Probably everyone reading this knows by now that Pope Francis has been very tough on Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, removing him from his see without due canonical process. The main reason, it seems, is that Strickland has outspokenly criticized the constant stream of doctrinal and disciplinary novelties that have marked the present pontificate. And if you read on, you’ll see here that this intolerant crackdown is now extending even to the bishop’s supporters.
Is there a touch of paranoia here? The incident described below I think reveals the depth of the enmity – and indeed, fear – that currently reigns inside the Vatican in regard to everything this faithful American bishop stands for. If he is seen as the tip of a dreaded conservative clerical iceberg that looms larger every year, that is quite understandable.
How so? Well, a new major study of US priests carried out at Catholic University of America shows just how marked this trend is. Only about 20% of older priests – those ordained from the 1950s up till 1984 (the year of ordination for the last crop of men who had entered seminary before John Paul II’s pontificate) – describe themselves as theologically “conservative/orthodox.” A clear majority of the rest describe themselves as theologically “progressive” and a smaller percentage as “moderate.” Among the first cohort of ‘John Paul’ priests, ordained between 1985 and 1999, the percentage who identify as “conservative/orthodox” rises from around 32% to almost 50% over the three five-year intervals; and among those ordained in the years since 2000, that percentage has continued to rise dramatically. Indeed, among the youngest of all – those priests ordained since 2020 – fully 85% describe themselves as “conservative/orthodox,” including an all-time record high of 25% who identify as “very conservative/orthodox.” As for the rest, 14% self-identify as theologically “moderate,” and a mere 1% as “progressive.” And those identifying as “very progressive” have a plunged from a record high of 20% among those ordained in the first heady years after Vatican II (1965-1969) to virtual extinction. Not one respondent ordained since 2020 described himself thus. Unsurprisingly, the survey showed a similarly dramatic decline in political liberalism among more recently ordained priests, although in this group there are almost as many self-identified political “moderates” as “conservatives.”
While this survey was limited to priests ordained in the USA, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence the picture is broadly similar in many – perhaps most – other countries, especially in Africa and Asia, the continents where the number of Catholics appears to be growing most rapidly. And this is the context in which we need to see draconian measures such as Pope Francis’ summary dismissal of Bishop Strickland, and, for similar reasons, his stripping Cardinal Raymond Burke of his residence and salary. Increasing severity against one’s opponents suggests they are seen as increasingly threatening. Indeed, such heavy-handed pontifical crackdowns, and other similar ones in recent years, have a certain air of desperation about them. They come at a time when the most liberal pope in history and his trusted advisers find themselves staring down the barrel of a lethally empty gun. They’re looking at a future – and indeed, present – scenario in which no more ‘progressive’ young men enter seminaries to ensure the survival of the ‘Francis revolution’ at grass-roots level.
A recent report displays further evidence of this attempt to bludgeon the opposition into submission. It’s yet another Orwellian example of today’s papal Ministry of Truth in action. Today’s “synodal” Church purports to “accompany” everyone as they “journey together” along a path marked by “listening,” “openness” and “dialogue.” But in the case of wayfarers who happen to be so “rigid” and “backwardist” as to defend someone like Bishop Strickland – well, you can see here the kind of “merciful” and “all-inclusive welcome” they receive.
We’re constantly exhorted to become a Church that “excludes no one”; but on Vatican orders, as you can see in the link above, Italian police recently excluded this small group of Slovak pilgrims from entry into St Peter’s Square. Their offence was to bear a pro-Strickland banner which they wanted to unfurl during Pope Francis’ weekly Angelus appearance, so he would see it from his balcony. Not only were these devout folks denied access to the Square; they were then subjected to police brutality and the theft of their banner that had cost over $500, being forcibly dragged off to detention and interrogation lasting 3-4 hours, during which their cameras and recording equipment were professionally and irremediably wiped clean.
Now, why would the polizia want to do that? They had to admit that these would-be pilgrims broke no law; so they were never arrested or charged with any offence. But these forces of law and order wanted to destroy all evidence of their intervention. (Remember, that’s how the Ministry of Truth operated: everything unwanted by The Party went straight down the memory hole; and from that moment on . . . it had never at any stage existed!) Fortunately, the Slovak faithful outsmarted the Roman thought police and captured on a hidden microphone and camera the audio and footage that you can see at the above link.
Let’s pray that a good side-effect of all these autocratic suppressions of due process and justice will be to awaken more and more cardinals to the need to elect a very different kind of pope at the next conclave. Indeed, Advent is the time par excellence for spiritual awakening.