Catholic Church Law and Law of Love Inform Father Altman Case
NEWS ANALYSIS: Understanding the canonical process and obedience are important in unpacking the contentious case of the Wisconsin priest and his bishop.
Father James Altman, the pastor of St. James the Less in La Crosse, Wisconsin, was removed from public ministry after a July 7 decree was issued by his ordinary, Bishop William Callahan of the Diocese of La Crosse.
While the reasons behind Father Altman’s removal as pastor ultimately remain a matter between the Wisconsin priest and his bishop, an understanding of the obedience required of diocesan priests toward their superiors and the recourse to canon law available to both bishops and priests in such situations indicate that the situation risks oversimplification by being characterized as either an unjust “canceling” of Father Altman for his outspoken views or as just deserts for a rogue priest with a personal political agenda.
On July 9, the Diocese of La Crosse issued a statement regarding the restrictions placed on Father Altman’s ministry, noting that Bishop Callahan, “in accordance with the norms of canon law, has issued a Decree for the removal of Fr. James Altman as Pastor of St. James the Less Parish. The Decree is effective immediately and for an indeterminate period of time. During this time, Fr. Altman must refrain from exercising the function of pastor.”
Father Altman, ordained a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse in 2008, has been the focus of wide secular and Catholic media attention for statements he made since the days leading up to the November 2020 elections and throughout 2021.
Many of Father Altman’s public statements and homilies posted to social media have provoked criticism for his positions on such topics as U.S. politics, the COVID vaccine, racism and feminism. For example, he stated in an August 2020 YouTube video that, because of the Democratic Party’s foundational support for abortion, Catholics who belong to that party risk damnation.
Since the decree, the outspoken priest’s case has been the subject of heated discussion in social media and traditional media venues, many of which seek to characterize him as either a modern-day prophet of truth and justice or a recalcitrant priest salting the Church’s fields with disunity and dissent.
Prior to the decree, in response to the growing controversy surrounding Father Altman’s statements, Bishop Callahan met with Father Altman to offer private fraternal correction. On Pentecost Sunday, Father Altman announced that Bishop Callahan had asked him to resign “because I am divisive and ineffective.” Father Altman declined to resign and announced he was challenging the request with recourse to canon law.
The July 9 diocesan statement notes, “Bishop Callahan … and his diocesan representatives have spent over a year, prayerfully and fraternally, working toward a resolution related to ongoing public and ecclesial concerns of the ministry of Fr. James Altman. … 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.”
The nine-point decree spelled out the terms of Father Altman’s status, indicating that he no longer is allowed to celebrate public Mass, preach, assist at marriages or administer baptism. The decree also notes that Father Altman is required to remain within the borders of the Diocese of La Crosse (located in western Wisconsin), meet regularly with the vicar for clergy of the Diocese of La Crosse, and attend a 30-day spiritual retreat “to give him the possibility to spiritually heal and recharge and to address the issues that caused the issuance of this decree.”
The decree also noted that the restrictions on Father Altman’s priesthood are imposed “for an indeterminate period of time, that is, until the cause has ceased to exist. It is primarily the responsibility of Father James Altman to make sure that this cause ceases to exist.”
The final point of the decree notes, “Any violations of the present decree by Father Altman may warrant further restrictions and may lead to the imposition of ecclesiastical sanctions.”
Father Altman appeared unmoved by his bishop’s latest action, stating July 8 on Twitter that “I will not be silenced by any arbitrary decree … nor will I be cowed by any action against my priestly faculties.”
To date, more than $700,000 has been raised at a crowdsourcing site to help Father Altman appeal the decree.
Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, a canon lawyer and member of the faculty at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., has been involved in cases similar to Father Altman’s.
It is important to note, Father Pietrzyk said, that the restrictions placed on Father Altman’s ministry do not, canonically speaking, amount to a suspension.
“People keep throwing the word ‘suspension’ around,” he said. “That is technically incorrect. He has not been suspended. Suspension is a penal term. There has been no declaration of a sentence against Father Altman. He has simply been restricted in his public ministry.”
“My guess is that [Bishop Callahan] has consulted the Holy See before issuing his decree,” he added, noting that the decree cites canon law and that the diocesan statement uses “language the Holy See has approved before and is part of the jurisprudence of the Apostolic Signatura,” the highest judicial body of the Church. “So it’s very clearly within the ambit of the jurisprudence of canon law.”
As for Father Altman’s options to appeal, Father Pietrzyk told the Register, “He could make recourse to either the Congregation for the Clergy or the Signatura. But based on past cases I’ve seen, his success in Rome is very unlikely because the Holy See … has been very clear that they have approved such actions as this in the past by bishops, and for far less serious conduct.”
Restrictions or Penalty?
Father Pietrzyk acknowledges that he — and practically everyone else commenting on the case — is not privy to enough of the particulars to make an accurate judgment on the case — and for good cause.
“Because a bishop has obligations of confidentiality with the priest, it’s not his job to make everything public,” he said.
At the same time, while Father Pietrzyk emphasized that Bishop Callahan’s actions appear to be in accord with canon law, he disagrees with the Holy See’s more general interpretation of the law regarding pastoral restrictions based on administrative decrees, such as the one issued to Father Altman.
“I will say that in the Father Altman case, based on what I’ve seen,” he added, “I agree with the bishop, that his ministry should be limited. But if I were at the Apostolic Signatura, I certainly would not allow the breadth of the restrictions that bishops make in these kinds of cases.”
There is a difference, he said, between administrative restrictions, which are not penal in nature, and judicial actions, which are explicitly penal in nature.
“There’s a principle in the law, nulla poene sine lege, that is, there is no penalty without law,” he told the Register. “A lot of these cases [of administrative restrictions] amount to an imposition of a penalty, although the Holy See doesn’t see it that way.”
The decree issued by Bishop Callahan indicates that the restrictions are “indeterminate” — they are not permanent, and therefore not penal — but also that, should Father Altman not amend his ways, he could face ecclesial sanctions, which are penal in nature. However, Father Pietrzyk told the Register, the restrictions already in place seem to amount to penal sanctions.
“I can see restrictions on the preaching aspect,” he said. “But withdrawing the priest’s ability to say Mass in the presence of the people I think amounts to a penalty. I do think that’s overreaching, but the Holy See is the one who has the authority to interpret the law.”
Bound by Obedience
Now that the decree has been issued, however, obedience seems to be the best course for Father Altman, Father Pietrzyk said.
“My advice to Father Altman and the bishop is to make clear what the proper conduct of a priest is,” he said, “and how Father Altman can conform himself in a way that his bishop believes is proper for a priest. Then Father Altman should do his best to do that.”
Others who have studied the case concur.
Anthony Esolen is a Register contributor and professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire. In a July 10 Facebook post, Esolen warned against using the fallacy of the tu quoque (or “Whataboutism”) argument to encourage Father Altman to defy his bishop, noting that obedience to one’s superior supersedes examples in other cases to the contrary. The fact that Jesuit Father James Martin may make statements that conflict with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, for example, does not excuse Father Altman from obeying his own bishop.
“If you are a priest and your bishop commands you to do something which is not evil, or commands you to stop doing something that is not absolutely necessary for you to do, you should obey,” he stated.
“It is unfortunate but predictable in human history,” Esolen added, “that the most disobedient subordinates, if they hold a hammer, are seldom brought to heel. That is the case with Father Martin (not that any bishop is his superior); he holds a hammer. Father Altman does not hold a hammer. But he should obey.”
While both Father Martin and Father Altman have drawn a large public following, unlike Father Altman, Father Martin has not been asked by his Jesuit superiors to refrain from making controversial statements and so continues, as Esolen notes, to wield a “hammer” to influence public opinion both inside and outside the Church. But according to Esolen, the more important issue in Father Altman’s case is that his bishop has asked for his obedience, regardless of the license Father Martin’s superiors have permitted him.
“We aren’t talking about blind submission to an evil command,” Esolen continued. “And you cannot excuse your own disobedience by pointing to somebody else’s. That is not to the point, as far as your own actions are concerned.”
Furthermore, Esolen noted, obedience is necessary to promote the common good in Church and state.
“If you say, ‘The superior is not worthy of obedience,’ you should think that in some respect or other no superior on earth is worthy of it,” he writes, “but you have no working social institution, no body, without a hierarchy.”
Esolen, who has a doctorate in Renaissance studies, illustrates the importance of obedience, even when it frustrates achieving a perceived good with the historical example of Charles V (1500-1558), who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556.
“Back in the day, when the emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain) took it upon himself to reform a monastery at Speyer, [Germany,] the Pope took him to task for it, saying that it was not his place, and reminding him that if there is no order in a household, you can say goodbye to the household,” Esolen stated in the July 10 post. “The Pope was firm and fatherly in the rebuke, and this was at a time [during the Protestant revolt and the invasion of Europe by the Ottoman Empire] when he could ill afford to lose the emperor as an ally. I don’t know if the letter has been published; I read it in the Vatican library. The reforms themselves were quite good. The Pope had no quarrel with that. It was the insubordination, even in a good cause, that was the problem.”
Since Bishop Callahan issued the decree restricting Father Altman’s ministry, some of those who have publicly supported Father Altman’s statements also emphasized the importance of obedience.
Within the Diocese of La Crosse, Franz Klein, a farmer in Cashton, Wisconsin, noted in a July 9 Facebook post that Father Altman is a powerful voice of truth in matters of Church teaching, but he also encourages the priest to accept Bishop Callahan’s decree in a spirit of obedience. Before discerning out of seminary, Klein had been on track to be ordained in the same class as Father Altman. As a seminarian studying at the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome, he also knew Bishop Callahan when he served as spiritual director of the NAC from 2005 to 2007.
“I can attest that [Bishop Callahan] sincerely loves Christ and His Church and desires what is best for his flock and for his priests. He is a cautious administrator by nature, but a capable one nonetheless,” Klein writes in his post, adding, “I also know for a fact that Fr. Altman sincerely loves Christ and His Church. By nature, Fr. Altman is outspoken, and he has leveraged his eloquence for the cause of faith.”
But, acknowledging the complexity of the situation, Klein hopes that Father Altman recognizes Bishop Callahan’s decree as an equitable resolution for all involved. “I pass no judgement on the rightness or wrongness of Fr. Altman’s suspension [sic], for I probably don’t know the half of the particulars,” he writes. “But I do know that obedience and a heartfelt 30-day retreat as the bishop requested — not canon lawsuits and a road trip of speaking engagements — is the true salve to his situation. Pray for Fr. Altman, and pray for Bishop Callahan too.”
At least one prominent member of the Church also urges Father Altman to see the good of obedience in the situation. Early on in the controversy growing around Father Altman, Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, took to social media to show his support for Father Altman and his video warning Catholics who were members of the Democratic Party that they were in risk of damnation.
“As the Bishop of Tyler I endorse Fr Altman’s statement in this video,” he wrote on September 5, 2020, in a Twitter post, adding, “If you love Jesus & His Church & this nation…please […] HEED THIS MESSAGE.”
More recently, during a July 11 YouTube interview with Companions of the Cross Father Mark Goring, Bishop Strickland offered more qualified support for Father Altman.
“People are hearing him boldly speaking the truth,” he said during the interview. “Certainly he has expressed opinions that I don’t agree with, but when it comes to boldly teaching what our Catholic faith teaches, people are hearing him as the voice of that truth, and it’s a shame for it to be silenced.”
In the interview, when asked what he would advise Father Altman, Bishop Strickland urged obedience.
“I know it gets frustrating when you’re being asked to be obedient in a way that you think is inappropriate,” he said, “but I would advise and I presume he has looked at … balancing obedience with the truth. But there is a point where all of us have to choose between living the truth and being obedient.”
Bishop Strickland pointed to Christ as the ultimate model of obedience, one which all Christians should strive to follow.
Jesus “is obedient to living his human journey even as the Son of God,” the bishop said. “He bows to the Father’s will and models that for us, as [do] really all the saints in their own way model obedience.”
Bishop Strickland also warned against making hasty judgments in the case since only Father Altman and Bishop Callahan “clearly know what’s exactly going on.”
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