Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. / Credit: Peytonlow at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
CNA Staff, Nov 12, 2023 / 16:25 pm (CNA).
Just hours after Pope Francis removed Bishop Joseph Strickland as the head of the Diocese of Tyler, the Texas prelate went public to share his side of the story — filling in some blanks in the gripping saga that has put the now-former ordinary of the small northeastern Texas diocese into the global spotlight, but also leaving other critical questions unanswered.
Strickland revealed, in an exclusive Nov. 11 interview with LifeSiteNews, conducted shortly after the Vatican announced Pope Francis had relieved him from the “pastoral governance” of Tyler, why he thinks he was removed from office.
“I really can’t look to any reason except I’ve threatened some of the powers that be with the truth of the Gospel,” said Strickland, a controversial prelate who regularly speaks out against what he sees as attacks on the teachings of the Catholic Church to his sizable social media following.
During the interview, Strickland also underscored that Pope Francis has the authority to remove him from diocesan governance, and frequently encouraged those upset or confused by the development to pray for the pope and not to leave the Church.
But the 30-minute media appearance did not answer several key unknowns in the Strickland saga, such as what the Vatican’s stated reasons — if any were given — were for the dramatic step, and also, concretely, what comes next for the now diocese-less bishop. Here’s what Strickland had to say, and what remains unanswered.
Why was he removed?
Strickland shared that he had been asked to resign on Nov. 9, but that he “couldn’t, of my will, abandon the flock that I’d been given.”
That version of events checks out with a Nov. 11 statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who as head of the Archdiocese Galveston-Houston is the metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province that includes the Diocese of Tyler.
In his statement, DiNardo said that following a June apostolic visitation by two retired American bishops at the behest of the Vatican that included “an exhaustive inquiry into all aspects of the governance and leadership” of Tyler under Strickland, a recommendation was made to Pope Francis that “the continuation in office of Bishop Strickland was not feasible.”
After months of deliberation, the Texas bishop was presented with a request to resign, and “the Holy Father removed Bishop Strickland from the Office of Bishop of Tyler” when the prelate declined the request, Cardinal DiNardo wrote.
The findings of the apostolic visitation have not been published, nor has the Vatican disclosed why Strickland was removed from office.
When asked what was behind Pope Francis’ decision, Strickland said, “The only answer I have to that is because forces in the Church right now don’t want the truth of the Gospel.” He added, “They want it changed. They want it ignored.”
Strickland did not accuse Pope Francis of being part of this push to undermine Church teaching, but he did say that “many forces are working at him and influencing him to make these kinds of decisions.” For those “forces,” the bishop said, “I’m a problem,” and so they pushed for the “removal of a bishop for standing with the Gospel.”
Strickland didn’t get specific about what “standing with the Gospel” entails, but he was likely alluding to his outspokenness and provocative statements on social media platforms and public speaking events.
For instance, Strickland tweeted on May 12 that he rejected what he called Pope Francis’ “program of undermining the Deposit of Faith” — a provocation, according to media reports, Vatican figures said “crossed the line,” prompting the apostolic visitation.
He has also repeatedly criticized the pope for a “dangerous” lack of clarity in his statements, especially related to sexuality, and has been a vocal critic of Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality.
“Regrettably, it may be that some will label as schismatics those who disagree with the changes being proposed,” Strickland wrote in a public letter in August. “Instead, those who would propose changes to that which cannot be changed seek to commandeer Christ’s Church, and they are indeed the true schismatics.”
Did diocesan governance concerns factor in?
But according to multiple media reports on both the June apostolic visitation and ensuing discussions within the Vatican’s Dicastery of Bishops, Church officials were also seriously concerned about major issues with Strickland’s governance of the Tyler diocese. These concerns reportedly centered on concerns over large-scale diocesan staff turnover, hiring a controversial former religious sister as a high school employee, and support of a controversial planned Catholic community.
Strickland seemed to address these concerns obliquely in his LSN interview.
“No place is perfect, no family is perfect,” he said. “But the diocese is in good shape.”
The bishop cited the Diocese of Tyler’s high number of seminarians — 21 for a diocese with under 120,000 Catholics — and also noted that the diocese is in a position of financial strength due to “tremendous generosity from the people.”
“I’m so proud of the priests and the diocese,” said Strickland, adding that given what he sees as the success of the diocese under his leadership, he couldn’t identify any other reason for his removal other than the threat he poses to those trying to change Church teaching.
Was Bishop Strickland told why he was removed?
Earlier that day, however, Strickland seemed to indicate that there may have been more concrete reasons given for the action taken against him.
“I stand by all the things that were listed as complaints against me,” he told LSN in a brief article that was published before his 30-minute interview. “I know I didn’t implement Traditiones Custodes” — the pope’s 2021 restriction of the Traditional Latin Mass — “because I can’t starve out part of my flock.”
Taken together, the bishop’s answers make it unclear not only why, exactly, Pope Francis ultimately decided to remove him, but also whether Strickland himself was informed of the rationale for the decision.
What will he do now?
Bishop Strickland acknowledged that he will need to “honestly unpack” what it means to no longer be the bishop of Tyler, and to “sort of regroup” in terms of what his role as a “successor of the Apostles without a local diocese to care for” will look like going forward.
“I don’t have the answers right now,” Strickland said when asked what the future holds for him. “Lots of questions, lots of empty calendars that will be, I’m sure, filled in different ways.”
One possibility is an increase in engagement well beyond Texas — something the bishop was already doing well before he was removed from the leadership of Tyler, which helped earn him the title “America’s bishop” among his devotees.
For instance, Bishop Strickland has over 162,000 followers on the social media platform X, (formerly known as Twitter) — a figure 40,000 people higher than the total number of Catholics in his former diocese. He removed any reference to the Diocese of Tyler on the account on Nov. 11 and could maintain access to it despite being without a diocese.
Bishop Strickland also accepted invitations to many speaking engagements outside of the Diocese of Tyler For instance, he traveled to California this past summer to participate in a rally responding to the Los Angeles Dodgers honoring an anti-Catholic drag organization. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles had condemned the Dodgers’ actions, but also underscored that the event Strickland participated in did not have archdiocesan “backing or approval.”
It is also unclear where the former bishop of Tyler will live, and how he will receive financial support.
Will he be at the USCCB meeting?
One question that did not come up during his LSN interview, but is on the mind of at least some Church-watchers: Will Strickland, now without a diocese, attend the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops fall meeting, which starts on Nov. 14?
While Bishop Strickland has been known to make noteworthy public interventions from the floor of previous USCCB assemblies, his presence at a meeting only days after his removal from office would be a dominant storyline — and potentially a major distraction.
A lot is uncertain about Bishop Strickland’s future. But, at least based on his comments to LSN, prayer will be a big part of it.
“I encourage myself and others to go more deeply than ever into prayer, to pray for Pope Francis, to pray for the Church, and to pray for our world.”