Mid-November brought more dispiriting signs of the state of the Catholic Church in the United States. On November 11 came the firing of conservative bishop Joseph Strickland as head of the Tyler, Texas, diocese. It was understandably welcomed by those fed up with Strickland’s MAGA-aligned grandstanding and increasingly extremist attacks on Pope Francis for “undermining the Deposit of the Faith.” Uncertain is the degree to which mismanagement of the diocese might also have been a factor. Regardless, the move isn’t likely to remove Strickland from the scene.
Then followed the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. It produced little of note. Abortion was again declared the preeminent priority when it comes to voting—almost forty years to the month after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s consistent ethic-of-life lecture at Fordham University in 1983, and six weeks after Chicago cardinal Blase Cupich’s appeal to apply his predecessor’s framework to contemporary concerns like climate change. There was no meaningful discussion of the recently concluded Synod assembly in Rome. The cause of Isaac Hecker’s sainthood was advanced. It’s natural to wonder what the nineteenth-century priest, who had such a capacious vision for the American Catholic Church, would make of what it is today.
Strickland himself came to Baltimore, though he did not participate in the meeting. Still a bishop, as he reminded supporters outside the hotel where the meeting was being held, he said he was on hand only to pray. Then he complained of getting in trouble just for being honest and claimed that other bishops are afraid to speak out after what happened to him.
Two days after the meeting, a group called the Sacred Order of the Knights of the Republic sponsored a march in support of Strickland in downtown Tyler. The group describes itself as a “Fraternal Order of Catholic Men, who are sworn to defeat modernism, the synthesis of all heresies, and rebuild Christendom by defending the Faith, Holy Mother Church, protecting the faithful, and reinforcing Christian virtue in the Republic.” A diocesan priest emailed me before the march, sounding resigned. “Just like in politics, the church is becoming polarized. To make the situation even more difficult, the same lack of discretion that politicians have is beginning to be a feature within the church. As always, the changes in society affect the way we behave.”
It was estimated that as many as 1,200 people showed up to the march. Though Strickland was not in attendance, he retains an army of followers on X (formerly Twitter). He also has a monthly video interview program sponsored by LifeSiteNews. Episodes of the “The Bishop Strickland Show” going back years can be found on the video platform Rumble, whose lenient approach to content moderation, according to media watchdogs, allows right-wing misinformation and conspiracy theories to proliferate. Many of the top videos on the site push lies about Covid vaccines and the 2020 election. Strickland made a video appearance at the December 2020 Jericho March, a Big Lie event that conservative commentator Rod Dreher called “a shocking display of apocalyptic faith and politics and religious decadence,” and which has come to be seen as a dress rehearsal for the January 6 insurrection. In an episode of his show that aired after Joe Biden’s victory, he also claimed with no evidence that “the election is confused.” At one point, he allows that “I can be dumb, I really feel stupid sometimes,” before stating, apropos of nothing, that Kamala Harris “is not a Catholic, though she is very anti-Catholic.” His interviewer is never less than fawning. Strickland demurs. “I’m the bishop of Tyler, that’s all.” This is no longer the case, but his following might only grow.