Page 10, 19th November 1971

19th November 1971
Page 10
Page 10, 19th November 1971 — Boat-rocker or 'conservative'?

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Boat-rocker or 'conservative'?

HAD he not taken up cudA--agels in the time-honoured role of defender of the Catholic Faith on the occasion and in the manner that he did, Fr. Herbert McCabe, 0.P., would not have acquired the reputation he enjoys in some quarters of the Church as a persistent boatrocker, particularly of the Barque of Peter.

This reputation as one of the "wild men of the Church" is doubly paradoxical because many who have associated with him, priests or laity, conservative or progressive, are agreed on describing him as a traditional. orthodox Catholic priest. One sympathetic critic even dubbed him "conservative."

Fr. McCabe hit the world headlines in February 1967 when he described the Catholic Church as "corrupt." He was in effect disagreeing with the decision of Fr. Charles Davis to leave the Church, saying that he should have stayed and fought the trend showing more concern for authority than truth.

Although what he wrote in the New Blackfriars editorial could not be gainsaid theologically, or on calm reflection factually, withstanding Peter to the face produced its

traditional thorny con sequences, calm reflection in the nervy, disillusioning years immediately following the Vatican Council being on the scarce side.

Fr. McCabe was removed from the editorship of New Blackfriars, was impugned by a senior prelate as lacking sincerity and was, without due canonical process, suspended as a priest.


If he had overstated his case by the use of the strong and ambivalent word "corrupt," and, in the eyes of many, compromised himself as a priest by attending Charles Davis' wedding at an Anglican church, the Church authorities still acted with more haste than judgement.

Hundreds of the laity protested at what they considered to be rank injustice, and an active layman, Dr. John Bryden, flew to Rome and had an interview with the Dominican Master-General. Looking back, the McCabe affair carried for two opposing sides a symbolic significance on the relationship between freedom i and authority.

Fr. McCabe's rapid reinstatement to his priesthood and his eventual return to his old editorial chair have already receded into memory. As regards his particular place in his tory Herbert McCabe is more likely to be recorded as a popu lariser of the authentic theo logy of the Catholic Church as was emphasised at the Se cond Vatican Council rather than that new breed of cleric, the "contestateur priest."

I suppose most people under the pressures of editing a periodical tend to get tight-lip ped, although that is not the first impression you get on

meeting him rather less the tight-lipped intellectuals than the unstudied "hail-fellow-wellmet" thinker.

He is a member of the Dominican community at Blackfriars, Oxford, and in formality and the courtesies come naturally to him. He loves pubs because "they are the most relaxing places in the world."

One admirer said of him : "Herbert likes the good things of life without being attached to them. lie likes good food and drink, but is far more concerned that the quality of the conversation should be good."

John Herbert McCabe was born at Middlesbrough in 1926 the third son of a headmaster of a local school who was "of independent mind." He at tended the Marist college in the steel city but when wartime military service loomed he had by that time become a pacifist and volunteered to become a "Bevin Boy" in the coal mines, not what could be called a soft option.

A medical board decteed otherwise.

He began his academic career by reading chemistry and ended by taking his degree in philosophy, at Manchester University. He entered the Order of Preachers in 1949. "I really never wanted to be anything else but a Dominican even before I wanted to be a priest," he recalls.


He was attracted by such Dominicans as Gerald Vann, Bede Jarrett and Vincent McNabb. To young Herbert McCabe they held out the idea that one could be a committed Catholic Christian and at the same time be civilised and tolerant.

He was ordained in 1955, spent three years in parish work at Newcastle, then a spell at Salford and then at Manchester, lecturing in the extramural studies department of his old college.

He succeeded Fr. 111tud Evans, O.P., as editor of New Blackfriars in the mid-sixties.

He sees the function of the monthly, an amalgam of the

former Blackfriars and Life of the Spirit, as being "to bring the Christian Faith to bear on

what is happening in our society, to explore and assess these things in the light of the Gospel."

Its contributions ranging from the penetrating and witty to the academically and astronomically obfuscated are drawn from the most original, plus a few unoriginal thinkers, in the ranks of the Catholic intelligentsia although they are not confined to Catholics.

Since his re-appointment as editor last year the monthly has increased its circulation by the thousand extra copies needed to ensure its financial stability.


Besides contributing to the new complete edition of Aquinas' Summa Theologica Fr. McCabe has written two books. His first "The New Creation" popularised the Sacraments as mysteries of human unity.

"We can no longer," he wrote, "treat the Sacraments as Catholic writers have done in the past as aids to spiritual life which the Church is fortunately able to dispense to her children.

"We must return to the classical tradition in which they are seen as our living contact with the humanity of Christ."

He traces the formative influences on his thought from initially reading G. K. Chesterton and Eric Gill, but thought their "back to the land" Distributism too Utopian. Later he read the works of his brother Dominicans, Gerald Vann, Victor White, Yves Cougar and Edward Schillebeeckx.

He has abandoned his former pacifism as he believes that in many parts of the Third World violence is defensible to bring about revolution for the benefit of those who are victims of the violence of swingeing economic oppression.

His second book "Law, Love and Language" devotes some time to rebutting the heresy voguish in some Catholic circles that one can have a ruleless morality.

Fr. McCabe sees members of the Church in every age being called to the prophetic task of bringing Christianity once more into line with the Gospel, breaking through Christian legalism to a more truly Christian freedom.

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