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Colleen DulleMay 25, 2023
Pope Francis greets Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, during a meeting with U.S. bishops from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas during their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican Jan. 20, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Tex., publicly rejected Pope Francis’ “program” in a tweet on May 12, saying: “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.”

This was not the first time Bishop Strickland has publicly criticized the pope. Just last year, he was the first signatory on a letter accusing Pope Francis of contradicting Catholic teaching on the worthy reception of the Eucharist. Bishop Strickland also endorsed Archbishop Maria Carlo Viganò’s explosive letter in 2018 calling on Pope Francis to resign.

Bishop Strickland’s May 12 tweet, accusing the pope of “undermining the Deposit of Faith,” came as he and several other prominent Catholics sought to distance themselves from Patrick Coffin, a podcaster who has called Francis an antipope. The bishop had spoken at an event organized by Mr. Coffin in March, and his name was removed from the website after Mr. Coffin's controversial "Hope is Fuel" online conference began drawing criticism. A number of conference speakers have opted out in recent days, and the website was updated May 12 to include a pop-up disclaimer saying that presenters at the conference do not necessarily “agree with or approve of Patrick Coffin’s hypothesis with respect to his claim that Pope Francis is an antipope.”

Bishop Strickland publicly rejected Pope Francis’ “program” saying: “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.

Bishop Strickland clarified in a tweet on May 13 that “[i]n these troubling times with so much confusion even from Rome it is critical to remain IN THE CHURCH. Schismatic movements...however well-intended are an injury to the body of Christ.” But the bishop’s criticism of Pope Francis has raised questions about whether Rome will finally take action against what some have called a brewing schism in the U.S. church.

Asked directly about schism in the U.S. church in 2019, Pope Francis said: “I am not afraid of schisms. I pray they do not happen.”

A report from Religion News Service this week confirmed that the papal nuncio, or ambassador, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, had privately chastised the Texas bishop in 2021. Terry Barber, host of the Terry and Jesse Show, which regularly features Bishop Strickland as a guest, said the nuncio told Bishop Strickland to “stop talking about the deposit of faith.” Another source said the nuncio had confronted Bishop Strickland about his Twitter feed.

It remains unknown whether Pope Francis will publicly respond to Bishop Strickland’s latest provocation, but past cases may provide a clue to how the pope will approach this challenge.

The Viganò Letter: Responding with silence

The morning after several Catholic media outlets published Archbishop Viganò’s 11-page dossier accusing Pope Francis of covering up abuse by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2018, Pope Francis faced the press. The letter’s release had been timed to coincide with the pope’s already-challenging visit to Ireland, where more than 130,000 Catholics had left the church between 2011 and 2016 as the country saw the publication of several major reports on clerical sexual abuse.

Before the press conference aboard the papal plane back to Rome, the pope visited the shrine at Knock, where a vision of the Virgin Mary is purported to have appeared to 15 people in 1879. Unlike in other famous apparitions, Mary did not speak in Knock but prayed silently. Pope Francis did the same for more than an hour during his visit there and later extended that silence in his response to reporters’ questions about Archbishop Viganò’s allegations, saying, “I will not say a single word about this.”

Asked directly about schism in the U.S. church in 2019, Pope Francis said: “I am not afraid of schisms. I pray they do not happen.”

Reporters quickly shot holes through Archbishop Viganò’s argument, and the Vatican ultimately responded two years later with its own 445-page report on Mr. McCarrick clearing Francis of any wrongdoing. Archbishop Viganò has not faced any public consequences from the Vatican and continues to issue public statements, although he claims to be living “in hiding” for fear of his life. (Bishop Strickland was one of several American bishops to publicly support Archbishop Viganò in his call for the pope to resign.)

Pope Francis calls EWTN attacks ‘the work of the devil’

Of course, Pope Francis has not always responded with silence to attacks on him. Asked by a Jesuit in Slovakia how he deals with people who “view [him] with suspicion,” the pope alluded to the U.S.-based Catholic media network EWTN, saying: “There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.”

America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, independently confirmed that the pope had told some members of EWTN’s staff that the network “should stop speaking badly about me.”

Of course, Pope Francis has not always responded with silence to attacks on him. 

In this case, Pope Francis responded to several years of negative coverage on the channel—primarily from American anchor Raymond Arroyo’s show “The World Over”—first by speaking personally to some members of the staff, and then by calling out the network publicly, though not by name. Notably, he has not restricted the accreditation of EWTN journalists to the Holy See press corps.

Pope Francis apologizes for his response to Chilean abuse victims

Pope Francis’ about-face on the Chilean abuse crisis in the face of heavy criticism is another case worth examining. During his visit to Chile in 2018, which primarily aimed to heal the wounds of the abuse crisis in that country, the pope dismissed allegations that Bishop Juan Barros had witnessed and covered up for laicized priest and notorious sexual abuser Fernando Karadima. The pope accused three of Karadima’s victims of “calumny” against the bishop, despite the fact that the three victims had been deemed credible enough by the Vatican to warrant removing Mr. Karadima from ministry in 2011.

The pope’s defense of the bishop and criticism of the victims caused an uproar in Chile, and in response, Pope Francis sent an investigator to speak with each of the victims. When the investigation found that Bishop Barros had indeed covered up for Mr. Karadima, the pope admitted his mistake and apologized. One of the three victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, is now an advisor to the pope on sexual abuse, and the two maintain a close relationship.

The pope is willing to admit when his critics are right and then take steps to make up for his mistakes.

Here Pope Francis showed a willingness to speak out publicly against criticism—in this case, of another bishop—rather than remaining silent. But it also shows that the pope is willing to admit when his critics are right and then take steps to make up for his mistakes.

‘Traditionis Custodes’: Pope Francis ruling with an iron fist?

A final example of how the pope has responded to criticism and even dissent is his restriction on celebrations of the Tridentine Latin Mass. After consulting the world’s bishops about the use of the pre-Vatican II Mass in their dioceses, Francis decided to restrict celebrations of the Tridentine rite in July 2021. In his motu proprio “Traditionis Custodes,” the pope wrote that “an opportunity [to celebrate the old rite] offered by St. John Paul II and, with even greater magnanimity, by Benedict XVI, intended to recover the unity of an ecclesial body with diverse liturgical sensibilities, was exploited to widen the gaps, reinforce the divergences, and encourage disagreements that injure the Church, block her path, and expose her to the peril of division.”

Proponents of the old liturgy have been among the most vocal critics of Pope Francis, and many of those proponents have interpreted the pope’s decision to restrict the pre-Vatican II rite as him ruling with an iron fist and limiting the dialogue that he so often calls for. The pope did not bend to this criticism, though, and reaffirmed his decision to restrict the old rite in his apostolic letter “Desiderio Desideravi” the following summer.

What drives the pope to act

What conclusions can we draw, then, from how Pope Francis has responded to criticisms in the past?

Francis’ tried and true first response to attacks or criticism, particularly on him personally, is silence. If dialogue is possible, he will attempt that; if not, the next step is discerning action.

Francis’ tried and true first response to attacks or criticism, particularly on him personally, is silence. If dialogue is possible, he will attempt that; if not, the next step is discerning action.

The key question is what sparks the pope to take action. A through line in the cases listed above—commissioning the McCarrick report, sending an investigator to Chile, restricting the pre-Vatican II Mass—is a seeming desire to root out abuse and to foster unity.

Protecting church unity was the driving force behind his decision to restrict the pre-Vatican II Mass, he said, and he alluded to it being a priority as well when speaking about EWTN’s attacks: “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them.”

There is much argument, of course, about whether his words and actions have been effective in fostering unity or have fueled further division.

The cases in which he has elected not to take action—for example, not punishing Archbishop Viganò or restricting EWTN’s accreditation—seem to show that criticizing Francis alone, even to an extreme degree, does not warrant retaliation. It is only when those words reach the point of dividing the church, as misuse of the pre-Vatican II Mass did, that Francis sees the need to take action.

It is possible that, having previously chastised Bishop Strickland privately through the papal nuncio, Pope Francis may discern that the next step is to act. If he does, his rationale would likely be protecting the unity of the church—even if said action ultimately only fans the embers of schism in the U.S. church.

Correction 05/25/2023 12:13 p.m.: Due to a reporting error, this article originally stated that Bishop Strickland had been slated to speak at the "Hope is Fuel" conference. He had spoken at a previous conference hosted by the same organization, but was not on the roster for "Hope is Fuel." The article has been updated to reflect this change.

Correction 05/25/2023 5:45 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify the different accounts of Archbishop Pierre's conversation with Bishop Strickland, as reported by Religion News Service.

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