“Priest Making Waves” might not be trending on Twitter, but if it were there would be a picture of Father James Altman. Those who have been longing for a courageous Priest to tell it like it is are embracing him as a new hope that not all is lost in this world or in the Catholic Church. Those who are a little more “conciliatory” have taken great offense. “You Can’t be Catholic and a Democrat. Period.” OK, Father – tell us how you really feel!
I’m not here to argue on behalf of the good Father. He can handle himself. I have seen a couple silly attempts at rebuking him through “analysis” and feel inclined to at least mention a couple things about that. Firstly, anyone who starts off an analysis by proclaiming himself as neither a Republican nor a Democrat in order to assuage the critic of his own passivity and neutrality so as to give the appearance of someone better served to analyze remarks than someone who is a Democrat or a Republican is engaging in psychological sleight of hand. Arguments and analysis stand on their own merits. The fact that someone is too jelly-like to stand firm on one side or the other, to take a stand, or just actually admit they are one thing or the other hardly elevates their logical credentials. It’s as if to say an agnostic is better served to analyze a religious opinion as opposed to an atheist or those pesky Christians.
Secondly, when the first segment of analysis takes Father Altman’s words about not loving anyone in Borneo and goes into a full-throated admonishment of that statement from a Priest as some unbelievable offense against God and Church I know I’m not dealing with an honest reviewer. It is so self-evident that it need not be explained – except apparently to this guy – that by saying he does not “love” anyone in Borneo he is not talking about a general love of mankind that desires everyone to be treated with dignity, fairness, justice, and to live a life of freedom and liberty while working out their salvation. He is obviously saying he does not “love” anyone in Borneo in the sense of relationship. Just like none of us grieve and mourn over the death of every person around the globe every day because we don’t “love” them in a familial relationship or as a close friend, it makes perfect sense to say that one doesn’t “love” everyone in the context that he is talking about. He didn’t say he didn’t care about anyone in Borneo. He didn’t say he wishes ill to those people. He was making an obvious point that only someone being purposely obtuse wouldn’t understand.
Thirdly, going into a criticism about using the Baltimore Catechism as some nefarious mechanism in making a subversive point instead of the Catechism we “should” use (the Cathechism of the Catholic Church) is simply silly. I have no issues with the CCC. It’s a fine work. As is Father Hardon’s Catechetical work. As is the Baltimore Catechism. One does not negate the truth of the other. The Baltimore Catechism didn’t cease to be relevant just because there is a new version any more than St. Thomas Aquinas ceased to be relevant when subsequent Theologians wrote their insights in the centuries that followed.
This is about as far as I got in reading that particular review because it was clear at this point it was not the supposedly neutral and balanced assessment of Father Altman’s words promised by someone staking that claim by proclaiming his absence of partisan affiliation.
But all that is really unimportant. So, here is my disclosure. I am an unapologetic Republican not because every element of their platform or everyone they elect is perfect – far from it. But because we have a two party system and one party is diabolical and evil. Period. So yes, I agree with Father. And while some may appease their consciences by not voting at all or voting for a third party this simply moves the sin from complicity to passivity. I will grant that if there is any remote realistic chance that a third party candidate might win, then go ahead and campaign and contribute and do all you can to give him or her a chance. But as it becomes perfectly clear prior to the election that this will not under any circumstance actually occur, then you are doing the equivalent of standing by idly and doing nothing about evil occurring right in front of you. Sometimes it’s not good enough to just not participate in evil, sometimes you need to stop it. Period.
My other disclosure is that I am in the same diocese as Father Altman. I know him casually. He probably doesn’t even remember me. I spoke with him at a friend’s house one day at a party. I have been to Mass with him when he was in his previous assignment, but I was not a member of his parish. I have gone to confession with him.
Here is my insight about the man from those few occurrences. One, for someone who is as forthright and – at times – scathing as he can be towards the targets he feels deserves rebuke, I have never experienced a more gentle, compassionate, and joyful confession. One might think his “fire and brimstone” homilies indicates a no-nonsense guy with little patience for imperfection. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he loves hearing people confess because he believes in the power of the Sacrament. His issue – like Jesus – is not about the average person struggling in a world of sin and falling for various traps, stumbling, and falling. His rebukes are for those who are leading people into that sin, especially those who should be doing just the opposite. Going to confession takes courage, and he loves courage.
My other takeaway is that at the heart of everything he says it’s because he wants people to go to heaven. You can critique whether or not his approach works, but it is his firm belief that milquetoast sermons and spineless priests and bishops who are afraid to call a sin a sin are making people feel good in the here and now at the potential expense of eternal salvation of souls. As a parent, I feel a desperation of sorts to make sure I am doing everything I can do to see my kids grow up and have not only temporal opportunities, but to know God. At times I may switch gears from gentleness to firmness. I may even yell and punish, but don’t hold that against me… Father Altman, I believe, feels a desperation of sorts for his spiritual children – which is all of us. Countless priests talk about all the comfortable and nice things about faith and God – which is fine as far as that goes – but can lull people into a false sense of security. You feel pretty darn good about yourself, feel no need to challenge yourself to grow in faith, tend to be less introspective and recognize your faults, etc. So Father Altman, I think, feels a strong need to counter this and get real with folks. Our modern politics, politicians, and unfortunately many Bishops and clergy are failing us and they need to wake up. And the flock needs to recognize that they are not being fed and they need to wake up. And the only way to wake up is for a jarring bell or buzzer that is extremely uncomfortable to go off.
That’s my view. So even if you side with those who believe he is being “too political,” “too harsh,” “too judgmental” I can say with confidence that he fully understands the gravity of his own words and he is prepared to take them and lay them at the Savior’s feet. And if Jesus tells him he went too far he will humbly acknowledge it and accept his fate. But don’t question his heart, his motives, and his love for all. He wants souls saved, and right now too many are being lost. We see it on our screens every single day. If you want to complain that he dare say that hell exists and if you support infanticide then you’re at risk, well I might suggest you take a moment and think about who will have more to explain on judgment day. And if you take it to heart, you can thank him personally when you arrive.