Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, one of the loudest American voices against Pope Francis within his own church, recently responded to a Vatican investigation into his leadership and talk of his potential resignation with a public letter stating, “I cannot resign as Bishop of Tyler because that would be me abandoning the flock.” He added he would step aside only if the pope removed him.
On Saturday, Francis did just that.
In a rare move that is a measure both of Bishop Strickland’s outspoken criticism of the supreme pontiff of his faith and Francis’ frustration with ultraconservatives in the United States who have emerged as the financial center, and media megaphone, of the resistance to his papacy, the pope removed the prelate from his post.
“The Holy Father has relieved from the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Tyler,” Bishop Strickland, the Vatican said on Saturday in a routine statement of global staffing changes. It added that Francis had appointed Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin as the apostolic administrator of the sede vacante, or temporarily vacant seat, of Tyler.
Supporters of Francis, who considered Bishop Strickland’s frequent salvos against the pope beyond the pale and indicative of his extremism, were likely to welcome the firing. Unlike his predecessors, who had records of censoring prelates with opposing ideological viewpoints, Francis has generally allowed dissent in the ranks of his church in the interest of debate. But Bishop Strickland, 65 and well below the age of automatic resignation, tested the limits of that tolerance.
In the past year, he has accused the pope of undermining the Catholic faith, questioned whether Vatican officials even qualified as Catholics, and warned that the global meeting of bishops and lay people in October, which is key to Francis’ vision of the church, was a vehicle to threaten “basic truths” of Catholic doctrine. But even among unhappy conservatives, who feel Francis is diluting the church’s teaching and rules with his overly inclusive approach, Bishop Stickland pushed the envelope, as he did with his public refusal to resign in September.
However, Bishop Strickland’s backers in more conservative corners of the church are sure to consider his removal as another data point in their argument that Francis, despite all his talk of tolerance and mercy, was a totalitarian ruler, a “dictator pope,” they have called him, who crushes the opposition.
Bishop Strickland, now a martyr to frustrated traditionalists, has an unusually powerful platform from which to voice that viewpoint. He has a weekly radio show that is popular among conservatives, and he has more than 145,000 followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. That is more even than the number of Catholics in a diocese that will now be lead by a bishop more in line with Francis’ vision.