EXCLUSIVE GUEST COLUMN: Why I Am Leaving the Catholic Church, by Joseph Strickland
G.O.T.H.S. is pleased to present an exclusive guest column from the former bishop of Tyler.
Quick note to readers: Obviously, we’ve spent some time in the past making fun of Tyler, TX bishop Joseph Strickland. However, when he recently announced that he was leaving the Catholic church, I was struck by his candor and genuine desire to realize the true end of his faith journey. I reached out to him via Twitter to ask if he would be interested in sharing more detail on how he made his decision, and with his permission, I’ve shared his story below. I’ve certainly learned a lot from this experience myself: someone whom I once critiqued quite a bit is still someone on a genuine journey to better understand their relationship to the divine, and is somebody in whom I can find a real human being and not just a caricature. It is in this spirit that I am sharing his words with all of you. -Tony
To the Catholic church, and to the diocese of Tyler: while I have served faithfully as your bishop for the past eleven years, I come to you today to share the next chapter in my faith journey. While I am grateful for your prayers, your support, and the experience I have had as your shepherd, I have come to the decision to leave the Catholic church, after a great deal of prayer, research, and discernment.
Part of the reason I'm making this statement is to dispel any speculation about my reasons for leaving the church. I am not resigning in protest, and I know that some of you may be assuming that. After all, I've publicly accused the Vatican of blasphemy for defrocking Frank Pavone, publicly disagreed with the Vatican's teaching on vaccines, and endorsed media that has accused our Holy Father of being literally controlled by the devil.
Yet my resignation is not an act of defiance. I've certainly had no shortage of brave acts of defiance throughout my episcopate, all of which have proven to be visionary and prescient. I was one of the first to publicly endorse Archbishop Vigano's accusations of Pope Francis' evil pedophilic conspiracy, and even though Vigano has since been pretty brutally discredited, I've courageously done nothing to walk back my endorsement at all. I've also endorsed the bravery of the truth-telling Michigan priest James Altman, and in the months since he's taken that bravery into an exciting new phase of his ministerial career by spending most of his time hanging out with Mel Gibson and raising money online for no reason. I, of course, was extremely quick to endorse the Veritatis Splendor community of faithful traditionalist Catholics looking to escape from the sinful world into a beautiful new compound here in Tyler, which still hasn't broken ground and appears to have just been a massive fraudulent land scheme that a woman started so he could cheat on her husband more efficiently. Catholics have looked at all my actions in these areas - I’ve done all of those things in the space of less than three years, by the way - and some of them have suggested that my career as bishop would be defined less by "defiance" and more by "uncritically repeating literally anything I see on the internet", unfairly claiming that this makes me less of a "bishop" and more of a "windup toy that a child has mistakenly placed in front of a sliding glass door".
People worry about me for this reason. They worry that I'm going to start a schism. They worry about what it says for the church that one of their bishops can just do things like this all day, likely at the expense of the actual time-consuming work of overseeing archdiocesan organizations and resources. They worry that I'm not okay, and that by extension, the church is not okay. But I'm okay now, you really need to listen to me, because I'm telling you the truth, I mean this, I'm okay, trust me. My departure from the church has absolutely nothing to do with any sort of so-called "disinformation" or “gullibility” or “relentlessly working my way down the rabbit hole of reactionary online content”. Rather, the reason for my departure is simple: I have merely seen the light of Falun Gong and plan to continue my faith journey following the wheel of dharma and the practice of qigong.
Through the course of my research and prayer, I have become somewhat of an expert on the history and practice of Falun Gong, and to share a quick summary of what I’ve learned in my own words: Falun Gong (UK: /ˌfɑːlʊn ˈɡɒŋ, ˌfæl-, - ˈɡʊŋ/, US: /- ˈɡɔːŋ/) or Falun Dafa (/ˈdɑːfə/; literally, "Dharma Wheel Practice" or "Law Wheel Practice") is a new religious movement. Falun Gong was founded by its leader Li Hongzhi in China in the early 1990s. Falun Gong has its global headquarters in Dragon Springs, a 427-acre (1.73 km2) compound in Deerpark, New York, near the residence of Li Hongzhi.
In other words, like every great world religion, Falun Gong incorporated in the early nineties and is mainly known in the States for the Shen Yun dance and acrobatics show that they advertise with roughly ten thousand billboards on I-90 and which multiple news outlets have reviewed as "unsettling". I first came to know Falun Gong and the brave teachings of Li Hongzhi through The Epoch Times, a news source that I would occasionally share stories from on Twitter. This process, as always, brought useful feedback from my followers, such as “you’re a bishop, are you really sharing stories from an explicit right-wing propaganda outlet run by a Trumpist Chinese expat, literally the same organization running all of those weird YouTube ads in 2020 blaming the Chinese government for the pandemic?” and “so you will just retweet anything if it says that Trump is good?” and “the fact that you spend all day on Twitter sharing content like this is a huge indictment of your ability as a bishop and the structural mechanisms of the church that are supposed to ensure that bishops are worthy and effective successors of the Apostles” and “truly you, as a human being, are the poster child for an extremely dark era for the American church”, and while all of that feedback was interesting, I was really struck by the comments “you know this is just run by Falun Gong, right?”; since I had enjoyed this outlet’s coverage so much, including the favorable coverage that they give to me, I decided to start doing some research into who Falun Gong actually was.
It was here that I discovered the meditative qigong exercises of Falun Gong, and began to experiment with them to better align my xinxing virtues of zhen, shan, and ren. In the photograph below, you can see me practicing the Fifth Exercise:
These exercises have not only helped bring a greater level of peace to my internal life, but as Li Hongzhi has made clear, will eventually allow me to develop supernatural gifts such as the powers of telepathy, invisibility, and levitation, with the end goal of turning into a superhuman being much like Hongzhi himself, who literally refuses to admit whether he is actually from Earth.
More striking than the exercises of Falun Gong, though, is the church’s moral vision. Not unlike the Catholic church, Falun Gong is home to a beautiful body of teachings laying the path forward to a more just and moral future. For example, I'm truly grateful for the teaching that aliens exist among us and that one of the main ways that they are trying to undermine human civilization is by encouraging us to marry interracially and dilute our bloodlines. Also people of different races go to different Heavens when they die and mixed race people don't go to Heaven at all.
Now, I am still relatively new to the faith. Have I personally adopted all of these beliefs myself? Obviously yes. I believe literally everything all the time. That should be obvious to anyone who pays attention to my career. I believed that Veritatis Splendor was going to be a real land development. I believed that the Pope was actively running a pedophile ring and that only Donald Trump would stop him. I have put my entire 401K into NFTs pushed by conservative talk radio hosts. You'd think I would be a little more discerning in what information I consume since I'm 64 years old and I'm a bishop, I’m someone who went to school multiple times to do this specific job, but here we are! Aliens make you want to marry black people! I currently oversee a network of parishes, private schools and social services!
But it's not just the theology of Falun Gong that draws a person in. I also had a chance to see the most recent Shen Yun show when the troupe came through Dallas, and was blown away once again, this time by Falun Gong’s culture as well as her teachings. Shen Yun is a beautiful extravaganza of Chinese artistry and thought that repeatedly veers into bizarre denunciations of the theory of evolution and homosexuality as the evil creations of a “Red Spectre” Communist conspiracy. While watching the show, I felt - in a way that I had never felt within the Catholic church - very much at home. I felt as though I had always fit within the world of Falun Gong as I exercised my duties as bishop, that my ministry had always been something less like “shepherding the flock of Jesus Christ” and something more like “yelling about Commies in the background of a circus show”. It felt as though I had unknowingly been promoting Falun Gong’s beautiful gospel for years, as if everything I had done had been building to me, sitting in the AT&T Performing Arts Center, watching dancers do flips while a booming voice explained how the Reds had invented being Gay. It felt that the wheel of dharma had been working on a plan for me all along. Also, the logo for Falun Gong has a bunch of swastikas on it, which just feels right to me for some reason.
The news of my conversion will be difficult for some. But I don't want to lose sight here of what a community of faith truly does for each of us. We are all searchers. We are all trying to find a way to navigate through this life. We know, deep down, what religion, what every religion and every church is truly for: the search for the divine, the search for connection and community, ultimately exists so that I, Joseph Strickland, can feel important and fancy. It’s why I went to seminary, it’s why I worked hard to become a priest and eventually a bishop. For most of my life, Catholicism gave me what I needed in my search. I got to wear big robes and people would call me "your grace" and several of them were technically my employees so they had to do what I told them, which I liked. But most importantly, because I was a bishop, my phone would light up and go "ding" a lot when I shared something on Twitter, and I considered this the most fulfilling aspect of my faith journey. My willingness to abandon anything resembling judgment or prudence or even a glance at empirical reality, in favor of just pushing buttons to make my phone light up, is a skill that I think more bishops would do well to cultivate; it has certainly helped me feel important and fancy, and if more bishops practiced this skill, they, too, could help me feel important and fancy.
And when you build your identity on this understanding of faith, and build your judgment on whatever makes your phone go “ding”, that journey only leads to one place: a true understanding of the divine order of the universe as preached by Falun Gong. They are absolutely not a cult, and I am absolutely not the exact type of person that could be recruited into a cult extremely easily.
Will I miss the Catholic church? I will miss some of it. I’m certainly grateful for the platform that I was given to expose so many of the faithful to warnings about the true evils in the world, like vaccines and immigrants. I hope that I will have similar opportunities to denounce the same things in the true church of Li Hongzhi. As for the fancy robes? Well, I won’t have to miss those at all, because I also have some very exciting news about the next chapter in Falun Gong’s outreach.