On Prophets and Pearl-Clutchers

The bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, is clutching his pearls over the popular video made by Father James Altman, one of his priests. For those who have not read the weather report on this particular tempest in a teapot, Father Altman has voiced his opinion that Catholics cannot vote for Joe Biden. He also had a few choice words for the Democrat darling, celebrity priest Father James Martin, S.J.

Bishop Callahan writes,

Fr. James Altman has become a social media phenomenon and is now a main stream media story. The amount of calls and emails we are receiving at the Diocesan offices show how divisive he is. I am being pressured by both sides for a comment; one side holds him up as a hero or a prophet, the other side condemns him and vilifies him and demands I silence him.

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As I review Fr. Altman’s latest video statement of 30 August 2020, I understand the undeniable truth that motivates his message. When we approach issues that are contradictory to the Faith and teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church, particularly on abortion and other life issues, we should invite dialogue and heart-felt conversion to the truth. Our approach must never seek to divide, isolate and condemn.

Bishop Callahan then goes on to say he is “applying gospel principles” to the correction of Father Altman. He is going to have a friendly chat before applying “canonical penalties.” This is precisely the sort of candy-coated threat that causes conservative priests to distrust their fathers in God and live in a state of fear. The faithful often ask, “Why don’t you speak out, Father?”

Now you know why.

Putting Bishop Callahan’s fist-in-a-velvet-glove tactics to one side, there is another difficulty with his statement which is easy to gloss over. He says he is abiding by “gospel principles,” but he writes, “Our approach must never seek to divide, isolate and condemn.” Really? This is precisely what both John the Baptist and Our Lord do when faced with the rank hypocrisy and murderous intent of the scribes, Pharisees, and members of the Sanhedrin.

Jesus calls them out. He declares that He “has not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) He names and blames them. “You are planning to murder me … because you are children of the devil who was a murderer from the beginning.” (John 8:44) In doing so, Jesus is echoing John the Baptist, who greeted the Pharisees with some name-calling that sounds rather divisive, isolating, and condemnatory. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

Jesus and John the Baptist are speaking within the great tradition of the Jewish prophets, who also spoke out fearlessly against immorality, corruption, and hypocrisy, and who warned of the coming judgement. The prophetic tradition is part of the Faith. We’ve always had courageous men and women who stood up and spoke out and were prepared to face the consequences.

Shall we blame the courageous Protestant pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., for being divisive? Were Saint Thomas à Becket, Oscar Romero, and Bishop Von Galen condemnatory? Was Father Jerzy Popieluszko—the Polish priest beaten and killed by Communist thugs—divisive? Wasn’t Dorothy Day divisive and controversial? Was not Father Daniel Berrigan controversial and divisive?  For that matter, is it not divisive for Father James Martin to promote publicly opinions and organizations that defy the teaching of the Catholic Church?

The prophetic tradition is a vital and vinegary part of Christianity. Shall we silence the prophets to fabricate an artificial peace?

Instead of clutching his pearls about Father Altman, Bishop Callahan could make a simple statement saying,

Father Altman speaks in the tradition of the biblical prophets. These men preached fearlessly and without compromise regarding the evils of their day. They held strong opinions and deliberately used powerful language and vivid imagery to make their point. The prophets were controversial and knew they would receive approbation and condemnation from those who rejected their correction.

Because I believe in the freedom of speech and the need for dialogue and mutual respect, I encourage all to keep this in mind as they listen to Father Altman’s message and make up their own mind. Father Altman has spoken more forcefully than I would, and some will find his style repugnant, but he has said nothing that is contrary to the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. When he does, you can be assured that I will correct him.

Father Altman does speak in the tradition of the biblical prophets, and he speaks of the same issues: corrupt leaders, immorality, and noxious hypocrisy. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with Father Altman, critique his style, or desire a more balanced and objective approach, but everyone who is inclined to persecute Father Altman should think twice.

Do they really want to participate in a latter-day inquisition and witch hunt? As Catholics, our record on that one is regrettable. I expect there is already a social media feeding frenzy on Father Altman. Don’t the piranhas realize that in persecuting the prophet they are joining the ranks of Torquemada and the Pharisees? “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’ ” (Mt. 22:30). Liars. You are doing it already.

Does Bishop Callahan really want to remove the velvet glove and use “canonical penalties” against Father Altman? (If so, what might those penalties be, and for what canonical cause?) Is he not concerned that by doing so he would be playing the part of those same members of the religious establishment who always did everything they could do silence the prophets?

It would be much wiser, I think, to rise above the fray and say, “There have always been those called to raise a prophetic voice. This is part of our rich tradition. Some are full of passion and fury but speak nonsense. Others are full of the Holy Spirit and speak truth. Let us listen to them, weigh up their message, and, if they speak the truth, allow ourselves to be corrected.”

[Photo credit: Alpha News MN/YouTube]


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