DALLAS — This year alone, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, has accused the pope of undermining the Catholic faith, has suggested that other Vatican officials have veered so far from church teaching that they are no longer Catholic, and has warned that a landmark global gathering that opens this week at the Vatican could threaten “basic truths” of Catholic doctrine.
With a savvy instinct for inserting himself into theological disputes and culture-war dust-ups across the country, Strickland has become a leading voice in the emboldened traditionalist wing of American Catholicism.
Now, he is at the center of what is shaping up to be an unusually personal clash in an escalating conflict between Pope Francis and American conservatives: The Vatican, in a relatively rare move, has investigated the bishop’s leadership and is reported to be privately considering asking for his resignation. The bishop, in a rarer one, has publicly refused.
“I cannot resign as Bishop of Tyler because that would be me abandoning the flock that I was given charge of by Pope Benedict XVI,” he wrote in an open letter to Catholics in his diocese in September. He said that he would comply if the pope removes him from office.
The conflict poses a delicate challenge for the Vatican, given Strickland’s popularity among conservative Catholics. Many see him as standing up for their values in the face of secular culture and a dangerously liberal Catholic hierarchy. Strickland has a weekly radio show, and more than 145,000 followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, vastly more than most Catholic Church leaders and more than twice the number of Catholics in his diocese.
He speaks at conferences across the country and posts prolifically on social media on topics ranging from the ethics of COVID-19 vaccines (which he has questioned) to the Latin Mass favored by traditionalists (and discouraged by Francis) to local conflicts between priests and bishops.
This makes Strickland, 64, an unusual figure within the Roman Catholic Church. He is a clergyman appointed by the Vatican to lead one of the country’s nearly 200 geographically defined dioceses — in this case, a rather small and remote one in East Texas. But he is also a free-ranging provocateur who is nationally known for his brazen rhetorical attacks on Francis.
Critics say that in his open defiance, he embodies Francis’ recent comments about “a very strong, organized, reactionary attitude” that opposes him within the US church, one that he says places ideology above faith.
This summer, the bishop was subject to a quiet investigation by the Vatican. The Vatican and its representatives in the United States have said nothing in public about the reasons for the investigation, or even acknowledged its existence. But Strickland has confirmed it took place, saying the investigators seemed to have “an agenda.”
In an interview that livestreamed Friday on YouTube, Strickland compared himself to an English bishop — now a saint — who was beheaded in the 16th century for resisting King Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church. “I don’t necessarily want to volunteer to lose my head," he said, “but I’d honestly rather lose my head than lose my faith.”
Resignation is the usual path offered to bishops nudged from office by the Vatican. The Pillar, a conservative-leaning independent Catholic media outlet, reported that American officials met with the pope in September to discuss whether the bishop should be encouraged to resign.
A spokesperson for Strickland declined a request to interview him. A representative for the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States did not respond to a request for comment.
Strickland has for years criticized the pope and his advisers for, in his view, diluting the church’s core teachings around social and theological issues, including Communion, divorce, abortion, and same-sex marriage.
In June, Strickland led a high-profile protest against the Los Angeles Dodgers over the team’s honoring of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an LGBTQ+ activist group that includes members who dress in drag as nuns. Bishops in California declined to appear at the protest, which was sponsored by right-wing Catholic media outlets and activist groups.
The tension has tightened in the lead-up to the Synod on Synodality, a gathering of bishops and others — including women and laypeople, a historical first — convened by Francis to discuss a wide range of issues facing the church.
With its broad mandate, collaborative process and open-ended topics, the gathering has alarmed many conservatives, including in the United States. They fear the conference could result in the church’s ordaining women as deacons, or blessing same-sex unions, among other possibilities.
The gathering opens in Rome on Wednesday, the day the pope will release a second part of his environmental encyclical Laudato Si.
In a letter last week that focused primarily on his views of the church’s opposition to the “LGBTQ agenda,” Strickland warned that the synod was “emerging as an attempt by some to change the focus of Catholicism from eternal salvation of souls in Christ, to making every person feel affirmed regardless of what choices they have made or will make in life.”
The pope has the clear authority to remove Strickland from office if he chooses, said Robert Flummerfelt, a canon lawyer based in Las Vegas. Typically, a bishop relieved of his duties would be moved to a position of little power, or effectively forced into retirement.
Pope John Paul II removed the authority of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle in the 1980s, for example, after the progressive archbishop was found to have exercised “weak doctrinal leadership” over issues including improperly allowing children to receive Communion. As recently as this summer, the bishop of Knoxville, Tenn., Richard Stika, retired after an investigation into turmoil in his diocese.
Strickland’s high profile and vocal supporters make the situation in Texas challenging. Flummerfelt said he hopes that if the Vatican dismisses Strickland, the reasons are laid out clearly and publicly.
“There’s no winning here,” Flummerfelt said. “They’re two trains charging at each other.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.