Wisconsin priest digs in to refuse bishop's demand to resign

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Marilyn J. Richmond

This June 2, 2021 photo shows St. James the Less parish in La Crosse, Wis. The Rev. James Altman who heads the parish, announced during a homily on May 23, that Diocese of La Crosse Bishop Patrick Callahan had asked for his resignation. (Marilyn J. Richmond via AP)

MADISON, Wis. – The Rev. James Altman calls himself “a lowly priest” serving a blue-collar city in western Wisconsin. But when his bishop demanded his resignation – after a series of divisive remarks about politics and the pandemic – Altman refused to oblige and has since raised more than $640,000 from his conservative supporters to defend himself.

While not unprecedented, a Catholic priest’s refusal to abide by a bishop’s call to resign is certainly rare. Altman’s case, which has garnered national attention and made him a celebrity of sorts among conservative Catholics, has further fueled the divide between them and those urging a more progressive, inclusive church.

Altman, pastor of St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church in La Crosse, first came into prominence before the 2020 election with a fiery video on YouTube.

“You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat,” said Altman, admonishing people to “repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell.”

He reiterated that sentiment recently while also criticizing vaccination efforts and restrictions on church gatherings related to COVID-19.

On May 23, Altman announced during a homily that the Diocese of La Crosse's bishop, William Patrick Callahan, had asked for his resignation as pastor of St. James.

“They want my head now for speaking that truth,” Altman told the congregation. “I, a lowly priest, apparently have created enemies among some of the hierarchies.”

The diocese issued a statement the next day confirming Callahan’s request and Altman’s refusal to step away, and said it would begin the process to remove him according to Catholic law.