Bishop's Blog / Just Folllowing Orders

By Joseph Strickland
Saturday, May 04, 2024

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,


“Roma locuta; causa finita est!” “Rome has spoken; the matter is finished!” 


In these pastoral letters that I have been publishing, I have been writing about many issues that we are facing in what is an ever-growing crisis in the Church and in the world. As a Catholic bishop, my primary concern is always the Church—the Mystical Body of Christ—but it is clear that the present crisis in which we find ourselves touches not just the Church, but every aspect of humanity. When the Church is weak and her earthly leadership is seriously corrupted, it leaves every aspect of the human community vulnerable to evil, and we are seeing that vulnerability at every turn. As serious as all the issues are about which I have written, there is nothing more serious than the distorted understanding of authority and obedience which we now find so rampant. When we lack a clear understanding of the source from whence legitimate authority flows, then obedience is in grave danger of becoming arbitrary and compromised. When this happens, the very obedience which was divinely-instituted by God to point all people to truth may actually be weaponized by some to serve their own interests and to lead the unsuspecting away from truth.  Therefore, we must always remain in the truth and be on guard for such a deception.


The history of the Church is replete with accounts of incidents and events in which a conflict arose, and Rome, with the proper use of authority, spoke out and settled the matter. “Roma locuta; causa finita est.”Catholics have wisely held onto this anchor of divine authority in the Catholic Church. Divinely-created authority, which is fully present only within the Catholic Church, should be a refuge for the faithful. Obedience to divine authority is obedience to Christ, as He is the one who has called that person into that position of authority. Obedience to divine authority is necessary within the holy structure of the Church, and it is important in helping us to grow in holiness. Unfortunately, however, the fact that divine authority has been viewed as “a given” in the Church has also served in many cases to make the faithful lazy or complacent in their obedience, and many have forgotten that, as St. Thomas Aquinas declared, God is to be obeyed in ALL things, but human authorities are to be obeyed in CERTAIN things.  


As significant as this erosion of authority is for the state, the family, and society in general, when it afflicts the Church it takes us to a whole new level of concern. The Catholic Church is established on the Truth that comes from Almighty God and is fully revealed in Jesus Christ, His Divine Son—Truth Incarnate. When a confused understanding of authority invades the Church, then the very foundations of civilization are shaken, and we are now witnessing these tremors every day.


Jesus Christ tells us that “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been granted unto Him; thus, we must recognize that all earthly authority must look to Christ for its light because ultimately this light flows froma single source—the One who is the source of all authority in heaven and on earth. Only with this proper understanding of authority can we establish a firm foundation for obedience. Simply put, all obedience must always find its source and its end in obedience to Christ and the truth that He reveals. Authentic obedience to truth ultimately brings us to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the ultimate authority. As we navigate the path of obedience, if we ignore the truth that Christ has revealed to us then we short-circuit the very meaning and essence of obedience.


Today we find ourselves immersed in a culture which, influenced by postmodernism, is unable or unwilling to recognize valid authority. We are in fact immersed in a culture influenced by Nihilism, and this can be traced back to the fall of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Nihilism, a philosophy that proclaims all values are baseless, focuses on the use of the will to dominate. It is a rejection of absolute truth, and it puts forth the false idea that “truth” is merely the expression of the will, and pure &unadulterated truth does not exist. In this context, each person can make up truth as he sees fit, or he can determine that truth is whatever the authority figure he recognizes determines it to be. This deadly belief(or similarly, the belief that each individual is an authority unto himself) has even invaded the Church, and it has become a festering, purulent wound within the Mystical Body today.


This twisted view of authority and obedience has been a brilliant but deadly weapon of the fallen, for they have been able to influence men in the hierarchy of the Church to use their accompanying “authority” to cause immense harm to souls. By proclaiming that obedience is still due to these who serve falsehood and who have forfeited their God-given authority, obedience has been used as a weapon and has forced tolerance of situations such as the horrific sex abuse scandals that have so devastated the Church and have caused harm to so many individuals who have fallen victim to these men who abuse power. 


One thing that has been lost in the confusion regarding authority and obedience is the fact that whenever the use of authority causes harm to a divine truth, such as when a priest or a bishop calls into question the Deposit of Faith (which includes the immutable Dogmas and Doctrines of the Church), then anyone has a right, in fact even a solemn duty, to resist that error—regardless of the potentially negative consequencesthey may face.  And rather than violating the Catholic tenet of obedience, this resistance to an abuse ofauthority actually solidifies and strengthens the tenet of obedience because it is obedience to the highest authority—Jesus Christ. 


Something else that is often misunderstood regarding authority in the Church concerns papal infallibilityand submission of faith. Papal infallibility is present only in the face of an infallible pronouncement regarding faith and morals which emanates from the Pope or from a doctrinal council with the approval of the reigning Pontiff.  Such an infallible pronouncement is always, in simple terms, an affirmation of truth that is already a part of the Deposit of Faith—and to which there have been no additions or changes since the close of Public Revelation with the death of St. John in the First Century A.D. When an infalliblepronouncement is made, such a proclamation requires submission of faith by the faithful; i.e., the faithfulare assured of the truth of such a proclamation and are obliged to hold this belief as a matter of faith. Other statements made by the Pope, the bishops, or other authorities—though they may be true—do not fall under the very narrow charism of papal infallibility. As such, prudence dictates that we may and mustevaluate all statements in light of the divinely revealed truths contained in the Sacred Deposit of Faith. If a statement from anyone appears to contradict these unchanging truths, we must first seek clarification. If clarification is not given, or worse, if error is confirmed, we must refute the error and look to the Deposit of Faith as our sure guide to truth.


When addressing the issues of authority and obedience in today’s Church, we must remember that the ultimate source of authority and truth is God. The dilemmas we face will always find their answer in the truth that God has revealed to us. We must constantly ask, “Is this authentic to Christ?” and “Does it correspond to what He and His Church have always taught?” When we answer these questions affirmatively, then we arrive at the truth we must obey. However, if one in “authority” has not received his authority from Christ, then no obedience is required. We should remember that authority is given by Christ to those in the hierarchy of the Church for the sake of the souls entrusted to their care.  It is never given for the sake of the person himself who is in authority. 


There have been many saints and doctors of the Church who have told us of a time that would come when it will be necessary for the faithful to oppose those who seem to be in “authority” within the hierarchy. If we complacently continue to obey without asking the source of the authority, then we will find ourselves in a dangerous place.  


On October 13, 1973, our Blessed Mother appeared to Sister Agnes Sasagawa in Akita, Japan. This occurred on the 56th anniversary of our Blessed Mother’s final apparition at Fatima, Portugal in 1917. Our Blessed Mother spoke these words to Sister Sasagawa: “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres… churches and altars sacked; the Church will be full of those who accept compromises . . . “


Archbishop Fulton Sheen said in 1948: “He will set up a counter church which will be the ape of the Church, because he, the Devil, is the ape of God. It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content. It will be a mystical body of the Antichrist that will in all externals resemble the mystical body of Christ . . .”


Pope St. John Paul II said in 1976: “We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel.”


For those who might think this could occur in regard to the hierarchy of the Church but surely never in regard to a Pope, history reminds us of Pope Honorius I, who was pope from 625 to 638.  The Council of Constantinople condemned him posthumously, and Pope Leo II condemned him by stating that Honorius “did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.” 


Therefore it is important to realize that it is possible that members of the Church’s hierarchy—which does not exclude even Popes—can indeed cause harm to the Church and the faithful, even if unintentionally. Furthermore, as we look to the words of saints, scholars, and in particular the words of our Blessed Mother in numerous Church-approved apparitions, we must also recognize the possibility that a member of the Church’s hierarchy could intentionally seek to destroy the Faith and the Church. For this reason, we MUST NOT become lazy or complacent in regard to authority and obedience, even when it involves the Holy Father. 


Francisco de Vittoria, a Dominican friar, canonist, and theologian from the Sixteenth Century, stated: “If (a Pope) desired to hand over the treasury of the Church . . . if he desired to destroy the Church, or other similar things one should not permit him to act in such a manner, but one would have the obligation to resist him.  The reason for this is that he has not the power to destroy. Therefore, when it is known that he does so, it is licit to resist him.” 


St. Robert Bellarmine wrote: “Just as it is licit to resist a Pontiff who attacks the body, so it is licit to resist him who attacks souls, or who disturbs the civil order, or, even more, who tries to destroy the Church. It is licit to resist him by not doing what he orders, and by impeding the execution of his will. It is not licit, however, to judge him, to punish him, or to dispose him, for such acts belong to a superior. Catholic obedience to a superior, therefore, should never be what has been called ‘blind obedience.’”


Also, just as we should be aware of the warnings we have been given about a counter church that will have been emptied of its divine content and over which the Anti-Christ will preside, we must also be aware of the possibility that at some point God may permit that an imposter might sit upon the chair of Peter.  We must be on watch always that, should this occur, we obey Jesus Christ alone who is Truth Incarnate and who has revealed His Truth to us in the Sacred Deposit of Faith which is unchangeable.  Authentic obedience dictates that we must not obey anyone who opposes Truth and whose desire is to destroy the Church. We can be assured though that even if this dire situation were to occur, the true Church will remain intact, although perhaps it will, for a time, return to the catacombs.  


As we discuss the dangers of false authority and misplaced obedience, it is important to note that the laity in the Church do not exist for the sake of the clergy in the Church.  The clergy exist to provide the sacraments necessary for salvation to the laity. The paramount concern of all clergy should always, ALWAYS, be the salvation of the souls entrusted to them. 


I would also note that bishops are called by God to be shepherds of their flocks, as well as “fathers” to the priests. However, in a profound abuse of authority, we now see situations in which bishops attack and silence priests who are simply speaking truth and defending the Sacred Deposit of Faith. Consequently, many priests remain silent rather than preaching the fullness of Christ’s truth, and many have distrust and even fear of their bishops. We must always remember that a father is called to lead his family by love, not to rule over them by fear.


Furthermore, we have recently seen situations where religious communities throughout the world have been put under duress by their bishops in what sometimes even has the appearance of a “land grab” or a desire to control, rather than a genuine concern for the souls in their care. We have also seen situations where bishops, in being notified about purported messages and locutions from heaven being given incertain locations and communities within their dioceses, immediately attempt to shut down thesecommunities and declare messages false without a thorough and proper investigation. In many of these cases, the lack of proper investigation has given rise to questions regarding authority and disobedience. We must pray that bishops—with prudence and discernment, but also with hearts of supernatural faith—prayerfully and dutifully perform thorough investigations when such situations arise so that the faithfulwill have a sure guide and know they can look to their shepherds with trust and confidence.


In closing, let us pray without ceasing for the Church, the prelates who lead her, and the faithful who belong to her Mystical Body. May we seek authentic obedience to the authoritative truth that Jesus Christ has revealed to us, and may we recognize and resist any authority that has not Christ as its source as we walk always in profound obedience to Our Lord Jesus Christ.



Bishop Joseph E. Strickland

Bishop Emeritus, Diocese of Tyler

Joseph Strickland

Bishop Joseph E. Strickland was named the fourth bishop of Tyler in September of 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. Prior to being named bishop, he served a number of roles in the diocese, including vicar general, judicial vicar, and pastor of the Cathedral parish. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1985.
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