Perhaps you’ve heard about the “massive new Catholic center planned for east Texas”?
The launch plans for a new effort called Veritatis Splendor (after the encyclical of Pope John Paul II of the same name) indicate a vision far bolder than a “Catholic center” or a simple lay initiative of “homeschool families who want to support each other in community as they nurture and educate their children,” as described by Bishop Joseph Strickland in a post on his own website on Monday.
The project was unveiled by co-founders Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas and Catholic homeschool hybrid Regina Caeli Academy leader Kari Beckman, and Lisa Wheeler of public relations firm Carmel Communications. Together, according to the project’s website, they plan to “protect, preserve and proclaim the truths of the Christian Faith, as given to the Apostles by Jesus Christ.” To accomplish this task they are seeking to raise $22 million for the creation of a headquarters that will serve as a “physical and spiritual home” for their rebuilding of Christendom in Winona, Texas. On a massive 575-acre property, they have plans to build an oratory, educational and recreational facilities (including a gun range), family homes, guest houses, and a community of priests (who, it is noted, “will be permanent members…and not subject to transfers or reassignments”). According to the welcome page of the website, this will be “a community of true believers who work and live together to safeguard the deposit of faith through an uncompromising fidelity to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.” (emphasis added)
A form soliciting interest for potential future residents of Veritatis Splendor (VS) is already available on the group’s website, with informational meetings soon to be held in cities across the country. The National Catholic Register reports that both the Beckman and Wheeler families have plans to relocate to Texas this year, with the Beckmans having already sold their home in Georgia.
With an explicit intention to draw families—soon—to Texas, and with the Regina Caeli Academy network already having expanded into 16 dioceses across the United States, this is an effort that requires a closer, critical look. It also raises fundamental questions about the way Bishop Strickland understands the need to care for his flock by promoting the common good of everyone in his diocese—especially by working to create and maintain safe environments for the protection of vulnerable people.
Reviewing the group’s own well-coordinated and polished launch materials—the website, a promotional video, a fundraising campaign statement, and the very sympathetic National Catholic Register article by Kathy Schiffer—their vision of a “little village” in Texas comes to life. It is no exaggeration to characterize this campaign (which is being publicized widely across conservative Catholic media channels), as an invitation for the Catholic remnant to assemble with Bishop Joseph Strickland in East Texas to weather the current and future storms.
The case for VS as an initiative and potential future community, as told by its co-founders, is perhaps difficult for outsiders to understand. But the campaign clearly originated in the context of a reactionary “orthodox” Catholicism shaped by ecclesial, political, and cultural events of the past few years in the US Church. Perhaps most importantly, the initiative capitalizes on the simmering undercurrents of isolation and mistrust that characterize some Catholic responses to the pandemic. After the public health restrictions began last year, the initial response within this subculture was frustration. Eventually, isolation and alienation animated increasingly harsh criticisms of the bishops about the suspension of public worship and the continuing restrictions on Mass attendance due to public health regulations. Bishop Strickland has been one of the most outspoken voices among US Church leaders against these provisions, and just yesterday he lifted the dispensation excusing Tyler Catholics from attending Sunday Mass during the pandemic.
The promotional materials for VS reflect the worldview of a subculture that takes for granted that the Church and the world are in profound crisis—a major part of this has been the public health response to Covid—and that devout Catholics must take dramatic action. Each leader testimony in the promotional video includes images and ideas that are common in reactionary and even conspiracist rhetoric. Much of the message plays on the themes of light and darkness, including frequent allusions to “children of light,” a scriptural term that is used in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, but has more recently become a rallying cry for Catholics influenced by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who uses the term regularly in his dispatches. There are also repeated references to decay and destruction in both society and the Church.
In the Register’s version of VS’s origin story, we meet Kari Beckman of Atlanta, Georgia, the founder of Regina Caeli Academy, Inc. Using imagery common in Catholic end-times prophecy, Beckman reflects, “The COVID crisis was a time of great illumination for Catholics.” Referring to the new and unfamiliar experience of isolation Catholics experienced with the suspension of public celebrations of the liturgy during Lent 2020, the Register report describes how Beckman reached out to Bishop Strickland to ask him if he would welcome Regina Caeli families who wanted to receive the sacraments in his diocese while their own were still under lockdown. The article explains that she shared her inspiration for VS and its institutes with Strickland at that fortuitous meeting.
It is clear that the idea excited Bishop Strickland. The emotional force animating the leaders of the VS community is on full display during their promotional video. The passion in Bishop Strickland’s message opening the promotional video is palpable:
The world is changing—you don’t need me or the news to tell you that, you just have to open your eyes and look around. Things that we took for granted as American values—education and basic common sense—are eroding. And so we are at a crossroads….And yet the light remains; and is not overcome.
As he speaks, the video intersperses his message with gripping sounds and images suggesting a menacing, unseen threat: a man standing in shadow before a bonfire; a wolf howling; thunder; a digitized image of the coronavirus; a short video of a child in a surgical mask. Later in the video, images associated with recent civil unrest appear: the United States Capitol behind a fence, police squad cars with lights on at night. The underlying message of the video’s imagery and sound seems to be that we are living in a world in crisis beyond our control. And Bishop Strickland offers the “light” of hope.
But VS is not simply a retreat from a scary world outside of our control. It is also a retreat from a broken Church, and it is the promise of an alternative way of life—a community seeking the true, good, and beautiful together. The identity of the VS community is in its mission to carry out the preservation of the true faith, as “true believers,” something that they believe the bishops—and possibly even the pope—have failed to do. In other words, this is a total condemnation of the state of the Catholic Church today.
Over the evocative imagery and background music of the promotional video, we head the voice of Bishop Strickland “speaking plainly” to warn of “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” These include those who he says “share my mantle”—in other words, the other bishops. An even more illustrative explanation of their understanding of episcopal failures is found in their fundraising “Case Statement.” This document, in its section called “The Problem: The State of the Church and the World,” not only says that the bishops “have failed in their mission to lead their flock towards truth and goodness,” but that they “have led the faithful astray,” are “void of God’s guiding hand,” and have caused “the faithful left adrift.” It goes on to assert, “The impact of such failure is profound and at the heart of what ails society today.”
In one evocative metaphor, they suggest that the papacy itself is engaged in this failure: “the moors anchored to the Chair of Peter and the structures needed for even the few faithful who remain are being further eroded at an alarming pace.”
Notably, while Pope Emeritus Benedict is mentioned on both the VS website and on the FundRazr page—which identifies Bishop Strickland as “the last priest to be made a Bishop under the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI”—there is no mention of Pope Francis anywhere to be found.
For the VS co-founders, the crisis today is without historical parallel. With an apparent nod to the discredited right-wing theories alleging that the 2020 US presidential election was “stolen” (a theory Bishop Strickland has publicly supported), they write, again in the fundraising Case Statement: “What is new is the depth, breadth, and size of this dynamic, which has now reached the deepest roots of both Church and democratic institutions and structures meant to keep us from falling off the cliff.” They articulate a deeply-rooted fear of coming catastrophe and give it language that seems to suggest they fear the Gates of Hell may prevail against the Church. In language drawn from the self-referential media ecosystem they inhabit, they say that “daily evidence increasingly validates this, that we are on the precipice and nearing the point of no return where Truth will completely vanish—if bold action is not taken.”
This is a call to arms. In the video, Beckman does not call VS a “remnant,” but a “little village.” They conclude the opening of the Case Statement referring to their efforts as “apostolic,” fulfilling the task, “to guard, preserve and protect the Christian faith, as given to the Apostles by Jesus Christ.”
The co-founders clearly do not trust the current magisterial authority of the Catholic Church to fulfill this task. It is theirs, according to the Case Statement: “During such trying times of great risk, we must ensure an alternative exists for the faithful to be fed, to congregate, and to be protected from unchecked anarchy—both religious and societal—which is no longer an isolated threat.” In the Register article, Beckman indicates that she believes “this is just round No. 1 of the crisis, and what the future holds could be much worse.”
Vision of a City on a Hill
After painting the picture of a darkened world, the promotional material of VS offers a vision for the rebirth of the Church through a “new wave of apostolic life.” The message repeatedly and explicitly transfers the mission of the broader Church to their little group. For example, Beckman in the video describes their mission to build VS as the “sacred duty…of everyday baptized people” who are “children of light,” yet it is only their group that intends to “restore Christendom.” VS intends to do this through a building a permanent community that fosters the Church’s intellectual activity through educational institutions: a K-12 hybrid academy (presumably a Regina Caeli Center); a university; and seven institutes, each dedicated to a separate topic such as life, law, human rights, or culture.
VS’s vision entails both retreating to an insular community for preservation and equipping “soldiers of Christ,” who “have the courage and the conviction needed to really stand firm and hold the line and be able to proclaim the Good News to whomever they meet,” according to VS mother featured in the promotional video, Kate Danze. With sweeping images of the property in Texas being blessed by Bishop Strickland—he is holding a monstrance, flanked by Deacon Keith Fournier—Beckman intones that “as heirs of the kingdom, it is our duty to defend, to expand, the reign of God.” Apparently they see themselves to be building a VS as a “city on a hill.”
Interestingly, the term “Catholic” doesn’t appear in their name or mission statement. Bishop Strickland has emphasized that the group will welcome “Catholics & anyone who is committed to Jesus Christ.” Canon 300 of the Code of Canon Law stipulates that any organization calling itself Catholic requires the permission of competent ecclesiastical authority, which presumably would be granted in this case, given Bishop Strickland’s involvement from the start. VS is certainly not alone in launching an effort that is identifiably Catholic but without institutional ties or permission. It also is not the first Catholic-led effort to build a Christian intentional community in the United States. Many such efforts were undertaken, most notably from the 1970s through the 1990s, particularly within the charismatic renewal movement. These “covenant communities”—such as People of Praise, Intercessors of the Lamb, and Mother of God—have a mixed legacy, some causing disastrous spiritual and financial effects on the lives of former members.
Because VS is so bold in its vision—with truly global plans—and asks so much of its potential future members, it would seem that steps to establish a clear connection to the Church as well as clear oversight are important. With the local ordinary, Bishop Strickland, so closely connected to the project, it is odd that VS doesn’t mention any plan to put those ties in place.
They project an image of Christianity that is imbued with Catholic imagery, Latin, and references to “Christian,” “Tradition,” and “Christendom.” On the VS website, they describe their own “core values” of “obedience” and “fidelity,” but this obedience is not defined in reference to personal obedience and loyalty to the Pope and bishops. Rather than prioritizing unity with the wider Church, the Catholic identity of VS appears to have its own distinctive understanding of “fidelity” to Catholic faith and morals. Indeed, Bishop Strickland has repeatedly emphasized their organizational independence from him. According to the “Community” section of the VS website, the co-founders envision their “apostolic life” as similar to that of the “small Christian communities that formed the early Church with one exception—Veritatis Splendor will exist to protect, preserve and protect [sic] the faith so it will not perish in an anti-God and anti-Church culture.” They do not explain how this is an “exception.”
In Christifidelis Laici, John Paul II presented a “criteria of ecclesiality” in judging the authenticity of apostolates of the laity. It is true that the faithful do possess the freedom to form such groups by virtue of their baptism, but it is a “freedom that is to be acknowledged and guaranteed by ecclesial authority and always and only to be exercised in Church communion” (CL 29). Rather than emphasizing particular charisms of cooperation for an association of lay faithful, the language the VS co-founders use to describe their effort suggests that they believe their task is to step in and take on the universal Church’s responsibility themselves because Church leadership has failed to do so. They portray this community as a lone light in the darkness, carrying out the Church’s apostolic activity, rather than as one of the many groups that live out the Christian mission. Their vision does not seem to reflect the guidelines transmitted by John Paul for such groups, including the requirement that lay apostolates
witness to a strong and authentic communion in filial relationship to the Pope, in total adherence to the belief that he is the perpetual and visible center of unity of the universal Church…Church communion demands both an acknowledgment of a legitimate plurality of forms in the associations of the lay faithful in the Church and at the same time, a willingness to cooperate in working together. (CL 30)
Pope Francis also reiterated the importance of ecclesiality in apostolic efforts, highlighting the dangers of insularity in Evangelii Gaudium:
some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an ‘inner circle.’ Instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety, they belong to this or that group which thinks itself different or special. (EG 98)
The center of VS, uniting all members of the proposed community, are its seven educational and mission-oriented “institutes.” According to VS materials, they envision the directors of these institutes, living and working together within the community. Each of the institutes is described by its philosophical outlook, but comprehensive information on what these institutes will actually do has not been released. In the video, Wheeler says that the institutes will “have a responsibility of responding to what is happening in the world and in the culture by raising up the voices of those who speak the truth on the issues of the dignity of life, on liberty and philosophy, education.”
The main thrust of the recruiting effort appears to be the attraction of a common life in a place where, as Beckman says in the promotional video, “the faithful can gather to produce the first wave of apostles, while planting the seeds for other Veritatis Splendor locations nationally and globally.” The promotional materials also emphasize the self-sustaining nature of the compound and how it will be a place where they will be able to weather future crises in the outside world. “No matter whether current societal chaos becomes no worse and dissipates or descends into true anarchy…VS will be prepared for either, by being truly self-sustaining for the community at home and those who seek refuge from the imposition of restraint on either spiritual or civil liberties.”
They also describe a community life “marked by five essential charisms”: prayer, education and study, mutual support, mission driven, and recreation. The charism of “mutual support” notes that “Veritatis Splendor families will encourage one another to be faithful to the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church and will challenge each other to be authentic both in the home and in the world.” How this might be enforced is not described. Also not mentioned are the well-known modesty and media policies of RCA, which enforces shoulder-to-knee coverage of girls’ and women’s bodies while at RCA events and entirely prohibits the use of electronic devices or discussion of “secular subjects” while on RCA center campuses, which Beckman has described as keeping “the focus on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.”
What the community rules might ultimately entail has concerned some observers. It is unclear whether such questions will receive a public response. As Simcha Fisher disclosed in her coverage, Regina Caeli Academy, Inc., was party to a lawsuit by a family involved with RCA in Detroit, John and Marie Kruse, who “alleged that ‘complete, blind, unquestioning obedience to RCA’s officers and the Directors is demanded or the family is subjected to humiliation, ostracization and expulsion.’”
Bishop Strickland’s Role
“I’m the benevolent bishop who is happy to welcome this lay-run effort to build a community of faith,” Strickland told the Register. All the VS promotional materials prominently feature Bishop Strickland: his words, his image, his message. He provides them with an identifiably “faithful” Catholic connection. We see and hear him preaching, holding a monstrance, playing with children, walking across the Texas hills, saying Mass, praying. He is noted as a co-founder of VS on the promotional video, and the Register reports he intends to “serve as spiritual adviser to the community.”
The involvement of Bishop Strickland in the VS effort is itself indicative of the Catholics to whom they are appealing as well as their vision. Strickland is well-known among reactionary Catholics for his open criticism of recent Vatican guidance on the Covid vaccine, for his involvement in the Jericho March effort in the wake of the 2020 election, and as a signatory of Viganò’s manifesto against public health precautions during the Covid pandemic.
To this subset of Catholics, he is the image of a faithful bishop. His image is used as a foil for the failed bishops they insist have brought the Church and society to the brink. Saying in the promotional video that “we are at a crossroads,” Strickland continues with his bona fides: “As a bishop I know my role, and I have a God-given responsibility to teach, to preach, and to protect my flock. I’m a man inspired by the saints before us and the saints among us.” The FundRazr site features an image of Strickland prominently their pitch to potential donors.
Bishop Strickland has made repeated and explicit requests for prayerful and financial support for the effort, and the promotional video closes with a montage of images of him preaching at an outdoor Mass and leading a Eucharistic procession on the future site. Indeed, Bishop Strickland makes the closing pitch to viewers and future VS members, “Join me for a future in Jesus Christ. Veritatis Splendor, the splendor of truth, will shine on this place, most importantly with our lives.”
Yet Bishop Strickland’s formal involvement with the group remains unclear. Reports indicate that this is not being launched as a diocesan effort. In recent days, Bishop Strickland seems to have distanced himself from having a central role in VS by emphasizing its independence and downplaying the scope of its vision. Perhaps due to questions surrounding the possible financial involvement of the Diocese of Tyler in building VS, on March 1, Bishop Strickland attempted to clarify his involvement on his personal website. Although he has been prominently featured in all of the promotional materials, Strickland wrote and tweeted, “I want to support them as they seek to establish this community in East Texas while maintaining their independence from the diocese financially and organizationally.”
Questions remain. To what extent is a co-founding bishop really free from organizational—much less ecclesiastical—ties to a “lay initiative” that was inspired by him? Those involved have already begun packing up to move across the country to join his flock. Perhaps more importantly, as a community of families and priests seeks to establish itself in a new area: to what extent does he plan to exercise oversight for the group which he is ultimately responsible for drawing to Texas?
As VS continues their fundraising and publicity efforts, there are more questions than answers about the group, its immediate and long-term intentions, and its ties to the authority of the Church. With plans of such breadth and a reach that is explicitly national in scope, other bishops throughout the United States—and perhaps even in Rome—should take note of this Texas startup. A great concern that has not been addressed is the involvement of children and other vulnerable persons who will find themselves in a new community. How will the Church ensure the spiritual, physical, and emotional safety of all?
Those who are responsible for the pastoral and spiritual care of souls in Texas and beyond have the duty of oversight, and of making clear whether an organization that presents itself as Catholic is one the faithful can trust.
Image: Veritatis Splendor website