LA CROSSE, Wisconsin — Members of the Catholic community are speaking out about the divide and pain they’re feeling after a video of a La Crosse priest denouncing Democrats in the church went viral.
The video, produced and published by a far-right media outlet, features Father James Altman of the St. James the Less church in La Crosse, condemning Democratic Party-supporting Catholics as imposters who are going to hell, and repeated common right-wing conspiracy theories about things like climate change and Planned Parenthood.
Responses to the video have ranged from strongly supportive to condemnation, and have reached nationwide, and even globally, within the Catholic community. An online petition has garnered nearly 66,000 signatures in support of the priest so far.
But the message from all is clear: The church is divided, and in pain.
“What I want to emphasize here, is that we are angry. But it’s righteous anger. We don’t hate anybody, we hope. We’re not seeking vengeance on anybody, we hope,” said Father Rick Heilman, from Madison, at a “prayer rosary rally” in support of Altman.
The rally brought hundreds to the Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman in Downtown La Crosse on Sept. 13, which organizers said was not a political or retaliatory event, but instead an “act of charity,” to represent kindness, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
The line of support for Altman is somewhat blurry, as some still denounce his messages in the video while supporting him as a priest. Still, many were inspired by his statements.
“Father James Altman is one of the most humble and holy and courageous priests I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Heilman said, adding he is a “good friend” of Altman’s.
“Literally, when I first watched his videos, tears came into my eyes, and from the middle of my being — I don’t know if I’ve said this out loud — but my being said: finally,” Heilman continued, who said he is “eternally grateful” to Altman for “throwing up a warning flare to all of us.”
Afterward, in an online interview with Alpha News MN, the same news outlet that published his original video, Altman said, “Listen, I stand by every single word I said.”
But others within the church felt differently after watching the video.
Before Derek Edwards, a 24-year-old who joined the church in high school, watched Father Altman’s video, he considered himself to lean right, politically, drawn to issues important to the Catholic church such as abortion. But he said the video stopped him in his tracks.
“I would say I was kind of leaning more toward the right side, to almost an extreme, until I saw the video. Because I realized the hurt that something like that can cause,” Edwards said.
Altman’s comments about immigration and climate change specifically startled Edwards, who said he was “pretty upset” when he watched it, and that doing missionary work in Jamaica, Haiti and Mexico since he graduated from college in La Crosse has taught him about the diversity of the church.
“He called those out as fake or wrong, but those are really, real issues that the bishops and the Pope himself encourage us to care about,” he said of immigration and climate change.
In a statement, the Diocese of La Crosse said Altman’s message was divisive, saying that both the “underlying truth” and the delivery of his message needed to be evaluated.
The Diocese said it would not hand down any punishment yet, but would instead counsel Altman through the moment.
To Edwards, this combining of politics and religion aids to the divisiveness many are already witnessing within the church, and is skewing the religious message of the church.
“As bad as this was, I’m kind of glad it happened,” he said. “I think it really speaks to this divide that exists, that we’re kind of hush-hush about.”
“The church is, and probably always has been, in a great time of turmoil,” Edwards said. “Especially, I’ve noticed in recent years, this political divide. There’s the ultra right and the ultra left in the church, and it seems that the Gospel message itself is somewhere in between.”
He said that when either side brings politics into the mix, “they kind-of stretch what the church teaches to their own extreme. And I find that very divisive.”
The Catholic church has experienced a lot of divide, in recent years torn apart by scandal and politics. A Pew Research finding from 2019 shows registered Catholic voters nearly evenly split between parties.
And it’s something many voices in the church can agree on, Edwards himself saying he agrees with Altman’s statements about the corruption within the hierarchy of the church.
“I have been noticing, especially in my time here in La Crosse,” Edwards said, “the kind of, like, nostalgia that (the right) offers. It’s really attractive to young people.”
“And I wonder if it has something to do with maybe some hurt that they experienced from the scandal going on in the church,” he said. “I think they might deal with that wound by maybe verging that way. And they might kind of feel like the mainstream church, so-to-say, doesn’t have what they need.”
So how do Catholics hope to mend this divisiveness? The voices erupting from the fallout of the Altman video believe there’s a similar route of sticking it out.
Heilman’s message to those at the rally was to not shy away in the face of this controversy, and instead have courage not to “flee” the church, inciting a chant of “we need more courage,” among the crowd.
“And so my dear family,” Heilman said, quoting a phrase Altman used in the video as the crowd laughs, noting he might “steal that” and “use it from now on.”
“Here we are today,” he continued, “we’re angry, but we don’t hate anybody. We’re not taking vengeance on anybody. We’re not condemning anybody. We are saying we’re not happy. And we’re praying … that we will give courage in our church. We need courage, OK?”
The message is similar, for Edwards, that to save the church, you’ve got to stay and work at it.
“You have those who are going to run in and rescue it, and those who are just kind of going to run away and do their own thing,” Edwards said, using a friend’s analogy that the divide in the church is similar to the Twin Towers burning down in the 9/11 terrorist attack.
“I see my kind of mission,” for his future in the church, “as kind of to mend that divide, to build that bridge. There’s a saying we use often in church: We shouldn’t be digging ditches, we should be building bridges. And it seems like things like this just dig a ditch. And that’s not where we need to head.”