The End of Father Pfleger
It's shooting season in Chicago, which means Father Michael Pfleger is on.
The outspoken Catholic priest regularly takes to the streets (and his Facebook page) to denounce violence, guns, the media, and "haters." After the surge in July's holiday weekend violence, Pfleger was among the first to the microphones.
"With these kind of numbers in Chicago," Pfleger told the city's ABC affiliate, "from the White House on down to the city there should be a response." In a South Side rally with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Pfleger said that "the violence we're facing right now in America, particularly in Chicago, this is our Katrina."
When it comes to politics, Pfleger never hesitates to offer his opinions. He frequently appears at political press conferences to support various pieces of gun control legislation, hikes in the minimum wage, and even to endorse candidates.
And he is unapologetic. When I spoke to Pfleger in February 2012 after an event at DePaul University, he complained that the Church is not as politically active as it once was. "When you look at the 60s, the Church was intrinsically involved in the Civil Rights movement. Then I watched Her come out of that and watched Her pull-back into this conservative, traditional, almost Tea Party mentality where we decide that the only issue of the Church is abortion." Pfleger said the Church ultimately "has to be more involved in social issues -- if it's church!"
But that might not be what his Church has in mind. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI initiated a doctrinal review of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The LCWR is an association of nuns in the United States that, like Pfleger, frequently involves itself in political debates of the day.
The Vatican was singling out these community-organizing nuns because their "public witness events" are actually full-fledged political demonstrations "promoting social, economic, and earth justice." Noticeably absent from the LCWR's list of grievances is perhaps the most significant issue of justice for Catholics: abortion. When the review finished in 2012, Rome found "serious doctrinal problems" and mandated reform.
The nuns balked and hoped it would all go away with the election of a new pope. But in April 2013, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had "reaffirmed the findings of the Assessment and the program of reform."
The message is clear: The days of the activist cleric are over. There was once a time when churchmen served in Congress and the late archbishop of Chicago Joseph Cardinal Bernardin used the bishops' conference as a political lobby.
But the end of the "Bernardin era" has arrived, papal biographer George Weigel declared in the February 2011 issue of First Things. This should mean that the Church's "habit of having a comment on virtually every contested issue in American public life" is out of fashion.
While Pope Francis wants Pfleger and his ilk to get back to spiritual ministry, the rogue priest has shown no signs of softening his tongue. In May 2007, Pfleger notoriously encouraged an anti-gun crowd to "snuff" out a local gun seller. Pfleger later claimed he didn't mean it, but the damage had already been done. Then in May 2008, as election-watchers will remember, Pfleger delivered a sermon from Jeremiah Wright's pulpit that mocked Hillary Clinton. The cardinal sent Pfleger on a 2-week retreat for that dust up.
In an April 2010 homily, Pfleger professed his support for women's ordination. Some days later, an "apology" appeared on the Archdiocese's website in which Pfleger reaffirmed his "personal opinion" that "women ought to be able to be ordained, as well as priests ought to be able to get married."
Father Pfleger has been politicking for over thirty years, and for what? His Auburn-Gresham neighborhood is still one of the most dangerous in Chicago. The renegade priest's partisan social gospel doesn't seem to be working.
Chicago's black Catholics deserve better. The South Side would be well served if the city's next archbishop replaces Pfleger and his antics with a priest who is seriously committed to the spiritual needs of his flock. Pope Francis sure knows a thing or two about that.