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The Herbert McCabe I Knew


Herbert McCabe: Recollecting a Fragmented Legacy

Franco Manni (foreword by David B. Burrell)

Cascade, pp.300, $36

Franco Menni’s new study is a welcome beginning to the assessment of this unforgettable figure from the English Dominican Province who died as the present century opened. During his lifetime, Herbert’s output of published books was modest. But they had an influence on the immediate post-conciliar Church in Britain out of all proportion to their size. If a generation later they were in danger of entering into oblivion (except among a small number of philosophically acute minds), enthusiasm was rekindled by the essay collections Herbert’s confrere Brian Davies put together on his behalf from 1987 onwards, and the more so since Herbert’s death in 2001.

Dr. Manni is writing in a language which is not his native tongue, and his book is a recycled doctoral thesis, with both the merits and the disadvantages of that genre. Personally, I should have left aside the chapter on “disciples, kindred spirits, and admirers” which suggests an attempt to persuade a Graduate Board that a dissertation topic is worth pursuing. But he has done a good job in expounding Herbert McCabe’s thinking on a variety of themes: the God-world relation and the problem of evil; anthropology and ethics; Christology and the Trinity; the Church and the sacraments; grace and eschatology (thus the principal chapters of this work), and, while covering this fair range of topics, doing justice to both the philosophical and the more strictly theo­logical components in Herbertian thought.

For myself, I am not particularly keen on Analytic Thomism, whose ontology seems to me thin gruel, reflecting a concept of reason insufficiently generous to allow for the imaginative dimension of intellect. Nor do I rally to the sort of anti-dualism, and consequent elision of classical philosophical issues, that Wittgensteinian hegemony induces among theologians. But I have to admit, of course, that both Herbert’s distinctive approach to Saint Thomas, and his admiration for Wittgenstein, equipped him to speak to modern philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition in a way that I could never do. The Platonic tradition has bifurcated. One has to choose between its Socratic component, which survives as concern with logic and language, and the more properly Platonist element in the dialogues, now found in speculative metaphysics sustained by mythopoesis. Or at any rate it would have to be a very exceptional individual who felt at ease in both. With the consent of the editors of The Lamp, whose own philosophy (I gather) is eclectic and whose notion of a review correspondingly idiosyncratic, I shall offer readers, rather, a personal view of the man in his time.

I got off to a bad start with Father Herbert McCabe. Early in my novitiate (in the autumn of 1970, then), a casual conversation about European politics was taking place by the coffee machine in the refectory at Blackfriars, Oxford. Herbert was really addressing one of the young priests who formed the small but influential coterie of his conventual disciples. My interjection was relevant, but unwelcome. “Surely the disappearance of the Habsburg Empire was a disaster for Central Europe.” Looks exchanged between the two principal conversationalists said it all. In Margaret Thatcher’s resonant words, he is “not one of us.” Had I known of Herbert’s involvement in the “Slant Manifesto,” committing Catholics to Marxism, I might have been more circumspect (though perhaps not).

All I knew of Herbert was that he had just been re-instated as editor of the English Dominican journal, New Blackfriars. That was after a hiatus of two years which passed into ecclesiastical history under the title: “The McCabe Affair.” At Wimbledon, the apostolic nuncio had complained of an editorial comment on A Question of Conscience, Father Charles Davis’s manifesto of secession from Catholicism. In an otherwise spirited rejoinder, Herbert had declared the Roman Catholic Church to be “plainly corrupt.” The offence was not so much the description as the crowning evidence brought forth to justify the description. And that was Paul VI’s unwillingness to put married couples out of their misery by giving a clear answer to the question, Is artificial contraception against the natural law or not? In the meantime this contretemps had of course been overtaken, in 1968, by the promulgation of Humanae vitae (not that the papal word when it came proved more acceptable than the earlier papal silence). Still, Herbert bore no hard feelings about his dismissal, an admirable example of his lack of grudge-bearing in general. But he kept permanently fixed to the wall of his office a newspaper clipping where a devout gentleman from the American Midwest wrote in to correct a typographical error in the paper’s previous issue: Father McCabe had surely written that the Catholic Church was “plainly correct.”

Politics, not ecclesiology or moral theology or theology of any kind for that matter, was the main flash-point of life with Herbert at 64 St. Giles’ Street. This took three forms. The first was Irish nationalism. Herbert’s family were hardly recent immigrants to England, but the advent of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the later 1960s led him to take out Irish citizenship (so at least one of his grandparents must have been born on the island of Ireland), and to position himself as a spokesman for the nationalist Republican cause.

In the middle decades of the twentieth century Anglo-Irish Catholics, who inherited a double share of suspicion of the historic British state (its policies in Ireland, and its Protestantism), appear to have been especially vulnerable to the call of communism. Normally this was if they were lapsed. But in the context of the peace movement, in and after 1968, the year of those largely abortive student revolutions, dialogues between Christianity and Marxism became a fashionable pastime for progressive Catholics in Western Europe. One English form of this endeavor, the Cambridge-based “Slant” movement, with its espousal of a “New Left Church,” was a hard-nosed version of such dialogue that took the argument wherever it would go. Herbert was exposed to the latter when in 1965 he was made editor of New Blackfriars and moved to the University city in the Fens.

The combination of the Irish cause and acceptance of Marxism as an all-explanatory theory of society made it highly likely, if not inevitable, that Herbert would become in the early 1970s a sympathizer of the “Official” Irish Republican Army, and its political wing, Official Sinn Féin. The Official I.R.A., unlike its Provisional counterpart, espoused Marxian socialism but renounced terrorist methods. That did not make them, however, a peaceful force, since they reserved the right to use violence under the rubrics of both defense and retaliation. The panicked reaction of British soldiers to a peaceful protest in Londonderry, much of which was sealed off from the British army by both Official and Provisional barricades, the “Bloody Sunday” of January 30, 1972—was to Herbert’s mind a devastating proof of the need for Britain to leave Ulster, and make way for a—hopefully socialist—united Ireland. It had the same effect on his mind as the Bulgarian atrocities on that of Gladstone, who thereafter called for the withdrawal of the Turks from the Balkans. The subject was not easy to discuss with a man in this state of mind (and feeling), or for the prior, or his hapless collegial adjunct the “community meeting,” to temporize successfully. Under the aegis of Oxford’s Lady Mayor, Olive Gibbs, herself a socialist and former chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a public debate was held at Blackfriars (in the refectory where I had blotted my copybook). It featured not only John Hume, the leader of the nationalist but moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (he would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the making of the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement in 1988), but also the fiery Bernadette Devlin (then Independent Member of Parliament for Mid-Ulster) who had served a jail sentence for incitement to riot and assaulted the Home Secretary in the House of Commons, an episode that led Herbert to express his editorial regret that her courage had not been matched by her physical strength. The collection, taken during the meeting for families of internees in the Long Kesh Detention Centre, was interpreted by local journalists as a covert subsidy to nationalist terrorism, and led to an outraged product of Oxford’s Saint Edmund Campion High School planting a low-level bomb (alias “substantial firework”) outside the priory parlor where it blew the windows in. Being a student friar in the early 1970s included alarums and excursions beyond the imagining of the place’s founder, Father Bede Jarrett, an imperialist who thought the Pax Britannica would last for a thousand years.

For Herbert, Marxian socialism was a universal social panacea, so he was hardly likely to restrict its operation to the Irish. He never went as far as his disciple, the philosopher (later a mediaevalist and theologian) Denys Turner, who declared Marxism to “be” morality. That was in an article published during Herbert’s second editorship, in 1974. Herbert’s respect for both Aristotle and Jane Austen would have precluded such an identification. Nevertheless, Marxism for Herbert was social morality. I once asked him about his attitude to Catholic social teaching. It was, he told me, an anachronistic irrelevance. Marx is the Darwin of social history. Sociology after Marx can never be the same again.

Naturally, this had implications for home politics—the politics of the United Kingdom, not that he would have ever have used that phrase for the country he lived in. Nineteen seventy-two was not only the year of the Bogside Massacre. It was also, in England, the year of a miners’ strike which, by the threat of violence, cowed the government of Edward Heath into submission to trade union demands. This was a challenge to legality sufficiently serious to explain the setting up of C.O.B.R. (an acronym for “Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms,” which remains the government’s principal instrument for reacting to national emergencies: now C.O.B.R.A., it has come to wider public attention in the coronavirus pandemic). The miners’ strike brought a significant increase in activity on the part of the Trotskyite movement calling themselves International Socialists. Until 1977, the International Socialists followed an extra-Parliamentary path, only later rebranding themselves as the Socialist Workers’ Party, and putting forward, albeit briefly, since without any success, candidates for popular election. Allied with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (which supported the Viet-Cong over against American efforts to succor South Vietnam) and, in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin and the Official I.R.A., it was the natural political vehicle for propagandist activities by lay and Dominican friends of Herbert at the time of the February 1974 General Election which succeeded in toppling Conservative rule. The International Socialists were especially active in industrial Oxford, where over twenty thousand people were employed at this period in the factories of British Leyland and Pressed Steel Fisher. Less was heard this time round of Herbert-inspired activities in our priory, no doubt because the trauma of the I.R.A. episode—which left behind more than simply broken glass—made it inopportune.

From 1973 to 1974 Rowan Williams, future archbishop of Canterbury, was writing his doctoral thesis at Wadham College, Oxford. As a volunteer worker for the Oxford-based international charity Oxfam, he knocked on the door of a tutor—Terry Eagleton, Herbert’s premier academic disciple—and asked him to contribute to a collection for the famine then raging in the Indian provinces of Bihar and Orissa. Eagleton told Williams not only would he not contribute. He also wanted to use the occasion to explain to Williams why what he was doing (attempting to stave off revolution by acts of almsgiving) was very wicked. One can hardly blame Herbert for Eagleton’s remark. But nor can one deny that it was a predictable outcome when one’s theological mentor replaces the Church’s social teaching with that of Marx. The episode illustrates what Pope Benedict XVI has called sacrificing the “people of the present” to “the moloch of the future,” a future whose “effective realization,” in Benedict’s words, is “at best doubtful.” “One does not make the world more human,” Benedict went on, “by refusing to act humanly here and now.”

A Roman pope would probably not have spoken in that way in the course of an encyclical on the theological virtue of hope had it not been for the muddying of waters accomplished by liberation theology. This was the third form in which Herbert’s political radicalism was invested. The first translation into English of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation, was published in 1973, and soon produced offspring more consistent in their theoretical Marxism and more committed in their revolutionary praxis than its author. Left-wing insurgency in El Salvador, which would later spread to other Central American nations was, when non-theological in inspiration, principally based on the Cuban model popularized in the Spanish Americas by Che Guevara—whose father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch, ascribed his son’s activities to the “Irish blood” that flowed in his veins. Did Herbert know this, I wonder? Herbert’s editorial support was noted in far off San Salvador, and the thanks received gave him particular pleasure.

It would, however, be a mistake to equate Herbert’s support for “freedom-fighters” with any sympathy for the theological method of liberationism, or, for that matter, its dogmatic content when speaking of God in Jesus Christ. He was particularly allergic to any notion of a God who is “struggling” with a recalcitrant world. Such a concept would reflect a God who is finite, and therefore an idol. Conceptual idolatry was for Herbert, of all possible theological delicts, the cardinal sin. More than this: the idea of a “suffering” God, by introducing passibility into the divine nature, would render the Incarnation superfluous. Cyril of Alexandria would have been very pleased with Herbert’s Christology, the robustness of which was exemplified in 1977 when he debated the liberal Anglican Maurice Wiles, then Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford. That exchange was triggered by the publication the previous year of The Myth of God Incarnate, a set of essays by (let us call them) neo-Arians, to which Wiles had contributed. Only if Someone who remains fully God, with all the attributes of the divine nature, yet assumes our humanity into union, changelessly, with himself, can it be said that “One of the Holy Trinity was crucified for us”—the only Christian message worth hearing.

Most of Herbert’s theological doctrine was classical in character (his denial of a distinctively Christian ethics is an egregious exception). Cornelius Ernst, regent of the Dominican study-house at Oxford for most of my time there, remarked to me on one occasion that “when Herbert says conservative things in a radical way people kick up a fuss; when I say radical things in a conservative way no one takes a blind bit of notice.” Herbert’s overall approach to theological doctrine would become apparent in a work published in 1985 after I finished ordination training. This was his Teaching of the Catholic Church: A New Catechism of Christian Doctrine which caused something of a rumpus among hierarchs, though not for reasons remotely related to the earlier McCabe Affair. The book (or booklet, it was kept as short as possible so as to suggest its successor status to the once ubiquitous “Penny Catechism”) was roundly rejected by the bishop of Leeds, David Konstant, then chairman of the Department for Catholic Education and Formation of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales. The reported reason ran that it was “full of propositions.” In the bishop’s view, sound modern catechesis abhors propositions. It confines itself to “stories.” It fell to Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville of Birmingham to give Herbert’s work official recognition as a diocesan catechism (“I stuck my neck out”), with a price to pay in (further) alienation from his episcopal colleagues. It was a pity that Herbert’s reputation for iconoclasm (along with another “Slant” Dominican, Father Laurence Bright, who formed the basis for “Father Wildfire” in David Lodge’s novel The British Museum is Falling Down) meant that some potential readers never gave him a chance. And that was despite his revival of the “Question and Answer” format of pre-Conciliar Catholic catechisms. A parodic extract was supposed to read, “Does the Little Flower teach liberation theology?,” to which the answer came, “The Little Flower does teach liberation theology,” with an appended footnote to this text: “See Herbert McCabe, O.P., ‘The Little Flower on the Barricades.’”

Herbert’s Teaching of the Catholic Church was not only incisive. When considered as a linguistic performance it was also beautiful. These qualities were as true of his writing as they were of his preaching. It is impossible to exaggerate the force of his sermons, where every word was written out, yet delivered as though they were conversational speech, and the dogmas of Holy Mother Church were magically reconfigured as the most exciting of original ideas. Not that I would wish to take them as models in all respects. The Herbertian emphases—the unknowability of the divine nature, the social character of sin and salvation, the character of the Church and the sacraments as adumbrations of a revolutionary order—could be overdone. Having renounced the typically English penchant for temperate speech it was only occasionally that he could be persuaded to draw back. The lay theologian Donald Nicholl, speaking with Herbert at a study day for working men, noticed how dismayed they were when Herbert presented them with his radically apophatic doctrine of God. He asked his fellow-speaker, “When we have heard the apostolic kerygma, as presented by Saint John—‘God is love,’ do we know more about God than we did previously?” Herbert replied, “Yes, we do, but only if we have understood the analogy of proper proportionality.” I wonder whether even so much would have been conceded (as is noted in Franco Manni’s study, Herbert was not especially enamored of the theory of analogy) were it not for the dumb appeal made by the faces in that particular, sociologically quite specific, setting.

Well, he knows now. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Father Aidan Nichols, O.P., is a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.

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Father Aidan Nichols, O.P., is a fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. This review originally appeared in the Saint Anselm 2021 issue of The Lamp magazine.