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Wisconsin Catholic priest warns congregants against Covid vaccine, defying pope and his bishop

"Don't be anyone's guinea pig," the Rev. James Altman said while pushing misinformation to back-up his anti-vaxx stance.

The pastor of a Roman Catholic church in Wisconsin has been leading his flock astray by urging them to shun the Covid-19 vaccine.

The Rev. James Altman, of the St. James the Less Catholic Church in La Crosse, made his feelings clear about the vaccines in a posting that appeared in the church bulletin on April 18.


“DO NOT BE ANYONE’S GUINEA PIG,” is the headline on the item, which goes on to make a number of false claims about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines, claims that have been debunked by the majority of the medical establishment.

“God is still the best doctor and prayer is still the best medicine,” it concludes.

Altman called the pandemic that has killed over 577,000 Americans and sickened more than 32.3 million a “hoax” during his Easter weekend services that attracted 300 to 500 parishioners, The LaCrosse Tribune reported.

The church also posted a video on YouTube of the Easter Mass, which shows hardly any parishioners wearing masks and many of them taking communion by mouth, instead of by hand, which health experts say is far safer.

Not only was that Mass an apparent violation of the current La Crosse County Health Department advisory on mask wearing and crowd capacity, Altman also appears to have thumbed his nose at Bishop William Callahan of the Diocese of La Crosse.

“I am strongly encouraging that our Churches and schools continue the practice of having individuals wear masks while participating from a safe social distance,” Callahan stated in a March 31 letter, which was written after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the governor’s state-wide mask mandate.

When NBC News reached out to Altman for comment, a woman who said she worked at St. James said “he’s not having any interviews.”

“God bless you,” she added before hanging up.

NBC News has also reached out to a spokesman for Callahan for comment.

Altman is not the only Roman Catholic priest to speak out against Covid-19 vaccines. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, sent his diocese a letter this month urging members to “reject any vaccine that uses the remains of aborted children in research, testing, development or production.”

In September, the Rev. Robert Altier at the Church of St. Raphael outside of Minneapolis preached a sermon that echoed much of the Covid-19 misinformation that then-President Donald Trump was spreading and closed by saying that the only way he’d get vaccinated was if “they arrest me, and hold me down, and force it upon me.”

But the positions those ultra-conservative Catholic leaders have taken runs counter to that of the Vatican, which in December said it was “morally acceptable” for Catholics to get vaccinated even though the vaccines were developed using cell lines that were derived from fetuses that were aborted decades ago.

As a result, U.S. Catholics — especially white members of the faith — are getting vaccinated at a high rate, according to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core of more than 5,000 Americans conducted March 8-30.

Altman’s main objections to the vaccine, however, appears to be that he thinks it is “an experimental use of genetic altering substance that modifies your body — your temple of the Holy Spirit,” according to the church bulletin posting. “It is not a vaccine.”

That is false, an army of medical experts have said.

Callahan does “have the power to censor, silence, or remove” Altman, said Jason Steidl, a Catholic theologian and visiting professor of religious studies at St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, New York.

“That said, many bishops are in a bind because many of their parishioners believe Covid is a hoax,” Steidl said. “If they speak out against conspiracy theories, they may lose the financial support of alt-right parishioners. Even if bishops believe that Covid is real and vaccinations work, it may be safest to remain quiet.”

Never mind, Steidl said, that “many bishops, the pope emeritus, and the pope himself have received the vaccine, and many have encouraged others to do the same.”

Also, Altman is not likely to face any fallout from his own flock, Steidl said.

“Most Catholics today attend parishes where they agree with the priest,” he said. “If the priest consistently preaches something they don't like, they'll leave and find a parish that suits them better. Most priests, therefore, are preaching to the choir.”

“More progressive priests will encourage vaccination and their parishioners will get vaccinated. Alt-right priests will preach against it and their parishioners will refuse to get vaccinated. In either case, parishioners probably would have followed their own ideological inclinations regardless of what the priest told them.”

Friends of Father James Altman Facebook page.
Friends of Father James Altman Facebook page.Facebook

Some of Altman’s parishioners have put up a “Friends of Father James Altman” Facebook page, which has 752 members and features posts from people who make bogus assertions like there is “no science behind false religion of covidism” and feature so-called experts making baseless claims about the supposed dangers of the Covid-19 vaccines.

“He is the kind of priest we need lots of,” one parishioner wrote of Altman.

Altman has been courting controversy for a while. Before the presidential election, he insisted in a video produced and posted on YouTube by a right-wing group that “you cannot be Catholic and a Democrat.” He also denounced the Black Lives Matter movement, insisted “zero” Catholics voted for President Barack Obama, and made other conspiratorial false claims about climate change and systemic racism that are common in right-wing media.

Callahan responded at the time by calling Altman “divisive,” adding that the “generalization and condemnation of entire groups of people is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our values or the life of virtue.”