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Money, media and Mel Gibson: Coalition for Canceled Priests uses aggressive tactics in bid to reinstate sidelined clerics

John Keilman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Religious News

The coalition’s first order of business was to put on a fundraiser for Parker, which Holuj said brought in $20,500. Since then, the organization, which is seeking nonprofit status, has raised several hundred thousand dollars more, he said.

Parker’s fundraiser was followed by a September rally in Chicago’s Lincoln Park that included a video message from Mel Gibson, the movie star known for following a stringent form of Catholicism. He suggested the priests’ removal had an ideological motive.

“(Bishops) passively sit by and tolerate any kind of nonsense, but if one of their priests utters something that resembles orthodoxy, well, then they spring into action,” he said. “They reprimand him and they bully him and do their best to cancel him.”

Clerical culture warriors

Lovell said the views of the coalition’s priests are rooted in tradition, not politics — “The church makes it quite clear in the catechism and canon law what her teachings are,” he said — but that line is sometimes hard to discern.

One of the priests featured on the coalition’s billboards, the Rev. James Altman of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was removed in July after making numerous inflammatory statements. In one video, he bashed Democrats and progressive organizations, called climate change a hoax and ridiculed fellow clergy as “gutless cowards.”

Another priest, the Rev. Paul Kalchik, lost his post at Chicago’s Resurrection Catholic Church in 2018 after he burned a rainbow banner that had hung in the parish, calling it sacrilegious. In November, speaking at a Baltimore rally organized by conservative media outlet Church Militant, he condemned tolerant views of homosexuality as “one of the worst evils” to befall the church and society.

Neither priest could be reached for comment.

Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, said while politics have always influenced the inner workings of the church, the situation has become especially volatile in recent years.

He attributes that to the sexual abuse crisis that chipped away at the church’s moral standing and the rise of norm-shredding politicians like former President Donald Trump who serve as inspiration to dissatisfied priests and laypeople.

“They have received encouragement from what they’ve seen happening,” he said. “There’s a whole climate in which authority is very easily confronted and challenged and attacked publicly.”

But the Rev. Mark White, a suspended Virginia priest who received $11,500 from the coalition to hire a canon lawyer, said he is not in ideological lockstep with other priests in the group.

 

He ran afoul of Bishop Barry Knestout of the Richmond Diocese by writing a blog that discusses, sometimes angrily, the church’s abuse crisis (Knestout has accused him of fomenting disunity and making “inflammatory and contemptuous comments”).

What the coalition’s priests do agree on, White said, is that they should be able to speak their minds without punishment.

“We’re human beings who have ideas,” he said. “It seems like we should be allowed to express them.”

Unlikely role model

The coalition has dipped into matters beyond the reinstatement of priests. It has highlighted the views of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines. It has also resisted efforts by Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase Cupich and other leaders to curb the Latin Mass in the name of church unity, enlisting mobile billboards to circle Chicago churches with the message, “Defend the traditional Latin Mass.”

Even so, Lovell said one of his role models is the very liberal Rev. Michael Pfleger, who has led St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side since 1981. Pfleger has tangled with the Chicago Archdiocese over his activism, and last year was investigated on decades-old allegations of child sex abuse.

As they have before, his parishioners rallied around him, flooding a church sexual abuse hotline with so many calls that Cupich threatened to move the investigation to another diocese. In the end, a review board concluded there was insufficient reason to suspect Pfleger’s guilt and Cupich reinstated the priest.

“A lot of us don’t have the popularity that Father Pfleger does … so what the coalition is trying to do is try to be the voice for these priests that have no one, or very few people, to defend them,” Lovell said.

He acknowledged, though, that only one of the priests the coalition has supported has returned to the ministry. As for the group’s billboards, Wiegert said they have had no effect on the Rockford Diocese’s contributions.

Charles Reid Jr., a canon lawyer and law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, said discontent within the ranks has been part of Catholicism for centuries. While the conflict might be particularly hot at the moment, he predicted that the coalition, like other fractious groups before it, will ultimately fade away.

“I just don’t see that apocalyptic explosion,” he said. “I think this will peter out and people will be reconciled.”

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