Citing Canon Law, US bishop removes ‘divisive’ parish priest Fr Altman

After more than a year of trying, US bishop sees no other option than to remove controversial parish priest for inflammatory public statements on a range of issues including vaccines and politics

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Father James Altman, a US priest removed from ministry, is seen in his YouTube video. In the clip he attacks US Catholics who are Democrats. Bishop William Callahan removed him as parish priest on 9 July. Photo: CNS, YouTube screen grab

An American bishop removed a controversial parish priest who has been stirring controversy since last autumn when he criticised Catholic Democrats from the pulpit.

Fr James Altman said they must “repent” because of the party’s support for legal abortion or “face the fires of hell.”

More recently, Father Altman, parish priest of St James the Less Parish in La Crosse in the US state of Wisconsin, called the US bishops “ineffective” for “their failure to stand up against the godless government over the past 14 months.”

Vaccine statements

He referred to the pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions that all houses of worship have been required to follow to stem the spread of the virus.

A diocesan statement issued on 9 July said Bishop William Callahan “and his diocesan representatives have spent over a year, prayerfully and fraternally, working toward a resolution related to ongoing public and ecclesial concerns” about Father Altman’s ministry.

Among his controversial claims, Fr Altman told parishioners in April parish bulletins that the COVID-19 vaccines are an “experimental” use of “a genetic altering substance that modifies YOUR BODY – YOUR Temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Restrictions

Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse, Wisconsin, is seen in this undated photo. Photo: CNS, courtesy Archdiocese of Milwaukee

The bishop’s decree means Fr Altman can only celebrate Mass in private with no members of the faithful present, excepting only his parents. He may no longer preach nor assist at marriages. He may not administer baptisms, even for family members, without permission from the bishop or the relevant vicar.

Father Altman must reside within the La Crosse diocese and regularly meet with its vicar for clergy at least once a month until further notice. The decree invites him to make a 30-day spiritual retreat to allow him “the possibility to spiritually heal and recharge and to address the issues that caused the issuance of this decree.”

The restrictions apply until its cause has ceased to exist, and it is Father Altman’s primary responsibility to work to remove the cause, according to the decree.

“The obligation of a bishop is to ensure that all who serve the faithful are able to do so while unifying and building the body of Christ,” it said.

Canon law

“In accordance with the norms of canon law,” the statement said, Bishop Callahan issued “a decree for the removal” of Father Altman as parish priest. “The decree is effective immediately and for an indeterminate period of time. During this time Father Altman must refrain from exercising the function of pastor.”

The diocese “will be working over the next weeks to arrange for the ongoing pastoral care of the parishioners of St James the Less Parish,” it said. The bishop and all the leadership of the diocese ask for the consideration of respect, safety and prayers at this time for all involved.”

On 23 May Father Altman told Massgoers that Bishop Callahan had asked him to resign for being what he called “divisive” and “ineffective.”

Priest will contest decision

Father Altman told his congregants that he was being singled out for preaching “the truth” about “all the evil that confronts us.” He said he would not resign and was contesting the bishop’s request.

He said his canon lawyer had “asked for the justification and a chance to review what was in my file that suggested I was so divisive and ineffective. … I’m no expert on canon law, but understand that while we are contesting (the) bishop’s request – and we are – he could in theory appoint a parish administrator whilst I remain a pastor without duties until the appeal goes through Rome, which could take up to a year or more.”

On 24 May, the Diocese of La Crosse issued a statement noting that Father Altman had made public Bishop Callahan’s request he resign “as well as his intent to decline the request.”

Diocese says decision was pastoral

“As a result, the Diocese of La Crosse will respond in accordance to the canonical process as needed for the removal of a priest from his office as pastor,” it said, adding, “It is important to note that this is not a penal remedy but a pastoral remedy.”

The diocese said that “during the past year, concerns have been expressed related to” Father Altman’s ministry, and Bishop Callahan and canonical representatives “have worked to fraternally and privately address those concerns.”

“The process has been pastoral and administrative with a desire toward a just resolution among all parties,” the 24 May statement said.

Bishop attempted private approach first

Last September, Bishop Callahan said he had privately begun “applying Gospel principles” to correct Father Altman.

This followed the priest’s nearly 10-minute YouTube video posted on 30 August 2020, by Alpha News MN on its website. As of 9 July, over 1.3 million people had viewed that video.

“Here’s a memo for clueless, baptised Catholics out there: You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period,” the priest says. “Their party platform absolutely is against everything the Catholic Church teaches,” especially its teaching that abortion is a “moral evil.”

The La Crosse Tribune reported on 9 July that through crowdfunding sites, Father Altman has received over A$960,000 from supporters in support.

This story includes information reported by NCR

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