Pope Francis Fires Conservative U.S. Bishop

From a Wall Street Journal story by Francis X. Rocca headlined “Pope Francis Fires Conservative U.S. Bishop”:

Pope Francis removed Bishop Joseph Strickland, one of the pope’s most vocal critics in the U.S. hierarchy, the Vatican said.

The Vatican said that the pope had “relieved [the bishop] of the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Tyler,” Texas, and appointed Bishop Joe Vázquez of Austin as “apostolic administrator,” or acting bishop, of Tyler.

“I’m saddened for the harm to the faithful but at peace in His Truth, stay Jesus Strong,” Strickland wrote via email on Saturday, in response to a request for comment. Asked about his plans, he replied: “Just praying for now.”

Strickland’s firing follows a Vatican investigation this summer, which led to the conclusion that “the continuation in office of Bishop Strickland was not feasible,” according to a statement on Saturday from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, who oversees the Catholic hierarchy in southeastern Texas. The cardinal’s statement didn’t specify why Strickland’s departure was recommended. Strickland was asked on Thursday to resign, but refused, DiNardo said.

It is extremely rare for the pope to remove a bishop in such a manner, as opposed to requesting and receiving his resignation. In September, Strickland told Religion News Service that he would not step down voluntarily but acknowledged that the pope had the power to remove him.

The loss of his role overseeing the diocese doesn’t deprive Strickland of his rank as a bishop.

The conservative bishop’s departure comes after Francis complained this summer of a “very strong reactionary attitude” among elements of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

In May, the bishop wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that “Pope Francis is the Pope but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith,” or the body of Catholic Church teaching contained in the Bible and tradition.

In a July radio interview, Strickland confirmed media reports that his diocese had recently undergone a Vatican-ordered investigation, which he compared to “being called to the principal’s office.” He said that the investigation had been wide-ranging, including administrative matters, “but I think that I went through this because I’ve been bold enough and love the Lord enough and his church that I’m going to keep preaching the truth.”

The cardinal’s statement on Saturday said that the Vatican investigation had been “an exhaustive inquiry into all aspects of the governance and leadership” of the diocese under Strickland, conducted by Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, N.J., and retired Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.

In August, Strickland wrote an open letter to his diocese warning that October’s Vatican synod of bishops, clergy and laypeople—which Francis’ supporters have described as one of the key initiatives of his reign—could cast doubt on certain “basic truths” of the faith, including the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage and the “undeniable biological and God-given” nature of gender identity.

A working document for the synod, published over the summer, called on the assembly to consider, among other matters, “what concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality (for example, remarried divorcées, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people, etc.).”

On the day before the opening of the gathering last month, Strickland wrote on X: “We must fall to our knees in prayers of humble reparation and atonement for the blasphemies emanating from Rome.”

The closed-door gathering did address LGBTQ issues, according to participants, though the final report issued late last month played them down. A second session of the synod, scheduled for next October, is expected to produce concrete recommendations to the pope.

Francis has acknowledged anxieties that the synod might change doctrine and, in remarks to members of the Jesuit order in Portugal during a visit in early August, he lamented what he called a “backward-looking” attitude in parts of the U.S. church.

“We need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of faith and morals,” the pope said. “When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the church and you lose the sap of revelation.”

Francis is at odds with most U.S. church leaders over their political agenda. While the pope has spoken out strongly against abortion, he and his allies in the U.S. episcopate have called for increased emphasis on social and economic justice and the environment. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continues to regard opposition to abortion as its “pre-eminent priority.”

Strickland, 65, is well short of the standard retirement age for bishops of 75. But he has been an unusually open critic of Francis, and progressive Catholics have repeatedly called for his ouster.

In 2018, when Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal envoy to the U.S., accused Francis of having ignored sexual misconduct by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Strickland quickly came out in support of Viganò, who had called for the pope to resign. Strickland said he found Viganò’s allegations credible and called for an investigation and “accountability of all found to be culpable even at the highest levels of the church.”

A Vatican report revealed in 2020 that Francis and his two immediate predecessors had failed for years to discipline McCarrick for sexual misconduct.

In 2019, McCarrick became the first cardinal in modern times to be dismissed from the priesthood, after a Vatican trial found him guilty of sexual abuse of minors and sexual misconduct with adults. In August, a judge in Massachusetts found McCarrick, 93, incompetent to stand trial on sex-abuse charges on account of a diagnosis of dementia. McCarrick, who also faces a sexual assault charge in Wisconsin, has denied wrongdoing. A lawyer for McCarrick, Barry Coburn, didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment on Saturday.

Strickland spoke alongside Viganò at a December 2020 rally in Washington, D.C., to protest alleged voter fraud following the defeat of President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

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