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.
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