(September 13, 2020)

The release of controversial videos from priest James Altman proclaiming that Catholics cannot be Democrats and a homily questioning the existence of systemic racism sparked a reflection on the role of tone in the context of catechesis and evangelization. 

In response to Fr. Altman’s videos, Altman’s local ordinary, Bishop William Callahan of La Crosse, Wisconsin, noted Fr. Altman’s tone as being “angry and judgmental, lacking any charity and in a way that causes scandal both in the Church and in society. His generalization and condemnation of entire groups of people is completely inappropriate and not in keeping with our values or the life of virtue.”

Fr. James Martin, SJ posted an excerpt of this statement from the bishop, which sparked numerous comments defending Fr. Altman by suggesting that his tone should not be criticized since “Father Altman is a good shepherd among many false shepherds.”

These same commenters went to uncharitable lengths with those who disagreed with them.

In response to one of my comments on Fr. Martin’s post, one person wrote, “Need to run to your safe space of sugared lips now?” Another person wrote, “Jeez, grow a pair!!”

Last I checked, the Greatest Commandment includes a call to love one’s neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:36-40), and embedded in this love is a tone of respect and charity.

Tone indeed is important. If the way we treat one another does not match the faith that we profess, then we are dishonorable witnesses to Christ and His Gospel.

The title of the song “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” doesn’t seem to hold today. 

Mahatma Gandhi once remarked, “I believe in the teachings of Christ, but you on the other side of the world do not; I read the Bible faithfully and see little in Christendom that those who profess faith pretend to see.

“The Christians above all others are seeking after wealth. Their aim is to be rich at the expense of their neighbors. They come among aliens to exploit them for their own good and cheat them to do so. Their prosperity is far more essential to them than the life, liberty, and happiness of others.

“The Christians are the most warlike people.”

Gandhi’s indictment on Christians rings true today. Our words, tone, and example are paramount to credibly witness to the gospel.

Influential members within the Church, especially the clergy, have a duty to exemplify Christian behavior, lest they lead members of the faithful astray. 

Altman appears to have validated a mean-spirited tone that is reverberating among those who support him and reveal the rotten fruits inherent in his message (Matthew 7:16), thereby leading this flock astray.

Therefore, let us be true Christian witnesses, exemplifying love in word and deed, exhibiting a disposition of compassion and care, and seeking humility and wisdom as opposed to pomp and ideological idolatry.

Let us be the Christ who Gandhi believed in so that we, by our example, can lead others to believe in Christ.

More stories by Novena US contributor Matt Kappadakunnel:

St. Peter Claver, a ‘Black Lives Matter’ activist of the 17th century

Black Catholic priest accuses US Bishops of complicity in white privilege

While US Bishops are complicit in white privilege, New York City priest, parish lead way forward in fight against racism

Feeling racial injustice fatigue? Here’s why – and how – to keep fighting

Black Lives Martyred: Trayvon, Ahmaud, Breonna, George… pray for us

Classism in spirituality and the liturgy divides the Body of Christ and offends God

It’s time to make the Church truly ‘Catholic’ again by ridding it of Eurocentric injustices

Meditation: “Devotion to the Sacred Heart is inauthentic if it does not lead to action against injustice”


Matt Kappadakunnel has a background in investment management and investment banking. Additionally, Matt spent multiple years studying to be a Catholic priest. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charterholder. Matt lives in Los Angeles with his wife and toddler, and they are expecting a newborn in November.