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Vatican removes Texas bishop critical of Pope Francis' reforms

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Vatican has removed from office an outspoken conservative U.S. bishop who's been openly critical of Pope Francis. Until yesterday, Joseph Strickland had served as a bishop in eastern Texas for more than a decade. Joining me now to talk about what happened and what this removal means is NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Good morning, Jason.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So let's start with Joseph Strickland. Who is he?

DEROSE: Well, Strickland was, until Saturday, the bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. He served in that position since he was named a bishop by Pope Benedict back in 2012. And he's used his platform ever since Pope Francis was elected in 2013 to criticize the current pope - criticize very publicly Francis's moves to make the church more open - open to people who felt alienated from the Catholic Church, including divorced Catholics and LGBTQ Catholics. Here's Strickland speaking on a conservative Catholic podcast called "Pints With Aquinas."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH STRICKLAND: I think we've got to be clear about where the disorders are because we're living in a time when the disorder is carrying the day.

DEROSE: Recently, Strickland criticized the pope for holding a large meeting at the Vatican last month at which issues such as women in ministry were openly discussed. He even went so far as to say on social media that Pope Francis was undermining the faith.

RASCOE: And now the Vatican decided to remove him from office. How did that come about?

DEROSE: Well, earlier this year, the Vatican launched an investigation into how Strickland was leading his diocese in Texas. Two other bishops went there and interviewed lots of people, observed how the place was being run.

Now, he'd been under pressure to resign but repeatedly said he was under a mandate to lead from the previous pope, Benedict, who appointed him. And when formally asked to resign just last week, he refused. Then yesterday, the Vatican issued a very brief statement saying, quote, "The Holy Father has removed Bishop Joseph E. Strickland from the pastoral care of the Diocese of Tyler."

Now, in the interim, the Vatican has appointed the Bishop of Austin, Texas, to oversee the Tyler diocese, and it's likely Francis will appoint a more like-minded bishop in the coming months.

RASCOE: And what reaction have we seen so far from this move?

DEROSE: Well, Strickland has been a popular voice for conservative Catholics. He has a big social media following, a radio show, a website. He often appears on other conservative Catholic TV radio shows, podcasts. And within hours of the news that he was removed, many of those YouTube channels and other social media feeds began speaking out in support of Strickland. They felt he was holding firm to the true Catholic faith. But, of course, there is nothing they can really do other than say they're upset. The Vatican has made its decision.

RASCOE: So what does this move from the Vatican and Pope Francis say about what's going on in Catholicism today?

DEROSE: Well, I think it speaks to a divide among U.S. Catholics and the wider culture wars in the U.S. There are some very conservative traditional outspoken leaders in the church, and they have a following. But anyone who's watched the Catholic Church for the last decade also knows that Pope Francis is extremely popular - popular with women, popular with young people. He's brought new life to the church, and he's done so through openness to reforms that make those traditionalists nervous. With Strickland's removal from office, Pope Francis has demonstrated that he has the final word on who gets to lead Catholics.

RASCOE: That's NPR religion correspondent Jason DeRose. Thank you so much.

DEROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDOVICO EINAUDI AND AMSTERDAM SINFONIETTA'S "ELEMENTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.