Two days ago, a video from last month’s conference for the “Coalition for Canceled Priests” featuring a talk by the controversial Wisconsin priest Fr. James Altman was uploaded to YouTube. The gathering took place on June 23 and 24 in a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. In addition to Altman, the gathering of approximately 500 people featured a variety of well-known speakers from the reactionary and radical traditionalist Catholic world, including Crisis editor Eric Sammons, writer Peter Kwasniewski, SSPX apologist and YouTuber Kennedy Hall, and former seminary professor Janet Smith.
For the first half hour of Altman’s nearly forty-minute talk, he described Pope Francis (repeatedly referring to him by his given name, “Jorge Bergoglio”) as the “worst anti-Catholic Pope in history” and “a fake and a fraud of a Catholic as the imposter prancing around in white,” before beginning a litany of condemnations of Catholic bishops, repeatedly saying they were a “brood of vipers.” Later on in his address, he said of the pope, “if he doesn’t repent for his fraudulent and damned papacy he will burn in the lowest level of hell, and frankly my prayer would be that may God smite him before he gets that low — not because I have any particular focus on his Eternal Soul; rather because I love and I am concerned for all the Eternal Souls that that chief earthly viper is leading down the road to hell.”
During his talk, Altman’s demeanor shifted frequently and suddenly — from reflective and emotional to furious and vitriolic to frantic and rambling. His speech was riddled with homophobic slurs and inuendo; and he used the term “damn” nearly 20 times (frequently preceded by the Lord’s name). He praised the embattled Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who was recently the subject of an Apostolic Visitation from the Vatican, calling him “America’s bishop” and saying that he is “the only Bishop to openly and consistently stand up against the homo agenda of the lavender mafia, from Jorge Bergoglio on down. He’s the only Bishop who has criticized the hierarchy’s support for the homo agenda of James Martin, an apostate Jesuit.”
Finally, a little after the 32-minute mark in his address, Altman said, “A real Pope solely is responsible for defending the deposit of faith, not making it up according to his own personal ideology. Therefore, it is 100 percent valid to say Bergoglio actually is an anti-pope. There have been 20 or 30 before him but he’s the worst of all but again don’t take my word for it rather take the word of Jesus, John the Baptist, 2,000 years of saints and martyrs, doctors of the church, popes, and holy Shepherds.”
With those words, which were met with applause by those in attendance, Fr. James Altman publicly exposed himself as a sedevacantist, meaning that he does not recognize Pope Francis as a valid pope, and is therefore no longer in full communion with the Catholic Church.
This isn’t surprising news, as he’s hinted at this belief repeatedly while regularly attacking and accusing Pope Francis of heresy and worse. That said, it’s not unusual in today’s climate to say outrageous and contemptuous things about the Holy Father while clinging to “not sedevacantist” as if that is a meaningful cut-off for deciding whether a Catholic is technically in schism.
Today is, interestingly, the two-year anniversary of Fr. James Altman’s removal as pastor of his parish, St. James the Less in La Crosse, and restriction from active ministry. In a homily just weeks prior to his removal, Altman vowed to fight the decision of his bishop, William Callahan, but since that time his words and actions have not resembled those of a priest who is interested in being returned to active parish ministry.
Very little official news on that front has been made public, but an announcement by the diocese of La Crosse late last year seems to indicate that the final decision did not go Fr. Altman’s way. According to the Code of Canon Law, in many cases a pastor has the right to take recourse against the decree of his bishop to remove him as pastor of a parish. In other words, he can appeal to the Vatican. And while the process is ongoing, his position is to be kept open. Can. 1747 §3 states that “While recourse against a decree of removal is pending, the bishop cannot appoint a new pastor, but is to provide a parochial administrator in the meantime.”
According to the La Crosse diocesan website, effective November 25, 2022, Fr. Robert M. Letona — who had been serving as Parochial Administrator of St. James the Less — was appointed pastor. This was done with little fanfare and was indicated only subtly in the parish bulletin on November 27, where at the end of the “Pastor’s Note,” Fr. Letona wrote, “And now I can officially say, Pastor of Saint James the Less Parish.” (In the previous week’s bulletin, he was listed as “Parochial Administrator.”)
So why has there been no update on Altman’s status? If I had to guess, there is likely more going on behind the scenes — not just involving his role as a pastor, but regarding his standing as a priest. And now, given his open sedevacantism, it is possible that that a decree of excommunication is not off the table.
Formal decrees of excommunication are rare these days, but a number of recent cases have involved priests and religious stating beliefs similar to those of Fr. Altman. One example is that of Jeremy Leatherby, a former priest of the Sacramento diocese who had already been suspended for several years due to allegations of sexually abusing adult women. During the pandemic, the charismatic priest decided to resume his ministry without the permission of his bishop, and during the Eucharistic prayer was replacing the names of Pope Francis and Bishop Jaime Soto with that of Pope Emeritus Benedict. Due to his public benevacantism, Bishop Soto issued a decree stating that Leatherby was in a state of schism with the Church and had incurred a latae sententiae (or automatic) excommunication.
Another case is that of the Italian priest Fr. Alessandro Maria Minutella, who was declared excommunicated by the Archdiocese of Palermo, Sicily, for heresy and schism. He, like Leatherby, had developed a cult following and also called Francis an anti-pope.
Another case is that of three “hermits” living on Orkney island of Westray off the coast of Scotland. They were excommunicated by the bishop of Argyll & the Isles in 2020 for accusing the pope of heresy on their website. Speaking to Religion News Service, one of the hermits said, “We have broken from a false pope, a false magisterium, at the moment, and a false Curia and false bishops and cardinals … We’ve broken with them; we’ve not broken with the church. The church is there, but it’s under all this mess.”
In most cases, however, Catholics espousing such views have not formally been subject to formal decrees of excommunication. This list includes at least two bishops: Rene Gracida, the 100-year-old bishop emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Archbishop Jan Paweł Lenga, the Archbishop Emeritus of Karaganda in Kazakhstan. Gracida seems to have been left alone, with his picture and biography still gracing the diocesan website. Lenga, meanwhile, has been restricted from saying Mass publicly by his local bishop in Poland, where he resides. Interestingly, both bishops resigned from office prior to the designated retirement age, and have long been known for traditionalist tendencies.
Note, however, that, “In the case of a latae sententiae excommunication, there is no requirement for formal trial or announcement; in fact, the individual brings the punishment upon himself.” This means that even without an official sentence from the Church, one who publicly rejects the legitimacy of the pope or refuses his authority has already been excommunicated automatically. An official decree only formally recognizes that fact, so that the proper penalties can be applied (and a path to restoring communion can be laid out).
Decrees of excommunication for schism have been rare during this papacy, but given the public and inflammatory nature of Fr. Altman’s statements, an official statement would not be a surprise in his case. Note that those listed above were imposed by the local bishop, so it seems likely that Bishop Callahan would be the person to issue it in this case. Callahan has been especially patient with Fr. Altman, and this is an extraordinary step, but it may be necessary.
We must remember, however, that excommunication in the Catholic Church is meant to be medicinal, so that the person returns to the faith and full communion. Let that be our prayer for Fr. James Altman.
Image: YouTube Screenshot.