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).

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The Reformation.

J. McCabe, Rationalists Encyclopaedia

One of the grave perversions of historical teaching which has been effected by Catholic influence, chiefly in the educational and publishing world of America, but to a serious extent also in this country', is a new version of the Reformation. A typical example is The Renaissance and the Reformation (1934) of Prof. H. S. Lucas of Washington University. On the familiar plea that Rationalist and Protestant prejudice dominated history in the last century, and that psychology now enables us to make a sounder interpretation of events, the author blandly explains that the chief cause of the Reformation was that the Renaissance raised political and economic problems which the Church, accustomed to a serene guidance of men on pure other-worldly lines, could not solve The theory is paltry enough, particularly since there was no Renaissance in France, England, or Spain, before the Reformation; but the author makes it worse by attributing the beauty of the Age of Chivalry [see] to the Church and to "the refining influence of woman," counts the reopening of schools in Europe the Church's "greatest intellectual achievement" [see Education and Universities], and gives an entirely false account of the state of papal, priestly, and monastic morals. Usually this apology for the Church of Rome - as it really is, since the sole purpose is to conceal or to represent as negligible the corruption of the Popes and the Church - runs on the broader line that the sixteenth century saw the rise of social and political changes which of themselves wholly or predominantly explain the Reformation. Writers of the last century may have neglected these changes, on the just ground that they were very subsidiary to that corruption of doctrine and morals which was the real cause of the Reformation, and it is advisable to appreciate them; but, as one sees even in a neutral work like R. Pascal's Social Basis of the Reformation (1933), writers who take this line invariably distort the historical perspective and suppress material facts. Three points in connection with the Reformation are vital to an understanding of it:-
      (1) Rebellion against the Church was not a new development of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It began with the awakening of Europe in the eleventh century. Hildebrand [see] himself was excommunicated by the German prelates and expelled by the Romans, and for several centuries Italy fought against the pretension of the Popes to secular rule. [See Democracy.] At the same time there was a revolt in the schools [see Abelard] and a much wider moral revolt in literature (troubadours, minnesingers, epic-writers, etc.) and in the whole movement which is ironically called Chivalry [see]. The women to whom Prof. Lucas attributes a "refining influence" were more comprehensively corrupt and lacking in refinement than the upper-class women were in any other three centuries of history. The revolt, largely based upon the corruption of the Church, culminated in the Albigensian and Waldensian movements, which were drowned in blood, but the revolt continued underground in the still more extensive Witch organization or cult [see]. When the corruption of the Church continued [see Avignon; Great Schism; Thirteenth Century; etc.], there was a profoundly anti-papal Conciliar Movement (to put Councils of the Church above Popes), and then the vast revolt of the Lollards and Hussites [see]. The real interest of the historian, therefore, is to explain why this long-standing revolt succeeded at length in the sixteenth century, and this will be considered below.
      (2) The corruption of the Church "in head and members" was so gross during the Middle Ages that it would be amazing if it had not provoked rebellion. One may wonder why a corrupt age should trouble to make corruption a ground of revolt; but even loose-living men could be moved to resent the disorders of Popes, priests, and monks, who extorted a very high proportion of their wealth for luxurious and loose living while they blandished Bibles and rosaries as their credentials. The chronic disorder is shown in various articles [Celibacy; Monasticism; Papacy; etc.], and it is necessary here only to notice the series of Popes before and during the Reformation. The Council of Constance had, in 1414, dethroned three Popes and charged Martin V to reform the Curia and the Church. Pastor (1, 240) admits that he made no attempt - "Crush my rebels for me" has been the first principle of the Papacy to our day - nor did his two successors, although the Council of Basle drew up an appalling indictment of clerical morals. The Papal Court itself then (1455) passed, as the Papacy grew rapidly in wealth, and the artistic era at Rome began, into a general corruption which lasted almost continuously for nearly two centuries. [See Renaissance, Popes of the]. It was the most amazing and by far the longest degradation of a central religious organization in the whole history of religions; and attempts to explain the revolt of Europe without reference to it, or protests that it was at the most a subsidiary cause, are not serious or disinterested historical productions. A Europe fully awakened, and now equipped with the art of printing, could no more submit to this kind of religious authority than the American Colonies could have continued much longer than they did in subjection to England. The contrast of the Gospels, which were now printed, widely distributed, and made known to the illiterate masses by bodies of lay preachers, and the monstrously unscriptural doctrines, rites, and morals of the Roman Church, would provoke even loose-living men to revolt. As to the Church's reform of its ways, we show elsewhere that in point of doctrine it made its system more rigid as a standard for condemning heretics [see Trent, Council of], and its moral "reform" consisted of a few short periods, amounting to fourteen or fifteen years in all, during which a few Popes fell truculently upon the sexual laxity of the citizens of Rome, yet maintained the distinctively clerical vices (simony, graft, and intolerance) as luxuriously as ever.
      (3) As the Church could now command even larger armies than those which had crushed the Albigensian, Lollard, and Hussite rebels for it, the chief point for historical inquiry is: What special conditions enabled the chronic revolt, which had so often been suppressed, to triumph in the sixteenth century? New intellectual developments cannot be stressed. The Copernican Revolution, which is sometimes invoked, was a revolution only on paper, and had not the effect claimed for it even in the minds of the few who knew it. The classical Renaissance was confined in its effects to a minority section of the middle class; and we can hardly claim a revolutionary importance for printing or the rapid growth (with wealth) of the middle class when we recall how Lollardism and Hussism had grown. The emphasis on social changes is often a meretricious appeal to modern interests. The social-economic advance was less than it had been in the thirteenth century, and it had no weight with Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, and Cranmer, to say nothing of the princes. The Reformers violently denounced the revolt of the peasants [see Luther], and it is stated in every manual of social-economic history that, especially in England, the condition of the industrial workers became worse in the sixteenth century. Some historians stress the growth of schools, but the fact [see Education] that 90 per cent. of Europe remained illiterate shows how little importance this had. Much more important - not in causing the revolt, but in providing the conditions of success in Germany - were the political changes. The imperial crown had passed by marriage to Spain, but it was a Spaniard, Charles V, who at the request of a thoroughly corrupt and anti-German Pope, Leo X, condemned Luther (1521) and the sincere German movement for reform. Charles did this, moreover, in part in order to secure Papal support for his plan to drive the French out of Italy, and he was absent from Germany during the next ten years. This enabled the German princes to consolidate a force which ensured success and inspired Scandinavian and English princes. In England the political situation from this point of view was the same as in France: the royal power became more despotic, and the nobles, their provincial castles subdued by the new artillery, became parasites of the Court. Yet the reform ideas, which at first spread as widely in France as in England, were checked in France. What would have been the issue if Francis I had, like Henry VIII, offered to share the monastic plunder with his nobles? In fine, another profoundly important circumstance which the" new historians" omit to mention is that, in the crucial stage of the Thirty Years War to crush Protestantism, the Pope, by a monstrous piece of corrupt nepotism, betrayed the Catholic Powers. [See Thirty Years War and Urban VIII.] The article on the Reformation in the Encyclopaedia Britannica justly presenting it as a moral-religious revolt, has somehow escaped the Catholic massacre. It is by the soundest historical writer on the subject, Dr. G. G. Coulton, whose In Defence of the Reformation (1931), and other works, should be consulted. Prof. J. Mackinnon's Luther and the Reformation (4 vols., 1925-30) and Origins of the Reformation (39) are sound, though more orthodoxly Protestant. Catholic books, which betray the worst vices of their apologists, are listed under Luther.


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