could find them. One search led me directly to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), where a particularly rare text was to be found: Joseph McCabe’s The History and Meaning of the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books (1931).
I ended up quoting the following passage in the resulting research paper (also cited elsewhere on this site):
I do not mean that the Index has made no progress since the days when the Popes and cardinals and monks were so rudely disturbed in their prayers and amours by the Lutheran earthquake…The legendary wizard Merlin is no longer represented as an author from whose books we need to be protected by a sage authority. (1931: 5, “Introduction: The Stupidity of the Index”)
This short book achieves the impressive feat of being both academically scathing and, at regular intervals, pretty funny. It was also the first text I found from before 1966 (the year the Index was abolished) that seemed wholly free from fear or bias.
McCabe employs the dry wit of a northern Englishman (he was of half Irish descent and grew up in Manchester) to eviscerate any apologists’ claims that the Vatican was justified in its fervent suppression of intellectual freedom. “[A]ny attempt to defend the Index in our time on the pretext that the Church is still protecting souls from eternal damnation,” he writes, “…ought at once…be denounced as a moral and intellectual outrage” (11). He argues that the ultimate reasons behind the Index, its legislation, and Congregation were plain and simple: to stanch the flow of any literate or semi-literate Catholic faithful into apostasy, or worse: Protestantism. In this sense, the Index as a subset of the Inquisition is made clear.
What’s most powerful herein is McCabe’s detailing of the effects that the Index/Inquisition had on literature and the culture in general in the Catholic countries of Europe, and in Spain (and Portugal) in particular. “There is no need to speak of literature in Spain,” he explains. “After the seventeenth century there were ‘two centuries of comparative silence’…” (40). Publishing houses and booksellers in other countries, such as Belgium, he relates, were subject to constant raids and searches by agents of their local dioceses.
The End of an Era
On the last page of his short yet dense treatise, McCabe made a prediction, perhaps uncanny, but to him self-evident:
The only real interest of the Index is that it reminds the world of the heavy and paralyzing tyranny which Rome laid upon thought in half of Europe for three centuries, in the sole interest of the Church, over the mind of their followers today… It will be abolished in the course of the present century, as the Inquisition was abolished in the last century. (107)
It would only take another thirty-five years for this to come true. In the meantime, none of McCabe’s many works ever found its way onto the Index. I am fairly certain that, at least on some level, this came as somewhat of a disappointment to the man.