At first glance, the phrase “cult of Jim” probably conjures images of Jim Jones, the American founder and cult leader of the “People’s Temple.” For those unfamiliar, the story is as follows: in the mid-1950s, a 20-year-old man from Indianapolis began attending meetings of the Communist Party USA. He and his fellow communists were among those investigated during the McCarthy hearings. Filled with rage at the anti-communist mentality of most Americans, Jim began to examine ways he could win others to his side. After the infamous trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jim reportedly mused upon this question and conclusion: “How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”
I am not a survivor of the People’s Temple. Instead, the “Cult of Jim” I participated in was none other than the one surrounding the popular Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin, S.J. Right now, he is the most popular (and divisive) figure in the Catholic Church here in America. Author of several New York Times bestselling books and boasting over 700K followers between Facebook and Twitter, Fr. Jim’s every word is broadcast to an extremely wide following.
I, at one point, was one of his most devoted followers, his biggest fan. Thankfully, I have escaped the cult following, leaving behind a group hell-bent on promoting heterodoxy within the Catholic Church. Here is my story.
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I was a freshman in college when I first came into contact with Fr. James Martin, S.J. The year was 2012. As an 18-year-old living away from home for the first time, I, like many other college freshmen, was faced with a choice: free from the reins of my parents, do I party, drink, and smoke marijuana endlessly, or do I find an alternative means of self-exploration? Thankfully, I chose the latter. I got involved in my college’s campus ministry and quickly made friends. One day, during one of our campus ministry events, someone mentioned that James Martin was coming to give a talk on Catholicism. She showed me a clip from the Stephen Colbert’s show, and I was impressed that a priest made an appearance on such a popular, secular program. In preparation for his visit, we were all encouraged to read his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life.
I was hooked. Here, a priest was writing about God and spirituality in a practical, easy to understand, and even funny way. From there, my interest in Ignatian spirituality grew. I devoured Jim’s writings and even followed him on social media. He wrote it? I read it. He tweeted it? I retweeted it. He posted on Facebook? I shared it.
For me, James Martin was a much needed voice in what I perceived to be a very cold, conservative, and rigid Catholic Church. While many members of the USCCB warned against same-sex “marriage,” Jim tweeted a line from the Catechism (CCC #2358) encouraging us all to “accept” and “respect” the “community” (LGBT) of men and women afflicted with sexual attractions to members of their own sexes, along with people who believe they are members of the opposite sex. When certain Catholics went to Twitter, calling for the LGBT community to live a life of chastity, Jim responded by reminding us that they needed to be treated with “compassion, and sensitivity.” When Catholic bishops strove for “religious liberty” in the fight for marriage, Jim, once again, reminded us of CCC #2358.
Every day, he would tweet a 140-character reflection on the Gospel. I always looked forward to these tweets, because they helped summarize the Christian message in a concise way. However, as I got deeper into learning about the Catholic faith, some of the things he tweeted didn’t seem to add up. Every year, on Easter, he tweeted:
I had always been taught in my catechism classes that the Church was “born” on Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Most recently, he suggested that Jesus was ignorant of His divine mission, something Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P. took up in the Catholic Herald.
When corrected, he accused his opponents of being Docetists.
While these tweets were troubling, I didn’t yet leave the Cult of Jim. It wasn’t until he posted a piece on America Magazine answering questions about the Martin Scorsese film Silence that I realized I was following a person with dangerous ideas. In it, he suggests that Jesus “asked” the fictional Jesuit Fr. Rodrigues to apostatize. Yes, you read that right. According to Fr. Jim:
Christ requests this contradictory act from his priest. It makes little sense to anyone, least of all to Father Rodrigues, who has assiduously resisted it for himself. Yet he does it. Because Jesus has asked him to.
When I read this, I froze. “If apostasy is a sin, and Christ asked Fr. Rodrigues to apostatize, then does that mean that Christ can ask us…to sin?!” Reading on, Jim apparently answered my question:
And for those who say that Christ would never ask something like that, ask yourself how the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would have to suffer and die.
I immediately closed my laptop and hung my head. I realized that Fr. James has a radically different Christology and moral theology from that of the orthodox Catholic Church, and that I needed to abandon my loyalty to him, or else risk a future where I revel in theological and moral error.
And so, what is the “Cult of Jim”? I argue that the “Cult of Jim” is a particular religious order within the “Church of Nice.” The cult is united not only in its members’ admiration of the “prophetic” Fr. James Martin, S.J., but also the broad liberal assumptions of what the Church should be – a place of “welcome,” a place where we don’t judge (even actions), a place where freedom, equality, and tolerance replace the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
The Cult of Jim uses buzzwords to respond to any of their critics. You don’t agree with women’s ordination? You’re “oppressing.” You argue (using the Church’s actual social doctrine) that completely open borders are not prudent? You must hate the “marginalized.” Using the liturgy as a prop, they immediately identify those who attend the traditional Latin Mass as somehow hating Vatican II – while forgetting what Sacrosanctum Concilium actually said. They see themselves as a religious vanguard, desperately trying to keep the 1970s alive – be it by encouraging guitars at Mass or by questioning the authority of Humanae Vitae.
But most importantly, the Cult of Jim is fixated on one particular issue: activism for sodomy, for sexual license, and for anti-reality proposition that males can become females and vice versa. You agree with the 2,000-year-old Catholic teaching on marriage and the family? You’re a “rigid,” “close-minded” bigot. Or perhaps you’re a self-hating homosexual:
The cult operates in the following manner: fight for liberal-progressive values; twist the Gospel; omit the “hard sayings”; reduce everything in the Gospel to a diluted, feel-goody sense of “love” (one that does not fit the Church’s definition of caritas); and rush to the social media scene to criticize Catholics who articulate the Magisterium’s position on the sinfulness of homosexual actions.
In his book, Dangerous Personalities, former FBI profiler Joe Navarro outlines qualities and personality traits of a pathological cult leader. Among the many he offers, some stand out: arrogance in behavior; an inflated sense of power, “one that allows him to bend rules and break laws”; boastful of accomplishments; and calls anyone who criticizes him an “enemy.”
Now I will ask: are any of these things found in Fr. Jim?
Countless times, people have tweeted to Fr. Jim, asking him to clarify his views, and countless times, he has chosen not to. Like many cult leaders, he dodges and deflects any criticism. He has a loyal band of supporters (mostly in their 50s and 60s) who will attack anyone who disagrees with him. His Facebook posts are filled with comments of support, thanking him for standing up for the “marginalized” and praising him for his “open-mindedness.” Whereas he will delete any comment standing up for orthodoxy, he curiously has nothing to say when people mock and ridicule 1,700-year-old dogmatic language:
Recently, a Jesuit friend of mine told me that this had been a long time coming, that Jim has protection in the Vatican and from his superiors, and that several orthodox Jesuits (many of whom are younger) are shut down every time they try to fraternally correct him. In others words, he is untouchable. Being a New York Times bestselling author and one of the most popular Catholic figures in America, it comes as no surprise that anyone who opposes him faces the wrath of America Magazine and his loyal group of followers.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I do not, in any way, condone calumny and slander against a priest of Jesus Christ (or any Christian, for that matter). I am not supportive of hate speech in the slightest. But there is a major difference between hate speech and truth-telling. The Gospel demands that we admonish the sinner and call out error, while, of course, remaining charitable. However, Fr. Jim regards anyone questioning his authority and worldview as “rigid,” “dangerous,” and “ultraconservative.” His recent blasting of the Theological College, CAFOD, and the Order of the Holy Sepulcher for canceling his scheduled lectures betrays his agenda. After all, for a guy who wrote an entire book on Jesus, wouldn’t he have thought to listen to our Lord’s words in Matthew 10:14? “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” That is a far cry from “If anyone will not welcome you, use your massive social media following to criticize him.”
In retrospect, I am partially grateful for my experience in the cult. It taught me, among other things, that if my values are aligned to the world’s, my values probably aren’t reflecting the truths of the Catholic faith. That said, I am still concerned and deeply troubled.
I wish Fr. Jim well, and I pray for him. I hope numerous Catholics come upon his earlier writing and enjoy an introduction to Ignatian spirituality as I did. But I warn my fellow Catholics: read and follow him at your own risk. He relishes ambiguity, and he will lead you down a path of heterodoxy and heteropraxis.
Feel free to respond to this. Just remember: two post limit, and no ad hominem.
Felix Thompson is the pen name of a freelance writer based in the Midwest, seeking to defend the truths of the Catholic faith.