American Priest Facing Possible Disciplinary Action for Political Speech

(Image: Youtube screenshot of video entitled: HLI VP Fr. Peter West at SCOTUS for Obamacare Decision)

Fr. Peter West is priest of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. He’s an Associate Pastor at St. John’s Church in Orange. He’s also the former Vice President for Missions at Human Life International, and has worked for over 25 years in the pro-life movement.

As is often the case with those who are engaged in important counter-cultural works, Fr. West is outspoken on the issues he cares about. He is active on social media — both on Twitter and Facebook — and lately, this has generated some controversy.

“Bashing liberals, Muslims and millennials,” reads the breathless headline of Mark Mueller’s February 8 Column at NJ.com, “Has this pro-Trump priest gone too far?”

With the invocation of President Trump as a guilt-by-association smear tactic, it’s all-but-guaranteed that what follows will involve a certain measure of hysteria. And Mueller doesn’t disappoint:

Posting on Facebook and Twitter up to a dozen times a day, he has repeatedly railed against Muslims, calling moderate Islam “a myth” and voicing strong support for the president’s travel ban, which temporarily barred immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries before a judge issued a stay last week.

West has assailed millennials as “snowflakes” who attend “cry-ins” and described liberals as “smug and arrogant” people who find solace in puppies and Play-Doh.

He has called Hillary Clinton an “evil witch” and former President Barack Obama a “bum,” at one point sharing a post that challenged Obama’s authenticity as an African-American because he wasn’t raised by a poor single mother in the inner city.

Were West some random internet flamethrower, his posts might garner a shrug in an age of intense political division and social media rancor.

But West, 57, is a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Newark, and some of his withering attacks, while popular with many of his 7,300 Facebook followers from around the country, run counter to the statements and philosophies of his own leader, Newark Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, and his ultimate boss, Pope Francis.

It should be noted that as of this writing — just five days after initial publication — Fr. West’s Facebook account is now followed by 9,958 people – a gain of 2,658, or 36%, since Mueller’s column was published.

Explaining the jump in his popularity isn’t hard. In an age of unanswered dubia, skittishness about moral teaching from the pulpit, and more feckless bishops than not, a hard-hitting Jersey priest who calls them like he sees them is a welcome breath of fresh air to many Catholics.

Mueller goes on, even digging up an appropriately pearl-clutching clerical scold:

A minority of commenters on West’s Facebook page have denounced him as a “hatemonger” who promotes divisiveness, and at least one person complained about him to the archdiocese in December — a development announced by West himself on Facebook.

His response? A harangue against “leftist apparatchiks” and “Comrade Obama.”

Directly addressing the complainant, whom he did not name, West added: “You should be ashamed of yourself for supporting pro-abortion, anti-family politicians. If I get in trouble for denouncing them, so be it! But I won’t be scared off by a totalitarian jerk like yourself!”

The Rev. John J. Dietrich, the director of spiritual formation at the nation’s second largest seminary, Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland, called West’s comments about politicians, Muslims and liberals “way over-the-top inappropriate behavior.”

“The thrust of his priesthood is not to be political. The thrust of his priesthood is supposed to be sacramental, preaching the Scripture,” Dietrich said, adding, “There’s a red line you don’t cross.”

“We discuss things like this in the seminary,” he said. “We would never countenance anything like this.”

No you wouldn’t, would you Fr. Dietrich? And that is a huge part of the problem. Mount Saint Mary’s is widely considered one of the best diocesan seminaries in the country. But if you form your seminarians to be afraid of conflict, afraid of standing up and being counted and acting like men, knowing that their bishops will never support them, what are they going to do when something comes that’s really important and has an impact on the souls entrusted to their care? Something like Amoris Laetitia?

They’re going to punt. They’re going to either ignore it or downplay it or treat it like an untouchable topic or even try to play both sides in the confessional, which is where it really counts. Not exactly reminiscent of the ministry of St. John the Baptist, is it? He got political — and sacramental — over marriage, and lost his head for it. He’s also considered one of the greatest saints and martyrs of the Church. You can be socially acceptable, or you can be holy. Pick one.

Unsurprisingly, the Archdiocese of Newark isn’t happy about Fr. West’s outspokenness. Jim Goodness, Communications Director for the Archdiocese now headed by one of Pope Francis’ newly-minted cardinals, Joseph Tobin, acknowledged Fr. West’s First Amendment rights, but took issue with them:

In a statement to NJ Advance Media, Goodness said the archdiocese would move to curtail West’s political pronouncements.

“Certainly, a priest doesn’t give up his civil liberties when he is ordained, and he maintains the same right to freedom of expression as anyone else in the United States,” Goodness said. “That said, we are concerned about Father West’s comments and actions, and will be addressing them according to the protocols of the Church.”

I wrote to Mr. Goodness last week to see if he would elaborate on the apparent plans to suppress Fr. West’s Internet speech. I also inquired asked which “protocols of the Church”, exactly, the Archdiocese would be invoking in this case, since Canon Law does not address the kind of political speech Fr. West is engaging in. Finally, I mentioned that some bloggers were speculating that Fr. West’s energetic activism in the pro-life movement, which at times brought him into conflict with high-ranking prelates like Washington’s Cardinal Wuerl, were the real motivation behind any forthcoming disciplinary action. “Would you be willing to address this concern,” I asked, “with an affirmation of support from the Newark Archdiocese for Fr. West’s pro-life work?”

The following day, Goodness responded to my three-paragraph inquiry with a single sentence: “That [sic] appears in the nj.com story is all that I am prepared to say on this matter at this time.”

In an interview with Claire Chretien of LifeSiteNews, Fr. West defended himself from the accusations in the NJ.com article, which could more accurately be described as a “hit piece”:

“It has half-truths, distortions of the truth, and I would say outright lies in it,” he said. For example, the article claims “that I called all millennials snowflakes, which is not true. I think that anyone who is seeking safe spaces and can’t stand to hear contrary opinions is a snowflake no matter what their age.”

The article also says West shared a post on Facebook “that challenged Obama’s authenticity as an African-American because he wasn’t raised by a poor single mother in the inner city.”

“In fact, what I was doing was defending Dr. Ben Carson against the charge that he was an inauthentic African-American and I was comparing some of his experiences to Barack Obama’s experience,” said West. “I shared a meme that … compared some of his experiences growing up to Barack Obama’s experiences. So I was basically saying that, you know, I don’t make such distinctions, but if we want to play that game, look at the contrast between Barack Obama’s life and Dr. Ben Carson’s life.”

He said the article’s misrepresentation of him as racist “troubles me” because he ministers to many African-Americans at his parish. The article doesn’t mention the full context of West’s post.

I reached out to Fr. West to ask if he had anything to add to his comments in LifeSiteNews. He responded:

A priest asked me why I wasn’t lying low. I told him for me to lie low would be for me to admit that the smears in the media were true, and that my words were so egregious as to deserve canonical action.

It would appear that there is no off switch on courage and character. Either you have it, or you don’t. Would that our bishops had as much backbone.

After our initial exchange, I followed up with Mr. Goodness and pressed the issue. I asked whether the protocols he mentioned were a secret. I asked how other priests in Newark could avoid running afoul of them if they don’t know what they are. And perhaps most importantly, I inquired as to whether the same, undefined “protocols” would also be applied to another priest of the Archdiocese — Fr. Alexander Santora — who, through his Twitter feed and his own column at NJ.com (surely, a coincidence!) has demonstrated that some political rhetoric by priests of the Newark Archdiocese — provided it reflects a certain ideological perspective — goes uncontested.

See for example Fr. Santora’s sharing of a recent column. In the tweet, he says that Trump is “dangerous”:

Or this one, from shortly before the election, in which he refers to the most pro-abortion presidential candidate in history — Hilary Clinton — as the “Healer in Chief”:

Going back through his timeline before the election, I observed that Fr. Santora has tweets in which he refers to Trump as “stupid” and “outrageous“, even going so far to say that if Trump lived in a third world country he would “lose and not survive.”  In other tweets, he questions whether Trump has disabilities:

And this:

There is also evidence that Fr. Santora is a dissident on Church teaching, particularly on the matter of homosexuality. Former “gay” man, author, and Catholic evangelist Joseph Sciambra notes this in a recent post on his website:

Alexander Santora, a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark, is a frequent contributor to NJ.com. A repeated topic he discusses in his column is the LGBT issue; I read several of them; at best they are unhelpful, at their worst they are highly ambivalent and overly apologetic. In 2013 – as several cases on the State level concerning same-sex marriage worked their way through the Courts, Santora wrote:

Churches tend to makes change at a glacial pace. Yet, in two watershed decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has validated the movement toward same-sex marriage that only began to register with American society a little over a decade ago.

He also quoted the response from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation. The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so.”

Then he added the following:

The Catholic bishops appealed to “the common good of all” and called for “a society that strives to uphold the truth of marriage.” The Supreme Court of the land, however, has expanded the notion of common good and an expansive view of marriage.

But the strangest piece Santora wrote for NJ.com was an article in which he resoundingly praised the late-Jesuit John J McNeill – the founder of the dissident “gay” Catholic movement. Santora wrote of McNeill: “McNeill’s courage and brilliance started the church on a trajectory that it is still trying to define.” According to Fr. John Harvey: “The dissenting theologian who has had the greatest influence on Catholic homosexual persons is probably John J. McNeill, S.J.” In his landmark 1976 work “The Church and the Homosexual,” McNeill’s primary thesis concerning the inherent ethical goodness of homosexual relations he summarized in the book’s Introduction:

“It would appear to follow that the same moral rules to homosexual and heterosexual attitudes and behaviors. Those that are responsible, respectful, loving and truly promotive of the good of both parties are moral; those that are exploitive, irresponsible, disrespectful, or destructive of the true good of either party, must be judged immoral.”

Before his death, McNeill left the priesthood to marry his same-sex lover.

Later in the same post, Sciambra points out language used by Fr. Santora that appears to also promote the idea that Catholics can, in good conscience, vote for pro-abortion political candidates.

Of course, Fr. Santora is a big Cardinal Tobin and Pope Francis fan, so perhaps that’s sufficient cover for his problematic speech. We’ve already reported on about the special treatment even clerical sexual abusers receive from the Francis Vatican if they are considered to have “cardinal friends”. Why wouldn’t the same standard apply even more strongly to controversial speech, when tweets like this are being circulated?

Four days after my follow-up inquiry on Fr. Santora, I have received no response from Mr. Goodness or his associates in the communications office.

It seems to always play out the same way. Dissident priests or those with Leftist viewpoints can speak whenever and wherever they want without consequence. Faithful priests or those with politically conservative viewpoints find themselves in hot water over the littlest things.

While I don’t believe it’s always prudent, I support free speech for clergy, even on controversial matters. In fact, it helps to know where they stand, instead of having to always guess about it. But the standards of conduct related to such speech must be made clear ahead of time, and universally and equitably applied. This nonsense about “protocols of the Church” that can’t be referenced is not going to cut it.

If you’d like to see Fr. West treated justly, I recommend that you make your voice heard on the matter. Contact the Archdiocese of Newark here and offer your support.

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