• Sat. Sep 18th, 2021

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Bishop calls for anti-vaccination pastor to step down

The pastor of a Roman Catholic parish in Wisconsin who told his congregation to shun the Covid-19 vaccine and preached right-wing politics from the pulpit has been asked to step down by his bishop.

The Rev. James Altman, of the St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church in La Crosse, made the announcement during his sermon at Sunday Mass, calling himself a victim of the “cancel culture.”

“If the left whines, like they do, like a spoiled brat often enough, they succeed in canceling so many voices of truth,” he said. “And now that they are whining like, if I may say it, the pansy babies that they are, to cancel me.”

Altman, whose sermon was posted on YouTube, said Bishop William Callahan of the Diocese of La Crosse asked him to resign Friday and called him “divisive and ineffective.” He said he’s engaged a canon lawyer and intends to fight the bishop’s decision, but that this could be his last sermon as pastor.

“I am no expert on canon law, but understand only that while we are contesting the Bishop’s request — and we are — he could in theory appoint a parish administrator whilst I remain a pastor without duties until the appeal goes through Rome, which can take up to a year or more,” he said.

Some members of the congregations could be heard on the video saying “No.”

NBC News has reached out for comment to Jack Felsheim, spokesman for the Diocese of La Crosse, and to Altman.

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.

In an earlier interview, Catholic theologian Jason Steidl said Callahan does have the power to oust an “Alt-right priest” like Altman but risks antagonizing the ultraconservative parishioners who are drawn to his message.

“Most Catholics today attend parishes where they agree with the priest,” he said. “If the priest consistently preaches something they don’t like, they’ll leave and find a parish that suits them better. Most priests, therefore, are preaching to the choir.”

Altman has courted controversy in recent years by denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement and making other conspiratorial false claims about climate change and systematic racism and homophobia that are common in right-wing media.

Before the presidential election, he insisted in a video produced and posted on YouTube by a right-wing group that “you cannot be Catholic and a Democrat.”

As for the pandemic that has killed nearly 594,00 people in the United States and sickened more than 33 million, Altman called it a “hoax” during Easter weekend services that attracted 300 to 500 worshippers, few of whom wore masks or practiced social distancing, The La Crosse Tribune reported.

Also, church bulletins approved by Altman have been rife with more Covid-19 misinformation and baseless claims about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines.

Altman’s pandemic preaching has been in defiance of Callahan and in opposition to the Vatican, which in December declared that taking the vaccine was “morally acceptable.”

Both Pope Francis, and his predecessor, Pope Benedict, have been vaccinated against Covid-19. And when it comes to getting vaccinated, most Catholics appear to be ignoring right-wing clerics such as Altman and Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, and getting their shots, according to recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core.

“None of Altman’s hateful words or dangerous actions speak for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and now Bishop Callahan has thankfully made it clear that Altman does not speak for the Catholic Church, either,” Nathan Empsall, head of the Christian watchdog group Faithful America, said in a statement.

“We pray for all who have fallen victim to the lies and bullying of false prophets like James Altman, and we encourage all our siblings in Christ to receive a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine as soon as they can,” said Empsall, an Episcopalian whose group has also criticized Protestants for things like fanning anti-Islamic hate.