The Rev. James Altman is a Catholic priest who has gained national attention for his public stances against getting the COVID-19 vaccine, wearing masks, and church moves to cancel or socially distance Masses or other Christian services. His bishop, the Rt. Rev. William Callahan, has now asked him to step down because of “concerns related to his ministry.”
NBC News reported earlier this year that Altman used church resources to launch attacks on COVID vaccines, calling the people who got them “guinea pigs”:
The Rev. James Altman, of the St. James the Less Catholic Church in La Crosse, made his feelings clear about the vaccines in a posting that appeared in the church bulletin on April 18.
“DO NOT BE ANYONE’S GUINEA PIG,” is the headline on the item, which goes on to make a number of false claims about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, claims that have been debunked by the majority of the medical establishment.
“God is still the best doctor and prayer is still the best medicine,” it concludes.
Now that the bishop has called for him to step down, and since Altman defied the call, Callahan has begun the process the Catholic Church uses to remove a priest. The Diocese of La Crosse released a statement about the matter Tuesday:
Fr. James Altman has recently made public the request from Bishop William Patrick Callahan that he resign his office of pastor of Saint James the Less Parish in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, as well as 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 the past year, concerns have been expressed related to the ministry of Fr. James Altman, a priest in the Diocese of La Crosse. Bishop Callahan of the Diocese of La Crosse, and canonical representatives have worked to fraternally and privately address those concerns. The process has been pastoral and administrative with a desire toward a just resolution among all parties.
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.
It is important to note that this is 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.
The Diocese of La Crosse asks for the consideration of respect, safety and prayers at this time for all involved.
Catholic writer Mark Shea, who has called for Altman’s removal in the past, discussed the statement with his Facebook followers, saying:
Translation: We tried to be discrete and reasonable. Altman, drunk on popularity with weirdos, became more bellicose and irrational. We asked nicely. He went public and declared war on the Church. Now we are going to get rid of this deadly, dangerous demagogue.
Notably, they are still trying to pursue peace and are respectful of him even as they gird for battle. They ask prayer for him. He, meanwhile, is shouting about martyrdom and damning everybody to hell who questions him.
For his part, Altman responded to the bishop’s order for him to step down during Sunday’s Mass at his parish, saying that bishops have “disrespected their office more than we possibly could” when they closed churches in the face of the pandemic.
The erstwhile pastor’s entire Pentecost Sunday sermon, during which he addresses the matter, can be viewed on YouTube:
Altman has said that he is a victim of “cancel culture.” In addition to his COVID remarks, he has been the center of political disputation before when, following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, he said historic lynchings were “capital punishment.” Another instance of controversy came shortly before the Nov. 2020 Presidential election when he said that Catholics cannot vote for Democrats and that now-President Biden should not receive Communion in the Church.
While the news that the priest is facing serious censure from the official Church has been greeted by some with expressions of incredulity at his apparent disobedience to his bishop, others have voiced support for Altman. A May 24 report from NBC News says:
The “Friends of Father James Altman” Facebook page, which has since April more than doubled in size to 1,600 members, has posts and comments expressing anger and anguish over what’s been happening with the priest, as well as bogus assertions that there is “no science behind the false religion of covidism” and baseless claims about the supposed dangers of the Covid-19 vaccines.
“I cannot picture that podium at St. James the Less Church without Fr. Altman,” one parishioner wrote. “Woe to you Bishop William Callahan and all you other wolves in shepherd’s clothing.”
“Heartbreaking,” wrote another.
The Roman Catholic Church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law defines the circumstances when a cleric may be removed:
Art. 3. Removal
Can. 192 A person is removed from office either by a decree issued legitimately by competent authority, without prejudice to rights possibly acquired by contract, or by the law itself according to the norm of can. 194.
Can. 193 §1. A person cannot be removed from an office conferred for an indefinite period of time except for grave causes and according to the manner of proceeding defined by law.
§2. The same is valid for the removal of a person from an office conferred for a definite period of time before this time has elapsed, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 624, §3.
§3. A person upon whom an office is conferred at the prudent discretion of a competent authority according to the prescripts of the law can, upon the judgment of the same authority, be removed from that office for a just cause.
§4. To take effect, the decree of removal must be communicated in writing.
Can. 194 §1. The following are removed from an ecclesiastical office by the law itself:
- 1º a person who has lost the clerical state;
- 2º a person who has publicly defected from the Catholic faith or from the communion of the Church;
- 3º a cleric who has attempted marriage even if only civilly.
§2. The removal mentioned in nn. 2 and 3 can be enforced only if it is established by the declaration of a competent authority.
Can. 195 If a person is removed not by the law itself but by a decree of competent authority from an office which provides the person’s support, the same authority is to take care that the support is provided for a suitable period, unless other provision is made.