(RNS) — Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, has become well-known for challenging advocates for abortion rights and those who want to make the COVID-19 vaccines mandatory, justifying his positions by invoking interpretations of Catholic teaching.
But last month, he took a step that defied Catholic protocol: He challenged his fellow bishops.
In a tweet on Jan. 18, Strickland backed the Rev. Anthony Buś, a priest in Chicago who had pushed back on Pope Francis’ new restrictions on saying the Old Latin Mass — in opposition to the views of Buś’ superior, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago.
“I’ve re-read Fr Buś’s letter and I see nothing disrespectful in his tone or in his actual words,” Strickland wrote. “It is a heartfelt cry from a priest who is hurting deeply & speaks for many, many others. He should be comforted rather than being disciplined.”
The Rev. John Beal, a canon lawyer and professor at the Catholic University of America, called the tweet a sharp break from church norms.
“The idea of an individual bishop in a small diocese in Texas taking a public stand contrary to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago is unprecedented,” Beal said, referring to Cardinal Blase Cupich. “We never did that before.”
As U.S. politics have become more polarized in recent years, the Catholic Church has seen conservative Catholics become uncommonly comfortable with rebuking messages from the Vatican or their own American clergy. The most outspoken are lay Catholics, but debates sparked by Pope Francis’ papacy, the 2020 presidential election and the ongoing pandemic have encouraged some clergy to draw lines in the sand as well.
But experts say that even in this atmosphere, a bishop openly challenging not only the pope’s messages but his brother prelates breaks new ground.
The next day, Strickland also tweeted in support of a Vermont priest who had publicly defied his bishop by refusing to be vaccinated or submit to masking and testing and making a video to explain his position. The Rev. Peter Williams, a pastor in Springfield, Vermont, described his position as that of a “patriot” and rejected Bishop Christopher Coyne’s insistence that the directive was a matter of “honor and obedience.”
“Please pray for this priest & so many others caught up in similar situations,” Strickland tweeted, including Williams’ video in his tweet.
The one-two punch was enough to inspire National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters to call for an “apostolic visitation” of Strickland.
“If (Strickland) wants to be crazy in East Texas, who is to stop him?” Winters wrote. “But commenting on how other bishops should deal with their priests? Who does that? What does he know about these situations?”
Publicly disciplining Strickland would be unusual, said Beal, describing Strickland’s actions as “unseemly but not illegal” under church law.
“In our polarized world, the norms of civility and decency have just broken down,” he said.
Dissent within the Catholic Church is hardly new, said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, chair of the religious studies department at Manhattan College. “Progressive Catholics have been saying for a long time that bishops are not branch managers, and Rome is not the home office,” she said.
But public dissent among clerics has triggered pushback from church authorities in the past. In the 1980s, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, an outspoken liberal cleric, was subjected to an apostolic visitation — or Vatican investigation — by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI.
Hunthausen was forced to share authority with a newly appointed auxiliary bishop after the investigation concluded he was guilty of “weak doctrinal leadership” in several areas.
But Beal noted the inquiry was widely seen to be driven by conservative backlash, particularly to a speech Hunthausen gave denouncing the stockpiling of nuclear weapons.
Benedict’s papacy also included pushback to dissent. In 2012, his last full year as pope, the Vatican investigated U.S. Catholic nuns in what was seen as a crackdown after an umbrella organization of American nuns voiced support for the Affordable Care Act in defiance of the USCCB, which opposed the legislation.