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Caught in the culture wars

Fr James Martin in Galilee in 2011 (CNS)

Fr James Martin SJ is an American priest and author who has cornered the market in affable and polished liberal Catholicism. He is the most famous Jesuit in the United States; probably the most popular, too. And also the most disliked. Hated, even.

The name will mean nothing to most British Catholics. Nor will the phenomenon of the simultaneously admired and despised media priest. The Catholic Church in this country is only mildly affected by the culture wars. We can all think of a few pugnacious traditionalist clergy and their smarmy liberal counterparts – but there is no one who can give a talk on Jesus that (a) fills every seat in a major cathedral and (b) draws a crowd of protestors outside who accuse him of leading souls to hell.

Why is Fr Martin such an affront to conservative Catholics? He’s a liberal Jesuit, but that is hardly a novelty. And he’s not a very liberal Jesuit, compared to, say, the peace activist Fr Daniel Berrigan, who once broke into General Electric premises to damage nuclear missile nose cones and pour blood on documents.

That was in 1980, two years before James Martin also entered General Electric – as a trainee accountant fresh out of Pennsylvania’s elite Wharton Business School.

Fr Martin, 57, was not quite one of the heartless Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” depicted in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities – but, as a highly paid young graduate in mid-Eighties Manhattan, he hung out in bars on the Upper East Side “where there was cocaine in the bathroom for the adventurous”. And he “took pride in stepping over the homeless”.

Martin tells us this in his book In Good Company, his account of getting fed up with the petty cruelties of corporate America and joining the Jesuits at the age of 26. It’s not a very interesting book, considering the subject matter. Jim was a rather conventional young man. It’s hard to imagine him joining the coke-snorting “adventurous” in the bathroom; his only love affair seems to have been with Brooks Brothers, purveyor of button-down shirts to conservative preppies.

When he joined the Jesuits he was asked whether he was a virgin and said no. This was the right answer – seminary directors in the 1980s preferred applicants to have had a bit of “experience” – but he adds that it was also a lie.

He grew up in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, and although his parents didn’t go to Mass every Sunday their son did. Apart from a brief loss of faith at university, he never stopped practising, avoiding self-consciously trendy churches in favour of parishes with proper choral music. He decided to become a priest because he was worried by his drift into selfishness and felt he had a vocation.

Martin soon discovered that life in the Society of Jesus contained its fair share of petty corporate cruelties – including the indignity of having to wear a black shirt made out of the dreaded polyester. But they were easily outweighed by the satisfying rigour of Ignatian spirituality, about which he writes with a warm and inviting fluency. Thirty years on, he has never regretted becoming a Jesuit – not even when clipping the toenails of old men in a Jamaican hospice. Posted to Nairobi, he used his Wharton training to help refugees set up small businesses.

What’s not to like? Or, rather, what is there to dislike so intensely about a priest who is always scrupulously polite and has always been careful not to dissent from the Magisterium of the Church? British Catholics find the passions he arouses rather puzzling. But American Catholics don’t. Or, to put it another way, the phenomenon of James Martin SJ tells us a lot about the differences between the Church in Britain and the United States.

In middle age, Fr Martin has moved to the Left. He hasn’t drifted into progressive politics, as some priests do: rather, he has danced his way from one bandwagon to the next, acquiring a formidable following along the way. He has nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter, but his fan base predates social media.

He is at ease – to put it mildly – in Hollywood. He prepared the late Philip Seymour Hoffman for his role as a suspected sex abuser with a twinkle in his eye in the film Doubt. More recently he took the Spider-Man heartthrob Andrew Garfield, who played a Jesuit in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, through the Spiritual Exercises. As a result, Garfield – from an agnostic Jewish background – says he found himself “falling in love with Jesus Christ”. According to America magazine, the dogmatically left-liberal publication that tirelessly promotes Martin, the priest was “hesitant” about the experiment.

His critics find that hard to believe: they see Jim Martin as a self-promoter and celebrity-hunter. This may or may not be fair – but it’s worth asking why celebrities respond to this Jesuit’s message. Is it because he tells them what they want to hear?

Not necessarily. You cannot understand Fr Martin without reading The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, a far better book than his anodyne spiritual autobiography. It’s an elegantly written, user-friendly guide to something very tough: the spirituality of St Ignatius Loyola, which requires almost obsessive self-examination. Martin’s own commitment to this process is surprisingly fierce: for example, he loves the “austerity” of daily Mass. He name-checks all the usual liberal suspects – Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Sister Helen Prejean – but also writes admiringly of Cardinal Avery Dulles, Michael Novak and Evelyn Waugh In other writings he has berated Hollywood for its anti-Catholicism, and especially its sneering attitude towards celibacy.

And yet – unfortunately – there is another side to Fr Martin, one which has become intrusive since the election of Pope Francis. He thinks more clearly than the first Jesuit pontiff – but, to an even greater degree than Francis, he embraces the fashionable consensus on just about everything in a manner which inevitably alienates conservative Catholics. And, like the Pope, he doesn’t necessarily help the people whose suffering he is trying to address.

Has Amoris Laetitia made life easier for divorced and remarried Catholics, who now find themselves at the centre of one of the most unproductive rows in Church history? It’s increasingly clear that the answer is no. Likewise, James Martin’s Building a Bridge is not the priceless gift to gay Catholics that its fans clearly think it is.

This short book is pompously subtitled “How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity”. The message is that Catholics in same-sex partnerships can be reconciled to the Church through the exercise of these virtues. But can they? Surely there is an insurmountable barrier to reconciliation – namely, the Church’s teaching that all homosexual acts are sinful.

This is something Fr Martin refuses to debate. Many gay Catholics are appalled by a teaching that, in their view, is tantamount to the Church saying that it’s OK to be left-handed so long as you don’t write with your left hand. Building a Bridge does not defend the Church against this charge; nor does it propose any change to teaching. As the conservative Catholic columnist Matthew Schmitz observes, it skips over fundamental questions of sexual morality and concentrates instead on good manners.

The paradoxical effect has been to provoke displays of aggression by some conservative Catholics. There has always been a fine line between defending the Church’s prohibition on homosexual acts and being nasty about gays. That line has all but disappeared since the book’s publication – thus appearing to strengthen Fr Martin’s case. He knows that, if you goad your opponents, they will play into your hands with ad hominem attacks. Pope Francis knows it, too. So does the Holy Father’s close ally, Fr Antonio Spadaro.

Is it a coincidence that all three men are Jesuits? Fr Martin loves to deplore personal attacks on liberal priests – yet he does so in a passive-aggressive manner that only makes matters worse. His enemies call him ”slippery Jim”. That sounds mean, but perhaps they have a point. For example, Fr Martin is on record as saying that he will never oppose Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Yet he has also been recorded telling a gay man, in a question-and-answer session, that “I do hope that in 10 years’ time you’ll be able to kiss your partner – or, you know, soon, to be your husband [at the sign of peace during Mass]. Why not?”

You could interpret this as intellectual dishonesty or as evidence that Fr Martin is torn between his true convictions and fidelity to the Society of Jesus. Either way, it suggests that his ministry to gay people has over-reached itself. His talents should be employed elsewhere – which is not a euphemism for silencing him (an impossible task in any case).

The truth is that James Martin is, like many of us, a victim of the culture wars. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything can be read with profit by any Catholic – or non-believers who are trying to live a good life but don’t know how to start. It is a book that has led people to Christ – the author’s clear intention – and will continue to do so. But the Fr Martin who writes in America, and who has taken to siding automatically with the “progressive” side in any argument, is deliberately cutting himself off from Catholics who honestly disagree with his political opinions. Worse, he is provoking some of them to react fiercely against him and the people on whose behalf he claims to speak.

That is the nature of America’s culture wars. It is not the nature of Ignatian spirituality. If the engaging Fr Martin really cannot see that, then perhaps he should be learning, rather than teaching, fearless methods of self-examination.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the May 11 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here