It’s 20 years ago this year that Herbert McCabe died. He was one of the great Dominicans of the 20th century, perhaps the most lucid and witty exponent of Aquinas in our time. He was also a Marxist, a supporter of Irish republicanism and an impassioned opponent of nuclear weapons, all of which successfully distracted attention from his profound doctrinal orthodoxy.
In a way he resembled GK Chesterton, whom he much admired, as a communicator. The mystery was that broadcasters and editors never put him on the national stage where he could have dealt very effectively with the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, but he was also a very shy man – perhaps it was better he kept to the congenial company of philosophers and radicals in places like The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford.
I loved him dearly; he was a very lovable man. I first met him when I was getting extramural tuition at Blackfriars in Oxford. The sessions with Herbert in theory involved a kind of Socratic dialogue; what they actually entailed was me asking stupid questions and he telling me, occasionally exasperatedly, the truth of things.
At the outset of our friendship there was an odd jolt. I had brought him a present of a bottle of wine and he asked me abruptly why I had thought it was an appropriate present. I said apologetically that I had noticed that he made wine, so it would be odd to do that without liking it. He relaxed, but the quick suspicion was attributable to the fact that he had a drink problem, and knew that others knew it. At the time I didn’t, but drink – whiskey for preference – was his companion, his stimulus and, at the end, his killer. He asserted he couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic because he always had one drink-free day a week. It started on a Monday and gradually was transferred later and later in the week.
It is impossible not to think of him as Herbert but in fact he detested the name given in religion to replace his baptismal name of John. His novice master (who, he noted with satisfaction, later left the order to marry) assigned him the name after a Lakeland hermit who, he said, was so depressed by his name that he retired from society; subsequently, he noted, it was used pejoratively, as in the phrase “a complete Herbert”. But it became part of him.
There were any number of distinctive emphases in his thought, most of which go back to Aquinas and often to Aristotle. One was the non-existence of evil, something most people find difficult to grasp. What it amounted to was the conviction that God created only what was good; evil was simply the absence of good rather than something real; thus, the hole in your sock is a problem precisely because it is an absence.
In moral terms, this concept could be tricky but he argued that moral evil was simply a matter of disproportion, so, fascists were consumed by their attraction to the good that is the nation, but without a corresponding sense of the good that is other people’s human dignity. A rapist may be so obsessed with the good of power or the good of sex that he ignores the greater good that is a woman’s bodily integrity. Herbert believed in the devil, but was keen to insist that devils began as good angels.
Another strand was the insistence that man was a rational animal and a linguistic animal, because it is impossible to articulate thought, even to yourself, without language. Actually, I am fairly sure that very young children do just that, but this insistence on the primacy of language derived, I think, from Wittgenstein, who profoundly influenced him. He also greatly admired Wittgenstein’s British collaborator, Elizabeth Anscombe.
As editor of New Blackfriars, the Dominican journal, he wrote brilliant editorials, which really should be published together in book form. (Any takers?) One of them famously got him into trouble, when he took exception to the decision of the philosopher Charles Davis to leave the Church on account of its corruption. Herbert’s response was that, of course, the Church was manifestly corrupt, but that was no reason to leave it.
The bishops’ response was to remove him from the editorship of the journal; they may also have been irked by his observation that any sign of intelligence from the hierarchy was the occasion of gratified astonishment for the faithful.
In any event, the sacking caused an enormous stir – this was the Sixties, when church matters were national news – and to get away from the attention of journalists he decamped to Dublin, where in one bar – naturally, he took refuge in a bar – he found himself in a snug, or booth, only to find that in the next was another refugee from the British press, one Mandy Rice-Davies, in flight from the Profumo affair.
When the bishops finally reinstated him, he began his next editorial with the words, “As I was saying when I was so oddly interrupted…”
He was very funny. An early work, a collection of his sermons called God Matters, has an account of the genealogy of Christ which runs through all the disreputable human beings among Christ’s forebears and is richly comic. The book’s title, God Matters, is deliberately ambiguous but when he inscribed a copy, at my request for a friend, he added to it the telling phrase “…or nothing does”.
He was a very humble man. He was so socially ill at ease he once confided that he would feel awkward in a grand hotel because he had no idea how much he should tip the porter. And he had in spades that now vanished virtue, the fear of the Lord. When I pointed out to him the title of Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God, he said quietly that he should never dare to use such a title: “I should be afraid.”
One of his most useful observations was that we should always pray for what we really want; thus, we shouldn’t pray for world peace when what we actually want is a short holiday in Wales. It was this, he maintained, that led to distractions during prayer. He was nothing short of a miracle worker with his own prayers. He once made the mistake of telling me that his prayers were mostly answered, which meant I never stopped badgering him, and when he did pray for something for me, he got it.
Mind you, that gift could backfire. He recalled a chess game he was playing with his father during the war; he had made
a stupid move and he prayed his father wouldn’t notice. He didn’t. A bomb fell on
a neighbouring building and that was the end of the game.
His was an interesting family. They would read at meals. At one time, Herbert looked at all their titles, and found that every one of the McCabes was reading PG Wodehouse. You might think that the stories of Bertie Wooster would have little resonance with a Marxist; not so. Wooster, he said, had a wondering quality which made him exemplary.
Of course, Herbert was a saint. I remember once at Blackfriars him going to answer the front door and returning to remark cheerfully that “Jesus Christ was at the door. I gave him a cheese sandwich with chutney. I hope he likes it.” He has his reward now.
Melanie McDonagh is a contributing editor to the Catholic Herald
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