Another far left clergyman, Father Michael Pfleger, has joined his Southside Chicago friend Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the media spotlight, thanks to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. The national political media first noticed F. Pfleger when he spoke at a raucous welcome home for Rev. Wright, following his recent media firestorm.
Christopher Hitchens uncovered a years old newspaper article in which the candidate named "three spiritual mentors or counselors: Jeremiah Wright, James Meeks, and Father Michael Pfleger. Dave Kopel describes some of the more notable left wing activism of the Catholic priest. The media food chain has found a new colorful, ranting man of the cloth in the orbit of the candidate peddling change and hope.
Every Catholic in Chicago is well acquainted with Father Pfleger. For 25 years he has made local headlines for both his political activities and his clashes with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. From asking parishioners to fill the collection plate with losing lottery tickets in order to highlight how state Lotto officials targeted the economically disadvantaged to encouraging the adoption of children out of the foster system by legally adopting a child himself, Pfleger knows what makes a good story. I've been dreading the kind of showdown he recently had with Bill O'Reilly and the national attention it has brought to his parish. That's because I long feared that the Archdiocese of Chicago was in the process of creating a monster.
No one has mentioned this astounding fact. Father Pfleger has been at St. Sabina's since 1981. The standard length of service for a pastor in Chicago is six years. Exceptions may be made, especially if a priest is nearing retirement or if special conditions are involved. This policy of regular rotation of priests among parishes is meant to avoid precisely what has happened in Pfleger's case: A cult of personality developing around a single priest in what is supposed to be a universal church. Such intense attachments are discouraged because the priests at their center often tend to succumb to the impulse to flexibly interpret their vows of obedience to Church doctrine and the authority of their bishops. . How did this situation develop? Pfleger is a master at manipulating a media that loves to cover his many political antics. When it first came time for Pfleger to be transferred to a new parish, the story hit the Chicago media about a group of black parishioners who held their white pastor in such high esteem they didn't know if they could continue their membership in the Catholic Church after he got transferred. With racial tensions in Chicago high because of the reaction of a great many whites to the election of Harold Washington as mayor, this was a true feel good story. Rather than look like bureaucrats blindly enforcing a rule, the Archdiocese waived policy and allowed Pfleger another term at St. Sabina's.
It is possible that one factor effecting this decision was the acute embarrassment Catholic officials felt over how many of those publicly raising a fuss over Harold Washington as mayor were of ethnic backgrounds known for staunch Catholicism. When six year passed, the policy was waived again. And then again. Each time the decision came up there was noise that St. Sabina's congregation would defect en masse should Pfleger be transferred elsewhere.
In November, 2001, Cardinal George was reported as absolutely refusing to consider allowing Pfleger to remain at St. Sabina's for a fourth term as pastor. Pfleger and his parishioners talked of picketing the Archbishop's residence, located in a prime Chicago residential neighborhood. They even threatened schism if yet another exception was not made. Ministers from various denominations on Chicago's South Side spoke of petitioning the Vatican to intercede. Thus it is that another six year's later, Pfleger is still at St. Sabina's. And Cardinal George has an even bigger headache to deal with now that Pfleger has become a national news story.
I don't see a good end to this story. Pfleger's affinity to Louis Farrakhan is offensive to Catholics nationwide and certainly some of what comes from the pulpit at St. Sabina departs from Church doctrine. But if Cardinal George tries to discipline Pfleger it will certainly be cast as an attack on his black parishioners. I suspect Cardinal George is not at all happy with his predecessors who thought that waiving the rotation policy was a good way to promote harmonious racial relations.