Father James Altman, pastor of St. James Catholic Church, La Crosse, wrongly asserts, “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat. Period.” He adds that Catholic Democrats must repent or “face the fires of hell.”
Altman underlines his position by saying “the number of Catholics who voted for Barack Obama is zero.” In other words, voting for Obama instantaneously kicks you out of the Catholic church.
Altman presumes to judge who is in and who is out of the Catholic church. Others do the same. Cardinal Raymond Burke would refuse Communion to both John Kerry and Joe Biden. Lou Holtz, former Notre Dame football coach, stated at the Republican National Convention that Joe Biden is “a Catholic in name only.”
On the other hand, author James Joyce defines the Catholic church as “Here comes everybody.” The church includes both Al Capone and Mother Teresa. Both Attorney General William Barr and TV host Stephen Colbert. Both Joe Biden and Amy Coney Barrett have been profoundly formed by their Catholicism — yet come to profoundly different understandings of their faith.
Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse disagrees with Altman. In a document dated Sept. 9, he states that Altman is divisive, scandalous, completely inappropriate and not far from inducing and receiving a penalty.
The bishops of the United States disagree with Altman. In their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” they write, “We do not tell Catholics how to vote. The responsibility to make political choices rests with each person and his or her properly formed conscience.”
A properly formed conscience is not what you feel like doing or even what you want to do. It is a judgment made after prayer, study and reflection on often complex realities enlightened by faith. It becomes a call from the deepest part of yourself.
Can a person’s conscience be objectively wrong? Sure. That’s why we need to keep reflecting and dialoguing on our decisions our whole lives. But the Catholic church insists on the moral primacy of conscience. It is the best humans can do. And we do it humbly.
Altman also derided Jesuit priest James Martin as a heretic for “spouting off” at the Democratic Convention. Martin simply offered the following prayer.
Open our hearts to those most in need:
The unemployed parent worried about feeding his or her children.
The woman who is underpaid, harassed or abused.
The Black man or woman who fear for their lives.
The immigrant at the border, longing for safety.
The homeless person looking for a meal.
The LGBT teen who is bullied.
The unborn child in the womb.
The inmate on death row.
Help us to be a nation where
every life is sacred,
all people are loved,
and all are welcome.
This prayer speaks loudly of Catholic values reflected in Matthew’s gospel. As Pope Francis explains, “those already born” are as “equally sacred as life in the womb.”
Leaders of the church are pushing back from statements of Cardinal Burke and Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago instructs that we should never judge a person as not Christian or Catholic enough.
Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, explains that Holtz’s opinion is not to be taken as an endorsement by Notre Dame. He adds, “We must never question the sincerity of another’s faith, which is due to the mysterious working of grace in that person’s heart. In this fractious time, let us remember that our highest calling is to love.”
The Catholic church has declared hundreds of people as saints in heaven. These saints would universally say they were ordinary and sinful people. Yet the church raises them up for the rest of us, so we have examples of what it looks like in the flesh to follow the gospels more completely. We need human role models.
On the other hand, the Catholic church has never declared a single person in hell. All of us can name many people who have done terrible, horrendous deeds. But we don’t know “the mysterious working of grace in a person’s heart.” Only God knows.
For 2,000 years, the Catholic church has refused to state that any specific person or group was in hell. Father Altman argues that recently deceased Catholics who didn’t repent for voting for Obama are “facing the fires of hell.”
Altman has a right to speak. However, he clearly does not speak for the Catholic church. You can be a Catholic and vote Democratic. Period. Full stop.
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