America Comment

The mysterious removal of Bishop Holley

On October 24, Pope Francis removed Bishop Martin Holley from the Diocese of Memphis without assigning him to a new see. At 63, he’s over a decade shy of retirement age. To remove such a (relatively) young bishop without giving him another assignment is an extreme measure.

Some interpreted the decision in terms of the US Church’s recent crisis. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher noted that Holley was incardinated in Florida before being made an auxiliary bishop in Washington under Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. “Holley became a bishop thanks to Ted McCarrick, the lavender mafia godfather,” Dreher claimed.

Holley has, in effect, rejected this account, and denied any misconduct. In an interview with Catholic News Agency (CNA), he strongly defended his record. “I am not a part of the lavender [mafia],” he said. “I would never belong to that evil.” Of his ties to McCarrick, the bishop simply said: “I couldn’t help that I was his auxiliary.” He denied that he knew anything about his mentor’s predation.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said that Holley’s removal was “not abuse-related”, but rather “about management of the diocese”. Indeed, Holley received an apostolic visitation this past June (in other words, he was subject to a Vatican investigation). Archbishops Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Bernard Hebda of St Paul-Minneapolis were dispatched to Memphis to ascertain why Holley had reassigned roughly two thirds of the priests in his diocese.

Several church-watchers also noted that Gregory and Hebda arrived just 10 days before Holley’s vicar-general, Mgr Clement Machado, resigned.

In the CNA interview, Bishop Holley claimed that the pastoral reshuffles were necessary evils, given the “lack of previous governance” in Memphis. “I was putting in order things that were so messed up here”, he explained. Holley also stood by his official statement claiming that Fr Machado left his post to complete a degree in canon law. He downplayed the significance of the visitation, saying it was “merely to assist me in the administration of the diocese. I didn’t need any assistance.”

Holley told CNA that his removal was, rather, an act of “revenge” ordered by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor who recently resigned as Archbishop of Washington. Holley had served as an auxiliary under Wuerl, too, until Pope Francis assigned him to Memphis in 2016. According to Holley, Pope Benedict XVI was considering appointing Wuerl as his secretary of state in 2012. The Vatican’s top diplomatic post is also arguably the second-most powerful position in the Catholic Church, and might have served as a stepping stone to the papacy. But when Benedict asked Holley’s opinion of Wuerl, he “offered testimony expressing concern about Wuerl’s fitness for the job”. Wuerl has had “disdain” for him ever since, Holley claimed. “I stood in the way of something he wanted.”

Wuerl, for his part, effectively denies any involvement in Holley’s removal. “It would appear that an apostolic visitation that took place in the Diocese of Memphis, and the results of that process, may have had some connection to Bishop Holley’s dismissal,” spokesman Ed McFadden told CNA.

So what is the most convincing account? Holley’s dismissal of the visitation is curiously nonchalant. Such investigations are rarely ordered simply to “help” an archbishop. What’s more, one must imagine that reshuffling upwards of 66 per cent of priests all at once would be a bigger administrative nightmare than the one it was meant to solve. Anyone familiar with the reassignment process knows how difficult it is to move just a few priests, even in a large diocese with an efficient bureaucracy.

Moreover, reading the testimonies from parishioners whose pastors were removed, it’s easy to see why Sunday collections began to dry up. Many lay people were furious that their pastors were moved. Some of these priests were credited with revitalising dying parishes.

Of course, reshuffles are often necessary; those church-planters’ skills may be needed elsewhere in the diocese. But that doesn’t mean Holley went about the reshuffle the right way. It’s possible that Rome felt the need to intervene at once. Maybe the diocese was in such a state of disorder and discontent that the bishop had to be abruptly removed.

On the other hand, Bishop Holley has made a forthright defence of his record. And the timing, at least, is strange: did the Vatican only realise the severity of the situation during a major synod of bishops in Rome?

What’s clear is that the façade of politeness and unity among the US bishops is cracking. We are seeing division, accusations and speculation. In this latest case, the intrigue seems to be only just beginning.

This article first appeared in the November 2 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here