The German church’s synodal path has sparked plenty of talk about a possible schism or even a second Reformation. But while plenty of criticisms can be made of Der Synodale Weg, a potentially more severe threat to unity is looming in Texas.
Joseph Strickland, the Bishop of Tyler, in Texas, recently told his almost 116,000 followers on Twitter that although he believes "Pope Francis is the Pope," he rejects Francis' “program of undermining the Deposit of Faith.” He added: "follow Jesus," with the implication being that somehow the Pope isn't.
Bishop Strickland’s tweet was an attempt to distance himself from Patrick Coffin, a hard-right podcaster who rejects Francis’ election as the Successor of St. Peter. Coffin had arranged for Bishop Strickland to send a message to an online summit, and the bishop wanted to clarify his position.
The Texan prelate has in the past endorsed social media content attacking the Pope and has tweeted that Cardinal Arthur Roche, the Holy See’s top liturgy official, should “return to the Catholic faith.” For a bishop—or any Catholic—this is dangerous territory. The Church’s catechism makes it plain that the Pope is “the visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” and defines schism as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”
This case points to the dangers posed by social media to the Church’s communion and begs the question of why certain bishops in the United States have taken strong public stances against the German synod while staying silent about what is going on in their homeland.
Yes, the German synod has pushed ahead with reforms on women’s ordination and the blessing of same-sex couples in ways that could be detrimental to unity. Senior officials in the Roman Curia have vocalized their concerns and held an extensive dialogue with German church leaders. Francis has also warned that the German process risks becoming “elitist” and “ideological,” focusing on outcomes rather than process. But no German bishop has publicly rejected Francis in the way that Strickland has just done.
Last year, the Archbishop of Denver, Samuel Aquila, wrote an open letter claiming the German synodal path challenges and “in some instances” repudiates the deposit of faith. Bishop Strickland has also issued a statement on “The German Bishops’ Error.” Yet the same Archbishop Aquila has described Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio who released a dossier of accusations against Francis and called on him to resign, as “a man of deep faith and integrity.” Archbishop Viganò’s accusations against Francis were later found to be full of inaccuracies and falsehoods, and the former diplomat is supportive of several conspiracy theories. Several other U.S. prelates, including Bishop Strickland, also made declarations of support for Viganò after his 2018 dossier was released and have never corrected the record. Siding with Archbishop Vigano when he was calling on the Pope to resign also has serious implications for unity.
So far, the Holy See has not made any official moves to rein in Bishop Strickland. In previous pontificates, bishops who stepped out of line could expect a swift response from Rome.
Nevertheless, Archbishop Robert Prevost, the newly appointed prefect of the Holy See’s office for bishops, has talked about the risks of bishops using social media, saying it can do “damage to the communion of the Church.” Archbishop Prevost has insisted that a bishop must be “a pastor, capable of being close to the members of the community.” The main concern in Rome will be whether the bishop serves his flock or pushes an ideological agenda.
In the past, Francis has said he’s “not afraid” of schisms, although he prays it won’t happen. “When you see Christians, bishops, priests, who are rigid, behind that there are problems and an unhealthy way of looking at the Gospel,” he says.
The synodal process, with its emphasis on listening and dialogue, offers an antidote to the polarization in politics and the wider culture which has infected the church. Father Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican friar who Pope Francis asked to lead a retreat for the October synod assembly members, has talked about the synod as “daring to open yourself to people who’ve got views other than your own.” It’s a process, he says, that can help break people out of their “bubbles” and “sterile culture wars.” The invitation is there for anyone who wishes to take part.
But the concern with Bishop Strickland is that he will continue to use his large social media following to sow division and promote his public rejection of the Francis pontificate. At some point, Rome may need to act.
Christopher Lamb is Vatican Correspondent for The Tablet and author of The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Church.