IMPORTANT UPDATE: I made some pretty serious mistakes about canon law in this essay. You can read my correction here. I apologize for my errors and my rashness. I hope there is still some good to glean from my original essay, below, but you can judge that for yourself.
Fr. Altman announced in his pentecost homily on May 23 that Bishop William Callahan asked him to resign as pastor of St. James the Less in La Crosse, but Fr. Altman doesn’t wanna. You can watch his homily here:
Fr. Altman has enjoyed a bubble of internet fame by promoting a hodge-podge of far right conspiracy theories in his sermons, in his church’s bulletin, and in independent videos and podcasts. He’s referred to people who support mask mandates as “Godless vermin.” He’s defied local ordinances about covid safety, and he has a long track record of saying cruel and outrageous things (a few examples: women can’t preach because all they’re concerned with is questions like, “Does this dress make me look fat?” whereas men want truth and straight answers; and the Warsaw Jews brought the holocaust on themselves by not fighting against abortion. There is more, but I don’t have the heart to keep hunting.)
Why am I writing about this, rather than just shaking my head and minding my business? Normally I have no patience with people who spend their days amplifying ideas that disgust them. Unless you’re gathering information to make a specific argument, or building evidence to make a specific a case, then what’s the point? You’re just whipping up a froth of rage that will lift you up over the meaningful things that rightly demand your attention in your actual life. So I try not to reflexively engage in that.
But I guess I still have a little pocket of naïveté, because even though I’m not shocked by any of the ugly, awful things the guy has said, I am shocked by his open defiance of his bishop (who is, after all, not asking him to sin). This priest is apparently going to accept money to hire a canon lawyer to try to force the bishop to let him remain pastor of a church. I’m not an expert in canon law, but this strikes me as utterly scrambled incoherent nonsense. If he rejects the authority of the bishop, and he’s directed his flock to reject the authority of the pope (which he’s done), then who will he appealing to, exactly, by hiring a canon lawyer? Who does he imagine is in charge?
This is a dude who thinks a lot of things are diabolical. Being a democrat damns you to hell; wearing a mask is demonic; pretty much anything that he doesn’t like is either from hell, or will send you straight to hell. Fine, this is normal far right rhetoric.
But even if you believe he’s right about that stuff, how are you gonna say “I don’t have to listen to my bishop, but I’ll fight him until I can get what I want” . . . and then go into the confessional and tell someone it’s a sin to use a condom, or skip mass, or be a woman priest, or anything? How are you gonna pick and choose when obedience matters, without capsizing the whole ship? Either we have to do what the Church tells us to do, or we don’t. And if we don’t, then why are we here? Why is a man who rejects obedience asking people to call him “father?”
Show me a saint who rejected obedience, whether the person in authority was just or unjust. Show me a saint who set an example of defiance to a legitimate church authority, or any legitimate authority who wasn’t asking them to sin.
Or, show me that time that Jesus was condemned to suffer and die, and rather than submit to the Father in obedience, he raised a bunch of money for a lawyer so he could keep on making podcasts.
Look, I haven’t made it any secret that I’m feeling disenchanted with my faith these days (I know, so original). Things that used to make perfect sense feel sketchy and wobbly to me, and things that used to seem beautiful look dumb and pointless half the time. I’m clinging by my nails, here. But I’ll tell you what, I may be disenchanted, but I’m not a freaking idiot. I know who I am, and how unreliable I am. I know what happens if I make up the rules according to what suits me. I know where that path leads. I’ve smelled the smell that comes from that place where the worm dieth not. I know that worm, and I know how he likes to make you think you’re a hero for doing whatever you want. And I know what happens next.
If I want the strength of the Eucharist and the sweet relief of confession, the sanity and coherence of the Gospels, the beauty and splendor of the truth, it’s a package deal. I can’t pick and choose. So I obey the church, as best I can. And when I don’t obey, at least I know that I’m the one who’s out of line.
Obedience sucks. Jesus obeyed the Father. It sucked. But it worked out, because God is God and God made the Church and that’s how it works. Obedience is central to our faith. Every Catholic has someone to obey. It’s true of Fr. Altman, it’s true of pro-abortion Catholics, it’s true of Fr. Altman’s bishop, it’s true of the poor saps who sit in the pew and listen to him tell you who to hate and why and send him money so he can keep doing it. Every single person from every walk of life in the Church has someone to obey. Nobody’s exempt from obedience, unless you’re being asked to sin.
If you’re a priest and you’re not obeying your bishop, that doesn’t mean you’re independent or brave or bold. You’re still obeying. You’re obeying the one who said “non serviam.” And I don’t mean that as a rhetorical “gotcha.” I’m gonna pray for Fr. Altman, because disobedience is literally Satanic.
Image: Fr. Altman (Screenshot from video embedded above)