Following the Pope's removalof a Texas bishop Saturday, religious experts disagree on the circumstances surrounding the removal and on what it signals about the state of the Catholic Church.
Bishop Joseph Strickland, formerly the bishop of Tyler, was dismissed from his position by Pope Francis on Nov. 11 after a Vatican investigation into Strickland's governance and leadership of the diocese, according to a statement from the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston. The Vatican has not released the findings of its investigation.
Strickland, an outspoken critic of Pope Francis, accused the pope of "undermining the deposit of faith" in a tweet earlier this year. He has called the church "weak" and "not clear" under Francis's leadership and criticized the pope's recent meeting on the future of the Catholic Church, which included a discussion on ways to better welcome LGBTQ Catholics.
A Catholic group called Knights of the Republic is organizing a March on Tyler this Saturday "in defense of the Holy Mother Church and Bishop Joseph Strickland." Strickland reposted a flier advertising the march on the social media platform X, writing "I appreciate the vigorous faith this is inspired by but please remember I am nothing, Jesus is everything."
Bishop removal is extremely rare, said Christopher Malloy, chair of the theology department at the University of Dallas. He said reasons for dismissing a bishop can include canonical crimes, or crimes against the canon law that governs the Catholic Church, such as heresy or causing a church split.
Past removals include a Memphis bishop in 2018 who was removed because of his management of the diocese, a French bishop who publicly went against church positions on social issues and lost his diocese in 1995, and a French archbishop who criticized the church for being too liberal and was excommunicated for ordaining four bishops without a Vatican mandate in 1988.
Referring to Strickland's case, Malloy said "I just don't know what the reason for the removal was."
"I certainly don't see Bishop Strickland as having taught heresy or anything like that. I think he was very concerned that some are teaching heresy or promoting heresy."
Massimo Faggioli, a historian of the Catholic Church and professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, said Strickland's behavior was unusual.
Bishop dismissal is "very rare because it's the result of a refusal to obey the pope," Faggioli said. "It's a refusal of recognizing the legitimacy of a [resignation] request that was submitted by the pope to whom every bishop swears an oath."
That the findings of the investigation into Strickland hadn't been made public wasn't unusual, Faggioli said. "It is standard; the investigations, they rely on personal testimonies ... These documents deserve to be confidential, and to be seen only by a certain number of people, because [interviewees] can be subject to nasty kind of reprisals or retaliations."
"This is not something that has been decided overnight," Faggioli said of Strickland's removal. "If anything, it should have happened before."
Faggioli and Malloy agreed that Strickland's firing was symptomatic of larger issues the modern Catholic Church is facing, but disagreed sharply about the nature of those issues.
As modern culture shifts away from Catholic teachings on sexuality and marriage, Malloy said, Catholic prelates have been changing their stances.
"There are theologians and even some bishops who are challenging the teachings of the faith, especially the moral teachings," Malloy said. "Some people feel that they cannot remain silent in the face of the threat to the faith that's happening. And I think that's where Bishop Strickland was acting from."
In Faggioli's view, the "very big problem" facing the Catholic Church is an erosion of norms around civility and conversation driven by social media. "In the Catholic Church, we still have this idea that real life matters, that personal relationships matter," Faggioli said.
He believes social media has encouraged people to forgo those norms and react to controversial issues in immediate and black-and-white ways. Bishop Strickland's behavior, Faggioli said, is typical of "the way of reacting where you're always right, and the other people are always wrong."