I have returned to the US, following several days in Lourdes. While there, I participated in the 27th annual St. Francis de Sales International Congress, along with around 250 other Catholic journalists and communications professionals, hailing from 30 countries (although most of the participants were from France). I enjoyed the opportunity to meet with many journalists and other Catholic media professionals, and they were very kind and helpful to me throughout my visit. The event was sponsored by several groups, including the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, the French Catholic Media Federation, and Signis.
The theme of the conference was “Times of Upheaval,” and it focused on the future of Catholic journalism and media in this time of war, polarization, fake news, and decreasing resources. I will have much to write about that in the days to come, including the content of my intervention, which took place on the final morning of the conference. I am grateful to Nathan Turowsky and Theresa Zoe Williams for holding down the fort while I was gone.
While I was away, I took a break from writing and editing, but during long train rides and waits in airports I had plenty of time to keep track of Catholic news. During this time, there were several interesting addresses (and one very interesting interview) from Pope Francis. Also catching my attention were a couple of social media scuffles over the Church’s opposition to the death penalty in response to the January 25, 2024 execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama by nitrogen gas. A few heterodox Catholic clergy members decided it was an opportune time to publicly oppose the Church’s teaching that the death penalty is inadmissible and promote their dissident views in favor of capital punishment.
Another story — one that caught my attention prior to my travels and continues to intrigue me — is the media silence of two outspoken American critics of the pope: Cardinal Raymond Burke and Father James Altman.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to surmise that Cardinal Burke’s silence is connected to his private audience with Pope Francis on December 29, 2023. This meeting took place shortly after the pope made the decision to discontinue the dissenting cardinal’s salary and the subsidy on his lavish Rome apartment. Following the audience, Burke’s only comment to the media was, “Well, I’m still alive.”
After a decade of public criticism and attempts to interfere with the pope’s initiatives, it’s hard to imagine anything shutting up Cardinal Burke. You might recall the time in 2019 when Cardinal Burke told New York Times columnist Ross Douthat that he would not obey the pope if he was asked to stop publishing criticisms of him, at least if he “felt it was a question of the truth.” For a man who in the past has argued that there are times when “the pope must, as a duty, be disobeyed, and the consequences of disobedience be suffered in Christian patience,” his sudden silence is surprising.
The silence is even more striking in the aftermath of Fiducia Supplicans. Given his track record over the past decade, we might have predicted that the DDF declaration on blessings would set the cardinal off on a media blitz — with multiple appearances on EWTN and print interviews in LifeSite News and with Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register. It would not have been surprising to see Burke scheduled to deliver a keynote address denouncing the document at a traditionalist conference or to publish an open letter or manifesto co-signed by other reactionary prelates and directed at the pope.
Instead, he is silent. One hopes his meeting with Pope Francis has led him to have second thoughts about his behavior, but that seems unlikely. Somewhat more plausible is the possibility that he was presented with an ultimatum, but if that is the case, he and his friends in the media have done a tremendous job of keeping it a secret.
Even more baffling is the silence of Fr. James Altman.
Following the December 18 promulgation of Fiducia Supplicans, the papal critics began coming out of the woodwork, one after another, to condemn the document. The usual suspects took their turns weighing in: Cardinals Muller and Sarah, Archbishops Vigano and Chaput, Bishops Schneider and Strickland, Fathers Murray and Weinandy. After Christmas, it occurred to me that we hadn’t heard anything from the hotheaded sedevacantist priest from Wisconsin. After all, this seemed to be the moment he was born for. After the new year passed without a word from Altman, I posted about it on X.
What I really want to know is where James Altman is in all this. pic.twitter.com/R8P2aFJkVH
— Mike Lewis (@mfjlewis) January 5, 2024
Admittedly, my tweet was a bit cheeky. And for all I knew, Fr. Altman was on a month-long Christmas cruise, paid for with some of the money he raised to fight his removal as pastor of his former La Crosse parish. But then, on January 15, a new episode of LifeSite editor John-Henry Westen’s podcast appeared on YouTube, featuring an interview with Fr. Altman. Only it wasn’t a new episode. It was a rerun of an episode from April 2022. Podcasts don’t usually do reruns. I posted about it on X.
At the time, I began to wonder if he was suffering from health problems. Reportedly, he suffered a heart attack in 2019 and has a number of other health conditions. But to my knowledge, no public request for prayers has been made and none of the media figures close to him has made a statement regarding his health. That said, if he is ill or simply needed a break, it doesn’t need to be made public. It’s his business.
But then things got weird.
On January 19, a video purporting to be “Fr. Altman’s message to March for Life participants” was posted by LifeSite and Westen to multiple social media sites, including X, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
Now, I am not an expert by any means, but a few things jumped out at me immediately. First, we never see Fr. Altman’s face. Second, although it sounds like Altman’s voice, the pronunciation of the words and the cadence of the speech sounds off and — dare I say — artificial. Finally, Fr. Altman is not known for disappearing for over a month, then recording audio messages (filled with Hallmark card sentimentality, climate change denialism, and poorly-pronounced words) on airplanes and then sending them to LifeSiteNews to add graphics and upload them to the internet. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I think it is more likely that the video was created with AI using samples of Fr. Altman’s voice.
Could it be a deepfake?
This video turns a mere curiosity (“I haven’t heard from Fr Altman in a while; I wonder what he’s up to”) into what appears to be a deliberate and bizarre cover-up.
Maybe it’s all in my head and John-Henry Westen isn’t engaging in a poorly-executed Catholic media version of Weekend at Bernie’s. But it sure seems like he is.
I suppose if nothing else, this can serve as a reminder to pray for Fr. Altman. Surely he needs them, whatever’s going on.