Pope Francis Finally Did Something About the Revolt Brewing Against Him

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In his decade heading the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has focused on bringing a gentle, welcoming spirit to the church. He has expressed love toward (if not full acceptance of) LGBTQ Catholics and emphasized the importance of tolerance over rigidity. To Francis’ supporters, it seemed that his grace extended even to his enemies, who have solidified into a strong, well-funded conservative opposition over the years. Some of Francis’ supporters have even grown frustrated at the pope for allowing his critics to grow so emboldened, begging him to do something about the revolt brewing in the church. Francis has remained stubbornly quiet.

Until this year. The 86-year-old pope has flashed signs of irritation before, calling a conservative Catholic TV network “the work of the devil” and talking about his American critics’ “backwardness.” But the comments were rare, recent, and vague; he had, for the most part, been trying to ignore his challengers. Now, it seems like Francis has finally lost some patience.

The first big surprise came on Nov. 11, when the Vatican announced that Bishop Joseph Strickland had been fired from his job of leading the diocese of Tyler, Texas. Strickland—an energetic and, at 65, relatively youthful face of the church’s radical traditionalists—had spent years escalating his dissident commentary, going so far as to accuse Francis of “undermining” sacred truths. Strickland’s list of anti-Francis provocations is long: He also called some of Francis’ comments “confusing and very dangerous”; challenged Francis to “fire” him for not being “politically correct”; railed against the “evil” in the Vatican and the dangers of its “deep state” (Strickland has previously flirted with QAnon); shared a video that called Francis a “diabolically disoriented clown”; called Pope Francis’ signature reform project “garbage as far as I’m concerned”; and shared a letter that declared Francis to be a false pope and “usurper.” He also encouraged priests to defy their bishops’ COVID vaccine mandates, endorsed a claim that “you cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat,” and led a prayer at the pro-Trump “Jericho March” that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Still, firing a bishop is extraordinarily rare. Typically, when a bishop runs into serious trouble—usually for mishandling sexual abuse, but sometimes for sexual or financial impropriety of his own—he is privately asked to resign. Bishops are otherwise generally allowed independence as leaders of their regions in order to encourage free speech and intellectual diversity within the church. Those familiar with church laws and bureaucracy would find it extreme to crack down on a bishop for his theological disagreements unless that bishop were to embrace actual sacrilege. Even then, the Vatican—which clearly fears the existential threat of schism or fracturing within the church—tends to tread carefully. In 2009, for example, Pope Benedict diplomatically reconnected with a far-right group that had, in a great scandal in the ’80s, excommunicated itself by consecrating bishops outside the church’s approval.

The signs of Strickland’s troubles began in June, when the Vatican launched a formal investigation into his leadership of the diocese. This kind of investigation is itself rare and, for those involved, dramatic. Shortly after the news broke, Strickland shared an article condemning gay pride celebrations. “I can’t remain silent even if it means that I am silenced,” he wrote. But according to reporting from Catholic media, it seemed that the investigation wasn’t only looking into his social media use, but also his leadership style and finances. We don’t know the full outcome of the investigation, but a statement from a Texas cardinal did say that the two bishops who conducted the investigation had made the recommendation “that the continuation in office of Bishop Strickland was not feasible.” (Strickland asserted he was fired for reasons related to “speaking the Truth of our Catholic faith.”) On Nov. 9, the Vatican reached out to Strickland to request his resignation.

That’s where a normal church scandal would have ended, but Strickland has a following for a reason. When rumors of the coming resignation request began to circulate, Strickland promised to resist. “As a basic principle I cannot resign the mandate given to me by Pope Benedict the XVI,” he told Religion News Service in September. “Of course that mandate can be rescinded by Pope Francis, but I cannot voluntarily abandon the flock that I have been given charge of as a successor of the apostles.”

He was, essentially, forcing Francis to fire him. On Nov. 11, the Vatican did exactly that, informing Strickland he was no longer the bishop of Tyler. Immediately, his supporters began to protest. Days later, Strickland traveled to Baltimore, where the annual gathering of U.S. bishops was being held in a Marriott ballroom, to meet with his supporters just outside the hotel. Already holding himself out as a political martyr, Strickland later wrote on his blog that “I must continue to speak Truth even if it requires my very life.”

But November still held more drama for the church. On the Nov. 28, the news broke that the pope was punishing Cardinal Raymond Burke, a cantankerous traditionalist with a reputation for over-the-top sartorial choices. (Cardinals are the church’s most senior officials after the pope.) Burke, a Vatican bureaucrat originally from Wisconsin, once served on the church’s highest court. But in 2014, the year after Francis was elected, he was demoted to a largely ceremonial role. In 2016, the embittered Burke was one of four cardinals to present a formal list of questions known as a “dubia” challenging Francis’ policies around divorce. Francis didn’t respond to the letter. Nor did he address Burke’s behavior, except to express some disappointment over his anti-vax activism. (“Even in the College of Cardinals there are some deniers,” Francis said in 2021. “And one of these, poor guy, is hospitalized with the virus.”) By the time Burke, along with four other cardinals, presented a second dubia this summer, he had established himself as the most powerful Francis critic in the U.S., and possibly even the global church.

Unlike Strickland, though, Burke had stopped short of open revolt, never going so far as to question Francis’ legitimacy. So it came as a surprise when it was reported that the pope had told a meeting of Vatican office leaders that he had decided to stop paying for Burke’s Vatican apartment and to cut off his monthly stipend.

Burke’s supporters were aghast, seeing it as harsh retaliation for not falling in line. (They also noted that some of these stricter actions seemed to follow a prominent new hire: Argentine Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, the new head of the church’s office on church doctrine, who started in September.) In the initial news, conservative publications reported that Francis had called Burke his “enemy.” The pope denied this report, telling his biographer that he had not given the Vatican leaders an explanation. But according to other reports from the meeting, Francis explained that Burke was a source of “disunity” in the church. The pope’s biographer didn’t parrot Francis’ nonexplanation; he wrote that Francis said he cut off Burke’s privileges “because he had been using those privileges against the Church.”

Burke isn’t homeless; he’s fine. He primarily spends his time in Wisconsin, and the church will continue to financially support him. Until he turns 80, he’ll still have the right to vote for the next pope. But he’s lost the perks of being a Vatican bureaucrat, people employed to enact the pope’s vision. The message is a clear one.

Burke and Strickland’s supporters have been quick to point out that only the right-wing dissidents are being punished. Francis, they argue, doesn’t care about checking troublemakers on the left. And they point to a very particular case.

One of Francis’ greatest headaches has come, for some years now, from Germany, where the church has been considering some radically progressive ideas, such as allowing gay marriage, female priests, and democratic elections of bishops. The German church has taken no such steps, but it has embarked on a nationwide discussion series to weigh these reforms. The Vatican has made it clear that this effort is rogue and unwelcome, ordering the German church not to move forward with its new governing body. (The German bishops ignored that order.) And recently, when four conservative Germans wrote to him to complain about their church’s efforts, Francis responded immediately, with permission for his answer to be published. The discussions, he wrote, were threatening “to take the country on a path away from the universal Catholic church.” Still, none of the rogue bishops have been fired; he hasn’t moved to punish anyone. The Germans are threatening the integrity of the church, and Francis has done nothing but write letters.

The Catholic Church has always acted on the reality of politics. The conservatives see Francis’ selective punishments as a sign that he’s made a political decision, that the future of the church is in adapting with the times, caving to secular pressures rather than courageously sticking with eternal truths. But there’s something even simpler going on here: basic power calculations. The German church represents an entire country. Going after its leaders would risk a major cleavage. Strickland and Burke have followings, but they still stand, essentially, alone. Striking at their legitimacy also undercuts what they stand for. There’s certainly bitterness among conservatives, particularly in the U.S., and Pope Francis could face growing blowback for his maneuvers. The stakes are high: Francis is 87, and church observers have begun speculating about the next papal election. And while Francis has, over the years, stocked the College of Cardinals with allies, the political mood at the time of his death or resignation could still determine the kind of man who is elected to lead the next era in the church. But Francis knows the risk he’s taking. He made a political calculation, and it seems that he has decided that martyrs are less dangerous than open rebellion.