ROME – Pope Francis on Saturday excommunicated the bishop of Tyler, Texas, a conservative bishop active on social media who has been a vocal critic of the pope and has symbolized divisions among US Catholic officials.
A one-line statement from the Vatican said Francis had “released” Bishop Joseph Strickland from Tyler’s pastoral care and appointed the Austin bishop as interim administrator.
Strickland, 65, has emerged as a leading critic of Francis, accusing him in a tweet earlier this year of “underestimating the deposit of faith.” He strongly criticized Francis’ recent meeting on the future of the Catholic Church where hot topics were discussed, including ways to better accept LGBTQ+ Catholics.
Earlier this year, the Vatican sent investigators to look into his administration of the diocese, amid reports that he was making untenable claims.
The Vatican has not released the findings and Strickland has insisted he will not resign voluntarily, saying in media interviews that he was given the mandate by the late Pope Benedict XVI and could not withdraw from the job. He also lamented that he had not been told exactly what the papal investigators actually were.
His firing sparked an immediate outcry among some conservatives and traditionalists who had held up Strickland as a leading Catholic figure against Francis’ ongoing reforms. Michael J. Matt, editor of the conservative newspaper Remnant, wrote that with the firing, Francis was “actively trying to hide his allegiance to the Church of Jesus Christ.”
“This is a total war,” wrote Matt on X, formerly of Twitter. “Francis is a clear and present danger not only to Catholics around the world but also to the entire country itself.”
The two Vatican investigators – Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, NJ, and the retired bishop of Tucson, Ariz., Bishop Emeritus Gerald Kicanas – “conducted a thorough investigation into all aspects of governance and leadership of the diocese,” the head of the diocese said. church in Texas, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
After their investigation, it was recommended to Francis that “it is not possible to continue in the position of Bishop Strickland,” DiNardo said in a statement on Saturday.
The Vatican asked Strickland to resign on Nov. 9, but he refused, prompting Francis to fire him two days later, DiNardo’s statement said.
It is not uncommon for a pope to remove a bishop by force. Bishops are expected to ask to resign when they reach the age of 75. When the Vatican uncovers governance issues or other problems that require a bishop to resign sooner, the Vatican often seeks to pressure him to resign for the benefit of his diocese and the church. .
That was the case when another American bishop was fired earlier this year after a Vatican investigation. Knoxville, Tenn. Bishop Richard Stika resigned voluntarily, albeit under pressure, following allegations of misconduct and allegations of sexual abuse, and his pastors complained about his leadership and behavior.
But for Strickland, the Vatican statement made it clear that he had no intention of resigning, and that Francis had instead “released” him from his post.
Francis has not been shy about his concerns about conservatives in the US Catholic hierarchy, which has been divided between progressives and conservatives who have found support in the papal teachings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, especially on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
Commenting on the Portuguese Jesuits in August, Francis criticized the “backsliding” of these bishops, saying that they replaced the faith with their own ideas and that a good understanding of Catholic teaching allows for change over time.
More recently, Strickland has criticized Francis’ argument that he is closing the door on the moon to make the church more welcoming and responsive to the needs of Catholics today. The meeting discussed a number of previously taboo issues, including women in administrative roles and the acceptance of LGBTQ+ Catholics, but in the end, its final text did not deviate from established doctrine.
Before the meeting, Strickland said it was a “bad move” that such things were on the table for discussion.
“Sadly, it is likely that some will label people who disagree with the proposed changes as schismatics,” Strickland wrote in a public letter in August. “Instead, those who would propose changes to what cannot be changed seek to dominate the Church of Christ, and indeed they are the frame of truth.”
In a statement Saturday, the Diocese of Tyler announced Strickland’s removal but said the work of the church will continue in Tyler.
“Our mission is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, promote a true Christian community, and serve the needs of all people with compassion and love,” said the newspaper. “We strive to deepen our faith, promote the common good, and create a welcoming environment for all people to meet a loving God—Father, Son, and Spirit.”
In a social media post posted hours before the Vatican’s noon announcement, Strickland wrote a prayer that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life, yesterday, today, and forever.” He changed his handle from his former @bishopoftyler to @BishStrickland.
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