On Aug. 30, a Catholic priest made headlines by declaring, “You cannot be Catholic and a Democrat.” In a video that has since gone viral, Father James Altman, a priest in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., added that Catholics who support the Democratic Party need to repent, or “face the fires of hell.”
If this were an outlier, it would not be worthy of a response. But Altman’s video was reposted by hundreds of thousands on Catholic-oriented social media and earned applause from the bishop of a Texas diocese, who praised Altman for his courage.
I’ve hoped Philadelphia church leadership would address this controversy. Since they have not, as a Catholic and a Democrat, I feel a responsibility to respond to both the disdain for the party and the threat of eternal damnation framing Altman’s sermon.
Increasingly, the Democratic Party does seem hostile to members of my faith.
In an era where nuns are directed to supply coverage for contraceptives, and membership in the Knights of Columbus (a fraternal organization that has been around for over 100 years) is considered a character flaw by members of the U.S. Senate, it’s easy to see why Catholics backed President Donald Trump in 2016 by a 52%-45% margin. And support of abortion rights, an issue so ingrained in the party that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez famously declared that a woman’s right to choose is “nonnegotiable,” presents a great challenge for those of us who believe in the sanctity of all life, from conception to natural death.
But where many see barriers, I see good in a party that promotes life in other areas. Recent changes in the official Catholic position on the death penalty (now deemed “inadmissible” in all cases), and a platform advocating for rights of the indigent, immigrants, and those with mental health and addiction issues are where Catholicism and Democratic policies come together. Criminal justice reform, long a theme of Catholic social justice, is not only central to the Democratic platform, but also to groups like Black Lives Matter (a group labeled “Marxist” in the Altman video).
So when Altman, in his video, rails against a “godless platform,” he cherry-picks measures that meet a personal agenda rather than looking at a big picture that often aligns with traditional Catholic values and the teachings of Christ (feed the poor, visit the prisoner, etc.) that are touchstones of our faith.
And what of abortion? For many Catholic voters, it is the make-or-break issue. For others, it is a struggle for the conscience. Fortunately, there is guidance supplied by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a document titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” While Catholics are expressly barred from voting for a pro-choice candidate if their vote represents support for that position, they can reject an unacceptable position on such acts, yet “reasonably decide to vote for the candidate for other morally grave reasons,” such as their commitment to social justice.
As for Altman’s threatening eternal damnation, he joins a long list of doomsayers who have condemned conduct they find beyond a narrowly defined (and often erroneous) morality. Fred Phelps, on a national level with the Westboro Baptist Church, and Michael Marcavage locally with Repent America, are among many that have issued such warnings over the years. What distinguishes Altman’s call, however, is that it is tied to overt politicism rather than any specific conduct.
The problem with Altman’s proclamation (and this is the primary reason I wish local leaders would respond to the video) is that while hell, to Catholics, is a real place of suffering (and should not be discounted), such condemnation is solely in the province of our Lord, and suggestions to the contrary are outside the bounds of our theology. Altman’s threat casts aside hope and mercy, central tenets of our faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a guide even Altman refers to as “the rulebook” in his talk) makes clear that in the end “we shall be judged on our love,” and that this is a judgment only rendered by a God who predestines no man to hell, and wants no man to perish. Thus, Altman’s threat is simply one man’s spin on the tempestuous political theater that is the 2020 election, not something of an authentic religious nature. And people need to know that fact.
When I cast my ballot this November, my faith will weigh heavily on my decision. But so will my age, my economic status, and my concern for the well-being of others and myself in a pandemic. While still undecided, my vote will not be based on the fear of spending eternity in hell, but rather on who represents the best hope for healing a fractured nation, while respecting our rights to practice our faith — which includes looking out for others, be they the unborn, Black lives, or those on death row.
Karl Miller is active in both faith and politics in Chester County. His writings have appeared in a number of resources, including America Magazine and Catholic Philly.