Cardinal George Suspends Renegade Father Michael Pfleger

Cardinal Francis George has done the right thing and suspended Fr. Michael Pfleger again.  It’s regrettable, but long overdue.  Father Pfleger is the archetypal out-of-control priest. You’ve got all the elements:

  1. He’s self-obsessed and self-promoting;
  2. promotes heretical views;
  3. focuses on power and politics, rather than self-sacrifice or Christianity;
  4. promotes a heavily political strand of “social justice” theology, to the exclusion of the rest of the Gospel;
  5. ties in with a specific demographic group, alienating Catholics who aren’t in that group;
  6. and has a bishop afraid to act against him, for fear of causing a controversy amongst his supporters.

These same elements, with but very slight variations, could be used to describe all sorts of problem priests. Look at rogue priests like Fr. Marek Bozek from St. Louis, who used his clout in the Polish Catholic community to justify women’s ordination and schism until he was dismissed from the clerical state, and declared to have excommunicated himself.  For that matter, look at the pedophile Paul Shanley, who used blackmail and his status as a hero among “gay Catholics” to avoid any sort of church discipline at the hands of the cowardly Cdl. Law.  The result is always the same: they gather an adoring following of people, while the Body of Christ is freshly wounded by their obvious need for attention and desire to be celebrities.  The need for attention and the need to be heretical seems tied together — after all, if they preached the same Gospel as every other Catholic priest, who would pay attention to them? How would they feel more special than other priests if they weren’t constantly creating needless controversy?  Spiritual and emotional immaturity — an inability to act like a grown Catholic man, much less a priest — seems as much to blame as the rank heresy and the pride.  So to garner a few minutes of fame, they divide the Body of Christ.

To see the case that Fr. Pfleger, just look at the evidence.  Exhibit A goes back to when Pfleger first came to national prominence in 2008. He drew media attention because of his connection with then-Senator Barack Obama. At Obama’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ, Jeremiah Wright invited Pfleger to give a sermon.  As you can see from the video below, he instead gave a mean-spirited political screed attacking Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama’s primary opponent, as a self-entitled racist.

I’m not a Clinton fan, but this was wholly inappropriate for a church service.  It was pure politics, and consisted of personal attacks about what was going on in the quiet of Clinton’s heart. Obama had the decency (or good political sense) to declare that he was “deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger’s divisive, backward-looking rhetoric,” and Fr. Pfleger soon apologized. Still, I think a great many Catholics were shocked to see a priest this openly out-of-control.

Exhibit B could be any of a great number of homilies he gave attacking individuals by name from the pulpit. Most notorious was an apparent death threat against a local gun owner, John Riggio:

Pfleger then turns his attention to Riggio. “He’s the owner of Chuck’s. John Riggio. R-i-g-g-i-o. We’re going to find you and snuff you out … you know you’re going to hide like a rat. You’re going to hide but like a rat we’re going to catch you and pull you out. We are not going to allow you to continue to hide when we’re here …” 

“We’re going to keep coming back, and like Reverend Jackson says, it takes civil disobedience, if it takes whatever it takes … we’re going to snuff out John Riggio, we’re going to snuff out legislators that are voting … and we are coming for you because we are not going to sit idly. Keep on fighting, people. Keep on fighting, keep on fighting.”

Now, Fr. Pfelger claims that by threatening to snuff out John Riggio and Chicago’s legislators, he was referring to something other than killing them.  Maybe so: nevertheless, it’s part of a massively irresponsible string of behavior, particularly by a priest, and particularly from the pulpit.

Exhibit C has to be his support for women’s ordination, a view rejected and condemned by the Catholic Church. When asked to recant, he apologized, then denounced his apology. Look at what’s happened there. He’s gone to Facebook to try and rally his supporters against the views of the Catholic Church, and against the clear instruction of his superior, Cardinal George.

Exhibit D could be Fr. Pfelger’s decision to invite the racist, anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, to speak at St. Sabina’s.  Or his decision to speak at the controversial Trinity United Church of Christ. Or any of a number of other issues which demonstrate a terrible sense of judgment and a desire to turn the Church into a political group.  This was made clear by Fr. Pfleger’s threat to leave the Catholic Church if the bishop gave him an assignment he didn’t want.

Finally, look at the fruits of division he’s produced. His largely-unchecked heresies are having a detrimental effect on the church that now calls itself the “Faith Community” of Saint Sabina, and his congregation has started a grassroots campaign against Cardinal George, a campaign which the church faith community website actively promotes.

With all of that said, I’m pleased that Cardinal George has done the right (albeit unpopular) thing, and suspended Fr. Pfleger.  If you’re wondering, the last straw was when Cdl. George (Pfleger’s boss) asked him to become the principal at a Catholic high school, and Pfleger responded by threatening to leave the Catholic Church and join some other church. Clearly, a guy who makes those sorts of ultimatums is in no position to be a pastor of souls.  Seriously, this action, even in isolation, would be grounds for dismissal.  But of course, Pfleger’s next move was to start a media fiasco, and make life hell for Cdl. George.

The Cardinal’s letter is good (even now, he’s trying to give him yet another chance), but this is the best part. After explaining that the move to become principal at St. Leo’s was “a proposal, not a demand, even as I urged you to accept it,” Cdl. George continued:

That process has now been short-circuited by your remarks on national radio and in local newspapers that you will leave the Catholic Church if you are told to accept an assignment other than as pastor of Saint Sabina Parish,” Cardinal George continued. “If that is truly your attitude, you have already left the Catholic Church and are therefore not able to pastor a Catholic parish. A Catholic priest’s inner life is governed by his promises, motivated by faith and love, to live chastely as a celibate man and to obey his bishop. Breaking either promise destroys his vocation and wounds the Church.  Bishops are held responsible for their priests on the assumption that priests obey them. I have consistently supported your work for social justice and admired your passion for ministry. Many love and admire you because of your dedication to your people. Now, however, I am asking you to take a few weeks to pray over your priestly commitments in order to come to mutual agreement on how you understand personally the obligations that make you a member of the Chicago presbyterate and of the Catholic Church.

With this letter, your ministry as pastor of Saint Sabina Parish and your sacramental faculties as a priest of the Archdiocese are suspended.

He concluded by noting that he’d pray for him, and that:

This conflict is not between you and me; it’s between you and the Church that ordained you a priest, between you and the faith that introduced you to Christ and gives you the right to preach and pastor in his name. If you now formally leave the Catholic Church and her priesthood, it’s your choice and no one else’s. You are not a victim of anyone or anything other than your own statements.

Amen to all of that. I know that Cardinal George is going to get a lot of flack for doing the right thing here, but it’s still the right thing.

1 Comment

  1. Cardinal George’s words convey a deep sense of wisdom and justice. They are proper things to say. I’m sure the letter was very difficult to write, and I admire him for writing it, as too many Cardinals have said nothing to similar matters (and worse) and end up becoming complicit in the outcomes for doing nothing.

    Fr Michael seems to be a man who hasn’t quite learned that we reap what we sow, or perhaps even more simply: “thy will, not my will be done.”

    I’ll add my prayers to the Cardinal’s for Fr Michael.

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