Pope Francis on Saturday ordered the removal of the bishop of Tyler, Texas, a conservative prelate active on social media who has been a fierce critic of the pontiff and who now symbolizes polarization within the American Catholic hierarchy.
A one-line statement from the Vatican said Francis “relieved” Bishop Joseph Strickland of pastoral governance of Tyler and appointed the bishop of Austin as temporary administrator.
Strickland, 65, has become one of Francis’ leading critics, accusing him in a tweet earlier this year of “undermining the deposit of faith.” He was particularly critical of Francis’ recent meeting on the future of the Catholic Churchincluding ways to improve .
Earlier this year, the Vatican sent investigators to investigate his governance of the diocese, amid reports that priests and laity in Tyler had complained and that he was making unorthodox statements.
The Vatican never released the findings and Strickland had insisted he would not resign voluntarily, saying in media interviews that he was given a mandate as bishop in 2012 by the late Pope Benedict XVI and that he could not abdicate this responsibility.
The conservative website LifeSiteNews, which said it interviewed Strickland on Saturday, quoted him as saying that one of the reasons given for his ouster was his refusal to implement Francis’ 2021 restrictions on the celebration of the ancient Latin Mass. .
Francis’ crackdown on the ancient liturgy has become a rallying cry for traditionalist Catholics opposed to the. Strickland told LifeSite he refused to enforce the restrictions “because I can’t starve part of my herd.”
He said he stands by his decision, will do it again and “I feel very at peace in the Lord and in the truth that he died for.”
His dismissal sparked an immediate outcry among some conservatives and traditionalists who had touted Strickland as a leading Catholic figure to counter Francis’ progressive reforms. Michael J. Matt, editor of the traditionalist newspaper The Remnant, wrote that with this dismissal, Francis was “actively trying to bury loyalty to the Church of Jesus Christ.”
“It’s all out war,” Matt wrote on social media. “Francis represents a clear and present danger, not only to Catholics around the world, but also to the entire world itself.”
The two Vatican investigators sent to investigate Strickland — Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, New Jersey, and the retired bishop of Tucson, Arizona, Bishop Emeritus Gerald Kicanas — “conducted an exhaustive investigation into all aspects of governance and direction of the diocese.” said Texas Church leader Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
After their investigation, a recommendation was made to Francis that “retaining Bishop Strickland in power was not feasible,” DiNardo said in a statement Saturday.
The Vatican asked Strickland to resign on Thursday, but he refused, prompting Francis to remove him from office two days later, according to DiNardo’s statement.
It is rare for the pope to remove a bishop from office. Bishops are required to offer to resign when they reach 75 years of age. When the Vatican discovers governance or other problems that force a bishop to leave office before then, the Vatican usually seeks to pressure him into offering to resign for the good of his diocese and the church.
This was the case when another American bishop was expelled earlier this year following a Vatican investigation. Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, resigned voluntarily, although under pressure, following allegations that he mishandled sexual abuse allegations, and his priests complained about his leadership and behavior.
But regarding Strickland, the Vatican statement made clear that he had not offered to resign and that Francis had instead “relieved” him of his job.
Francis did not hide his concerns regarding thedivided between progressives and conservatives who have long found support from the doctrinaire papacies of Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI, particularly on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
In comments to Portuguese Jesuits in August, Francis lambasted the “backwardness” of these conservative bishops, saying they had replaced faith with ideology and that a correct understanding of Catholic doctrine allowed for change over time. time.
Strickland had been associated with the most extremist of these bishops, including the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a staunch critic of Francis who in 2018 called for the pope’s resignation.
Strickland has supported Vigano’s conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, and on Saturday, Vigano wrote that Strickland’s ouster showed a “cowardly form of authoritarianism” on Francis’ part. “This case will reveal who stands with the true Church of Christ and who chooses to stand with its avowed enemies,” Vigano wrote on X.
More recently, Strickland criticized Francis’ months-long closed-door debate over the need to make the Church more welcoming and responsive to the needs of today’s Catholics. The meeting discussed a multitude of previously taboo issues,roles and but in the end, its final document does not deviate from established doctrine.
Before the meeting, Strickland said it was a “travesty” that such things were even on the table for discussion.
“Unfortunately, some may characterize those who disagree with the proposed changes as schismatics,” Strickland wrote in a public letter in August. “Instead, those who propose changes to what cannot be changed seek to commandeer the Church of Christ, and these are indeed the true schismatics.”
In a statement Saturday, the Diocese of Tyler announced Strickland’s removal but said the church’s work would continue in Tyler.
“Our mission is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, foster authentic Christian community, and meet the needs of all with compassion and love,” it says.
In a social media post sent hours before the Vatican’s noon announcement, Strickland wrote a prayer about Christ being “the way, the truth and the life, yesterday, today and forever.” He had changed the nickname of his previous bishop to BishStrickland.
Tyler’s new temporary administrator, Bishop Austin Joe Vásquez, said he would visit the diocese in the coming weeks to be available to priests, staff and lay faithful “to assess their needs.” .
He asked for prayers for his work and for the people of Tyler “during this time of transition.”