On December 12, 2020, an open letter signed by a handful of bishops asserted that the Church’s moral justification (based on the principle of “remote material cooperation”) for licitly receiving a Covid-19 vaccination produced or tested using fetal cells is inadequate. The letter stated:

Now more than ever, Catholics categorically cannot encourage and promote the sin of abortion, even in the slightest, by accepting these vaccines. Therefore, as Successors of the Apostles and Shepherds responsible for the eternal salvation of souls, we consider it impossible to be silent and maintain an ambiguous attitude regarding our duty to resist with “maximum of determination.”

It was not surprising that the only American who signed this letter was Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. Bishop Strickland has become increasingly vocal in the last two years in his opposition to Pope Francis, his vocal support for Donald Trump, and his troubling open embrace of conspiracy theories. All the while, his public profile has increased. He’s become a popular figure among Catholics critical of Pope Francis, appearing as a speaker at the 2019 Napa Conference and a podcaster on LifeSiteNews. He is also an author and featured guest with Catholic Answers. As his star has risen among Catholics, however, his public views have become increasingly troubling.

I have long lamented that a casualty of the disastrous breakdown in Catholic unity in recent years is the rejection of both science and Catholic moral principles by many Catholics who oppose Pope Francis and the Magisterium. One odd (but not surprising) result of the rebellion against scientific and religious authority has been a tragic decline in reasoned thinking and common sense, to the point of endangering lives.

One example of this unmooring from reality is a so-called “Christmas Day Uprising,” which urges Catholics to defy safety protocols and attend Mass on Christmas day, with their promotional material saying, “We will worship the Savior of the World on His birth [sic] by disobeying civil and Church authorities who would contest our freedom to do so. Our simple protest mirrors the simplicity of our Savior.” It is unclear whether this is as organized as this April’s “We are an Easter People” initiative, but it was promoted on social media last week by a number of right-wing public figures, including EWTN host Raymond Arroyo.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising to see this kind of thing from people whose careers are built on sensationalism and self-promotion. But it’s another thing to see it from a sitting diocesan bishop. Earlier today, Joseph Strickland, the bishop of Tyler, Texas, retweeted a video by Abby Johnson, in which the political activist stated, “I’m not taking the Covid vaccine, regardless of how it was made, regardless of whether it was it was born and tested off the backs of aborted babies. I’m not taking it period, so let me just say that.” He wrote:

Later in the video, Johnson says, “I am so sick of the USCCB cowering to Big Pharma, cowering to the liberal left, and allowing us and allowing our children to be guinea pigs, and to allow our children to be injected with these vaccines that have dead children in them. I’m sick of it.” Remember, Strickland described Johnson’s words as “bold truth”—but the science shows (and Catholic bioethicists and moral theologians concur) that none of the vaccines being developed “have dead children in them.” This applies to all of the vaccines—even those that were not produced or tested by entirely ethical means.

Even besides this distortion of the truth, Strickland (and Johnson) is standing in defiance of long-established principles of Catholic moral doctrine, not to mention statements released by the Vatican and the US bishops. Fr Matthew Schneider provided a thorough analysis and discussion of the USCCB document today on his blog today. He quotes this key line from the bishops’ document:

Receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community. In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.

Fr. Schneider also links to a 2017 document from the Pontifical Academy for Life, which states:

Especially in consideration of the fact that the cell lines currently used are very distant from the original abortions and no longer imply that bond of moral cooperation indispensable for an ethically negative evaluation of their use.

On the other hand, the moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others is no less urgent, especially the safety more vulnerable subjects such as pregnant women and those affected by immunodeficiency who cannot be vaccinated against these diseases.

This is not the first time Bishop Strickland has opposed public safety recommendations and touted conspiracy theories during this pandemic. In fact, his recent track record of troubling public statements and endorsements has set him apart from every other active diocesan bishop in the United States. He is truly an outlier. And he is showing clear signs of a paranoid and conspiracy-driven ideology that should cause his brother bishops (not to mention the papal nuncio) worry about his wellness and his suitability to lead a diocese. As Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop Bill Wack said of his brother bishops during November’s USCCB meeting, “We must pray for a brother, we must correct a brother, we must help our brothers.”

Remember, he was a signatory of the manifesto coordinated by the disgraced Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that claimed the public health response to the pandemic were really part of a conspiracy designed to cause “centuries of Christian civilization to be erased under the pretext of a virus.” This document also asserted:

We have reason to believe, on the basis of official data on the incidence of the epidemic as related to the number of deaths, that there are powers interested in creating panic among the world’s population with the sole aim of permanently imposing unacceptable forms of restriction on freedoms, of controlling people and of tracking their movements. The imposition of these illiberal measures is a disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.

Bishop Strickland is listed as a speaker at a virtual conference hosted by the National Vaccine Information Center, an organization that has been described by veteran science reporter Michael Specter as “the most powerful anti-vaccine organization in America.” Other speakers at this conference include Dr. Andrew Kaufman, a Syracuse-based psychiatrist who claims in his YouTube videos that viruses do not cause diseases; Andrew Wakefield, the long-discredited British researcher who popularized the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism; and Denis Rancourt, a former Ottawa professor who is well known for his promotion of pseudoscientific views.

Fr. Schneider wrote a blog post in October debunking many of the conspiracies heralded by the organizers and speakers of the conference. Fr. Schneider’s focus in that post was on Fr. Michael Copenhagen (the only other Catholic clergyman to address the conference), whose views against vaccines are more public and more explicit than Bishop Strickland’s. Still, at this point it has become hard to ignore the question of whether Strickland’s anti-vaccination views are motivated by more than his flawed moral reasoning.

In recent months, Bishop Strickland hasn’t merely been consorting with anti-vaxxers and pandemic deniers, either. He has also been outspoken in his denial of the election results. He has voiced his disappointment that the US bishops acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, tweeting, “It remains troubling that the USCCB treats the election as certified when it is not & it continues to be a source of division.” He also led a prayer at Saturday’s “Jericho March,” a religious rally aimed at overturning the results of the election. Other speakers included Alex Jones and Archbishop Viganò.

In many cases, Pope Francis’s decision to remain silent over an outspoken critic or rogue bishop has been justified. In the case of Bishop Strickland, however, decisive action is, arguably, long overdue. First of all, as a diocesan bishop, he has the authority to impose obligations on the faithful. Unlike retired or sidelined dissenting bishops like Cardinal Raymond Burke, there are everyday Catholics under his authority. There is a real danger that he may put their physical and spiritual health at risk. Secondly, his influence is growing. Ignoring him appears to only have emboldened him. Popular Catholic apostolates like Catholic Answers and associations have given him global platforms. His invitation to address the Napa Conference suggests that he has backers among wealthy and influential Catholics.

There is no question that the damage Bishop Joseph Strickland is doing to the body of the Church is real. He holds extremely troubling views and is in great need of prayer. But it is also time for an intervention, for the sake of the Catholics of East Texas and the universal Church. He must be publicly censured by his brother bishops, and if that is ineffective, it may be time for the Vatican to intervene.

Update

On Christmas Eve, Bishop Strickland posted a tweet that some have interpreted as a concession to the teaching of the CDF.

Unfortunately, he does not make clear what he means by the word “may.”  This tweet can be interpreted to say either, “I realize others might discern a need for immunization,” or “I realize others are permitted to discern a need for immunization.” Therefore, it seems that he is using what papal critics call “weaponized ambiguity” in order to deflect some of the criticism. We must continue to pray that Bishop Strickland clearly and publicly repents of his dissenting position.


Image: Bishop Joseph Strickland. Screenshot, CNS Video.

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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

A Dangerous Bishop
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