The year-long break between the first and second assemblies of the Synod on Synodality began with Pope Francis disciplining two of his most outspoken critics. First, he removed Bishop Joseph Strickland as head of the Tyler, Texas, diocese; days later, he reportedly ousted Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke from his Vatican-subsidized apartment and took away the salary Burke was receiving as a retired cardinal.
As a procedural matter, the Strickland decision was a straightforward instance of following the measures the Church provides—in this case, an apostolic visitation—concerning the right of the people of God to be governed by the pastor of the diocese, and for ensuring the respect for all those, including clergy, under a diocesan bishop’s jurisdiction.
Burke’s case is different, and it says something more about this phase of Francis’s pontificate. No matter one’s opinion about Burke’s theology or the company he keeps, the way his punishment was handled and communicated via non-institutional channels speaks clearly to how Francis thinks about the college of cardinals and the dignity of the title of “cardinal” itself.
Francis tried to eliminate the papal court by moving out of the papal apartment to live in Santa Marta, but at the same time he weakened intermediate bodies, especially the college of cardinals and the secretariat of state. A case in point is the story of Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who was the second-ranking official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State when dismissed by Francis in September 2020 while at the center of a landmark financial crimes trial; the following April, Francis eliminated the right of all cardinals to be judged by the pope. Since the start of Becciu’s trial, Francis has also published the reform constitution of the Roman Curia (March 2022) and the new Constitution for the Vatican City State (May 2023), which have augmented papal powers at the expense of other ecclesiastical bodies.
Even if the pope has power that is “supreme, full, immediate and universal,” it’s not absolute; that is, the pope is subject to the supremacy of divine natural and positive law. And certain uses of papal power can backfire. Burke, the former prefect of the Segnatura and archbishop emeritus of St. Louis, receives generous financial support from allies in the United States; a possible unintended consequence of Francis’s punishment may be to empower Burke in the way the “crown cardinals” of the early modern era were. And Burke remains a cardinal, retaining the right to participate in a conclave until he reaches the age of eighty, on June 30, 2028.
Still, it’s no coincidence that Francis’s moves were directed at two U.S. prelates. Their cases are part of the larger issue of how conservative American Catholicism has evolved, which can be broken down into three general phases. The first is the opposition in North America to Francis—the first Latin American pontiff—which over the last decade has grown significantly. The first signs of disquiet were apparent in the summer of 2013, well before Francis announced what in months to come would trigger the louder, more organized opposition we see now. Then, in the fall of 2013, he made the first obvious gestures signaling the shift from his two predecessors: announcing the Synod assemblies of 2014-2015 (family, marriage, LGBTQ Catholics), and then the issuing of Laudato si’ and Amoris laetitia. Soon, opposition ratcheted up noticeably—until in 2018, critics of Francis attempted to use the revelations about ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and Francis’s own missteps on clerical abuse in Chile, to oust a legitimately elected pope. The effort not only failed but also discredited its most reckless figureheads—perhaps none more so than the former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Nonetheless, the critics regrouped and have since adopted a different strategy (save for Strickland, whose outspoken criticism made him liable to the sanctions imposed on him). That strategy rests more on the long game—not waiting for the end of Francis’s pontificate, but rather, building a “next-generation” Catholic intellectual and clerical network among traditionally papalist and ultramontane segments of the American Church and conservative Catholic elites.
The second phase is the change in conservative and traditionalist Catholics’ attitudes toward Vatican II. In the early post–Vatican II period, polemics against conciliar reforms and theology were generally confined to independent Catholic media and commentators in fringe magazines animated by nineteenth-century ultramontanism (Triumph, The Wanderer, The Remnant). The nature of the opposition to Vatican II began to change in the 1990s, exhibiting signs of neoconservatism, which lasted until the election of Benedict XVI. Then, during his papacy, Catholic neoconservatism morphed into neo-traditionalism, while the legitimacy and authority of Vatican II came to be defined within the narrow boundaries of a U.S. antiliberal interpretation of the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
This development cannot be separated from how media, communications, and information technology have changed since the council. Mass-media attention to Vatican II helped create a positive impression in the larger world—but it also contributed to the backlash, giving voice to those who believed it symbolized “Catholicism gone astray.” The arrival of the internet helped further amplify these voices, and then social media took things to an even higher level. And it wasn’t just the platforms themselves: a whole new ecosystem with its own language took shape, beyond mainstream ecclesial, academic, and journalistic channels. New types of communications also emerged: audiences were built around web-based television, podcasts, and YouTube and other video channels that mainstreamed “fundamentalist” Catholicism in addition to old-style traditionalism. This came on top of the already-established outfits like EWTN and its subsidiaries, which have also seen growth, thus “democratizing” the traditionalist message that in the early post–Vatican II period was mostly limited to smaller magazines.
The rise of “grievance conservatism,” neoconservative Catholic inroads into U.S. politics over the last three decades, and ongoing debates about the role of religion in the public square have all helped redefine traditionalism as opposition to Vatican II. That in turn has fostered an alignment between politically conservative Catholicism and white Evangelicalism. A new generation of Catholic leaders in the clergy, academia, and business understands “Catholic tradition” not as a given—a defined notion of what everyone agrees is Catholic—but as another choice in the marketplace of Catholic identities. Strickland thus in no way at all represents that old-style vision of “Catholic tradition” but rather has paradoxically emerged from what theologian Peter Berger called “the heretical imperative.” Strickland’s Catholicism is more centered, not less, on individual idiosyncratic and narcissistic desires and on the very hedonistic liberalism he thinks he’s excoriating.
This form of traditionalism won’t go away anytime soon. With the decline in the role of theology in both popular and academic culture (including Catholic colleges and universities), new Catholic subcultures continue to emerge: classical K–12 schools, “Catholic studies” and “humanities” programs at religious universities, centers for Christian thought at secular universities, and new Christian magazines. More often than not, these reflect resolute, anti-liberal Catholic orthodoxy, shaped by U.S. political interpretations of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and combined with a polemical approach to Vatican II. These expressions of “tradition” are more subtle and ostensibly more sophisticated than Strickland’s crude pronouncements—and thus likely to travel beyond the realm of social media and continue to exert a larger influence on American Catholicism.
The third phase involves global Christianity. Analogs to Strickland’s type of traditionalism can be found in Eastern Orthodox churches that follow the lead of the patriarchate of Moscow. These traditionalists attempt to undo the adaptation of Church teaching to late liberalism while pushing back against inculturation and development of the tradition. They seek not only to “protect the magisterium from contamination,” but also to mobilize militant laity in pursuit of political goals—locally, nationally, and internationally, at both the church and legislative levels. It is not in any way expressive of post-1948 ecumenism, which was about ecclesial rapprochement, communion, and unity. It’s an international regrouping of Christianity along the fault lines of LGBTQ rights, the role of women in the Church, abortion and euthanasia, traditional marriage and family, and “religious freedom.”
The 1960s have long been seen as a decisive decade in terms of Christianity’s encounter with secular and pluralistic modernity. In terms of secular modernity’s impact on relations among different Christian traditions, the 1990s—with the explosion of the culture wars—were crucial. Now, just over a decade into Francis’s papacy, we have transitioned into a global Christianity that is more reflective of the Southern hemisphere, and in the United States, a Catholicism and Protestantism that is, to be blunt, less “white” and less “male.” It’s hard not to see Strickland and what he represents as a reaction to this new demographic reality.
And on top of all of this, the healthy ecclesiology of a local church, where personal relationships and sacramental celebrations are central to the Christian community, is being supplanted by a depersonalized, delocalized version of lived religion—part of a larger de-confessionalization and de-culturation of religious identities. At least Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, before and after becoming schismatic, had published books articulating a theological rejection of Vatican II. Today, it’s the ability to project a dumbed-down, oversimplified, and stereotypically bigoted version of Catholic tradition—stripped of its intellectual complexity and spiritual richness—that gets rewarded: Catholicism as a meme. Strickland’s November performance in Baltimore, practically picketing the hotel where the USCCB was meeting, was just that: performance. And performance now shows troubling signs of replacing what was known as witness.