CHICAGO—Is Father James Altman a heretic, or one of the last men of faith?
The Wisconsin-based priest hasn’t been allowed to practice mass since 2021, after he appeared in a YouTube video preaching that “You cannot be Catholic and a Democrat.” He also called climate change a “hoax,” and during the Covid lockdowns, in defiance of the Church and government ordinances, he held mass in person.
But the crowd at the second annual conference for the Coalition for Canceled Priests is going wild for Altman, who takes the stage in the afternoon on the second day of festivities. He is who they’re here to see. Altman spends his forty minutes at the lectern skewering the church’s hierarchy from top to bottom. Throughout, he refuses to call the pope Francis.
“No one in 2,000 years has been as fake and a fraud of a Catholic as the imposter prancing around in white in our day, Jorge Bergoglio,” Altman informs the rapt room.
Altman goes on to describe Pope Francis as an “anti-Pope” and an “earthly viper” in his talk. “We’ve had enough, Jorge,” he says. “If he doesn’t repent for his fraudulent and damned papacy, he will burn in the lowest level of hell.”
I’m sitting at a round table among dozens of others in the grand ballroom of the Hilton in Rosemont, Illinois, down the road from O’Hare Airport. It’s mid-June. There’s a knitting convention across the street, and a charity bike ride to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project happening nearby. But here, in this too-bright conference room with thick carpeting, hundreds of devout Catholics from across the country are gathered to confront a conflicting notion: that the faith they love, whose teachings they believe are infallible, is being led by the “woke pope,” a man they despise.
The purpose of this conference, which started last year and is run by the Coalition for Canceled Priests, an organization founded in 2020, is ostensibly to bring all the canceled priests together. There are “dozens” of canceled priests who the coalition is in contact with, according to a spokesman for the group. Eighteen of them, including Altman, are here today.
Before you ask, no, the so-called Canceled Priests weren’t canceled for that.
Sex crimes, they repeatedly say, aren’t why they were cast out of the church. Instead it is thought crimes—mostly railing against homosexuality, abortion, IVF, or because they were getting too political—that have led to their banishment. The priests, sprinkled among the 400 or so attendees, were removed from their pulpits and banned from hearing confessions by bishops in their diocese, and they were never reassigned to another parish. (Altman’s diocese cited “public and ecclesial concerns” when they announced he’d gotten the boot.)
The coalition raises money to support the priests and fund their canon lawyers, who appeal their dismissal to the higher-ups at the Vatican, similar to a civil procedure. Also attending are other conservative and controversial Catholic media stars and speakers like John-Henry Westen, who started LifeSite news, a far-right media outlet that was kicked off YouTube two years ago. The prepper Doug Barry, who gives advice on how to be ready for power outages and food shortages when the spiritual crisis gives way to a real-life one, is also here.
At first glance, this conference is standard convention fare. Everyone’s wearing bright orange lanyards. Vendors are hawking merchandise—thick theology books, glittering rosaries, and plastic Virgin Mary statues—from folding tables near the ballroom. An older woman with a sensible haircut and cotton capri pants, hobbling on crutches toward the check-in desk, announces, “This is why grandma doesn’t go whitewater rafting!”
But under the lanyards and the cheery faces of the volunteers working the conference is a roiling anger. The people here feel betrayed and abandoned by the Church, which they say has forsaken its own ideals in favor of modernity and liberalism.
Theirs is an extreme expression of what’s become a familiar feeling among millions of Americans who feel alienated from organizations or institutions or political parties they used to trust: I didn’t leave it. It left me. It’s an alienation that has led to a collapse of trust—even among the most faithful, even when it comes to one of the most ancient institutions in the West.
It is not an exaggeration to say Father James Altman railing against Rome sounds just a little like Martin Luther with his Ninety-Five Theses doing the same more than 500 years ago in Wittenberg, Germany, igniting the Reformation that split the church.
“Covid really woke a lot of people up to what’s happening,” attendee Linda Kapolas tells me while perusing hand-painted canvases of St. Michael for sale in the vendor room. Kapolas, who lives between Arizona and Wisconsin, had started following Father Altman, and then the rest of the canceled priests like Fr. Clay Hunt, Fr. Jeff Fasching, and Fr. James Parker on social media.
“We know that Satan has infiltrated much of the church at this point,” she says. But when I ask for examples, I get a vague answer: “Events that are taking place, the divisions that are occurring, things that the pope is coming out with.”
In short, she just doesn't trust it anymore.
Nor does Abby Johnson, the pro-life activist who worked for Planned Parenthood between 2001 and 2009 before pivoting hard against abortion. She kicked off the two-day event with a rant about how scientists developed the Covid vaccine using cells from aborted babies, and how the Church, in her mind, just shrugged that off.
“Nevermind the fact that if you get the jab and you’re pregnant, it might kill your baby in the womb,” Johnson boomed. Someone pipes up from a table in the back—“Tell it, Abby!”—before the whole room breaks out in applause.
Back in August 2021, when the pope said it was an “act of love” to get the shot, Abby went rogue. She posted a video on Facebook about vaccines and was promptly disinvited from speaking at a few pro-life and Catholic events. One was a women’s event in her diocese in Texas. Two others were with National Right to Life, the biggest anti-abortion organization in the country. All three canceled her for “going against the Church,” she says.
“They can cancel me here but I will not be canceled in the kingdom of God,” she trills, followed by another big round of applause.
The vaccine isn’t the only sticking point for these Catholics. Many of them are also upset that Rome encouraged churches to shut their doors during the pandemic, which people here count as sacrilege. Another gripe that comes up in several of the speeches and conversations I had is the 2019 service attended by the pope in the Vatican gardens where an Amazonian statue of a fertility goddess called Pachamama was on display, for which he was accused of pagan idolatry.
Some of the rage here dates as far back to 2003, when a scandal of widespread child abuse committed by priests first emerged in Boston. That these crimes continued well into 2018, when a Pennsylvania grand jury exposed how the Church had covered up the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children in the state by more than 300 priests over 70 years, has many here fuming. “If anyone’s abusing a child or anyone abusing anyone, period, I don’t care what their age is, it’s going against the dignity of the human person,” Father John Lovell, who founded and runs the coalition, told me. Lovell claims he was punished, and eventually axed by his bishop in Rockford, Illinois, after he blew the whistle on a teacher for having an inappropriate relationship with a student at a Catholic school where he taught.
In short, the Coalition for Canceled Priests is not impressed with Pope Francis’s 10-year tenure. But as much as they detest the state of the Church, the idea of leaving it is unthinkable. They want to get it back.
The conference attendees probably don’t believe the Jews are Christ-killers, but they do crave a more authentic Church, one that hasn’t forgotten itself. One that conducts its mass the way it used to, in Latin. One that isn’t bleeding hundreds of thousands of believers every year, from Latin America to Europe.
We’re hosting our first live, in-person debate on September 13 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles! We can't wait to meet you guys in person. You can purchase tickets now at thefp.com/debates.
Over the dregs of a communal bowl of russet potato chips, I spoke to a young couple who traveled from Broward County in Florida for the conference.
“The traditional mass has been kind of hidden. It’s not really spoken about, you have to search for it,” Andrew James tells me. He’s here with Yairene Rivera, 30, who he met at church. Rivera describes the Latin Mass as "The One."
“I wanted the full experience of the mass that was never changed, no restrictions."
She’s not the only one attracted to the uncompromising version of the faith. In fact, hardline Catholicism is having a cultural moment. In young urban circles, like in downtown Manhattan, Catholicism has taken on a punk sheen, as religious orthodoxy becomes the new way to prove you’re transgressive. Meanwhile, the new, post-liberal right includes intellectuals who embrace the idea of integralism, which dictates that Catholicism should be the basis of our government and laws.
But while the coalition’s attendees are not urban punks or political theorists, they are most certainly activists.
One speaker, Liz Yore, is a lawyer who focuses on human trafficking and a frequent guest on Steve Bannon’s podcast, War Room. Now, onstage, flanked by a statue of Jesus on the cross and another of the Virgin Mary, Yore struggles to get her slideshow to work.
But then, suddenly, a cascade of images emblematic of the culture war spill out onto a screen.
There are pictures of singer Sam Smith dressed as a devil, transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney clutching a Bud Light can, and Drag Queen Story Hour at a public library. She calls out Target for being “groomers,” and the Los Angeles Dodgers for hosting drag group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at their stadium for Pride Night. That event, which happened a few days before this conference, led to a Catholic uprising with thousands marching and wielding signs outside the stadium.
People here blame Pope Francis for being too welcoming toward gay Catholics. This summer, they point out, the pope invited Father James Martin, a well-known proponent of gay inclusion in the Church, to participate in a council in Rome.
“The hierarchy has joined sides with the perverted atheistic propaganda and agenda of the globalists,” Yore says, to the sound of boos. “That was painfully obvious last week at Dodger Stadium, as thousands of Catholics marched at the very same time that Jorge Bergoglio sends a handwritten love note to Father James Martin.”
Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who describes himself as “red-pilled,” led the procession of protesters in L.A. People here call Strickland “America’s Bishop” and he’s the only one they have any nice words for. The rest of the church hierarchy is referred to as “an Old Boys club,” “company men,” “cowardly,” “corrupt,” “emasculated,” and “vipers.”
Around three o’clock on the second day of the conference, the organizers get word that the Vatican has launched a formal investigation into Bishop Strickland after his appearance at the Dodgers protest. Soon after, donations to the coalition started pouring in.
“I just got an email from an anonymous donor, I won’t say who, who donated $3,000 to the coalition,” announced Fr. Scott Duvall from the stage.
One of the speakers, radio host Jesse Romero, leads the room in “Strickland” chants. Everyone pulls out their rosaries, and many people fall to their knees to pray.
Out front, near the check-in desk, I ran into Megan Olszewski, 52, from Southeast Wisconsin. She has glasses and short hair, and tells me she got pregnant in her teens and came back to the church after 17 years when she was homeschooling her son and he started attending confession. “I thought, ‘How could I send him to confession if I haven’t gone?’ ”
I asked her about what she thought about the conference.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she says, but she looks worried. “I’ve heard of the deep state before but I never heard of the deep church. It’s kind of terrifying.”
“I’m a rules girl,” she continues. “For me, you always listen to the pope and your bishops but at this point with Francis, and some of these other bishops, I’m like, ‘What do I do now? Am I supposed to go against authority?’ Because it sure seems like it.”
Additional reporting by Gabe Cohen.
If you never miss a Free Press feature, become a subscriber today: