The Strickland Saga

Posted on 2023-11-15
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Mico, Texas – Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis said he wanted to, “make a mess,” and urged young people to do the same. With the normalization of transgenderism in the Church and the approval for blessing same sex unions, combined with the dismissal of two orthodox Bishops for vague or no reasons, all I can say to him is, “Mission accomplished!”

Yet I think the hour of darkness in the Church is almost over. The Pope’s dismissal of Bishop Joseph Strickland, formerly of Tyler, Texas, while promoting various prelates who support gay marriage, intrinsically support abortion and routinely violate Church law is a sign that we have nearly reached the bottom of depravity in the disordered faction of the hierarchy…and may very well trigger the backlash that routs the depraved from our ranks.

Bishop Joseph Strickland prays outside the US Bishop’s Conference in Baltimore with friends. (The man at the far right is a mutual friend, Patrick Comiskey. Yes, I checked with him before naming him here.) -Photo by USSA News

While Strickland presided over a relatively small Diocese, his unflagging public advocacy of orthodoxy and fidelity to Christ raised his stature and profile throughout the world. When it first came out that the Vatican was targeting him, top orthodox prelates around the world spoke out on his behalf.  He has become a sort of battle flag for those prelates and laity who do NOT believe the mission of the Church is to renegotiate Scripture, the Magisterium and the nature of sin with God. Detaching Strickland from his Diocese is much less likely to silence him than it is to free him to speak more powerfully throughout the world. Pope Francis wanted Strickland emasculated. He may just get Strickland unchained.

A quarter of a century ago I told my Priests, who take pride in both their fidelity to the Magisterium and their loyalty to the Holy Father, that John Paul was easy to be loyal to. They should prepare themselves for a time when they had a more difficult superior – and must, at that time, balance their legitimate duty of fidelity to the Magisterium and their legitimate duty of obedience to authority over them. It would require careful thought about the extent of – and limitations on – authority. You cannot just choose one or the other, you must struggle to live both well.

I have been skeptical of some of the cancelled Priests. Though some are solid, some just want to be their own Bishop, some have notably eccentric takes on doctrine, and some seem to have just fallen in love with their own celebrity. I’m not going to hitch my wagon to that kind of star. Bp. Strickland, however, has lived fidelity to the Gospels while taking care to be obedient to the legitimate authority of the Pope – while speaking candidly in criticism of those areas where the Pope has tried to exert authority he does not have either temporally nor spiritually.

I have seen some of the Vatican’s clumsy efforts to justify the removal. I watched a full video of a clown (who I will not name other than to call him a clown; he was so absurd and pathetic, desperately trying to be somebody who counts) who claims to be a theologian use the most absurd arguments against Strickland. First, he argued that Strickland did not respect the “papal magisterium.” Well, neither do I – because there is no such thing, any more than there is a “Biden Constitution” or a “Trump Constitution.” The Church has one Magisterium – and the Pope is its primary guardian, not its master. This concept started being floated about five years ago as an effort to reduce the Magisterium to whatever political program a given Pope advocated for. The clown then blasted Strickland for accusing the Pope of material heresy in several cases, asking if Strickland did not know that the Pope is infallible. This only showed the clown has no understanding of infallibility and how rare its exercise is – or intentionally prostituted himself in hopes of getting a pat on the head from the Vatican. There are two forms of heresy, material and formal. Material heresy is a proposition that is objectively heretical, but unknown and unintended by the person who makes it. A very common material heresy is to think that because Christ is a man, He is a human person. He is a divine person with both a human and a divine nature. Rather than an attempt to undermine the faith, a material heresy is usually just an error, even if it can be a very damaging one. Formal heresy occurs when the author knows what he says is heresy and both intends and holds to it, anyway. That is a very difficult case to prove without a direct confession. It is widely acknowledged that both Popes Honorius and Liberius promoted material heresies, either through their actions or through their silence when they were obliged to speak in defense of the faith. The clown was just giving a lecture advocating for ultramontanism. He did trot out a couple of anonymous Priests from the Tyler Diocese who claimed that Strickland was a bad administrator and very “divisive.” Alas, those Priests used several left-wing buzz phrases in their critiques, identifying them as liberal activists. Yes, if you are a left-wing activist wearing a clerical collar; if you think it is a horrible offense that no Gay Pride flags are allowed on Church property, I can see why you would think Strickland is a bad Bishop. I visit Tyler regularly…and there is no Diocese in the country where the Bishop is as fully engaged with his flock as in Tyler. Strickland is so beloved there that part of me pities whoever is given the unenviable task of following him. In Tyler this week, they are conducting prayer vigils and consoling each other over their loss. The mood much more resembles the loss of a beloved family member than it does a change in ecclesial administration. The video was so chock full of error, malice, and palpably eager ambition I could only conclude the clown was trying to curry favor with the current Vatican establishment – after failing for several years to curry favor with traditionalists. God save us from mediocrities who are willing to parrot any line if only someone, anyone, would pay them notice!

I don’t doubt that somewhere along the line Bp. Strickland has said something intemperate. All but the most slippery among us have, at times. That said, Strickland is one of the most temperate men I have ever met.

The Vatican has yet to release a canonical reason for the dismissal. I am sure it will concoct one in time. But everyone already knows the actual reason: Bp. Strickland actually believes in God and that Scripture and the Magisterium are not negotiable. It is the second time in two years that Pope Francis has summarily dismissed, without stated canonical cause, a Bishop who was inconvenient to his politically-charged papacy. I have read some canon lawyers who say the Pope has this authority without condition; I have read more who say the Pope cannot do it except in the case where a serious canonical offense is involved. Canon lawyers, like their temporal counterparts, can be found on both sides of any dispute. What is beyond dispute is that, whatever he says about synodality or collegiality, this Pope is viciously ruthless in suppressing and defaming any who disagree with him. He is the most rigidly intolerant man to hold the papal seat in my lifetime. In theory, every Bishop is supposed to be the independent head of his Diocese and the Pope the first among equals. In practice, this move reveals that every Diocese is just a branch office of Vatican, Inc.

Even so, this move, following on so many other idiosyncratic moves by the Pope, may be the spark that begins real renewal in the Church. Bishops, like other men, are often ambitious for promotion. There is nothing wrong with that. Ambition fuels a lot of genuine accomplishment. But every orthodox Bishop in the world now knows he has risen as high as he ever will so long as Francis is Pope. If they want to rise, they must get enthusiastic about same-sex relationships, approving of transgenderism, and tolerant of abortion. If they want bonus points, they can say nasty things about St. John Paul. Ideally, your fidelity to your calling should act in service to your ambition. Now, fidelity to Scripture and the Magisterium are impediments to ambition – at least in the short term. To adapt and amend Thomas Paine’s quote from another great crisis, “These are the times that try Bishop’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their Divine Lord; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Once again, as I have been saying, it is decision time. If an orthodox Bishop is quiet and keeps his head down, the Vatican might not go after him. But that is the very definition of “shrinking” from service. If a Bishop speaks with bold clarity in defense of the faith, the Pope and the minions in the Vatican are likely to make his life hard. If he betrays, he might win advancement. But who trusts a betrayer from either side? Even more, with all the sketchy characters Pope Francis has surrounded himself with in the Vatican, the odds are pretty good that a gigantic scandal is going to surface sometime, perhaps one big enough to tank the Vatican’s entire progressive project, one in which orthodoxy will be the only chance to survive public revulsion and backlash. The most prudent course for any Bishop at this time is to imitate the first Apostles who gave their lives to Christ’s teaching out of love and conviction, both for Christ and their fellows. Now, more than ever, it is time to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do – and because it is the most prudent thing to do. Each Bishop will have to calibrate for himself how vocal he will be and what the priorities for his Diocese must be. Then, casting your bread of fidelity upon the water, take St. Padre Pio’s advice to “pray, hope, and don’t worry.”

Bp. Strickland is not the only prominent prelate who has accused the Pope of material heresy. Some very prominent and respected theologians and scholars have done so. Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the former prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (back when it protected and clarified, rather than bowdlerized and blurred, doctrinal integrity), has said that Pope Francis has made several statements that could be reasonably understood as material heresies. I was chuckling with a prominent theologian at the subtext of Cdl. Muller’s statement: the only way someone could be guilty of regular, serial material heresies without being guilty of formal heresy would be if they were not very bright.

When God wants to clarify things He often sends controversy. In the first thousand years of the Church the great controversies were over the nature of Christ. Now, we are engaged in a great controversy over the extent and limitations of any Pope’s authority and over the relationship between the Bishops of the world and the Pope – what their legitimate obligations are and the extent of their autonomy. It is messy (to use one of Francis’ favorite words), but I have no doubt that it will bear the fruit of clarity. When all is resolved, the “do your own thing” Catholics and the “do whatever the current Pope says on all things” Catholics will clearly know their error. They will know that they have a legitimate duty of obedience to the legitimate authority of Bishop and Pope, but that submission to an illegitimate exercise of that authority will not excuse them from accountability to the Lord for their fidelity to His commands. Our God is a demanding God. He demands that we try valiantly with our whole heart, mind and soul to serve Him with fidelity. But He is also a merciful Father. He knows our hearts. When we try our very best, He fortifies us and quickly forgives our many honest errors. But He knows when we slyly try to pretend a knowing infidelity is an honest error – and that kindles His wrath. Be open-hearted, do your best, and don’t worry.

Many in the Vatican establishment hope that this will be the end of Bp. Strickland’s influence in the Church. I think it is the beginning.

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Mico, Texas is a far western suburb of San Antonio. Originally formed primarily as a migrant workers camp by the Medina Irrigation Company, it is now a largely upscale bedroom community in the Texas Hill Country. The Medina Dam in Mico is one of the 10 largest in the country.

Lake Medina and its dam in Mico, Texas. The dam irrigates some 60,000 acres.

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Find me on Twitter at @JohnstonPilgrim

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