The Tale of Two Fr. Jameses
With the news that conservative priest Fr. James Altman has been asked by his bishop to resign, one is faced with the contrast between Fr. James Altman and another controversial priest, Fr. James Martin, SJ.
Both priests have somewhat of a prophetic voice in the Church—Fr. Altman from the conservative side and Fr. Martin from the liberal. Fr. Altman castigates Catholics who voted for Joe Biden. Fr. Martin openly supported Biden. As such, the two Fr. Jameses are poster boys for the two Catholic Churches in America today. Fr. Altman for the traditional, orthodox, strict version of Catholicism; Fr. Martin for the accommodating, relativistic, and subjective version of Catholicism. Fr. Altman: doctrinal. Fr. Martin: pastoral. Fr. Altman: Rational. Fr. Martin: Sentimental.
It is interesting that both priests see themselves as standing up for the true faith and see themselves as speaking truth to power. Fr. Martin campaigns against institutional homophobia and laments the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. Fr. Altman campaigns against a Catholic hierarchy that is in bed with the abortion-loving Democratic Party.
In such situations it is all too easy for folks on one side or the other to throw the “H” words around. The enemy is branded as either a hypocrite, a heretic, or both.
Therefore, it is worth examining the two priests and looking at how they have been treated.
Fr. James Martin is on record for supporting the pro-LGBTQ New Ways Ministry, which has been disciplined by the Church for promoting teachings that are contrary to the Catholic faith. He has lauded the dissident nun Sister Gramick—calling her a saint. In many manipulative and devious ways, he has used his media platform to promote the blessing of same-sex unions and to encourage homosexuality.
It would seem that Fr. Martin’s sort of “prophetic voice” is beloved of the contemporary Catholic hierarchy. Fr. Martin will not be disciplined in any way. He will not be asked to step down from his prestigious editorship, forsake his celebrity New York lifestyle, or step away from his huge social media pulpit. Instead, he is celebrated and appointed as a communications guru to the Vatican and invited to a personal tête-à-tête with the pope.
Fr. Altman, on the other hand, has fearlessly upheld the traditional Catholic faith and has never come close to preaching anything contrary to the Gospel. His sin? To be “divisive.” Why, may I ask, has no one suggested that New Ways Ministry and Fr. Martin (who have scandalized thousands of Catholics) are divisive?
In addition to questions of content, one might also consider the question of style. Fr. Martin has mastered a sweet and congenial style. Fr. Altman is more confrontational. Which style is most like the Gospel both priests claim to preach? Fr. Martin typifies Jesus the gentle teacher—the pantywaist Jesus with a weak smile and a limp wrist. Fr. Altman, on the other hand, sounds more like the Jesus who called the Pharisees “sons of Satan and whitewashed tombs.” Fr. Martin’s style is “all we are asking is give peace a chance.” Fr. Altman’s is “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”
The clash between the two churches in America today is reminiscent of the Jansenist-Jesuit conflict in eighteenth-century France. As the faith was under attack from both Protestantism and the Enlightenment, French Catholics fought back with a kind of Catholic Calvinism called Jansenism. Meanwhile, the Jesuits offered an accommodating vision—trying to meet people where they were and adapt the faith to their needs and beliefs.
In his book Rethinking the Enlightenment, historian Joseph Stuart analyzes these two responses—austere resistance fighting and worldly accommodation—and says down through history a third way has been the most positive and fruitful way forward. This is the simple way of radical discipleship…not cursing the dark, but lighting a candle. The answer to the present divide in the Catholic Church typified by the two Fr. Jameses is for ordinary priests and people to eschew the extremes and seek to live radiant, radical, and revolutionary Christianity—doing what they can with what they have where they are.
This is the vision I have set out in my upcoming book, Beheading Hydra—A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age. Ironically, this way actually fulfills the desire to fight and the desire to accommodate because the radical Christian life conquers the lies and deceit of the devil while also affirming what is beautiful, good, and true in our society.