Searching for Answers: Why Was Bishop Joseph Strickland Removed?

The Vatican focused on Twitter and Tyler.

Bishop Joseph Strickland walks in front of a reliquary bearing the bones of Saint Maria Goretti into the sanctuary at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, in Tyler, Texas.
Bishop Joseph Strickland walks in front of a reliquary bearing the bones of Saint Maria Goretti into the sanctuary at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Monday, Nov. 2, 2015, in Tyler, Texas. (photo: Andrew D. Brosig / AP )

The old Joe Strickland never would have gotten dismissed.

As a priest and in his early years leading the little-known Diocese of Tyler in East Texas, Bishop Strickland was considered mild-mannered and middle-of-the-road.

In late 2016, the plainspoken prelate changed his approach, from what he calls a “management bishop” to teaching the Catholic faith aggressively, including its controversial parts. He eventually began calling out others publicly when he considered their actions deficient, including Pope Francis.

“I can remember just by myself, just in prayer, saying, ‘Joe, are you going to just sort of follow this management model [or] are you going to teach the truth?’” Bishop Strickland told the Register in a Nov. 15 interview.

Bishop Strickland set his course, and almost seven years later, he’s now out of a job — at 65, an officially retired bishop with no assignment, 10 years ahead of the normal retirement age.

Why did Pope Francis remove him?

The Vatican won’t say. It didn’t announce that it had launched an apostolic visitation of Bishop Strickland and his diocese in late June. Nor did it comment on any of the visitation’s findings, or the specific basis for his eventual removal by Pope Francis on Nov. 11.

Two days before the Vatican released a terse statement with the news of his dismissal, Bishop Strickland quietly traveled from East Texas to Washington D.C., where he had an awkward but cordial meeting with Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, who represents the Pope in this country.

Cardinal Pierre told Bishop Strickland the Pope wanted him to resign. When the bishop refused, as he had previously vowed he would, the nuncio informed him that Pope Francis would remove him.

In comments made shortly after his removal, Bishop Strickland speculated that the reason he was removed was because he “threatened some of the powers that be with the truth of the Gospel.”

Since then, however, more details have emerged that provide a fuller, yet still incomplete, picture of what might have sealed his fate in Tyler.

Bishop Strickland told the Register that when they met Nov. 9, the nuncio showed him three or four pages of typewritten “issues and concerns” the Vatican had with him.

“The most serious” allegation, he said, “was what they called my disrespect of Pope Francis.”

Another point of contention was his delay in fully implementing the Pope’s restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass as outlined in his July 2021 document Traditionis Custodes (The Guardians of Tradition) and a follow-up clarification.

The Vatican also “did mention that I had welcomed some canonically irregular situations,” Bishop Strickland said, apparently referring to his welcoming to the diocese a troubled lay Catholic residential community called Veritatis Splendor and a small community of religious sisters asked to leave a previous diocese, among others. The Vatican also cited, he said, “a lack of fraternity with the Texas bishops.”

“And there wasn’t a point that the nuncio brought up that I argued with and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t do that,’” Bishop Strickland told the Register. “I said, ‘Yeah, I did these things.’”

Day-to-day administration of the diocese never came up, Bishop Strickland said, even though some commentators have suggested his leadership was also a problem.

Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, for one, called the Texas bishop’s removal “an administrative, not a penal, act.”

“+Strickland misgoverned his diocese and has been removed for the good of the faithful,” Ivereigh wrote.

If that’s true, what exactly did he misgovern?

The Deposit of Faith

Bishop Strickland’s notoriety is greater than any other bishop’s in the country. He dominated coverage of the recent fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops simply by showing up in Baltimore to pray the Rosary, without attending the meetings. The papal nuncio asked him not to go to the sessions, Bishop Strickland said.

Since his removal, the bishop’s online stature has grown to about 170,000 followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, increasing about 12% in the first week after news of his dismissal broke, according to a website that tracks such followings.

That’s less than the followings of Cardinal Timothy Dolan (268,000), Bishop Robert Barron (254,000) and Father James Martin (300,000). But it far exceeds the online reach of the majority of clerics in the United States, including all other U.S. cardinals besides New York’s Cardinal Dolan.

While the vast majority of Bishop Strickland’s tweets are purely spiritual or devotional — reminding readers of saints’ feast days and the liturgical calendar, for instance — he is known for making sensational statements that quickly go viral.

Most famously, on May 12 of this year, Bishop Strickland tweeted: “I believe Pope Francis is the Pope but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the Deposit of Faith. Follow Jesus.”

Bishop Strickland’s statements and online activity had stirred controversy long before then, however.

In 2018, Bishop Strickland publicly declared that he found “credible” the allegations of Archbishop Carlo Viganò that Pope Francis had protected former cardinal and confirmed sex abuser Theodore McCarrick. Two years later, he called the Vatican’s slow and incomplete review of the case “evil” and invited the Pope to “go ahead and fire me” for his comment.

In addition to criticisms of Pope Francis and the Vatican, he has also taken forceful positions on issues like COVID-19 vaccines derived from fetal stem cells, claiming, against guidance from the USCCB and the Vatican, that they were always immoral to use. He participated in a Jericho March event that questioned the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.

A sizable portion of American Catholics have seen the straight-shooting Texan as the rare hierarch who is willing to voice his concerns about the Church and the world, and his following has exploded as a result. 

Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, goes to one knee Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, to greet children on the first day of school at St. Gregory Cathedral School in Tyler, Texas. (Photo: Andrew D. Brosig)

In Tyler, some have found Bishop Strickland’s engagement with issues in the broader Church and the world helpful, especially at a time when social media can quickly spread harmful ideas from one part of the country to another — even quiet Northeast Texas.

“I think the bishop recognizes that today’s bishops have to be more proactive in responding to what’s going on, not only in their own diocese, but in the entire country,” said Jeff Todd, a parishioner at St. Joseph the Worker in Tyler, the diocese’s main traditional Latin Mass parish.

Others, however, have said that the bishop’s external focus has led to neglect and division in the local Catholic community. 

Briana Jansky, a recent convert who lives in Tyler, recently wrote that although Bishop Strickland’s love of Jesus is evident, his public criticisms of the Pope “ripped away” her sense of Church unity.

“I was scandalized from then on, filled with anxiety about who was telling the truth and who wasn’t,” Jansky wrote in a Nov. 14 commentary for Black Catholic Messenger..

About six weeks after Bishop Strickland’s “undermining the deposit of faith” post earlier this year, the Vatican sent two bishops to Tyler to investigate him, starting the process of his removal: Bishop Gerald Kicanas, the retired bishop of Tucson, Arizona; and Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, New Jersey.

Some Church figures under investigation maintain radio silence. Not Bishop Strickland.

On July 8, two weeks after his private interview with the Vatican investigators, Bishop Strickland retweeted a YouTube video that included a commentator calling Pope Francis “a diabolically disoriented clown” who is trying “to get rid of true religion — that’s what his job is — in order for this globalist ape of God to take over the world.” Bishop Strickland called the video, titled “Pope Francis, Nancy Pelosi & the Tyrannical Culture of Death,” a “sad commentary on the Church and state in our time.”

On Oct. 28, Bishop Strickland criticized the Synod on Synodality, a signature initiative of Pope Francis. The Pope says he is using the synod to promote healing and understanding by broadening the Church’s ability to listen — but at the expense, critics say, of upholding fundamental teachings of the Church.

Bishop Strickland tweeted: “I say NO to this synodal silliness that fails to humbly embrace the Truth that Jesus Christ has revealed to humanity.”

On Oct. 31, during an appearance at a public event in Rome, Bishop Strickland quoted at length from a letter from a friend of his that linked Pope Francis to the “beast” in Revelation 17:11 and described the Pontiff as a “usurper” of the throne of Peter.

The Register asked Bishop Strickland about those instances in a telephone interview on Nov. 18. On the retweet of the “diabolically disoriented clown” video, Bishop Strickland said, “I realized that was a mistake. But my intention, and I’ll stand before God and say, ‘Lord, what I meant was, what I think the tweet tried to say was: Isn’t it tragic that people are saying this about the Holy Father, and that’s the state of the Church today, that this is being said?’ I didn’t endorse it. I didn’t agree with it, but that’s what I said. I know it was stupid for me to try to do that, especially in a tweet. But that’s where it was.”

As for the letter from a friend, Bishop Strickland said he disagrees with his friend’s contention that Pope Francis is not actually the Pope. When the letter applies the word “usurper” to Pope Francis, Bishop Strickland said, “I read that as using the power of Christ to change the truth. I think that’s a problem. But it is the Pope doing it.”

Troubles in Tyler?

Were these posts and statements enough on their own to trigger Bishop Strickland’s dismissal? If so, why go to the trouble of conducting an apostolic visitation of the Tyler Diocese?

Bishop Strickland told the Register that at least two other diocesan officials said the investigating bishops “were getting really frustrated” with the information they were receiving during interviews, “because it was like they were unable to complete their mission. They couldn’t find a good reason to have me removed.”

The Register contacted representatives of Bishops Kicanas and Sullivan seeking comment, but did not hear back by deadline.

Bishop Strickland’s newfound determination seven years ago to make Tyler “a teaching diocese” led him to produce in May 2017 a pastoral document on teaching the faith. That laid the groundwork for the St. Philip Institute of Catechesis and Evangelization, a nonprofit organization meant to stand outside the bureaucracy of the diocese while assisting the bishop in evangelizing.

Later that year, the Diocese of Tyler experienced the beginning of what Bishop Strickland described to the Register as “significant turmoil,” eventually leading to the tense departures of four key officials of the diocese. 

In 2017, Father Anthony McLaughlin, who served as vicar general and president of a Catholic high school, left those posts and eventually left the diocese. In August 2018, three key officials left at the same time: Ben Fisher, the lay director of operations; Peter Kane, the lay finance director; and Father Anthony Stoeppel, who had replaced the first priest as vicar general and president of the Catholic high school. (He, too, has since left the diocese.)

Bishop Strickland told the Register he determined that the four officials were pursuing their own agendas rather than his. The Register attempted to get comment from all four. Father McLaughlin and Kane declined to comment for this story, Father Stoeppel did not respond to a request for comment, and Fisher could not be located.

Bishop Strickland called the period “the most messy” he has dealt with as a priest or a bishop.

“And it took a while to get back on track, but, you know, here we are, five years later, and very much back on track,” he said.

Speaking to the Register, Bishop Strickland acknowledged making a mistake by approving the contracts of the lay director of operations and the lay finance director without realizing they included generous severance packages for both men, which wound up costing the diocese when they left.

The upheaval of that period has led some observers to question Bishop Strickland’s oversight.

José Trasancos, the president and chief executive officer of Children of God for Light, an independent pro-life research organization that counts Bishop Strickland as a board member and spiritual adviser, told the Register he admires his bishop but does not see administration as his strong suit.

“I like the bishop personally. I think he’s a genuine guy. He struck me as a statesman and a leader, but not as an administrator,” Trasancos said in a telephone interview.

One former diocesan employee who worked under Bishop Strickland agreed, claiming that the bishop’s inability to make decisions meant he could be easily steered by close advisers. “The common wisdom was to make sure that you were the last person to talk to him on a subject,” said Susan Necessary, who worked for the diocesan publication for 30 years before being let go in 2017. She suggested Bishop Strickland’s recent embrace of the role of outspoken social-media personality as one instance of others influencing him.

The Register reached out to more than 10 current diocesan employees and advisers about their experience with Bishop Strickland, but most either did not respond or cited the diocese’s current policy of directing all media inquiries to the diocesan communications director. The Diocese of Tyler’s communications director did not answer questions related to Bishop Strickland’s tenure that were asked by the Register.

Bishop Joseph Strickland prays the Rosary just outside the US Bishops Fall meeting in Baltimore, Md on Nov. 14, 2023.  SM
Bishop Joseph Strickland prays the Rosary just outside the US Bishops Fall meeting in Baltimore, Md on Nov. 14, 2023.(Photo: Shannon Mullen )

When asked about his governance, Bishop Strickland points to key indicators suggesting the Diocese of Tyler is doing well. The most recent bishop’s appeal brought in $3.1 million, up from $1.5 million when he started, he said. Tyler has 20 seminarians, a large number for a diocese its size. Almost all parishes are doing well, he said, with high Mass attendance, good priests and solid finances.

Laypeople have also made the transition to Tyler. One of Bishop Strickland’s key advisers, Deacon Keith Fournier, estimates that 400 families have moved to the diocese specifically to have Bishop Strickland as their shepherd. 

In fact, Deacon Fournier himself came to Tyler in 2019 to work for Bishop Strickland and now directs deacon formation for the diocese and Catholic identity at Bishop Gorman Catholic High School.

“I think Tyler is an example of what is needed throughout the Church, and that is when we live the beauty of the Catholic faith, really live it and believe it. It’s magnetic,” said Deacon Fournier recently during a Crisis Magazine podcast.

“He’s a pastoral man. He’s a leader. He’s what a bishop should be. He works off of an ecclesial model, not a corporatist model,” said Deacon Fournier, underscoring that Bishop Strickland is a good delegator and that the diocese is in good financial standing. Deacon Fournier declined the Register's request for comment.

Bishop Strickland said his leadership has worked.

“You can make allegations of anything. I think you just look at the record of the diocese. It’s grown. People are moving in. It’s a happy place,” Bishop Strickland said. “I mean, it’s not perfect. It’s not heaven. But it’s in good shape.”

The Vatican’s Concerns

As for his reticence to implement Traditionis Custodes, Bishop Strickland said he is still a newcomer to the Latin Mass — the first one he ever celebrated was in 2020, he said, and he called himself “a Novus Ordo guy.” But he said he doesn’t agree with Pope Francis’ attempts to restrict the Latin Mass.

“There’s so many faithful young families, I mean bursting at the seams. We have one FSSP parish,” Bishop Strickland said, referring to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. “And I said, ‘I’m not going to cut those people off.’ I’m just not.”

He said he tried to fly under the radar, not issuing pronouncements on the subject. He said he didn’t ask for permission from the Vatican to allow public Latin Masses to continue unrestricted — “because I’d heard of other bishops that asked permission, and they got [told], ‘Well, you can do it for another month, and then it’s over.’ I mean, they’re clearly wanting to shut that down.”

Todd, who coordinates confirmations at the FSSP parish, said that while Bishop Strickland has been supportive of the Latin Mass community in Tyler, he also didn’t necessarily “throw [Traditionis Custodes] out the window.” For instance, while “a handful” of diocesan parishes are still allowed to celebrate the Latin Mass, the diocese also restricted the celebration of other sacraments according to pre-Vatican II missals to just the FSSP parish in the past year.

The Diocese of Tyler has become known for Catholic newcomers who didn’t have a religious home elsewhere.

One example is a small religious community of women called Daughters of Mary, Mother of Israel’s Hope, founded by Mother Miriam. Tyler is the community’s four diocese since it began in 2008; two bishops in other dioceses didn’t want the community there, Mother Miriam told the Register in June. 

Mother Miriam is an admirer of Bishop Strickland, who invited her to bring her community to the Diocese of Tyler, and a critic of Pope Francis. On June 7, during a radio show she hosts, Mother Miriam called Pope Francis “a fallen away Catholic.”

The Register asked Strickland about Veritatis Splendor, a lay tradition-minded Catholic residential community that ran into problems after its founder was caught up in an adultery scandal in the fall of 2021. While progress stalled for a while, a spokesman for the community told the Register in June that construction began in July 2022 and that a planned build-out was proceeding as of this past summer.

Strickland welcomed the community to the Diocese of Tyler and was initially announced as its spiritual adviser.

In a recent interview with the Register, Strickland acknowledged the community’s problems, but said they don’t reflect on the diocese.

“It's not part of the diocese. It's not canonically erected in the diocese. It's not financed. I haven't given a penny to Veritatus Splendor,” Strickland said.

Fraternity with his fellow bishops is another concern the Vatican cited against the bishop.

Bishop Strickland told the Register his relations with other bishops in Texas have been cordial, although he also said there hasn't been much communication.

High-Profile Conflicts

Bishop Strickland has gotten involved in at least two high-profile conflicts in other dioceses where his judgment clashed with that of the local bishop.

In 2021, he expressed support for Father James Altman, a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, whose bishop removed him from pastoral ministry months after Father Altman made a video saying, “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat” because of the Democratic Party’s support for abortion.

This past June, Bishop Strickland traveled to Los Angeles to speak at a demonstration outside Dodger Stadium protesting the Dodgers’ honoring of the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence,” a pro-homosexuality group that mocks nuns and Catholic teaching on sexuality — after the ordinary there, Archbishop José Gomez, distanced himself from the event.

Bishop Strickland describes his public pronouncements, including his criticisms of Pope Francis, as attempts to stand up for the truth.

“I value speaking the truth, the deposit of faith, above really anything else. The fraternity with others? To me, that’s the greatest respect for the Holy Father, [to] speak the truth of the deposit of faith,” he told the Register. To me, that’s what it boils down to. I was unwilling to quit talking about the truth of the faith that I believe in. I was unwilling to do that. And they said, ‘Okay, you’re not cooperating with the plan. You’re not going with the program. And so you need to be removed.’”

What’s next for Bishop Strickland?

He says he’s not sure. He told the Register the Diocese of Tyler will continue to provide for his housing and other material needs, as it would for any retired bishop. He also said he has received several job offers since his dismissal, but he seemed in no hurry to accept any of them.