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Texas bishop says he is saddened that defending the Gospel is considered ‘bold’
Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, wouldn’t label himself as “bold.”
“Talk to one of my siblings; I’m No. 5 of six kids,” Bishop Strickland recently told Our Sunday Visitor in an interview. “If you talk to my older brother, Paul, and ask, ‘Would you describe your little brother Joe as a bold man?’ he’d probably say, ‘Joe’s a nice guy, but I don’t think bold would be the word.'”
But Bishop Strickland’s staunch defense of Church teaching and strong advocacy for transparency in the wake of the recent clergy abuse scandals — more widely pronounced in recent years thanks to social media — really can’t be described as anything but. While he speaks simply and almost understatedly, Bishop Strickland also manages to be both blunt and direct.
“Honestly, I guess I’m bold enough to just say what I think,” he said. Even “if it gets me in trouble — sometimes it does — I’m going to be true to what I believe. It really saddens me to be considered bold for simply reading the Catechism out loud.”
“When I was ordained a bishop almost seven years ago, I said I’d guard the deposit of Faith entire and incorrupt,” Bishop Strickland said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. It shouldn’t be considered bold to simply uphold my promises. It’s a basic job description.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Bishop Strickland shared many of his thoughts about the Church today, including internal divisions, the challenges and joys of living the Faith, the ongoing clergy sex abuse crisis and the path toward healing.
Defending Church teaching
In 2012, Bishop Strickland became shepherd of his home diocese where he had become beloved as “Father Joe.” Catholicism is a small minority in east Texas, and many know next to nothing about it — a fact that became evident when Bishop Strickland walked into a local restaurant in his bishop’s cassock and was hailed, “Hey, ol’ pope.” Now, seven years into the job, he has gained something of an international reputation, particularly through his use of Twitter to preach the truths of the Faith.
One of the motivating factors for Bishop Strickland is his distress from what he sees as a rising number of “so-called Catholics” who do not accept Church teaching and who seek to change it.
“Compassionately, you can’t slam the door in someone’s face who says, ‘I don’t understand,’ or ‘I can’t embrace,'” a challenging teaching, he said. “Pastorally you have to help people work through it.”
“But to change the teachings because they can’t embrace it is not Catholic,” he said.
For Bishop Strickland, modern-day divisions are rooted in the desire of some to weaken or distort the Church’s teachings to fit their wants.
“There’s some thought out there that the Catholic Church has been too idealistic and too caught up in some call to holiness that is just beyond those people,” he said. “Honestly, I disagree.”
Bishop Strickland gets particularly animated when it comes to challenges to Church teaching regarding sexual morality. Some in the Church today have a tendency to say “there is a ‘harsh and unloving doctrine of the Church we’re trying to change so we can really present the loving face of Christ,'” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it does exactly the opposite, because the truth is that any sexual activity that is not between a married man and woman, [and is] open to life, is disordered. There are people who talk about [how] that harsh word (referring to “disordered”) in the Catechism regarding homosexuality should be removed. But I think it should be there in any description of sins against the Sixth Commandment.”
“Certainly there has been bigotry, there has been mistreatment against people with same-sex attraction,” he said. “Bigotry and hatred and denigrating people is never unity in Christ. That is not what the Gospel calls for. But the Gospel also does not call for people to live a disordered way of life and just say, ‘We’ll make it perfectly fine. We’ll just change what the Catechism says.'”
A need for bold saints
Bishop Strickland points out that the way to overcome these divisions is to follow Christ completely.
“I believe that Christ calls us to be our highest selves, to be as much configured to him as we possibly can,” he said. “I think that’s who the saints are. They are people who overcame great challenges. If you look at some of the greatest saints, they came out of some of the most fractured times in the history of the Church. The way to overcome these divisions is to look to (Jesus’) teachings and to be authentic to them. Being all about Christ and being all about what he has taught us is the greatest path to unity that I can find.”
Bishop Strickland acknowledged that his approach to proclaiming Church teaching has moved many to send notes and leave phone messages in support.
“You probably wouldn’t imagine how many people have contacted me saying, ‘Thank you for speaking up — thank you for teaching about what we believe,’ because they’re not hearing it,” he said. “And that’s tragic, really.”
Many of the challenges that Bishop Strickland sees facing the Church today, both in terms of the need to boldly proclaim the Gospel and also to be transparent and honest regarding the clergy sex abuse crisis, stem from his belief that many bishops often are hesitant to speak up because of a “concern about position.”
“If being removed from my position as bishop, or giving up my position as bishop would help the Church heal and gain greater clarity and gain greater unity, I would volunteer in an east Texas minute,” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to. I would do anything that I feel I can to promote unity, to promote the truth, to guard the deposit of faith, to respect the chair of Peter. To respect everything about the Church, I will do my best. If God should reveal to me that, ‘Well, Bishop Joe, the best way to serve is to get out of the way or to do whatever,’ I’ll do my best to do it.”
Bishop Strickland said he also understands that some bishops “get pushback on issues that I don’t get,” he said. “Some bishops are dealing with much more fractured areas where most of the people are atheists and living an atheistic way of life.”
But, he said, “I think it’s sad that every bishop isn’t saying, ‘This is the Catechism. Embrace it. It’s a loving truth that Christ has revealed.'”
Boldness isn’t something that Bishop Strickland sees as only the responsibility of bishops. Rather, it’s a quality that all Christians need to embrace today, especially noting the witness needed from married couples in the wake of so many threats to marriage and family life.
“We need married couples to live boldly what the Church teaches,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s not an easy path. I’ve had many married couples say, ‘Bishop, we’re facing a bold challenge in our lives, and it’s very disheartening for bishops not to be bold.'”
Bishop Strickland notes that some bishops are willing to speak out on one issue but remain silent on others.
“We do need to speak up for the rights of people, protecting children, caring for families, all of those values,” he said. But it’s problematic “to exclusively talk about the border and not worry about abortion or same-sex marriage or euthanasia,” he added. “We have to worry about all the teachings.”
‘We need clarity’
Bishop Strickland was one of the first to speak out after Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former apostolic nuncio to the United States, released his “testimony” last August, in which he referred to a “gay lobby” in the Church and even claimed Pope Francis rehabilitated former cardinal and sexual predator Theodore E. McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington.
“When I responded to the original Vigano statement, I said, ‘This looks serious enough and credible enough, so it needs to be investigated,'” Bishop Strickland said. “I would have loved to see it investigated and proven to be inaccurate and off-base and distorted. But certainly much of it has been proven to be accurate.”
Bishop Strickland added that he is not satisfied with the Church’s response to the McCarrick affair.
“I believe the bureaucracy has used McCarrick as a scapegoat,” he said. “McCarrick is now [being] used to say, ‘OK, we know this can be proven, we can’t hide it anymore, this man is dirty. So let’s get rid of him and that will shut them up.’ I don’t think it’s worked. I have encouraged people to keep saying we need clarity.”
“It wasn’t the response of shepherds of souls,” Bishop Strickland said. “I don’t think it was a faith-based response.”
When it comes to a full investigation on McCarrick, which has been publicly demanded by clergy and laity alike, Bishop Strickland said he doesn’t “have a lot of hope.”
“I just don’t think the bureaucracy is going to move it in that direction, honestly,” he said. “Hopefully I’m wrong. Maybe a very detailed report is coming. But, honestly, I think that if that report ever came, the position of a lot of hierarchy in the Church would be put into question if not totally undermined. I think it’s all connected.”
At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ plenary assembly last June, Bishop Strickland was the only bishop to speak up in support of two lay-led boards who asked the body of bishops for a full-scale report on McCarrick.
“I didn’t hear any support for that or any response to that,” he said. “It was like ‘Oh, OK, sit down Strickland.’ To me it was a slap in the face to those advisory boards that we constructed, that we called forth. These busy people giving of their precious time and sharing their talents, and they say, ‘Please do this,’ and we say, ‘OK, next on the agenda?’ It’s disrespectful if nothing else.”
When it comes for the Church’s path forward and how the bishops can help, Bishop Strickland points to the need for authenticity, both in practicing what is preached and preaching what is believed.
“I think the best answer is for bishops to be faithful to Christ and faithful to his Church and guard the deposit of faith,” he said. “Each bishop has to look at Christ and look at his teaching expressed in the Scriptures and doctrine of the Catholic faith and do his best to uphold those teachings. To guard the deposit of faith. To me it becomes as simple as that. That’s where the healing will come from ultimately, from bishops teaching clearly.”
Bishop Strickland acknowledged that upholding the Faith — including its controversial aspects — may result in some people leaving the Church.
“There will be people who walk away. I’d rather have them walk away because I’m teaching the clear, settled Catholic faith than walk away for some fractured reason,” he said. “Unity is not going to happen if you’re not teaching the same thing.”
Thinking back to May 2018 when all of the bishops in Chile offered Pope Francis their resignations after an emergency summit on the abuse crisis in that country with the Holy Father, Bishop Strickland pondered what it might look like if bishops in the United States chose to do the same thing.
“Honestly, if the USCCB came out and said, ‘For the good of the Church we’re requesting every sitting bishop to offer his resignation to the Holy Father,’ I’d be writing it as soon as I heard it,” he said. “I don’t expect that to happen, but if it did, in order to bring final healing or an element of healing and greater unity, (to) be unified as bishops by all offering our resignation, I think that I’d be willing to do it. If every sitting bishop was suddenly gone and we started over, it might not be such a bad thing. And I’d be willing to take the lead and be the first to hand in my letter.”
“I’m nothing special,” he said. “I’m just one guy in a small diocese in east Texas. But I think we need that attitude. What is best for the Church? What is most faithful to Christ? What is going to promote the greatest unity?”
Claiming the Good News
Finally, Bishop Strickland reminded Catholics to remember the treasure of the Faith, which is the surest hope there is in the midst of the crisis.
“What does the word Gospel mean?” he asked. “It means good news. In a lot of the controversy, we’ve lost sight of that. This is the best news for humanity that has ever been proclaimed. The son of God has been sent to us, has lived among us, died for us, rose for us, and we have the ability to share in his saving action of sacrificial love. That’s good news! Let’s focus on that, let’s celebrate that, let’s call young people to that. Yeah, it’s challenging, but it’s good news. That’s something, I think, in all the noise and all the confusion and all the talk that I don’t hear mentioned enough. To be evangelical is to be about the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Despite his outspokenness, Bishop Strickland said he still thinks of himself as shy. And he added that he recognizes that his words might be taken as provocative.
“I know that people will overhear what I say and agree or disagree,” he said. “A lot of it is appreciated; sometimes it is denigrated. Appreciated or not, it’s still the truth as far as I believe. And I have an obligation to teach it.”
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic. He writes from Indiana.
|Letter to the faithful|
On Sept. 22, Bishop Joseph Strickland shared a letter to the faithful of his diocese, asking him to join in a novena to the Holy Spirit to pray for the Church:
“In anticipation of the last weeks of 2019, I feel compelled to share words of hope in Jesus Christ and to give witness to my firm faith in our beloved Catholic Church; the Church established by God’s Divine Son. I am inspired by these words from in 1 Peter 5: ‘God’s flock is in your midst; give it a shepherd’s care. Watch over it willingly, as God would have you do, not under constraint, and not for shameful profit, either, but generously.’ Although these words have guided me throughout my episcopacy, I know that at times I have failed, and I ask your forgiveness. …
“As your Bishop, I want to give you the best shepherd’s care and guidance possible to help you strengthen your faith and to fortify your prayer life. I say this not to frighten you, but to call you to vigilance. We must be vigilant and rely on the power of prayer to combat the evils that surround the Church.
“I ask every disciple in the Diocese of Tyler to pray in union with me and all the faithful in the diocese, a novena to the Holy Spirit beginning on Sept. 27, the memorial of St. Vincent de Paul, and ending on Oct. 5, the eve of the Synod on the Amazon.
[…] Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to renew our faith in Jesus Christ and his Church entrusted to his apostles on Pentecost, to guide the Church away from any false doctrine and infuse Her with the strength to embrace the ancient deposit of faith with new fervor.”