In a rare move, Pope Francis removed from office American Bishop Joseph Strickland, a prominent conservative who had repeatedly criticized his papacy, the Vatican announced Saturday.
“The Holy Father has removed from the pastoral governance of the diocese of Tyler (United States) Joseph E. Strickland,” the Vatican announced in a statement, a few weeks after Francis sent two American bishops in June to Mr. Strickland’s diocese in Texas.
The bishop of Austin, Joe Vasquez, was named apostolic administrator of the diocese, the text continues without further details.
According to commentators, it is extremely rare for a bishop to be directly relieved of his responsibilities, rather than encouraged – or ordered – to resign.
According to Texas Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, this dismissal is linked to an investigation ordered by the pope concerning “all aspects of governance and direction” of the diocese led by Mr. Strickland.
The apostolic visit organized in June led to the conclusion that it was “not possible” to keep the bishop in his post, according to the same source.
The Vatican did not specify what triggered the visit or what conclusions it had reached. Mr. Strickland wrote that the two bishops spent a week conducting discussions, including with him, about the situation in the diocese.
On Thursday, Mr. Strickland, 65, was asked to resign, which the dignitary refused – leading the pope to intervene, Cardinal DiNardo reported.
“I maintain all the things that have been the subject of complaints against me,” the bishop told the conservative Canadian Catholic site LifeSiteNews, according to an article published Saturday, adding that he had not implemented Francis’ reforms because “ I cannot starve part of my flock.”
“I would do it again the same way,” he added, according to the article.
In a blog published on his website in September, Mgr Strickland responded to rumors that the Vatican was encouraging him to resign.
“I cannot resign as Bishop of Tyler, because to do so would be to abandon the flock in my care,” he wrote.
“I also declared that I will respect the authority of Pope Francis if he removes me from my functions as bishop of Tyler,” he added.
A reactionary attitude
The Texas bishop, appointed by former Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, was one of Pope Francis’ most prominent critics.
The 86-year-old Argentine pope has sought to make the Church more compassionate and open to different points of view.
But he has faced stiff opposition from his critics, particularly in the United States, who have accused him of sowing confusion and failing to respect the fundamental beliefs of Catholics.
In a message published earlier this year on X (formerly Twitter), Mr. Strickland accused the pope of “undermining the deposit of faith.”
Many of his detractors criticize Francis for not being firm enough on the subject of abortion and for being too compassionate towards homosexual or divorced people.
At a Jesuit meeting in Lisbon, Francis deplored the “strongly reactionary attitude” of some Catholics in the United States.
He said looking to the past “was unnecessary and (it was) necessary to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the way we approach questions of faith and morality.”
The decision to fire Mr. Strickland was also announced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement as terse as the Vatican’s.
The Diocese of Tyler has more than 120,000 Catholics, out of a total population of more than 1.4 million, according to the conference.
For its part, the diocese posted a statement on its website confirming the Vatican’s announcement, adding: “Our work as the Catholic Church in Northeast Texas continues.”
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