Obama, Cardinal George, and the Pfleger Situation
A plus side to covering the story late - time yields perspective and has allowed the dust to settle.
But first, a quick recap: Fr. Pfleger is a well-known activist priest, the pastor of St. Sabina's parish (or "faith community", as it calls itself) in Chicago since 1981. He recently achieved notoriety by criticizing Hillary Clinton at Barack Obama's former church (Rev. Jeremiah Wright):
Pfleger mimicked Clinton while delivering a guest sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ two Sundays ago. During the sermon, Pfleger, who is white, mocked Clinton for getting choked up on camera before the New Hampshire primary in January.
“When Hillary was crying … I really don’t believe it was put on. I really believe that she just always thought ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife. I’m white. And this is mine’,” he said, shouting at times. “Then out of nowhere came, ‘Hey I’m Barack Obama’. And she said, ‘Oh damn! Where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!’”
After that, he simulated Clinton crying and said: “She wasn’t the only one crying. There was a whole lot of white people crying … I’m sorry. I don’t wanna get you in any more trouble. The live streaming just went out again.” (FOX)
It is clear, however, that he inadvertently said "America" when he meant to say "Racism" (just watch the whole video). Nonetheless, he's also on record defending Jeremiah Wright, etc.:
I don't want to get too far off topic (in Fr. Pfleger's defense, read his letter of apology).
These two videos I think reveal enough about this priest's priorities and imbalances to inform what actually interests me: a) how Cardinal George has handled the situation, b) how Obama has reacted, and c) how various commentators are reacting.
A: Cardinal George has issued a statement today on the Archdiocese of Chicago website:
To put recent events in some perspective, I have asked Father Michael Pfleger, Pastor of St. Sabina’s Parish, to step back from his obligations there and take leave for a couple of weeks from his pastoral duties, effective today. Fr. Pfleger does not believe this to be the right step at this time. While respecting his disagreement, I have nevertheless asked him to use this opportunity to reflect on his recent statements and actions in the light of the Church’s regulations for all Catholic priests. I hope that this period will also be a time away from the public spotlight and for rest and attention to family concerns.
I hope also that the life of St. Sabina’s parish may continue in uninterrupted fashion. Fr. William Vanecko, Pastor of St. Kilian’s parish, will be temporary administrator of St. Sabina’s and will assure the full complement of ministerial services during this period. I ask the members of St. Sabina’s parish to cooperate with him and to keep him and Fr. Pfleger in their prayers. They are in mine.
While obviously diplomatic, I don't think you can find much fault with the statement. It serves the immediate purpose of neutralizing (or attempting to neutralize) Fr. Pfleger.
Rocco tracks some of the back story that led up to this statement being issued:
After apologizing for the offense caused by his Trinity sermon (fullvideo) during Sunday's Mass at the parish, Pfleger launched into another sermon (audio) saying that if YouTube existed at the time of the crucifixion, it would've ignored the resurrection.
CNS also publishes more words from Cardinal George on the matter. The Cardinal is being watched especially closely in how he handles this matter because he is currently the President of the USCCB. (Incidentally, last Thursday the Cardinal ordained two priests, with beautiful pictures posted at NLM.)
Jill Stanek notes that Fr. Fleger and Cardinal George had a showdown in 2002, "when the Archbishop blinked first." Even in 2002, Fr. Fleger was described by the Chicago Sun-Times as a priest who "has a long habit of rebellion."
If you want an example of the damage caused when problem priests are allowed to persist, you've got a classic case right here it seems. All the articles and links for that are available here.
.... Obama's relationship with Pfleger -- who is the priest at a different, Catholic, church -- spans decades.
In September, the Obama campaign brought Pfleger to Iowa to host one of several interfaith forums for the campaign. Pfleger has given money to Obama's campaigns and Obama as a state legislator directed at least $225,000 towards social programs at St. Sabina's, according to the Chicago Tribune. Pfleger appears to have been scrubbed from the Obama campaign's page that features the testimony of faith leaders, but you can see the cached version HERE.
Jill Stanek has also been watching the Obama-Pfleger connection closely for some time. After Obama released this statement....
As I have traveled this country, I've been impressed not by what divides us, but by all that unites us. That is why I am deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger's divisive, backward-thinking rhetoric, which doesn't reflect the country I see or the desire of people across America to come together in common cause.
.... Jill responds: "That's just as impossible as Obama claiming not to know Wright's racist, anti-American beliefs after listening to Wright from the pew for 20 years. But here's more corroboration, from the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002." She makes a strong case, and reports further here & here.
C: On the local level, some members of St. Sabina are (not surprisingly) protesting the removal of their pastor:
The decision to remove Father Michael Pfleger, the Catholic priest who berated Hillary Clinton from the floor of Barack Obama’s former church, has drawn criticism from members of St. Sabina Church where Pfleger is the pastor.
St. Sabina President Gerald Stewart said members of the church “wholeheartedly disagree” with Cardinal Francis George’s decision and “respectfully request” that Pfleger be reinstated because of the significant impact he has had on the Chicago community.
More (including a video report) from the Chicago Tribune:
Outside St. Sabina on Tuesday night, angry church members and residents of the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood said they took issue with the cardinal's action."
It's unfortunate that one misstep would cause someone not to look at the overall good that Father Pfleger has done," said Lyne Grant, a clinical social worker who said she occasionally attends the church.
Inside the church, parishioners and ministers from across Chicago, including Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the controversial retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, sang and prayed in protest of the forced leave.
A letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times mounts a rhetorically impressive, but substantively lacking defense of Pfleger's record.
The wider reaction to this situation in the media, blogs, etc. is far too much to encapsulate in a post, but let me highlight what I take to be the interesting points:
- There is a clear ideological connection between Fr. Pfleger and Rev. Wright
- It's troubling that Obama has close ties to both, until their record caught up to them
- The state monies that Obama has given to Fr. Pfleger's parish is even more troubling
- Why did Cardinal George allow Fr. Pleger to stay entrenched in St. Sabina's so long?
- Are any priests so blatantly, unabashedly partisan in favor of republican candidates?
I think I'll leave it here, for now.
Something tells me we haven't heard the last from or about Fr. Pfleger.
update: and sure enough, within minutes, Fr. Pfleger gives an interview:
Fr. Pfleger conducted this interview on Monday.
In the wake of the Clinton flap, Cardinal Francis George officially silenced Pfleger, whom he had pressured to resign a month ago from the Catholics for Obama committee.
[Pfleger:] "He and I have had conversations, and I won't go into the conversations; I'll only say that he has asked me to remove myself from Barack's public campaign -- from the group Catholics for Obama -- and that was before all of this," Pfleger told me as we sat alone in a conference room Monday in Sabina's rectory. "He said that, as a Catholic priest, I'm not allowed to publicly support a candidate. I said my understanding was that, as an individual, I can support anyone I want, but that I would never tell parishioners who to vote for. First of all, from my point of view, that insults the congregation. They make their own choice.
.... "Are you in jeopardy of being removed right now?" I asked.
Pfleger blanched and wearily rubbed his forehead.
"Because of the hierarchical nature of the archdiocese, I think you're always serving at the discretion of the cardinal," he said. "Within the last year, we talked about a plan for transition over a number of years, and I think we agree on a plan and seeing the transition for Sabina over the next several years. That's all I want to say about that, but obviously I serve at the discretion of the archbishop."