The removal of Bishop Martin Holley from the See of Memphis, Tennessee on Wednesday sets in even higher relief the one thing needful: justice must be seen to be done.
But Bishop Holley’s removal, at the moment, raises more questions than it answers. Among them: Why was he removed? This question has both a mechanical and a rational valence: why did the Pope have to remove him — in other words, did Francis ask Holley for his resignation, only to have him refuse, as has been reported? Then, on what canonical grounds is he relieved?
The Pope’s power to depose bishops is well established, an immediate consequence of his Supremacy — dogmatically defined by the First Vatican Council, but created by Christ and exercised through the centuries — which is at once the keystone and lynchpin of his universal governance of the universal Church. Those, however, are ultimately questions for canon law scholars and Church historians.
There are other, prior questions, which speak to the nitty-gritty of Francis’s governance: Why was Holley appointed in the first place? Who recommended him? How did he rise?
Here is what we know.
Bishop Martin Holley was a priest of Pensacola-Tallahassee, ordained to the priesthood in 1987, at the age of 32. When Holley received episcopal ordination in 2004, his principal consecrator was the then-Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore McCarrick. Holley served as an auxiliary of Washington until 2016, when Pope Francis made him Bishop of Memphis.
In a puff piece shortly after Holley’s installation in Memphis, Catholic News Service quoted the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington as saying of Holley, “[He is] a man of great compassion … who has the courage and willingness to plow new fields and build new houses for the Lord.” In his own remarks at the installation Mass, Bishop Holley said of his mentor, Cardinal Wuerl, “[His example] has prepared me for this new appointment.”
Even if McCarrick was merely the instrument the Vatican used to get a new bishop in Holley, the faithful deserve to know why the Vatican used him, tainted as McCarrick was even in 2004. One might be tempted to respond that McCarrick was Archbishop of Washington, and a Cardinal, and ordained lots of bishops. Yet that is precisely the point. Did McCarrick have a hand in Holley’s promotion? What was their relationship?
Whatever the truth of these matters, it is clear that it was business-as-usual in the bishop-factory, at least as late as 2016, by which time the Vatican certainly was aware of McCarrick’s character and proclivities.
The era of good feeling in Memphis was anyhow short-lived. Less than a year after his installation, Holley announced a major reshuffle of clergy in the diocese. As many as two thirds of priests were reassigned, many of them receiving temporary billets as “parochial administrators” rather than as pastors.
Holley gave no public explanation for his actions, either to priests or to the faithful, despite repeated calls from both for him to explain himself. He also brought in an outsider, Msgr. Clement Machado, to be his Vicar General.
In June of this year, after several letters complaining of Holley’s authoritarian and unresponsive leadership, Archbishops Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Bernard Hebda of Minneapolis-St. Paul conducted a two-day Apostolic Visitation, during which they interviewed between forty and fifty priests of the diocese.
A week after the conclusion of the Visitation, Msgr. Machado stepped down as Vicar General and left the diocese, ostensibly to complete his academic studies and care for his ailing mother.
On Wednesday, October 24th, after Church Militant published a report the previous day claiming Holley would be relieved on Friday, October 26th, the Press Office of the Holy See announced his removal, stating that Pope Francis “has appointed as apostolic administrator ‘sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis’ of the same diocese H.E. Msgr. Joseph E. Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville.” The Church Militant report was based on the contents of email correspondence the outlet had obtained between Holley and the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.
News of Holley’s removal came one day after Karl Racine, the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, announced his office had begun a civil investigation of the Archdiocese of Washington, looking specifically into the Archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse claims.
Time will tell whether the story of Bishop Holley’s tenure in the See of Memphis is really only one of authoritarian clergy administration and pastoral aloofness, or whether there is more to it than that. The faithful in Memphis — not only in Memphis, but certainly there in the first — have a right to know the full truth about the man who was chosen by Pope Francis and whose short time as bishop in Memphis was unhappy and now enveloped by serious questions.
In any case, complaints from clergy — reportedly coupled with steep drops in donation revenue — were enough to trigger an Apostolic Visitation in Memphis. Perhaps there is a lesson there for the broader Church.
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