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 Greek word of which "monk" is a corruption means a man who lives" alone" (on religious grounds), but it has come to be the accepted name for bodies of men who live a communal life after taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Long before the Christian period, groups of men, even Atheists like the Jains and the early Buddhists, lived ascetic communal lives. With the contamination of Buddhism by Asiatic superstitions, and its enrichment by royal and wealthy patrons, monasticism in Asia attained enormous proportions. The Chinese traveller, Fa-hsien (whose work is translated by Dr. Giles, The Travels of Fa-hsien, 1923), described communities of 3,000 to 5,000 monks, and at one place saw 50,000. He found relics and superstitious practices, but says that the monks were uniformly ascetic and devoted to learning. In the seventh century of the Christian era another Chinese Buddhist, Hiuen Tsung, again found in India rich monasteries with thousands of monks, and described them as very ascetic and learned. See S. Julien's Histoire de la vie de Hiouen Tsung in his Voyages des Pélerins Bouddhistes (tom. I, 1853). They were, we know, not always so blameless, but Asiatic monasticism never had any approach to the gross scandals, century after century, of Christian monasticism. This was remotely inspired by the Therapeuts and Essenes of pre-Christian Alexandria and Palestine, who in turn seem to have been inspired by the strict communities of the priests of Serapis and priestesses of Isis in later Egypt. The persecutions of the Christians drove many to the desert, where the weird story of "the Fathers of the Desert" began. The deliberate filth of the life of so many, and the occasional scandals caused by the admission of women disguised as men, offended many in the Church - it was" the life of beasts, not men," said Lactantius - but the comprehensive corruption began in the fourth century, when monks were brought to Rome and so petted that a vast unorganized brood of monks spread over the Western Church. Jerome, who eventually joined them in Syria, severely criticizes them (Epp. XXII, XXV, etc.), and an Imperial Rescript of' the year 370-Jerome says they richly deserved it - which had to be read in the churches, sufficiently branded their greed by declaring legacies to them invalid. Augustine paints a terrible picture of their fraud and hypocrisy in his work De Opere Monachorum (about the year 400), and wrote a Rule of Life which a few Communities accepted. The great majority in the West wandered about individually, and in the East the vast monasteries poured out crowds of fanatics like those who tore Hypatia's flesh from her bones and stormed Church Councils with staves. In the sixth century Bishop Isidore of Seville found Spain overrun by these wandering monks - "they have in common nothing but their impure and vagabond life," he said - and Benedict had the same painful experience in Italy. Historians who now tell their readers that the world was so disturbed by the movements of the barbarians (most of whom had settled down long before) that Benedict was inspired to inaugurate houses of retreat and study for good men, and wrote a Rule for them, misrepresent the facts. Benedict expressly says - his words and those of Isidore and half a dozen others are in the Migne collection of the Fathers - that he formed his famous and secluded abbey at Monte Cassino because Europe was overrun by swarms of corrupt monks. Most of the Augustinian monks were as bad as the other orders; and we may add that every subsequent foundation of a new Order was due to the same cause, the general corruption of the existing Orders.
      The history of Christian monasticism from that date (about 550) to the Council of Trent - that is to say, during the 1,000 years of the Church's complete domination of Europe - is the most sordid chapter in the history of civilized religion; even more sordid than the story of the Popes and prelates of the Church. For while the many long periods of Papal corruption are nevertheless (between the years 350 and 1650) only about a third of the entire stretch, it is the periods of decency which are exceptional in the monastic record, and this decency was never more than regional. Apologists, and some non-Catholic writers, who first pretend that the critic says all monasteries at all times were corrupt, and then triumphantly quotes evidence of particular abbeys which were not corrupt, use the familiar trickery of the apologist, while those modern historians who in describing the Middle Ages insert a chapter on the ideal or theoretical Benedictine abbey, and at the most delicately hint that some of them were irregular or "worldly," convey a monstrously false impression. No complete history of the subject has been written, even Lea's History of Sacerdotal Celibacy giving only part of the evidence, but the present writer has fairly covered the ground and quoted contemporary Catholic authorities in his True Story of the Roman Catholic Church (6 vols., 1930, published in America only), and is in a position to state that at least four-fifths of the monasteries - "abbeys" are monasteries of the older Orders - of Europe during the 1,000 years were corrupt. Except in certain periods and places - Irish and British monasticism in the first fervour, groups which followed the Cluny or the Cistercian reform for a few decades, and so on - a monastery was generally a nursery of sloth, sensuality, and vice. We have, for instance, an ideal witness in the eighth century, the monk Boniface, who was equally familiar with conditions in Germany, France, and England. Religious writers ignore the letters in which he reports the general corruption, and quote Bede - omitting to say that even Bede, a very isolated monk, talks of God destroying some communities by fire for their vices - but Boniface had far greater authority at Rome, and expressly describes general conditions. They quote the reforming zeal of Dunstan, and not the declarations of bishops and councils, that it had little effect and died with him. Records of Councils (in Mansi's collection, for instance) of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, in England, France, Germany, and Italy bemoan the corruption of the monks. The Norman monk-historian Ordericus Vitalis, gives a dark picture of monastic life in England and France in the tenth and eleventh centuries; and Abelard and Cardinal Jacques de Vitry testify to a general corruption - Heloise says the same of the nunneries - in the thirteenth. Cardinal Damian's Liber Gomorrhaicus imputes the most perverse vices to the monks generally. Pope Alexander III, in a letter of the year 1171, scourges the English bishops for the state of the monasteries, and Pope Innocent III repeatedly refers in his letters to monastic corruption. The new monks [see Dominicans and Franciscans], we saw, speedily became as corrupt as the old, and songs and stories of the most cynical character (as in the work of Walter Map) about monks circulated throughout Europe. In the fifteenth century monastic corruption was the first point made by the few who appealed to Rome for reform. Pico Della Mirandola, appealing to Leo X (himself a vicious Pope) in 1519, said the vices of monks were "such as would not be found among the devils of hell" (On the True Causes of our Calamities), and when the Council of Trent at last met, bishop after bishop demanded the abolition of monasteries on account of their general corruption.
      The testimony is so overwhelming that in the first volume of the Cambridge Mediaeval History (Ch. XVIII) even the Catholic Canon Barry admits the corruption in England. He weakens his concession by claiming that it was very different in Germany, where in point of fact we have even more evidence of vice. Not only do Erasmus, Ulrich von Hutten, and Luther, denounce the general condition, but even Luther's fiery monk-opponent, Thomas Murner (Narrenbeschweerung), admits it - he jokes in one sermon about the nuns in one convent electing as abbess the one who had most children - and it was the German bishops at Trent who most insisted on the general corruption. In recent years it has become the fashion to regard Cardinal Gasquet's Henry VIII and the English Monasteries (5th ed., 2 vols., 1893) as a satisfactory answer to all libels of the English monks. He does not notice the terms in which Henry VII speaks of the monasteries in 1487 and the Pope's confirmation (Wilkins's Councils of Great Britain and Ireland, III, 630), or in the same work the letter in which the Archbishop of Canterbury described the monastic group at St. Albans (a Benedictine Abbey with a cluster of priories and nunneries) as amazingly corrupt, the monks desecrating even their chapels by "fornicating with nuns and the shed-ding of blood and seed," and "prostituting themselves to whores inside and out of the monasteries almost publicly and continuously"; and in 1511 the next Archbishop (also in Wilkins) finds no improvement. Gasquet does not notice the state of the convents of Kilburn, which we find described in Archdeacon Hale's Series of Precedents and Proceedings in Criminal Cases (1847), or that we learn from the same records that the friars had special brothels in London. We find, in fact, that even after Trent the corruption continued in Catholic countries, especially France (where the convents were notorious up to the Revolution), Spain, Italy, and Spanish America (see the amazing picture in Noticias secretas de America anon; 1826). For eighteenth-century Italy we have a remarkable picture in the Memoirs of Scipio de Ricci (Engl. trans., 1829), a reforming bishop of high character. He found that the Dominican monks of Florence slept in the dormitories of nuns, that practically every convent was "a brothel," and that the head of the Dominican Order in Rome, a loose monk, obstructed all his efforts at reform. We must, in fine, recall the extraordinary exposure of monastic corruption in Germany in the last few years. The facts are given, and the Catholic acceptance of them and reliability of the trials shown, in the articles Franciscans and Germany. If entire provinces of several hundred monks could be infected with sodomy in Europe in modern times, it is futile to protest that mediaeval accounts are incredible; and every witness cited in this summary, and the hundreds who could be cited in a complete history of monasticism, are Catholics, for the far greater part strict Catholics.


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