Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) was one of the most prolific authors of all time. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic, worked on Latin documents, and made himself very well-informed about Christianity, but turned against it. But he was extremely naive about Jews; bear this in mind.

Click for Detailed notes on McCabe - scroll down for selections from A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (1948).

Here's the full A Rationalist Encyclopaedia (about 1.3 MBytes; Word format; includes notes on some of its limits)


J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

The practice, enforced by law in the Roman Church, of privately telling one's "sins" to a priest once a year or, voluntarily, once a month or week. While the confession of sins, in general or in detail, was common in the Hebrew and other religions, and not unknown among lower peoples (America, Africa, etc.), the Roman Church - made law is one of the most blatant survivals in modern life of mediaeval priestcraft. Such confession to priests was a normal part of temple life in ancient Babylon, because all afflictions were understood to be punishments by the gods for transgressions, and this was the natural means of relief (from disease, etc.). We have copies of the lists of sins which the priest read to the penitent so that he might recognize and confess his sin and receive a sort of absolution. See J. Morgenstern, The Doctrine of Sin in the Babylonian Religion (1905), M. Jastrow, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (1898), or any work on Babylonian religion. Prof. Pinches (The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, 1906) traces the practice back to Sumerian times. The "City of Sin," as most Christians imagine it, really groaned with a sense of sin, and its chief deities were very ethical. Confession was a normal feature of religious life also in ancient Mexico. Father B. de Sahagun, one of the earliest missionaries to the Aztecs, describes in his Historia general de las Cosas de Nueva Espana (Span. trans., 1829) how it was usual to confess sins to a priest, who gave absolution and imposed a penance. Voluntary confession was also part of the preparation of the Greeks for the Eleusinian Mysteries [see].
    In the Roman Church it is compulsory "under pain of mortal sin" (that is to say, condemnation to hell) to confess to a priest at least once a year, at or about Easter, and it is not disputed by Catholics that this became a law of the Church only at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), or at the height of the power of the mediaeval clergy. It was a natural result of the rigour of the primitive Church that there should be a large amount of voluntary confession of sin, public and private. With the late insertion in the Gospels (Matt. xvi, 19 and xviii, 18) of the myth that Christ gave the apostles power to forgive sins, discipline was relaxed, and Pope Callistus (217-22), a man of dubious character, announced, to the great indignation of the rest of the Church, that he and his clergy could forgive, clearly after confession, even the gravest sins committed after baptism. Sins and sinners multiplied at once in the Church, as the contemporary Bishop Hippolytus tells us, and the apostasy of the overwhelming majority of priests and people in time of persecution further enlarged the practice of confession and absolution. From the sixth century lists of sins (Penitentials) were provided for the priests and bishops to examine the people, and they are valuable witnesses to the extraordinary grossness of morals in the Dark Age. Babylonian lists of sins compare favourably with those given in a modern Catholic prayer-book, but one would not be permitted to translate, for instance, the list in the De ecclesiasticis disciplinis (Migne Collection of the Fathers, CXXXII) of the pious Abbot Regino of Prum (tenth century). He describes sexual offences that were unknown to Martial. By local enactments confession was in the course of time made compulsory (in theory) for priests and monks, but the resistance of the laity checked the ambition of the Popes until 1215, when the powerful and truculent Innocent III made an annual confession compulsory for all. The Schoolmen of that and the following century then, as usual, provided a doctrinal basis for the practice, and it was formulated as "the Sacrament of Penance" by the Council of Trent in 1651. It is one of the clearest examples of priest-made law, and it has never in any age promoted morals. The thirteenth century itself is one of the most dissolute in history. [See article under that title and Middle Ages.] H. C. Lea's History of Auricular Confession (3 vols., 1896) is primarily an account of the development of the institution, but provides a very large amount of material in regard to abuses of it.
    Points of actual controversy are whether absolution is ever sold, whether the confessional (the "box" in which the priest sits to hear confessions) is abused for improper purposes, and whether, as some sentimental non-Catholics with a purely theoretical knowledge contend, the practice has a considerable moral and spiritual value. The sale of absolution was always indirect. In the Middle Ages lists of money payments for various sins were drawn up, but the defence is that they were "alms" (to the Church) by way of penance. Pope John XXIII [see] was charged by the Council of Constance, in 1415, with the direct sale of absolution, and there are other cases in which Popes [see Avignon] and bishops virtually sold absolution for sins. The Reformation put an end to all this, and the slit for coins in the grille which separates priest and penitent in the modern confessional is for paying fees for Masses. The grille, or wooden partition with a porous grille, is quoted by Catholics as proof that there cannot now be abuses, but the priest may hear confessions in any room, without separation. In regard to the abuses which still occur, the evil effect on certain types of girls and women, and the supposed spiritual advantages - the overwhelming majority of Catholics detest the institution - are discussed in McCabe's Twelve Years in a Monastery (Thinker's Library ed., 1930, ch. VI). Although it is compulsory to confess only once a year, most Catholics belong to societies or confraternities which demand confession monthly, and the members discharge the obligation mechanically and reluctantly. The obligation begins at the age of seven, the Catholic Church holding that a child of that age is capable of deserving eternal torture in hell!


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