Last week, Bishop William Callahan of LaCrosse, Wisconsin did something highly unusual. He exerted his authority as bishop to defend Catholic doctrine and protect the laypeople of his diocese from spiritual confusion. Specifically, he removed Fr. James Altman from his position as pastor of St. James the Less Parish. Fr. Altman had previously been reprimanded for admonishing his congregation against taking the COVID-19 vaccine and preaching that all Democrats will “burn in hell.” It’s the type of thing that seems laughable on the surface, but is actually quite serious. Fr. Altman’s assertion that he knows who is and who is not in Hell rises to the level of blasphemy. His adulation of Donald Trump flirts with outright idolatry. And he’s not just one man. He’s representative of an alarming movement of believers who have come to put political ideology above spiritual Truth.
How Fr. Altman Became Pope of the Alt-Right
There was a time when a wacky figure like James Altman would have been relegated to obscurity. He has been instructed not to preach, after all. Bishop Callahan advised him to take a 30-day retreat for reflection, after which time he could be reinstated. Instead, Fr. Altman has taken the stage at CPAC and become a cause célèbre for hard right Catholics. The last I checked, the Fund for Cancelled Priests, a crowdfunding project set up to support him, has raised over $700,000. I’m not exactly sure what Fr. Altman is supposed to do with this money, as it doesn’t seem likely that Bishop Callahan is open to a bribe on this matter. But donating to this fund isn’t really about providing practical support to a “cancelled” priest. It’s about voicing support for Fr. Altman’s brand of Catholicism, one that holds partisan loyalty equal to religious faith. He considers himself to be counter-cultural, but he has fallen into the biggest, most obvious, trap of secularism: making politics his religion. Fr. Altman has become pope of the alt-right.
Admit You’re a Bit Heterodox
If I have one thing in common with Fr. Altman, it’s that I don’t agree with everything the Church teaches. Just last week, some guy on the internet told me that I am incapable of respecting the Eucharist because I am a Democrat. (I’m not a Democrat, but that’s obviously beside the point.) He, like many readers of my blog, was upset about my heterodox personal beliefs, specifically my stance on gay marriage. As I’ve written before, most Catholics have some degree of disagreement with the Church. The difference between so-called liberal Catholics, such as myself, and so-called conservative Catholics is that liberal Catholics tend to admit we’re heterodox. (I don’t like the terms liberal and conservative to describe religion, but they’re the easiest terms to use here.) Conservative Catholics tend to believe that their heterodoxies are the “true” faith. According to them, it’s the bishops and even Pope Francis who are wrong. Better to just admit you’re a bit heterodox and move along.
Admit You’re Not the Pope
Most Catholics are heterodox, but we don’t have to be heretics. It’s hard to toe this line, I admit, but it is possible. To start, you have to accept that the Church teaching is what it is. You can’t just go around claiming it’s something else. You also have to defend the Church’s autonomy on whatever issue it is you disagree with. As much as I support gay marriage, I would never support an illicit gay wedding within the Catholic Church. As much as I support women in the priesthood, the Women Priests are not priests. They’ve all been excommunicated, and they can’t perform sacraments. Fr. Altman needs to accept that Church teaching does not damn Democrats. His bishop has asked him to stop lying and claiming that it does. Fr. Altman can still personally believe that all Democrats are going to Hell. He can personally believe the COVID vaccine is a demonic government experiment. But he can’t teach that from the pulpit. He can’t proclaim these messages in his capacity as a Catholic priest.
Admit You’re At God’s Mercy
The difference between heterodoxy and heresy comes down to one thing: humility. It’s good to recognize our own weakness. It’s good to remember that you’re not infallible, that your own wisdom is limited. God has a plan for the Church that is bigger than my moral reasoning can understand. This does not mean that my moral reasoning is necessarily wrong. I’ve thought long and hard about my stance on homosexuality. I’ve prayed about it, I’ve wrestled, and I’m at peace. But I’ve found a great deal of grace in the struggle, and I accept the Church for what it is. I can be a feminist in every aspect of my life, but covering my head at Church has been good for my soul. I don’t understand it, but that’s the power of humility. You do your best, put yourself at God’s mercy, and let Him take care of the rest. Fr. Altman should consider doing this as well. It would be good for his soul.