In a surprise statement, the Vatican announced Wednesday that Catholic Bishop Martin Holley, head of the Diocese of Memphis, has been “relieved” of his position, effective immediately. The bishop’s firing comes almost exactly two years after he was installed as leader of the Church in Memphis. The Vatican did not state the reason behind the bishop’s removal, only noting that the decision comes after an “apostolic visitation,” Catholic Church-speak for a formal investigation, conducted by two American Archbishops on behalf of the Vatican earlier this year, and the firing followed attempts to work out whatever difficulties were happening in the diocese.
The detractors of the ousted bishop point toward issues of financial problems, poor management, questionable appointments that alienated clergy and parishioners, and refusal to respond to complaints all built an intolerable situation within the diocese. Meanwhile, critics of the Church point to its vague statements as another example of the lack of transparency displayed by the institution.
Despite the Vatican declining to explain its decision to remove Holley, it was quick to state that it was unrelated to the ongoing sex abuse scandal that is plaguing the Catholic Church in the US and across the world. This denial, however, has not stopped speculation that Holley’s previous position as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Washington, which has been revealed as one of the locations of widespread sexual abuse and attempts to cover for abusive priests, may have played an undisclosed role in his firing. Even if Holley is not directly connected to the sex abuse scandal, his firing may indirectly be related to the scandal, as Pope Francis may be tightening his control over the church and acting quickly to crack down on uncooperative Church leaders.
Some have speculated that the Bishop’s “traditional” views may have played a role in his quick firing as well, clashing with Pope Francis’ more progressive agenda. During his time in Washington, for example, Bishop Holley made comments condemning the “abortion industry” for “targeting” African American women, although this remark has not been publicly noted as contributing to Holley’s firing.
Holley, for his part, made his first comments since his firing yesterday, alleging that his firing was orchestrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former Archbishop of the Washington, D.C. Diocese, who himself resigned weeks ago after coming under fire for his handling of sex abuse cases during his previous role as bishop of Pittsburg. Holley claims his firing this week was revenge by Wuerl, who allegedly held a grudge since 2012, when Holley’s negative feedback to the Vatican concerning Wuerl prevented Wuerl from receiving a Vatican appointment.
Regardless of the specific causes, Holley’s dismissal is striking. It is unusual for a bishop to be fired rather than resigning, although Holley seemingly forced the Vatican’s hand by refusing to step down voluntarily. Holley’s dismissal is particularly noteworthy given that he was one of only 9 active African American Catholic bishops, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Black Catholics Conference. Since the 1970s, the U.S. Catholic Church has worked to overcome its earlier history of institutional racism and fully incorporate black Catholics into the Church. The Memphis Diocese in particular was created in 1970 amidst racial tensions within the Church in Tennessee. Today, about 5% of African Americans identify as Catholic, making up about 3% of all U.S. Catholics, but there are only about 250 African American Catholic priests in the US, 0;6% of the 37,000 total priests in the US. With Holley fired, African Americans continue to be underrepresentation within the Church hierarchy, further begging the question of what transpired to make the Vatican choose to fire Holley.