A Twin Cities priest who had preached that COVID-19 was a man-made scam has been told by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to refrain from talking about such matters from the pulpit.

The Rev. Robert Altier had delivered a 20-minute sermon Sept. 6, claiming COVID-19 was concocted in laboratories in the United States and China and that it was a "lie" that tens of thousands of people are dying from it. A YouTube version of the sermon has been viewed more than 412,000 times.

At the time, the archdiocese said Altier's sermon was "under review." Earlier this week, Archbishop Bernard Hebda announced that he had spoken with Altier and told him such issues were not appropriate for a sermon.

"The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is blessed with many fine priests," wrote Hebda in a letter posted on the archdiocese website. "None of our priests or bishops, however, is an expert in public health, infectious disease, epidemiology or immunology. It would be a mistake to attribute any expertise in these areas to us simply on the basis of our ordination."

Hebda said he had asked the Minnesota Department of Health to respond to Altier's many assertions about the pandemic. The department found no credence to Altier's litany of claims, many reflecting pandemic conspiracy theories. The local chapter of the Catholic Medical Association also "essentially shared the department's critique," Hebda said.

Altier had argued that the virus was made in a lab, that a 2020 global pandemic preparation exercise revealed previous knowledge of the virus, that masks caused bacterial infections and that death figures were grossly inflated.

The state health department also rejected Altier's assertion to his congregation that just 9,200 people had died from the virus. The death toll nationwide has now reached more than 200,000.

Even so, Altier "remains firm in his opinions on the pandemic situation," said Hebda, who has taken no further action against the priest.

The sermon, entitled "The Coronavirus: the Truth Revealed," has been pulled from the website of Altier's church, the Church of St. Raphael in Crystal.

But the congregation of St. Raphel has not yet been notified of Hebda's action or of the health department's detailed rebuke to Altier's claims. The church website contains no information on the issues.

The Rev. Michael Rudolph, pastor at St. Raphael's, said he plans to send an e-mail to his congregation, with Hebda's letter and health department documentation.

Altier is a priest well-known among conservative Catholics, and he was an assistant pastor at the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul before serving at the Church of St. Raphael.

His controversial sermon came shortly after a Wisconsin priest, the Rev. James Altman, made a viral video arguing that Catholic Democrats were doomed to hell — also reflecting today's divide in the Catholic Church.

Hebda said he told Altier that the homily, or sermon, "should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text."

"The use of a homily to present medical or scientific speculation does not serve that noble purpose and could be seen as an abuse of the cleric's position of authority to address an issue unrelated to the liturgical celebration," Hebda said.

Because the information was delivered "in the context of the liturgy," no one present "would have been in a position to contradict Fr. Altier or to offer alternative points of reference," he said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511