Many people on social media are demanding to know the official justification for the dismissal of Bishop Joseph Strickland from his position atop the diocese of Tyler, Texas. Some are calling on the Vatican to provide an explanation.
For example, EWTN Rome correspondent Joan Lewis wrote on her Facebook page, “How very sad! Sadder is the fact that no reason was given for the bishop’s removal, no transparency! We need a reason.”
Fr. Gerald Murray, a longtime critic of Pope Francis and a member of EWTN’s “papal posse,” told the Washington Post, “I know of no canonical crime that he is accused of having committed that would deserve the punishment of removal.”
The Post also quoted Fr. Murray as saying, “Pope Francis has not told us why he did this, so no one can come to a clear judgment as to whether this action was fair or not. The Holy See’s omission of stating the reason for this removal calls into question the canonical integrity of the process.”
The traditionalist website One Peter Five took to their X account to express their disapproval, posting, “No reason given except THE WILL OF THE POPE. This is the definition of arbitrary power.”
I have seen scores of comments to this effect, and Strickland himself has suggested several times that he does not know the reasons for his ouster. He told John-Henry Westen in a 30-minute interview given hours after his removal, “The only answer I have to that is because forces in the Church right now don’t want the truth of the gospel.”
He continued, “They want it changed. They want it ignored. They want to be rid of the truth that is gloriously not going to go away. The truth that is Jesus Christ, His mystical body, which is the Church, all the wonders that the martyrs died for and the saints lived for through almost 2000 years since Christ died and rose.”
Many appear to be under the impression that Strickland was given no explanation for his removal. A narrative has emerged that he was kicked out simply because he’s some sort of courageous “defender of truth” against Pope Francis’s “program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.” A Catholic News Agency (CNA) story by Jonathan Liedl noted that Strickland’s “30-minute media appearance did not answer several key unknowns in the Strickland saga, such as what the Vatican’s stated reasons — if any were given — were for the dramatic step.”
Bishop Strickland’s first public statement to the media (also noted by Liedl) following his removal, however, suggests that Strickland is likely aware of the official reasons for his dismissal.
John-Henry Westen published an initial statement from Bishop Strickland at 7:32 a.m. EST, only 90 minutes after the news was made official. In it, the bishop seemed to indicate that the Vatican did give him a list of concrete reasons for his removal. Westen wrote (emphasis added):
Bishop Strickland said:
I stand by all the things that were listed as complaints against me. I know I didn’t implement Traditionis Custodes [the Pope Francis decree restricting the Traditional Latin Mass] because I can’t starve out part of my flock.
He added, “I’d do it the same way again. I feel very much at peace in the Lord and the Truth that He died for.”
The implication of this statement is that the bishop was indeed given a number of “listed” problems with his governance, but that he stands by his actions nevertheless. Among these problems, apparently, was his unwillingness to implement Traditionis Custodes. Regarding this decree, Strickland issued a statement on July 30, 2021 that said, “I am not ready to issue permanent norms for the diocese at this time.” Since then, no follow-up statement has been posted to the website.
In an interview yesterday with Newsmax, shared by Church Militant today, Strickland indicated that he was given many reasons for his removal and shared what seems to be a second example from the list. He said, “I was given by the nuncio quite a list of reasons … one of the reasons was that I failed to be supportive of the Synod on Synodality.”
His answers have lacked consistency, however. When asked by Brian Fraga of the National Catholic Reporter today in Baltimore whether he had been given the reason for his dismissal, he responded, “Not officially. The letter’s online, I think, available. I mean, it’s from the Vatican. That’s really all that I received as well on Friday afternoon.”
An “Administrative” Decision
An article on Monday by Gina Christian of OSV News explained that Strickland’s removal was “an administrative rather than penal action.” This means that the official reason for the decision was not a canonical crime. Even though Strickland has long been criticized by Catholics for many words and actions that could potentially warrant ecclesiastical discipline — such as promoting falsehoods and conspiracy theories, teaching doctrinal errors, fomenting schism, and fostering disobedience against the pope — none of these were among the official reasons why he was removed.
I do suspect, however, that Bishop Strickland’s behavior over the last several years likely got Rome’s attention. Still, as I discussed on this week’s episode of The Debrief, it seems the administrative problems in the Diocese of Tyler, dating back around seven years, were severe. Many employees and former employees of the diocese complained that Strickland mishandled funds, was an incompetent and often dictatorial manager, treated his priests poorly, and unjustly terminated many long-time employees. That story has only begun to emerge, but I suspect that more people will come forward in the near future.
It might not be a satisfying answer, but it seems that Bishop Strickland had done enough to be removed on the basis of administration alone. It was unnecessary to charge him with a canonical delict.
I sympathize with those who wish the Vatican would come forward with the reasons for Strickland’s ouster. I am curious myself. But we are very unlikely to hear them from Rome. This follows a long precedent, and a history of frustration about a lack of clarity. Back in 2018, following the removal of Bishop Martin Holley from leadership of the Diocese of Memphis, Philip Lawler of Catholic Culture called for transparency from the Vatican. He wrote, “If Bishop Holley did something wrong, he should be held accountable; it should be clear that he was ousted because of his misdeeds.”
Certainly, there was a strong sense that something was amiss in Memphis. In June of 2018, an Apostolic Visitation of the diocese was conducted after priests and parishioners complained about Holley’s management. Bishop Holley made a series of dramatic moves after his arrival in 2016, including transferring two-thirds of the 60 active priests of the diocese, bringing in an unknown exorcist priest from a religious order in Canada to serve as Vicar General, and a general lack of communication about his decisions.
As with the case of Strickland, the only detail provided by the Vatican about the reasons for Holley’s removal was that it was an “administrative” decision. Like Strickland, Holley spoke to the media shortly after his dismissal, telling CNA that he believed Cardinal Donald Wuerl may have orchestrated it as an act of revenge. He later appeared on EWTN’s The World Over and offered Raymond Arroyo other possible reasons for his ouster, including racism.
It doesn’t seem to be unusual for dismissed bishops to speak to the media and offer their side of the story. The Vatican, however, tends to keep such things confidential. This did not begin with Pope Francis. A 2012 CNA article discusses the removal of four bishops by Pope Benedict, including a 52-year-old Slovak bishop who said he did not know why he was removed.
The only way to know
Yet based on Strickland’s comments about a “list” of reasons, it does appear that he was told what they were. A priest and canon lawyer I spoke to today, on the condition of anonymity, told me that “normally the reasons for removal are given [to the person being removed] for the sake of charity and justice, and to avoid accusations of arbitrariness.” The Vatican typically does not inform the public of the reasons so that the bishop can retain his good name.
Whether that should change is a good question. But that is currently the case.
At the moment, the only person who can tell us the reasons Bishop Strickland was relieved from the governance of the Diocese of Tyler is Bishop Strickland himself.
[Update, November 17, 2023]:
Thursday evening, Raymond Arroyo interviewed Bishop Strickland on EWTN’s The World Over. Arroyo asked the bishop whether he was told the reasons for his removal and Strickland responded. Vatican journalist Edward Pentin transcribed the exchange and posted it to X:
ARROYO: “Did Cardinal Pierre offer any reason for the request for you to retire, or resign from your office, rather?”
+STRICKLAND: “Yes. He read several pages of issues of concerns. And really, he made it clear that the decision is made. He was just sort of giving me information about what the decision was based on. And it was, let me say — because there’s a lot out there — because of some comments, even from a priest in the diocese. Oh, ‘administrative concerns’ — he didn’t mention a single administrative concern that I heard.
He did mention a lack of fraternity with my brother bishops, which I think basically comes down to […]: ‘I’m speaking up and they’re not.’ So that’s been a bit uncomfortable. But they’ve been very cordial, and I’ve been at various meetings and at various events. So that was one thing. The fact that I didn’t implement Traditiones Custodes, I basically didn’t not implement, I just didn’t respond. We have a few Latin Masses, and as I said, I felt like I couldn’t deprive that portion of the flock of the nourishment they were receiving — great young families packed to the gills, these churches where we have one FSSP church, so that’s accurate. I didn’t implement that. I think other bishops have not responded to that, as maybe the Vatican wishes. So that was one of the issues.
Certainly my Internet, social media presence. I’d already been told to cool it on that, but I feel it’s important. I’m a successor of the apostles, and that’s a huge responsibility, and I feel the responsibility of speaking the truth as I understand it. I’ve tried to do so respectfully. I’m not about attacking anyone. I love the Church. I love Christ, his Church, Pope Francis. We’re all bishops. We’re all successors of the apostles. We should be working together.”
This seems to confirm that prior to his dismissal, Cardinal Pierre met with Bishop Strickland and “read several pages of issues of concerns,” consisting of “information about what the decision was based on.” In addition to the aforementioned issues of his handling of Traditionis Custodis and the Synod on Synodality, he mentioned his social media usage and a lack of fraternity with his fellow bishops as concerns. Although Strickland asserts that Pierre “didn’t mention a single administrative concern,” we only have his word. Additionally, his failure to implement important initiatives of the Universal Church is certainly an “administrative” problem.
Image: YouTube screenshot. Bishop Strickland leads the Rosary in Baltimore today.