Editor’s note: This report was updated at 8:30pm MT on May 24, in light of a statement released by the Diocese of La Crosse.
A controversial Wisconsin priest has raised more than $160,000 since Sunday morning, which he says will pay to mount a canonical defense against his diocesan bishop’s efforts to remove him from his ministry as a parish pastor.
But while the Diocese of La Crosse says it will undertake a canonical process to remove Fr. James Altman from his office as a pastor, a Texas bishop has claimed that Altman “is in trouble for speaking the truth.”
“I regret to inform you, they want my head on a platter. They want my head now, for speaking the truth. I apparently have created enemies in the hierarchy,” Fr. James Altman, a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, said in a May 23 homily at St James the Less Parish in La Crosse.
“Unfortunately in our cancel culture, if the left whines like they do, like a spoiled brat, often enough, they succeed in cancelling so many voices of truth,” Altman said.
“And now they are whining, like, if I may say so, like the pansy babies that they are, to cancel me….Allegedly because I’m divisive, as they like to say, or as the bishop has stated to me, I am ineffective.”
“Bishop Callahan has asked me to resign as pastor as of this past Friday, two days ago, because I am divisive and ineffective,” the priest added, while members of the congregation murmured their disapproval.
Altman was ordained a priest in 2008, but rose to prominence after an Aug. 2020 video in which the priest said that no one registered in the Democratic Party could identify themselves credibly as a Catholic.
Applying the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, the priest said in the video that he had “crunched the numbers,” and “I came up with a pretty close approximation of how many Catholics voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Zero.”
“You can not be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period,” Altman added.
“There will be 60 million aborted babies standing at the gates of heaven barring your Democrat entrance," Altman added, while criticizing the Democratic platform’s commitment to legal protection for abortion, decrying the “climate change hoax,” and condemning “DACA, which means criminal illegal aliens.”
Altman has since become something of a viral sensation among some Catholics, and has released videos:
- saying bishops enforcing pandemic restrictions would burn in the “lowest, hottest levels” of hell,
- defending or offering justifications for the lynching of Black people in the Jim Crow era,
- suggesting that women are not permitted to preach liturgically “because we need the truth,”
- claiming coronavirus vaccines are a massive experiment designed for social control.
The priest has been frequently cited by prominent social media figures on the far-right of Catholic circles, and is hailed as a folk hero among many Catholics.
In September 2020, Bishop William Callahan said he would attempt a “fraternal correction” of Altman before pursuing canonical penalties, and has repeated that plan on several occasions in recent months.
In a statement released Monday evening, the La Crosse diocese said that Callahan had asked Altman to resign and Altman had made public “his intent to decline the request.”
“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.”
During his homily Sunday, Altman his bishop had called him “ineffective,” suggesting Callahan would be pursuing removal under the aegis of canon 1740, which says that “when the ministry of any pastor becomes harmful or at least ineffective for any cause...the diocesan bishop can remove him from the parish” using a formally delineated canonical process.
The diocese confirmed that suggestion Monday, saying “the ministry of pastor was instituted in the Church not for the benefit of the one to whom it is entrusted, but for the pastoral and sacramental care of those for whom it is conferred. The salvation of souls takes precedence over the stability of the pastor in office when these two values come into direct conflict. Although attempts were made to allow Fr. Altman the opportunity to respond to fraternal correction, a resolution of this situation has been unsuccessful.”
Altman said Sunday that he had retained a canon lawyer to appeal the bishop’s decision, even while the process required to remove him had not yet formally concluded.
An online fundraising page launched for the priest’s canonical defense had raised more than $160,000 by Monday night. The page said Altman would donate excess funds to LifeSiteNews and Church Militant, both websites that have championed Altman’s frequent public comments.
Appeals against removals from the office of pastor are usually procedural, aiming to argue that the diocesan bishop omitted some necessary step in the process; the substance of the bishop’s decision is not usually second-guessed at the Vatican. Altman has not indicated what the substance of his appeal would be.
Altman has faced difficulties in a previous pastoral assignment. He was until 2017 pastor of St. Peter and Paul Parish in Wisconsin Rapids, and dean of the Wisconsin Rapids deanery. During Altman’s seven-year tenure in that parish, a fund for care of the parish cemetery was drained, apparently without explanation, and the cemetery itself fell into disrepair.
In his homily Sunday, Altman urged his parishioners to ask themselves “Why is any good Catholic complaining about me being divisive?”
“The answer, dear family, is that no good Catholic is complaining. As a matter of fact, good Catholics from around the world have been very supportive,” Altman said, suggesting that anyone critical of his leadership is not, in fact, a “good Catholic.”
The priest said his public messages in recent months have led to increased membership at his parish, and allowed him to raise $230,000 for the parish.
He also compared his situation to martyrdom.
Noting his red chasuble, the priest told his congregation that “there’s a reason why I am wearing this vestment. This vestment, which also represents Pentecost, was [used at] my very first Mass of Thanksgiving, on the Feast of St. Peter and Paul, apostles who were martyred because they spoke the truth. So if this is my last 9:30 am Mass on Sunday, what a fitting vestment to wear.”
Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who has praised Altman in recent months, tweeted on Monday that Altman “is in trouble for speaking the truth. I originally supported him when he spoke bold truth during the election. I continue to support him for speaking the truth in Jesus Christ.”
While it is unusual for bishops to speak about personnel matters in other dioceses, Strickland has been a frequent voice in defense of Altman, and helped to bolster his reputation among Catholics skeptical of the coronavirus pandemic.
The La Crosse diocese emphasized that its moves to remove Altman from his pastoral office are “not a penal remedy but a pastoral remedy. Bishop Callahan asks for your prayers for Fr. Altman, for the congregation of St. James, and the faithful of the Diocese of La Crosse and beyond. While any change made to the ministry of a pastor is difficult, it is done with the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the Body of Christ for a positive outcome.”
For his part, Altman said he has been persecuted because of his pastoral ministry during the coronavirus pandemic.
“What really is at play here, dear family, is that other shepherds are offended because I simply state the fact that they abandoned their sheep in a time of need,” he added.
“If this alleged virus was allegedly a fraction as dangerous as they said it was, all the more reason to keep our churches open and get you the sacraments so that you stay in a state of grace. They put your eternal souls at risk. They despise me for speaking that truth,” Altman said.
“I’ve fed my sheep over 60,000 holy Eucharists in the last 14 months on the tongue, and afterward … I washed my fingers into the chalice. Which means that I have drunk the germs of 60,000 people.”
“But I am unafraid. And neither are the 60,000 faithful recipients. We are not afraid.”