Wisconsin priest steps in to disclaim bishop’s request for resignation

MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) – Rev. James Altman describes himself as “a minor priest” serving a working class town in western Wisconsin. But when his bishop demanded his resignation – after a series of divisive remarks about politics and the pandemic – Altman refused to obey and has since raised more than $ 640,000 from his conservative supporters to defend himself.

A Catholic priest’s refusal to obey a bishop’s call to resign is not unprecedented, but it is certainly rare. Altman’s case, which has attracted national attention and made him something of a celebrity among Conservative Catholics, has widened the gap between them and those pushing for a more progressive, inclusive church.

Altman, pastor of St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church in La Crosse, first came to prominence with a fiery video on YouTube ahead of the 2020 elections.

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“You cannot be Catholic and Democrat,” Altman said, exhorting people to “regret your support for this party and its platform or to face the fires of hell.”

He recently reiterated that sentiment while criticizing vaccination efforts and restrictions by church assemblies related to COVID-19.

During a sermon on May 23, Altman announced that the Bishop of the Diocese of La Crosse, William Patrick Callahan, had requested his resignation as pastor of St. James.

“You want my head now for me to tell this truth,” Altman told the congregation. “I, a minor priest, seem to have made enemies under some hierarchies.”

The diocese issued a statement the next day confirming Callahan’s motion and Altman’s refusal to resign and saying it would begin the process of removing him under Catholic law.

Altman said he would fight the process but need money to hire lawyers. His supporters in the US reacted quickly.

LifeFunder, a crowdfunding site for conservative Christians, wanted to raise $ 100,000 for Altman; By Thursday, it had raised more than $ 322,000. GiveSendGo, another Christian crowdfunding site, has raised more than $ 326,000.

“As we all know, Ms. Altman was subjected to diabolical persecution just because he did his job as a shepherd for his flock,” said a message on GiveSendGo.

Altman did not respond to a message The Associated Press left at the church office. Videos posted by LifeFunder show him railing against the Catholic hierarchy, calling bishops who do not support him “cowards” and a “brood of vipers” and calling liberals “left fascist Nazis”.

As for fundraising, he said, “I never think I’m great, but it tells me that people are saying they need to hear the truth.”

Most of Callahan’s fellow bishops in the United States have not spoken out publicly on the case, though one of them – Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas – tweeted his support for Altman.

Altman “is in trouble because he’s telling the truth,” tweeted Strickland. “He inspires many to keep the faith in these dark days. Let us pray for him. “

Conversely, Faithful America, which describes itself as an online Christian community, has launched a petition removing Altman from the ministry for his comments on the pandemic.

“Fr. Altman is not only endangering his own community members, but any major workers they encounter and should be removed … before he can risk another life, ”the petition reads.

David Cloutier, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America, said via email that Altman “is clearly way out of bounds to the extent that he is no longer articulating specific Catholic doctrine”.

“Instead, he has become a conservative commentator on cultural issues that either have no specific ‘Catholic’ position or where the priest may well be at odds with Catholic principles,” added Cloutier.

La Crosse is a city of 50,000 people on the Mississippi, about 200 kilometers southeast of Minneapolis. Altman’s Church was built in 1901; its red brick walls and soaring dome are a local landmark.

His ward was divided through Altman.

Carol Patterson attended mass at St. James for 50 years until Altman’s style and sermons drove her to another church last year. Although she was intensely involved in church activities, she said he never bothered to find out her name.

Saying goodbye was a difficult decision; Patterson and her daughter were both married at St. James, and her late husband was buried under his aegis.

“I just didn’t approve of the things he (Altman) did,” Patterson said. “The Democrats are going to hell and encouraging people not to get masks, not to get gunshots. … I loved St. James, but I just couldn’t anymore. It raised my blood pressure. “

Monica Mohan made the 80-mile drive from her Fall Creek home to La Crosse twice to attend the Mass with Altman. She said he was loyal to Catholic principles and is now under pressure from a church hierarchy that has tried to “water down” the faith.

“I’ve never seen a priest so happy when he gives Holy Communion,” she said. “This church is his family. Tearing a father out of his family if he has not taught anything contrary to belief is unthinkable. It’s despicable. “

If Altman persists, the legal process dictated by the canonical code of the Catholic Church could be lengthy.

According to William Daniel, professor of canon law at the Catholic University, a priest asked to resign by his bishop has the option to file a defense. The bishop then consults with two other pastors and issues a decree to remove the priest if he determines that the move is still justified.

If the priest considers the bishop’s decision to be unjust, Daniel said, he can take the case to the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, which can uphold or change the bishop’s decision. Another Vatican review is possible if the priest or bishop disagrees with the Congregation’s decision to

While requests for a priest to resign are not uncommon, it rarely happens that they result in a high-profile denial of resignation, Daniel said.

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One of the few cases of this type in the United States occurred in 2002 when a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston refused to resign for sexually abusing a child three decades earlier. Rev. D. George Spagnolia brought his case to the Vatican but was unable to lift his suspension. He died in 2008.

Recently, Rev. Frank Pavone, an anti-abortion activist and leader of Priests for Life, appealed to the Vatican over the restrictions placed on his ministry in 2011 by his bishop in Amarillo, Texas. Pavone managed to relax the restrictions, moved out of Texas and stayed with Priests for Life.

Pavone strongly supports Altman’s right to oppose the resignation.

“Bishops are wrong, and unfortunately some – like me – abuse their authority in dire ways,” Pavone said via email. “We have to be able to defend ourselves”

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Crary reported from Carbondale, Colorado.

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