Too much Twitter in Tyler, too little transparency in Rome

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

November 15, 2023

By Christopher R. Altieri

The longer one looks at what did and did not happen in the Strickland case, the more starkly does it begin to appear that Pope Francis’s main concern was to send a message, pour encourager les autres.

The Catholic world is in an uproar over the ouster of a bishop with an outsized public profile that he acquired mostly through social media.

If you’re Catholic and you pay attention to these things, you’ll probably have guessed that I am talking about Bishop Joseph Strickland, olim of Tyler, Texas, a physically gargantuan diocese cobbled from parts of three other Texan jurisdictions in the mid-1980s with a Catholic head count that is a miniscule fraction of the large general population.

The very short version of a very sad story is that Strickland said or repeated lots of very nasty things about Pope Francis, which prompted a visit from other bishops at the pope’s behest who were tasked with seeing how Strickland was doing in his job. After which Francis invited Strickland to resign and then relieved him of his see when Strickland refused the invitation to go quietly.

Strickland didn’t only say one unpleasant thing, either. He used social media—mostly The Thing That Used To Be Twitter—to share some awfully ill-tempered and frankly hare-brained stuff about Pope Francis.

For example, Strickland applauded and shared media describing Pope Francis as a “diabolically disoriented clown”.

Strickland also mixed with unsavory lunatics beyond the fringe, who have doubted and even publicly denied Francis’s legitimacy. “I believe Pope Francis is the pope,” Strickland wrote after a particularly egregious contretemps, “but it is time for me to say that I reject his program of undermining the deposit of faith.”

That’s not much of a walk-back, if we are being perfectly frank.

Even if it were just for that, there would be few among the sane who couldn’t finally wrap their heads around the idea that it would be better for everyone—including Joe Strickland—if Strickland weren’t the Bishop of Tyler, Texas, anymore, no matter what they think of Francis.

That’s pretty much the sum of what we know for certain about the Strickland business, at least from official channels.

And that is a problem.

Use of an extraordinary power—in this case, the power to depose bishops—ought to be both sparing and candidly motivated. One ought to use an extraordinary power only when it is really necessary. When one uses an extraordinary power, one ought to explain as fully as possible how and why one is using it. Pope Francis has not done that.

Transparency: Who stands to lose the most?

The inveterate Francis-haters and stalwart partisans of the soi-disant resistance were always going to reject any motivation or justification the pope and the Vatican proffered for the ouster of their darling Strickland. That’s all the more reason for the pope and the Vatican to do it right and to let themselves be seen to be doing it right.

That’s not to say the pope and the Vatican should have spilt all the tea there may have been to spill on Strickland. But it is to say they ought to have published a thorough summary of the investigation Pope Francis ordered back in June of this year.

It shouldn’t have been too hard to put together a statement explaining–in words—that Strickland’s increasingly strident and frankly erratic online behavior, coupled with several complaints from different quarters of his diocese over many years, led Rome to believe that a close review of his governance was in order, and that the review found X, Y, Z, all serious problems for which Strickland had neither adequate explanation nor any apparent willingness to make amendment.

The statement could have rehearsed specific efforts to remonstrate with Strickland, to bring him around, to see that it was time for him to retire.

Instead, we heard from the metropolitan archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who said that a pair of trusty prelates conducted “an exhaustive inquiry into all aspects” of Strickland’s leadership, after which “the recommendation was made to the Holy Father that the continuation in office of Bishop Strickland was not feasible.”

The statement from Cardinal DiNardo went on to say that the Vatican types in the Dicastery for Bishops kicked ideas around for several months in consultation with Pope Francis, and eventually decided to ask for Strickland’s resignation, which they did on November 9th.

Strickland refused to resign. Pope Francis removed him.


How two guys should have completed, in a short time, an exhaustive review of one man’s decade in office, well, never mind. The point is that any such fact-finding mission as a so-called Apostolic Visitation—one of the oldest investigative tools in the papal toolbox—will find some peg on which to hang a fellow.

This time, it was really important to say—for the record and officially—which peg, or at least which rack.

Folks reasonably wonder why it is that a criminal pervert like Gustavo Zanchetta got a sinecure in the Vatican after it became impossible for Francis to ignore complaints about his fast and loose financial management and handsy ways with seminarians, while a guy like Strickland gets the boot.

It just isn’t enough—not in the real world—to say that Zanchetta agreed to go quietly, while Strickland dared the pope to fire him.

Missed opportunity

As long as we are being perfectly frank, there is much more about Pope Francis’s own governance that really does need straightening out. Francis is arguably the one bishop in the world with the most to lose from transparency in the practice of governance.

From his reserved and highly selective application of Vos estis lux mundi—that’s his paper reform of investigative and prosecutorial procedure for cases of abuse and coverup in the Church—to his various occultations and rehabilitations of criminal perverts and their abettors, his manhandling of the Vatican City justice system in the London business and his ersatz application of “healthy decentralization” frequently indistinguishable from ruthless autocracy, Francis has much to explain.

Pope Francis could have used the Strickland affair to let the faithful and the bishops see “synodality” in action, but he didn’t.

He could have convened an actual synod of bishops to hear a brief against Strickland, and summoned Strickland to answer for himself before the synod. Historically, synods have been bodies with the power to discipline bishops. If a bishop didn’t like the treatment that he got from a synod—if he thought it unfair or unjust—he could appeal to the pope.

The longer one looks at what did and did not happen in the Strickland case, the more starkly does it begin to appear that Pope Francis’s main concern was to send a message, pour encourager les autres.

The “X” Factor

Bishop Joseph Strickland, olim of Tyler, Texas, likely isn’t a schismatic or a heretic. He may very well be a living saint, but he has certainly given significant evidence of a relationship with reality that is not perfectly straightforward.

It’s tough to say whether Strickland became erratic after getting his ring and his mitre—which he did from Cardinal DiNardo in late 2012, on orders from Pope Benedict XVI—or whether his troubled relationship with the world as it is began many years ago and perhaps even before he ever considered the Catholic priesthood.

Close your eyes for just ten seconds and imagine a world in which no such thing as Twitter ever existed.

Are you back and reading again?

Now answer this: In the fantasy world without The Thing That Used To Be Called Twitter, would you even know who Joseph Strickland is?

Would Pope Francis know who he is?

It happens that Twitter—er … X—is a thing and so is the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, and so are the Catholics and others on every side of this ugliness.

The pope really can depose bishops. Catholics settled that question a long time ago.

Whether responsible exercise of power as currently organized in the Church is morally possible, well, that is another question.

It is one the very real crisis of confidence epitomized by l’Affaire Strickland presses upon the faithful with palpable urgency.

About Christopher R. Altieri 220 ArticlesChristopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.