Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Bishop Strickland: ‘I defended the truth and the Pope removed me’


The following interview appeared in the Tuesday, November 28 edition of the widely read Italian daily, La Verità, a translation of which is published here with their kind permission.

A statement from the Holy See on November 11 announced the Pope Francis’ decision to “relieve” Bishop Joseph Strickland from governing the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. It was an extremely tough decision that shocked many for the way it happened and the lack of clarity about the reasons. The bishop talks about it in this exclusive interview and goes to the heart of many neuralgic issues for the Church and the faithful.

Your Excellency, how did your dismissal happen and why?

A few days before the official announcement, I was summoned to the Washington DC nunciature by the apostolic nuncio (Cardinal Christophe Pierre), who informed me that the Holy Father had made his decision and asked me to resign. I replied that because of my commitment as shepherd to my flock here in Tyler I could not resign, but that I would respect the Holy Father’s decision. The nuncio reiterated that the decision had been made and that I would be “removed”— he used this word, although the Vatican statement says “relieved”.  He then read a text to me expressing concerns that had been raised; I asked for a copy of the document, but it has not arrived yet; I guess it’s due to the offices being closed for the Thanksgiving holiday.

What concerns were raised?

Lack of communion with other bishops in the U.S. episcopate, lack of support for the Synod on Synodality, and lack of implementation of Traditionis Custodes (the 2021 motu proprio by which Francis restricted the ancient Mass, ed.). But honestly, I think everything can be traced back to my resistance to certain things happening in the Vatican and certain statements that, in my opinion, contradict or at least confuse the deposit of faith. I didn’t follow the “program,” and I admit that; I am proud to stand with the truth of Christ. While I’m sad about the removal, I remain joyful in my faith in Jesus Christ and am joyful to be part of His Church and to be, as priest and bishop, a successor of the Apostles. It’s true that sometimes some Catholics, due to an excess in fervour, have not been respectful in tone, but I prefer to see immense fervour and joy in sharing the treasure we have to offer. As Pope Francis says: we must go to the “peripheries” and bring the good news of Christ.

Who is the “program” you refer to coming from?

From the Vatican. It is certainly supported by the Pope, but it is not just his program; the people around him are pushing certain issues, on which I say: let us hold on to the fullness of truth that is Jesus Christ.

So, would the positions you have expressed on issues such as abortion, the blessing of same-sex couples, and gender ideology, have played a major role in your removal?

Yes, that’s what I think.

Yet, Pope Francis often praises parresia, that is, frankness in Christian preaching. Why has yours not been appreciated?

Because it isn’t going with the flow. I’ll give you an example on a key principle: the sanctity of life, including that of the unborn, is a preeminent issue that should be supported and promoted. Now, there are U.S. politicians who claim to be Catholics and are adamantly and vehemently pro-abortion in supporting laws which say we can take the life of an unborn child. To support such politicians is to contradict this fundamental principle. There are bishops who are “lukewarm” on the issue, who accuse me of being a “one-issue man”: this is not the case at all, but I do believe the violation of this principle radiates out into wars, human trafficking, drug and violence problems. Because when we do not respect the life that God has given us, even the most innocent, the unborn child, then we have a problem both as a society and as a Church. To prevaricate about abortion, saying we are against it but then welcoming those who endorse it with actions and words, is a lack of parresia sharing the good news that is Christ. I regret being removed, but I don’t regret what I said since I think we need to be very clear: always full of joy and hope but clear, as Christ was. Today we are afraid that people will walk away, and that is exactly what is happening because we do not proclaim clearly enough who Jesus Christ is and what His Church is.

You mentioned forces that want to change the Gospel: regarding what?

Chapter one of the Letter to the Romans clearly indicates the list of sins that must be rejected: homosexual activity—we need to keep in mind that it is not the tendency or attraction to people of the same sex that is immoral— is among them. But there are people close to Pope Francis who argue that this needs to be changed and that the Church has been wrong for two thousand years. Well, I reject the idea that the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church all this time in the wrong direction and that now the time has come to ignore St. Paul’s text because it calls homosexual practice a sin that we must reject. I believe, instead, that we need to look to the deposit of faith, the Scriptures, and to what we have always known. Of course, there have been injustices, and since everyone should be treated with respect we must correct those aspects, but the fact that certain people have not been respected cannot change the truth. To say that the union between two people of the same sex is equivalent to marriage between a man and a woman open to life is simply not telling the truth. We owe it to future generations to tell the truth: that marriage, even if it’s only a few, will be the treasure that will allow society to survive.

When you say there are forces influencing the Pope, to whom are you referring?

To numerous cardinals. Although Cardinal Parolin has made it clear that same-sex marriage and women’s priestly ordination are non-negotiable issues, there are those who have contradicted him, both in Germany and at the recent Synod on Synodality where many spoke out in defense of the truth of the Gospel and the deposit of faith, but where there was also a lot of pressure. Pope Francis administers the world government of the Church, a huge job that exceeds human capacity, and he needs to lean on other people. I think those he relies on, by their statements contradict the teaching of the Church. There are many “influencers” among cardinals and other Vatican officials who push for a certain agenda. And the Pope is listening to them.

Does this explain why, while you have been removed, there are still American bishops in place who are connected to the McCarrick scandal (the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington who was dismissed from the clerical state following his abuse of minors, ed.) or German bishops who do not seem very obedient to the Pope on doctrinal issues such as women’s priesthood and same-sex unions?

I would say yes. I got on the wrong side of some of these key officials and certain cardinals, for whom it was not tolerable for me to remain at the head of the diocese, because I did not keep silent as they had intimated me to do. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, but it is an organisation composed of men in which politics plays a part. I am too outspoken and think that, with the world in the shape it’s in, we need to be crystal clear in showing forth Christ and the teaching of the Church, encouraging people to follow him.

Many people wonder why Francis doesn’t intervene when bishops and cardinals appointed by him say things that seem to contradict the Deposit of Faith. What is your opinion on this?

In the Church it happens that, for various reasons, people close to the Pope dissuade him from intervening against those who contradict the faith. It doesn’t happen only with Francis: I remember that McCarrick was made a cardinal by John Paul II because some people surrounding the Pope were corrupt and wanted McCarrick in power, who showered them with stacks of dollars or blackmailed them. These are well-known facts. I think the influence exerted by some people whispering in Francis’ ear explains a lot of what is happening in the Church today. I am not an expert in Vatican circles, but it’s clear that it’s a complex institution with a bureaucracy that many popes have tried to change. Certain statements made shortly before his death by Cardinal Pell—who worked closely with Pope Francis—were very strong and regarded the direction the Church is taking. His own efforts against corruption in the financial sphere were thwarted by those who did not want to see their plans blown up.

Is there a crisis of faith among these “influencers” of the Pope?

This is the question many of the faithful are asking and I am asking as well. Of course, as Catholics who love the Lord it is not for us to judge, but it is also true that we need to know the truth and teach it to the next generation; and to recognise when these high-ranking officials in the Church contradict it. I talked about this five years ago at a (USCCB) meeting with the bishops and my conclusion was that some have no faith or at least believe something very different. But the Church is very clear, especially on moral issues.

Instead, we are seeing a clash between the “moral-Church” and “social-Church” that reflects a division taking place even at the episcopal level, to the point that there are whispers of the possibility of a schism: do you think this is a real danger?

There is a danger. But there is also a lot of confusion about this: schism is a departure from the truth, of which the papacy and all bishops are supposed to be the guardians. This is also supposed to be the Vatican’s mission. In the past, schisms occurred when individuals disagreed with Church teaching—think of Martin Luther—while here they are accusing me and others of being schismatics precisely because we defend the truth and say it cannot be changed. As St. Paul wrote, even if an angel from heaven proclaims to you a Gospel different from the one we have proclaimed to you, let him be anathema! “Schismatic” means separating yourself from the teaching of the Pope, but when the Vatican, apparently with the support of Francis, teaches things that contradict the faith, then the word “schismatic” takes on a whole new meaning. And I reject the idea that standing for the truth of the Gospel and the Word of God is to be schismatic.