He was one of the most fascinating figures of 80’s/90’s Traditionalism. His past was soaked in many rumors, eerie warnings and tales came from his lips whenever he was interviewed, his books became ever-increasingly spooky and conspiratorial in nature until his death, and opinions of him ranged from him being a bearer of truth, a prophet heralding imminent disaster to a liar, a philanderer, and wolf in sheep’s clothing. To this day, no one really knows the truth.
To try to make any sense of him, we must begin with what we know for certain.
Malachi Martin was a brilliant young Irish Jesuit, charismatic, charming, and the master of many languages – including several Semitic ones. His first and probably greatest accomplishment was his work on translating the Dead Sea Scrolls. He summarily taught many subjects at the Pontifical Institute in Rome, became a close acquaintance to Cardinal Bea and Pope St. John XXIII, held several notable positions in the Vatican, and was considered important enough to accompany Pope Paul VI in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1964.
Everything changed when he suddenly resigned his position at the Pontifical Institute and then requested – and was granted – a release from his priestly vows. He apparently took a number of odd jobs in the United States before finding a steady source of income through his admittedly incredible writing talents. It is rumored that Cardinal Terence Cook of New York brought him in to practice his secular priestly faculties and that he encountered exorcisms during this time, but this has been relatively uncorroborated (this fall from grace has been the source of many rumors and speculation, including some unfortunate documentation that seems to indicate that some of them might be true).
From 1972 to 1978 he was the religion editor of National Review. In this time he authored more books, praised the little-known Mary Ball-Martinez (the sentiment was not mutual), was an editor for the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and appeared on three episodes of Firing Line (I own copies of all three).
It is the time after this that the Traditionalists know him the most. He returned to being a full priest (legally or not, no one really knows) and his books became increasingly apocalyptic, the most famous/infamous being ‘Windswept House’ which describes the horrific abuse of a child on the altar in the Vatican chapel (for the record, other sources corroborated this event as factual but having happened in Charleston, South Carolina and involving the bishop at the time and a young priest named Joseph Bernardin). His opinions and positions took a radical turn from when he had been religion editor at National Review and slid deeper down the rabbit-hole of extreme traditionalism. By the end of his life, he was spouting at least as many seemingly outlandish conspiracy theories as Bishop Richard Williamson. The difference was, Martin appeared to have much more credibility and insider credentials.
What gave Martin a lasting following was the fact that some of what he said turned out to be very true. I knew some people who knew Martin and at least a decade before anyone could have possibly conceived the scope of the pedophilia scandal, he was already warning Catholics to stay clear of very specific prelates – Bernardin in particular. Given all that happened afterwards, we can at least see that he was telling the truth on this point (the worst part of it all is that Martin’s claims, while seemingly outrageous at the time, were an understatement of how deep the problem was).
Martin was many things. He may have been many more things. Some credited him rightfully with warning of the many ills of the church. Others also rightfully slammed him for his obsession with sensationalism for the sake of profit. Both the accusations of his accusers and the defenses of his supporters carry truth or apparent truth.
This is part of what makes him a fascinating, memorable and enduring figure.