Firebrand Texas bishop tests boundaries of conservative Catholic dissent

(RNS) – Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, has become known for challenging advocates for abortion rights and those who want to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory, justifying his positions by invoking interpretations of Catholic doctrine .

But last month, he took a step that defines the Catholic protocol: he challenged his fellow bishops.

In a tweet on jan. 18, Strickland supported the Rev. Anthony Buś, a Chicago priest who had reinstated Pope Francis’ new restrictions on saying the Old Latin Mass – contrary to Buś’s superior, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago.

“I have read Fr Buś’s letter again and I see nothing respectful in his tone or in his own words,” Strickland wrote. “It’s a heartfelt cry from a priest who hurts deeply and speaks for many, many others. He should be comfortable instead of disciplined.”

The Rev. John Beal, a canon advocate and professor at the Catholic University of America, called the tweet a sharp breach of church standards.

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“The idea of ​​an individual bishop in a small diocese in Texas taking a public stand as opposed to the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago is incredible,” Beal said, referring to Cardinal Blase Cupich. “We’ve never done that before.”

As American politics has become more polarized in recent years, the Catholic Church has seen conservative Catholics become unusually comfortable punishing messages from the Vatican or its own American clergy. The most outspoken are lay Catholics, but debates fueled by Pope Francis’ papacy, the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing pandemic have encouraged some clergy to draw lines in the sand as well.

But experts say that even in this sphere, a bishop is openly challenging not only the pope’s messages, but his brother prelate breaks new ground.

The next day, Strickland also tweeted in support of a Vermont priest who had publicly challenged his bishop by refusing to be vaccinated or subject to masking and testing and made a video to explain his position. The Rev. Peter Williams, a pastor in Springfield, Vermont, described his position as that of a “patriot” and defeated Bishop Christopher Coyne’s insistence that the directive was a matter of “honor and obedience.”

“Please pray for this priest and so many others who have been caught in similar situations,” Strickland twittere, including Williams’ video in his tweet.

The one-two punch was enough to inspire National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters to call for an “apostolic visit” from Strickland.

“If (Strickland) wants to be crazy in East Texas, who’s going to stop him?” Winters wrote. “But comment on how other bishops should deal with their priests? Who does that? What does he know about these situations?”

Public discipline of Strickland would be unusual, Beal said, describing Strickland’s actions as “inappropriate but not illegal” under church law.

“In our polarized world, the norms of civilization and decency have just broken down,” he said.

Dissent within the Catholic Church is hardly new, said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Manhattan College. “Progressive Catholics have long said that bishops are not branch managers, and Rome is not the home office,” she said.

But public dissent among clergy has provoked pushback from church authorities in the past. In the 1980s, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, an outspoken liberal clergyman, was subjected to an apostolic visit – or Vatican examination – by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.

Hunthausen was forced to share authority with a newly appointed assistant bishop after the investigation concluded he was guilty of “weak doctrinal leadership” in several areas.

But Beal noted that the investigation around was driven by conservative backwardness, particularly after a speech given by Hunthausen announcing the storage of nuclear weapons.

The papacy of Benedict also included pushback to dissent. In 2012, his last full year as pope, the Vatican examined American Catholic nuns in what was seen as a blow to an umbrella organization of American nuns expressing support for the Affordable Care Act as opposed to the USCCB, which opposes the legislation.

Bishop Joseph Strickland in 2013. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Bishop Joseph Strickland in 2013. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Since he was elevated to bishop that same year, Strickland has cultivated his reputation as a right-wing dissident. He has a weekly podcast, “The Bishop Strickland Show,” hosted by the anti-abortion website LifeSiteNews and available on Rumble, an alternative Canadian video platform popular with political and social conservatives.

Strickland conducted interviews with Church Militant, a right-wing Catholic website whose criticism of then-Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, now a cardinal and archbishop of Washington, was dismissed as homophobic or racist. The site, based in Michigan, was punished in 2011 by the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Strickland posed for photos with Church Militant staff last fall shortly before the group protested the USCCB’s annual meeting in Baltimore. Several speakers at the event praised Strickland or mentioned him as inspiration.

The bishop’s reputation has brought him into conversation with a network of right-wing activists both inside and outside the Catholic Church. At the “Jericho March” of December 2020 in the run-up to the US Capitol attack, Strickland offered a prayer via video. Earlier that year, the bishop publicly backed a Wisconsin priest who insisted Catholics could not vote for Democrats, and reiterated his support when church authorities restricted the clergy ministry in 2021. Strickland twittere that the priest “was in trouble to speak the truth.”

In October, Strickland tweeted praise for a speech delivered by actor Jim Caviezel that included criticism of Pope Francis and was delivered at a conference affiliated with the conspiracy theory-driven QAnon movement.

Catholics who sometimes shot under the conservative leadership of Pope John Paul II and his successor, Benedict, are now not content to see conservatives under Francis. Many conservatives, they note, stood up to obedience to church authorities during the popes of Benedict and John Paul II.

“I grew up with a Catholic called, knowing full well that everyone is in the cafeteria,” Imperatori-Lee said, referring to a common critique of liberal Catholics when choosing and choosing which Catholic teachings to follow, as in a cafeteria line. “But now the people who are throwing stones at Catholicism of cafeterias and deviant theologians are the ones leading the charge … It’s this incredible world upside down.”

She said conservatives only seem to have passionate dissent “if they have the ability to be famous cultural warriors.”

Indeed, Strickland’s views on the pandemic – an emerging culture war issue – have received the most attention. He has repeatedly condemned all three faxes authorized for use in the US, arguing that they “abortion contaminated“, because in the development of the vaccines, pharmaceutical companies used cell lines that are believed to trace their origin to aborted fetuses from the 1970s and 1980s. the original cells, are often used in medical laboratories and are not in the vaccines themselves.)

Strickland, who declined a question from Religion News Service, supported his opposition even after In December 2020, the Vatican considered mRNA-based vaccines “morally acceptable”, a sentiment that the USCCB reiterated a short time later. Francis, who has been vaccinated himself, has campaigned several times for widespread vaccination, and the Pontifical Academy for Life has refuted vaccine skepticism directly on social media, saying in a tweet that “abortion has nothing to do” with the vaccines.

In addition, Strickland has challenged the safety of the vaccines. In a recent episode of “The Bishop Strickland Show,” one host claimed that COVID-19 vaccines are uniquely susceptible to triggering adverse effects, despite ample scientific evidence to suggest that such side effects are rare. When host Strickland asked if parents should not intensify their children with the shots, the bishop replied, “Absolutely.” He quickly added that vaccination should be a “free choice”, but stressed parents should be “very careful” about vaccination against COVID-19.

Other bishops have expressed doubts about the faxes. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone has urged people to get vaccinated, but revealed in December that he himself has not been vaccinated, stating his position by saying his immune system is strong and claiming COVID-19 inoculations are “not really vaccinated” – a falsehood.

But no one has advanced the case more than Strickland, who has switched to rail against government fax mandates. Hy twittere in November 2021: “Encouraging these vaccines is a personal choice, but forcing them into conflict with basic human rights and moral standards.”

Here, too, Strickland is out of step with many of his other American prelates. Major dioceses in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere have declared that they would not issue religious exemptions, allowing Catholics to opt-out of various fax mandates. Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, demands that diocesan staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 “as a condition of their employment.”

Meanwhile, the Vatican has its own version of a fax mandate in place and requires members of the Swiss Guard who protect the pope to get the shots.

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Whether Strickland’s support for dissident priests outside his diocese will provoke a reaction from the Vatican or its fellow American bishops remains an open question. Beal suggested that any hypothetical action might not be public, noting that “public movements against bishops are seen as unfair” and that similar situations are often quietly reduced.

Strickland, however, is unlikely to remain silent. In a recent podcast, he stated that although he does not see himself as a person seeking conflict, he will not be ashamed of it.

“When there is conflict, it is normal between something that is true and something that is false,” he said. “Some people embrace the truth and some people embrace what is not true … In that way, conflict is necessary. We must separate darkness from light.”

“If it’s a matter of truth and falsehood, we need the conflict.”

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