Since the story broke on Saturday, the Catholic world has been abuzz with discussion about Bishop Joseph Strickland and the Apostolic Visitation conducted last week in his diocese of Tyler, Texas. Multiple sources have confirmed that the visitation was undertaken at the direction of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, and that the investigation was conducted by Bishop Gerald Kicanas, the emeritus of Tucson, and Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, New Jersey. Although the outcome of the investigation is yet to be revealed, many observers have interpreted the visitation as prelude to his resignation or removal from his position as bishop of the small diocese of Tyler.
Because Bishop Strickland is a national figure, dubbed “America’s Bishop” by some of his supporters, the public opposition to the visitation has been intense. Despite leading a diocese with only 55,000 Catholics, Strickland has more than double that number of Twitter followers. He also cohosts a weekly radio show on the Virgin Most Powerful Radio network, has published a book with Catholic Answers Press in 2020, makes frequent appearances as a guest on podcasts, YouTube broadcasts, and television. Strickland is also a sought-after speaker at conferences organized by Catholics.
I have been somewhat surprised by the size and extent of the outcry from Strickland’s supporters about this visitation, in much the same way as I was surprised about the outcry against the laicization of Priests for Life founder Frank Pavone — which has largely gone quiet following allegations that the former priest engaged in sexual harassment, grooming, and other inappropriate behavior with female employees. I do realize, however, that as someone who worked within the Catholic Church’s bureaucracy for nearly a decade, and who has observed it up close for many years since, that maverick figures in the Church are viewed much differently from the inside than from the outside.
From my perspective, the case of Frank Pavone — who was laicized by Pope Francis last year for what the Dicastery for the Clergy described as “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop” — was open-and-shut. He was clearly operating in open disobedience to his bishop (and creating public confusion about who his bishop even was). Every priest in the Catholic Church is answerable to someone, and it was clear that Pavone had spent over 15 years trying to duck legitimate authority.
Many conservative Catholics who are likewise familiar with how the Church operates agreed that the Vatican’s actions regarding Pavone were warranted. Philip Lawler, no friend of Pope Francis, wrote at the time that “the laicization of Frank Pavone is not an injustice. In fact it should not be a surprise.” In addition to operating as a priest outside his diocese without a letter of good standing from his bishop, Pavone became a political activist, openly and unashamedly campaigning for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Katherine Jean Lopez, editor-at-large of the conservative publication National Review, also wrote of Pavone at the time, “A diocesan priest is under obedience to his bishop. … But from every observation, Pavone did not want to be under obedience of a diocesan bishop.”
Canon 287 §2 in the Code of Canon Law says that clerics “are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.” What Pavone’s case ultimately boiled down to is the fact — whatever good he may have done and no matter how pure his intentions — that he had “gone rogue” and was in open defiance of his ecclesiastical authorities.
All attempts by Church authority to rein Pavone in had failed, and his dismissal seemed inevitable. The only thing that was surprising to those familiar with the situation in which Pavone found himself was the timing, because very little about Pavone’s case was made public after his bishop said he would pursue canonical penalties in 2016. Pavone’s entire canonical trial and appeal process (if any) took place under the Church’s “cone of silence,” and the details are locked away in a Vatican archive that is unlikely to be opened and made public.
Like Pavone, Bishop Strickland’s words and behavior have made him an outlier in the institutional Church. But unlike Pavone, who persistently disobeyed Church authority, Strickland’s case demonstrates the damage that can be done when authority in the Church is given to the wrong person.
Things started simply enough for Bishop Strickland. Originally ordained as a priest of the Diocese of Dallas, the East Texas native was incardinated into the newly-formed Tyler diocese when it split off in 1987. He was trained as a canon lawyer and was named the fourth bishop of Tyler in 2012. It was a rare case of a priest being called to serve as bishop of his home diocese, and for a while, things apparently went along normally.
Prior to 2018, most of the media coverage surrounding him had to do with his athleticism, such as a pushup contest during World Youth Day in Poland and his “Running Priest” blog, where he tracked his exploits as a runner and provided updates on parish fundraising and construction projects. Until the summer of 2018, most American Catholics had likely never heard of the Diocese of Tyler, let alone Bishop Strickland. But soon after the disgraced former nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò issued his “testimony” against Pope Francis in August of that year, Strickland wrote a letter to his priests, stating that he found Viganò’s claims “credible” and ordered them “to include this notice in the masses on August 26, and post it on their websites and other social media immediately.” By November he was getting himself noticed for his public comments at the microphone during the USCCB’s open floor debate and giving sit-down media interviews.
During the second half of 2018 and throughout 2019, Strickland transitioned from an unknown Texas bishop in an obscure diocese into a straight-shooting, outspoken, culture war prelate with a large media presence. In 2020, with the arrival of Covid, Strickland’s visibility gained new heights as he openly defied both public health guidelines and Pope Francis, and publicly embraced countless conspiracy theories about both the pandemic and the vaccine. He became the episcopal mouthpiece for a movement that is out of step with the Church and (many argue) with reality.
Where did the new Strickland come from? By 2018, the polarization in the Catholic Church was well underway. Strickland played no public part in the debates over Amoris Laetitia or the dubia or any of the other controversies that divided the US Church in the first five years of Francis’s papacy. Then, as if out of nowhere, Bishop Strickland became one of the most visible and outspoken bishops in the country. There was hardly a Church cause or controversy in which he did not find himself.
Many people familiar with Bishop Strickland’s evolution point to the influence of a new right-hand man. Deacon Keith Fournier’s arrival in the Diocese of Tyler was formally announced in October 2019 in a YouTube video. During the video discussion, however, Fournier and Strickland discussed how they had been “email pals” for some time before that. Fournier, a civil lawyer with master’s degrees in theology and philosophy, was previously a leader in the charismatic movement in Steubenville led by Fr. Michael Scanlan, and later he was ordained a permanent deacon in the diocese of Richmond. Many observers believe Fournier is the “brains” behind the re-branding of bishop Strickland.
A prolific writer on Catholic topics, Fournier has been vocal about causes that Bishop Strickland has promoted in recent years, such as opposition to “abortion-tainted” Covid vaccines, the unchanging “deposit of faith” and the need for “clear teaching,” promoting priests “facing East” (with their backs to the congregation) during the liturgy, “reclaiming” the month of June for the Sacred Heart. As someone who has become a habitual listener of “The Bishop Strickland Hour,” I have to say the overlap between the issues that interest Fournier and the talking points frequently raised by Strickland are uncanny.
Someone other than Strickland is clearly helping to ghostwrite his texts. I recently read his “Statement Regarding German Bishops,” published on March 29 of this year, and noticed this passage:
St. John Henry Cardinal Newman drew his inspiration for his 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine from the fifth-century monk and theologian, St. Vincent of Lerins. That Saint’s writings on the proper understanding of the development of doctrine are found in what is called the Commonitorium. In an for [sic] First Things entitled “Four Ideas About Development,” Michael Pakaluk, a Professor of Ethics at the Catholic University of America, explained:
“If you actually read the treatise Commonitorium by St. Vincent of Lerins — often cited as the origin of the theory of development — you’ll see that his main preoccupation is to show that the faith never changes. Pope John Paul II’s motto for the turn of the millennium was ‘Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow’.”
I found it interesting that the bishop’s statement discussed St. Vincent of Lerins in such detail considering the conversation that he and cohost Terry Barber had on their radio show about St. Vincent of Lerins back in May:
Strickland: So we need to applaud truth wherever it is.
Barber: And the Saints have said that, and you just quoted one saint — I didn’t know much about this saint — Saint Vincent Lerins. You quoted him saying. “A true Catholic is he who loves the truth revealed by God.” Thank you, right there. “He (comma), who loves the Church, the Body of Christ, who esteems religion, the Catholic faith, higher than any human authority, talents, eloquence, and philosophy. All this he holds in contempt and remains firm and unshakeable.”
I just think this statement is so appropriate. They always start talking about truth. When did this saint live? I mean, probably hundreds of years ago.
Strickland: Yeah, I, I honestly don’t know, but I’m sure it’s not a modern saint.
Barber: No, because I didn’t know much about him. I’m gonna look him up now. Yeah, that’s great.
It seems that someone is putting words into the bishop’s mouth and ideas into the bishop’s head. Many people have expressed concerns about who and what he’s welcomed into his diocese. Who can forget the proposed Veritatis Splendor community, which apparently continues with its development following a sex scandal involving two of its founders and despite its marketing campaign screaming “future cult compound” from the moment it was announced.
In my Sunday article I mentioned the presence in the diocese of a French ex-sister mysteriously working in the library of the diocesan high school. But she is not the only controversial woman religious who has moved into Tyler. In July 2022, the diocese announced that they were welcoming the Daughters of Mary, Israel’s Hope, a religious community founded in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2011 by Mother Miriam of the Lamb of God. Before entering religious life, the former Rosalind Moss converted to the Catholic faith from Judaism and worked for nine years as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers. In 2016, five years after Mother Miriam formed the community, Bishop David Konderla was appointed to lead the diocese of Tulsa. Shortly thereafter, he asked that the Daughters of Mary and the Doloran Fathers (a community of traditionalist exorcists founded by Fr. Chad Ripperger) to leave the diocese. The Dolorans found a new home in the Archdiocese of Denver. The Daughters first landed in the diocese of Salina, Kansas, before moving on to the Tyler diocese.
Like Bishop Strickland, Mother Miriam hosts a livestreamed radio show. Also like Strickland, she has promoted conspiracy theories and misinformation about Pope Francis. In a June 7 broadcast, she discussed a recent article from LifeSiteNews, which quoted from a 2019 address by Pope Francis on the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. During the broadcast, she said, “Bishop Strickland has spoken about the Holy Father undermining the deposit of faith. But it seems he’s gone further than that.” She said of Pope Francis, “If he could, he would destroy the faith.”
Mother Miriam explained, “The Holy Father has joined hands by his own words, with … the development goals of the UN and all the nations joined in this one world government movement. And he has said that every parish, every priest, everyone every Catholic, needs to join in with this.” She continued, “The only way the sustainable developing goals can be achieved is through abortion and contraception. And the Pope has said so — not in that sentence — but he’s speaking about pro abortion and contraception, joining in with the world’s global world movement. I’m just sick about it.”
Later in the program, she said that the pope is “mixing the pure wine of the gospel with some injurious compound by tying the Church to the world’s sustainable development goals, which at every turn has a major focus on abortion and contraception.” Later, she questioned the pope’s legitimacy, asking, “Do I say he’s not the Pope? I can’t say that I don’t know that. Do I know he is the Pope? I don’t know.”
Bishop Strickland appears to have quickly turned Tyler into a safe haven for fringe movements, showing little discretion or discernment, akin to Bishop Slattery in the aforementioned Diocese of Tulsa, Bishop Timlin in Scranton, and then-Bishop Raymond Burke in LaCrosse. But unlike those bishops, Strickland has a social media platform from which he is promoting extreme views.
A Tyler priest told me that among the other priests he spoke to, the most frequently asked question had to do with Strickland’s tweet announcing that he rejects the “program” of Pope Francis to undermine the faith. Apparently Strickland and his followers are so untethered from orthodox Catholic ecclesiology that they don’t realize just how serious and unacceptable that statement is.
What Bishop Strickland is doing and saying, and what he is allowing within his diocese, goes far beyond what any other diocesan ordinary is doing in the US Church. None of the other popular bishops with reactionary and extremist views — such as Burke, Viganò, Mueller, Schneider — have dioceses under their care or people under their episcopal authority. They are all retired, unemployed, or auxiliaries. Bishop Strickland has demonstrated repeatedly how much more damage can be done with the authority of a diocesan bishop, even in a small, rural diocese.
Whatever the outcome (and remember, Pope Francis has not made a final judgement), I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Bishop Strickland. We should pray for him, as he’s certainly undergoing a great trial, but unfortunately he seems to have surrounded himself with people whose advice is anything but trustworthy.