See more of the story

The Rev. Robert Altier delivered a fiery sermon earlier this month, labeling COVID-19 an evil, man-made conspiracy and telling his Catholic congregation in Crystal that “we’ve been lied to.”

That came just days after the Rev. James Altman, a priest in La Crosse, Wis., appeared in a video posted on YouTube, calling Catholic Democrats “Godless” hypocrites doomed to hell — a video, produced by a Minnesota conservative media news outlet, that now has received 655,000 clicks.

Catholic priests — as with all faith leaders — are supposed to steer clear of endorsing political leaders, at minimum, from the pulpit. But the two incendiary speeches reveal that the country’s polarized political climate is drifting through some church doors.

While Catholic clergy members have participated in events supporting issues such as abortion restrictions, it’s rare to find such overt and damning public preaching, said the Rev. Tom Reese, senior analyst for Religion News Service.

“We have thousands of priests, so we’ll inevitably have some renegades,” said Reese, adding that it’s the role of bishops to “rein them in.”

“When what the priest said is utterly false information that can endanger people’s lives, then the bishop needs to act quickly,” he said.

The two incidents unfolded within about a week of each other. Altman’s video was posted on YouTube Aug. 30 by Alpha News Minnesota, a conservative media group. The 10-minute clip opens with Altman standing solemnly in front of a crucifix.

“You cannot be Catholic and be Democrat. Period,” Altman says. “Their party platform is against everything the Catholic Church teaches. … Repent of your support of that party and that platform, or face the fires of hell.”

If Democrats don’t repent, Altman says “There will be 60 million aborted babies standing at the gates of heaven, barring your Democrat entrance.”

The video went viral, and supporters held a prayer rally last Sunday in La Crosse to support Altman. La Crosse Diocese Bishop William Patrick Callahan said the diocese has been inundated with messages.

“Father James Altman has become a social media phenomenon and is now a main stream media story,” said Callahan in a statement. “The amount of calls and e-mails we are receiving at the diocesan offices show how divisive he is. I am being pressured by both sides for a comment; one side holds him up as a hero … the other side condemns him.”

He said Altman’s “generalization and condemnation of entire groups of people is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our values or the life of virtue.”

In response, the bishop said he will first try “fraternal correction,” private counseling with Altman, to address the problem. But canon law penalties “are not far away if my attempts at fraternal correction do not work,” he said.

Back in Minnesota, Altier took on another political issue from the pulpit at St. Raphael Church, namely casting doubt on the legitimacy and threat of the coronavirus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has infected more than 6.5 million Americans and killed at least 193,000. A former assistant pastor at the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Altier started his sermon by giving his version of the origins of COVID-19.

“It is a man-made virus,” Altier told his congregation. “Work had begun in a laboratory in North Carolina and they shipped it to China to finish the work. And it was released, so that people would get sick. All this is being done on purpose.”

Altier argued that it was a “lie” that thousands of people are dying from the virus. No hospitals are being overwhelmed with COVID patients, he said. There was one hospital in New York that appeared full because the city shipped all of its COVID patients there so it would look packed, he said.

Altier claimed that some sick COVID patients are being moved into nursing homes because “there weren’t enough people dying.”

The 20-minute homily ends with Altier proclaiming the only way he would take a COVID vaccine is if “they arrest me, and hold me down, and force it upon me.”

The Sept. 6 audio of the sermon is still up at the St. Raphael Church’s website. St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda has not indicated whether he intends to remove it or have the content clarified.

The archdiocese posted a statement on its website Sept. 11 saying it was aware of Altier’s homily and has been in contact with him.

“With the assistance of experts in this area, the matter continues to be under review,” said the statement by the Rev. Michael Tix, vicar for Clergy and Parish Services.

The statement also said that the archdiocese “is committed to the safety and well-being of all people” and has collaborated with health officials in its church safety protocols.

Charles Reid, a canon lawyer and law professor at the University of St. Thomas, has been tracking the La Crosse case.

He said how priests are disciplined is up to their bishop, and that can differ depending on the diocese. Said Reid: “Canon law sets general principles; bishops get to apply them.”

The Catholic Church is sharply divided between conservatives and mainstream faithful, he added, so regardless of the decision, it will disappoint a faction.

“But I don’t think you should delay where a priest is delivering deadly information,’’ he said.