On 11 November 2023, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had removed Bishop Joseph E Strickland from the pastoral governance of the diocese of Tyler in the United States, and appointed the bishop of Austin, Joe Vásquez, as apostolic administrator of the now-vacant diocese. The main reason for the removal is thought to be a lack of communion with the other bishops of the United States. Now, if the attitude of Bishop Strickland appeared “divisive” to the Holy See, it is because the bishop of Tyler has the great merit of not having remained silent on the profound crisis of the Church. He was not a “dumb dog not able to bark” (Is 56:11), like those unfaithful shepherds of whom Sacred Scripture speaks.
A few days before his removal, Bishop Strickland had received a request to resign on his own initiative, as has become standard practice. The American bishop, considering the causes of his removal to be unjust, refused to resign. He was within his right and did well to exercise it. The same had been done by the venerable József Mindszenty (1892–1975), relieved of his duties as primate of Hungary in 1973 for refusing to support the Ostpolitik of Paul VI.
Yet Strickland recognised the authority of Pope Francis, refusing to follow the advice of those American conservatives and/or traditionalists who were inciting him to defy the pontiff’s decision. These bad advisers demonstrate their ignorance of the First Vatican Council’s article of faith:
“[W]e teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a superiority of ordinary power over all other churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.”
Pastor aeternus, chapter 3
Can. 331 of the Code of Canon Law currently in force, in keeping with the dogma of faith of Vatican I, states that, “by virtue of his office, [the pope] possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.” And can. 333 §3 establishes that “no appeal or recourse is permitted against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.”
The pope’s power is naturally limited by divine and natural law. If the pontiff were to impose a requirement that violated such law, resistance would be obligatory, on the principle that one must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). But when the pope makes decisions that concern the discipline and government of the Church, without directly transgressing the divine and natural law, what is obligatory is not resistance but obedience, even if the order is — or may seem — unjust.
If the pope cannot be denied the right to dismiss any prelate, for reasons he deems most opportune, no one can take away from the faithful, whether priests or laity, the right that they have as rational beings (even before that which comes from their baptism) to raise questions, even publicly, on the reasons for these dismissals. Bishop Strickland, in accordance with Catholic theology and canon law, has summarised his position in a happy formula: “The pope has the authority to remove me, but I remain a bishop and a successor of the apostles.” With these words, Bishop Strickland shows that he knows well the traditional distinction between the potestas iurisdictionis, which is the power to govern the Church, and the potestas ordinis, which is the power to distribute the means of divine grace. Bishop Strickland has essentially said that Pope Francis can remove him from his office, but not take away his sacramental condition as bishop. This means that, as a successor of the apostles, he will not go into retirement and will continue to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.
Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Astana, has been one of the most authoritative ecclesiastical figures to have commented on the Strickland case. We report the central part of his statement:
“All understand, and even the declared enemies of this Confessor Bishop, that the accusations brought against him are ultimately insubstantial and disproportionate and were used as a welcome opportunity to silence an uncomfortable prophetic voice within the Church. … May the sacrifice, which Our Lord asked from Bishop Strickland, bear plenty spiritual fruits for time and eternity.”
Bishop Schneider’s stance is no different from that of Bishop Strickland: recognition of papal authority, denunciation of injustice, recourse to prayer. On 20 September 2023, the same Bishop Schneider, distancing himself from a certain sedevacantism that is becoming increasingly widespread, stated:
“There is no authority to declare or consider an elected and generally accepted Pope as an invalid Pope. The constant practice of the Church makes it evident that even in the case of an invalid election, this invalid election will be de facto healed through the general acceptance of the new elected by the overwhelming majority of the cardinals and bishops. Even in the case of a heretical pope, he will not lose his office automatically and there is no body within the Church to declare him deposed because of heresy.”
Bishop Schneider is following the teaching of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Cardinal Billot and the Roman school of theology, according to which he who is generally accepted as pope is the true pontiff, because if the whole Church were to adhere to a false pope, it would hold to a false rule of faith.
This teaching is not shared by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who has recently criticised Bishop Schneider on this point. Since 2020, attentive observers had observed the slide of the former Papal Nuncio to the United States towards ever more radical positions. In a conference published on 1 October, Archbishop Viganò made his position explicit by expressing his belief that Pope Francis lost the papacy due to a “lack of consent” in accepting the election. The lack of consent would consist in his having outwardly accepted the election, but without the intention of being the Vicar of Christ and promoting the good of the Church. Therefore he should not be recognised as the legitimate pope.
Archbishop Viganò reiterated his thesis on 17 November in a post on Twitter, in which he stated that:
“[A]n unbroken and consistent series of acts, blatantly contrary to the purpose for which the Papacy exists, demonstrates not the Pope’s human fallibility in governing decisions (in which he is not infallibly assisted by the Holy Spirit and can therefore err) but rather the determination to use papal authority and the power that comes with it for subversive purposes: this invalidates the authority itself not only in individual acts but in their entirety, because it reveals Bergoglio’s mens rea and his incompatibility with the function he holds. … It is precisely this devastating revolutionary process with its fatal outcome in Bergoglio that conservatives like Bishop Schneider do not want to admit, also because it would make responsible for the present situation all the recent Popes who encouraged and determined it in its premises. This should not be taken to mean that I share the opinions of the Sedevacantists.”
Archbishop Viganò maintains that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not the pope, but does not consider himself a “sedevacantist”. His position is not as crude as that of Alessandro Minutella or as outlandish as that of Andrea Cionci, yet it is neither new nor original. The topic deserves to be explored in depth, for the sake of the Church in this hour of confusion.
This article is followed by Part II: “Archbishop Viganò: towards anarcho-vacantism?”.