On Monday, August 7, 2023, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, posted a link on X (formerly known as Twitter) to an article entitled “Veritatis Splendor vs. Amoris Laetitia” on the Crisis website. He provided a quote from the article that said, “While Veritatis Splendor is in continuity with Scripture and Tradition, Amoris Laetitia represents a radical breach with both. Catholics must decide which option they prefer.” The bishop, in his own words, then added, “Choose wisely, I choose Veritatis Splendor.”

This post is interesting because back on April 8, 2016, two years before Bishop Strickland emerged on the national stage as an outspoken figure known for the promotion of conspiracy theories and for his open dissent against the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (which he often frames as defending the “deposit of faith”), he posted the following statement on his personal website in support of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia:

Today the Church welcomes a beautiful teaching from our Holy Father Francis on the splendor of Christian marriage and the family.

Entitled Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love’), this letter recalls the essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family which are based on Divine Revelation found in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The document is intended to “gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges.”

The Pope provides encouragement and instruction for those planning to be married, newlyweds and families, offering approaches that can help these individuals and families create “sound and fruitful homes” according to God’s plan. He also laments the threats to authentic love and marriage which are so prevalent in the world around us.

The Holy Father offers advice to those who are struggling and facing challenges, especially those in irregular situations, recognizing the uniqueness of each situation and providing them with guidance on the path to fully realizing the common and constant teaching and care of the Church in their own lives.

Pope Francis also provides important guidance to pastors and parishes on how to support and accompany couples and families throughout their lives.

Amoris Laetitia, which is to be read with and in light of the other magisterial teachings of the Church, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Encyclical Letter Casti Connubii of Pius XI, the Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae of Blessed Paul VI, and the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio of St. John Paul II, strongly proclaims the beauty, dignity and absolute essentiality of the family and life-long marriage between a man and a woman ordered toward sanctification and procreation.

In this Year of Mercy, I encourage the priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese of Tyler, especially our families, to engage in a careful reading and prayerful reflection on this extensive exhortation of Pope Francis so that marriages and families may be strengthen by both the pastoral care of the Church, and by the beauty of the truth which was taught by Christ and is faithfully proclaimed by His Church.

The bishop has made many bizarre and controversial statements on many topics in recent weeks, many of which are worth exploring. His recent statement on Amoris Laetitia, however, is interesting because it seems to indicate a clear shift in the bishop’s views over the years. The 2016 article no longer appears on his website (a placeholder saying “article undergoing update” appears instead), although it can still be found on the Internet Archive (for now, anyway). Although subtle, the deletion of his earlier blog post and his endorsement of the article in Crisis likely points to a deeper story about the bishop falling under the influence of the type of radical Catholic extremists who have sought to bring down Pope Francis since the beginning of his papacy.

The article, by Richard A. Spinello (whose past articles in Crisis indicate a particular contempt for Amoris), rehearses one of the more popular talking points used by critics of Pope Francis’s exhortation on the family — that Amoris Laetitia contradicts Veritatis Splendor in critical points. Here, he goes further, declaring that “the papacy of Pope Francis … has consistently sought to marginalize and undermine the principal moral teachings of this encyclical,” a reference to Veritatis Splendor.

Amoris remains Spinello’s primary target. In this article, he makes sweeping assertions against Amoris Laetitia, such as when he says that it “distorts or rejects the wisdom of saints like Augustine and Aquinas and favors a more relaxed paradigm where virtually every moral rule is subject to exception,” and that the document “privileges sentiment and pragmatic reasoning over moral truth and consistency.”

Spinello’s conclusion, “It’s a stark choice between the clarity of mind and coherence of popes like St. John Paul II or the web of incongruities and discontinuities found in papal documents like Amoris Laetitia,” is a melodramatic rehash of the “serious concerns” of the dubia cardinals and (by now) countless pundits. There is no need to address this article specifically, its arguments have been made and addressed many times.

In a nutshell, the issue is this: Veritatis Splendor criticizes approaches to moral theology that reject objective morality and intrinsic evil. These approaches have many names: proportionalism, situation ethics, utilitarianism, moral relativism, and so on. The critics of Amoris Laetitia incessantly claim that it rejects the concepts of intrinsic evil and objective morality. This idea was the foundation of the dubia of Cardinal Raymond Burke and three other retired cardinals. At times it seems as if the entire conservative Catholic ecosystem has succumbed to a case of mass reading incomprehension. This is because Pope Francis goes to great lengths in Amoris to warn against relativistic interpretations and to safeguard against such false interpretations.

As Brian Killian put it years ago:

While Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor emphasize opposite sides of the same coin, they both affirm the other side of it. Veritatis Splendor, for example, affirms the need to pay attention to the complexities of an individual’s life including any weaknesses that mitigate culpability. And Amoris Laetitia for its part affirms that “it is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality. Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator.”

For more reading about the Amoris Laetitia controversy, you can visit our articles tagged “Amoris Laetitia.” For articles specifically about the compatibility between Veritatis Splendor and Amoris Laetitia, check out Brian Killian’s “The Harmony of Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor,” as well as a few articles by Pedro Gabriel: “2+2=5,” “Does Amoris Laetitia untie the knots in Veritatis Splendor?,” “The undermining of Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia continues,” and “Amoris, Veritatis, and things left unsaid.” For even fuller treatments of this topic, see Pedro Gabriel’s book, The Orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis, the Family, and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy by Stephen Walford — one of the first prominent defenders of Pope Francis’s teachings. (Speaking of Stephen Walford, I just came across a 2018 article I wrote about him, shortly after his book came out. Since those days he’s kept himself busy, even composing and arranging music for the piano that’s been performed by Lang Lang.)

On the road to schism?

Sadly it seems that Bishop Strickland continues to persist in his opposition to the pope and his magisterial teachings. He consistently tweets articles from publications like Crisis and LifeSiteNews that are sliding without shame toward schism, which (as a canon lawyer) the bishop should know is defined as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (CIC 751).

On a recent episode of “The Bishop Strickland Hour,” however, the bishop gave a rambling and fairly novel definition of the term, saying “that word has been buzzing around a lot. And what we have to remember that to be schismatic is to to turn from the teaching of Christ, from the deposit of faith, from the ancient magisterial teachings of the Church, from the Catechism. That’s what schism is.” Note how he frames the definition — he makes no reference to communion with the pope, who is the Church’s “perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity” (Lumen Gentium 88).

Strickland also mentions the need to follow “the ancient magisterial teachings of the Church,” which (given his statements about the pope) can easily be read in contrast to the Living Magisterium of the Church — the teachings of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. This is an implicit rejection of many papal teachings, including that of Lumen Fidei, the first encyclical Pope Francis promulgated, written primarily by Pope Benedict, which taught, “the Magisterium always speaks in obedience to the original Word upon which faith is founded and it is trustworthy because it trusts in the Word which it listens to, guards and explains” (LF 49).

Bishop Strickland continued, “You know, in modern terms, it’s like all, ‘You’re being schismatic.’ If you protest those who are speaking against the deposit of faith, that’s not schismatic, that’s not understanding what schism is. Schism is about dividing from the truth that the Church proclaims hanging on to that truth. People can claim it’s schismatic, but it’s not.” Here, the bishop seems to be calling out his critics for describing his actions as schismatic. But it seems that just as he’s scrubbed his past support for the pope’s teaching on marriage and the family from his website, he’s scrubbed basic knowledge of canon law from his mind.

Most people who leave the Catholic Church for reasons of principle, including those who are excommunicated (Luther, Dollinger, Lefebvre, Williamson), do so because they believe that they embrace the truth and the institutional Church does not. And in the past century, many of them have insisted that it is they, and not the pope, who adheres to the true deposit of faith. Strickland and whoever is advising him are upholding a vision of the Church that appears to be completely untethered from the hierarchy and ecclesiology of the Church. In a certain sense, they have become the relativists they claim to despise because they have made themselves the arbiters of what belongs to the deposit of faith and what doesn’t. Put simply, they reject the authority Christ gave to the Successor of Peter.

It is a sad thing to see.

Image: Screenshot, “The Bishop Strickland Hour”

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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