Bishop Martin Holley was removed from office by Pope Francis on Oct. 24, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Memphis

Pope Francis fires Memphis bishop after Vatican investigation

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The Vatican announced Wednesday (Oct. 24) that Pope Francis has effectively fired the Roman Catholic bishop of Memphis. The unusual move reportedly came after Bishop Martin Holley refused to resign following a church investigation of mismanagement in the Tennessee diocese.

The action by the Vatican is another indication that the Vatican under Francis is moving, albeit fitfully, to hold bishops more accountable, and not only on issues related to sexual abuse. The Vatican’s one-line statement on Holley’s resignation said only that Holley has been “removed from pastoral governance.”

"It's about management of the diocese, not abuse-related," Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told CNN.

Holley, 63, was named an auxiliary, or assistant, bishop in Washington in 2004 under former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose canonical trial on sexual abuse allegations is going on currently at the Vatican and could lead to McCarrick’s defrocking.

After Francis sent Holley to head the Memphis Diocese in October 2016, he quickly alienated many priests and parishioners with a peremptory style of leadership. National Catholic Reporter wrote that soon after his arrival, Holley ordered the transfer of some 75 percent of the diocese's pastors. The diocese has about 65,000 Catholics and 42 parishes.

In June, the Vatican sent two U.S. archbishops, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis, on a three-day investigation, known as a visitation, to determine what was wrong in Memphis and what needed to be done.

Local news sources also said the investigators were looking at Holley’s decision to bring in a Canadian priest, the Rev. Clement Machado, to serve as his vicar general, equivalent to a chief of staff.

A week after the visitation, Machado resigned, with Holley saying Machado needed to pursue further studies and take care of his mother.

The Vatican on Wednesday gave no indication of what that visitation found, and no canon law was cited as the justification for Holley’s removal.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville has been appointed apostolic administrator of the Memphis Diocese until the pope names a replacement.

(David Gibson, a former national reporter for Religion News Service, is director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.)


  1. I think the faithful of the Memphis diocese are owed an explanation as to why Holley was removed.

    We are not puppets, Pope Francis, for you to treat as toys who’s strings you pull to create the illusion of life only when you want it.

    But more than that, we are going through a time when we have very good reason to question and doubt the actions of our bishops and of the Vatican. We have seen clearly that the closed clerical world will sacrifice the health, well being, safety of the “flock” to protect the “shepherd”, and the shepherd will protect his “sons”, the priests, ignoring the danger to the “sheep”.

    Oh, and given the upset created by the appointment of Holley, you might want to actually include members of the laity in that diocese in making the selection of the next bishop. For heaven’s sake, don’t just talk to other bishops, cardinals, dicasteries in the Vatican, and the papal nuncio. That is what got us where we are.

  2. Why do people continue to follow any “closed clerical world”?

  3. I don’t know.

    We organize ourselves into different kinds of communities to accomplish things we want or need. Religion is one. And I am not sure that Catholicism is any more “closed” than evangelical christianity, many of the sects of Islam, Hindus, Buddhists – all have elements of fundamentalist ugliness showing. And they get used by those with all kinds of different goals to further those goals – just look at how religion is, again in the world, a big reason to make war, to force out those who are different (Myanmar’s Rohingya, or Middle Eastern Christians, or refuse to let in those who are different – Trump prefers white people.)

    If you think about the problem of the “closed clerical world” is it any more closed than the current Republican and Democrat parties in the US, the Brexiters in Britain, the communist party in China? Someone in my family got a letter today trying to get him to join a group – and it was filled with language like this: “Or that they’ve been siding with the radical left-wing groups to fight major portions of Donald Trump’s conservative agenda to make America great again?” It is all propaganda in its single viewpoint, its vehement denunciation of any other viewpoint.

    But, we form groups to get things done. We have schools, police forces, FEMA to respond to natural disasters because we have organized together to accomplish things we cannot handle alone. And even those “communities” that supposedly are not closed, are democratic, have voices of many people with different views – they go through phases of craziness like the current period we are in – world wide.

    Of course, I have to agree that “closed clerical world” of the Catholic Church has been closed for a very long time. But I think part of the struggle now is to open up that closed world and that there is much good that comes out of the Catholic Church despite its many flaws.

    The point is, we need to open up the closed communities of which we are a part if we want the communities to hold together to accomplish what we want/hope to see accomplished. The Catholic Church is not alone in being/becoming a closed leadership that looks out only for the good of the leadership.

  4. It’s nice, I suppose, that the Pope wants to impose more accountability on hierarchs. The problem is, there’s not much accountability in removing someone without disclosing why. The pervasive impulse to keep stuff quiet is precisely the reason the R.C. Church has found itself in the vortex of a worldwide scandal. That won’t be fixed with another secretive firing. 

  5. For cripes sake, just say why you fired his rear end.
    Why does the church have to hide EVERYTHING?

    These idiots will never get it.

  6. Thanks for a good discussion of a random question. I am not Catholic, but I have appreciated Pope Francis in many ways, and I agree with your statement that “there is much good that comes out of the Catholic Church despite its many flaws”.

  7. “Owed” denotes obligation, which does not exist here.

    My contacts in Memphis indicate that folks are pleased at the quick response to complaints and are happy to leave at that.

    “That is what got us where we are.” indicates you are Catholic, but your posts make it plain you are not.

  8. Since the Catholic Church is unlikely to be reading these discussions, and were it doing so would be unlikely to take your comments to heart, part of the struggle is recognizing that “open(ing) up that closed world” is not your job description or in any way within your reach, and that the Catholic Church go its way unimpeded and unaffected by your critique.

    For a good example of that sort of wheel-spinning in action, take a look at the National Catholic Reporter, which is becoming smaller, more marginalized, and increasingly irrelevant.

  9. “Since the Catholic Church is unlikely….”

    since a church itself cannot read anything your comment is likely not to make any real sense . more likely is that many catholics are reading this discussion, even many in positions of authority . if for no other reason than to see how a more general religious audience is reacting to what the church does . whether they will be affected by ATF45’s critique–or your retort–depends on the logic civility and accessibility of the argument . to think that they are not interested in well reasoned discussion would be nonsense .

    your comment on the national catholic reporter is puzzling . the n.c.r. as all independent media is struggling with the change over from print to online support . in contrast the register a quite conservative catholic paper is likely doing quite well as it has some deep pockets behind it, and its positions serve well the traditionalists who find a strong, vibrant church preaching the actual message of jesus inconvenient .

  10. if someone is fired for criminal reasons that would affect society at large and should be revealed . if they are fired for incompetence or for terminal tendencies toward being a jerk, that is not a cause for public disclosure .

    prudence is acting properly in different situations .

  11. “follow” . i don’t know .

    but be part of ? of that there are many reasons, not the least of which is that the catholic church will be easier to change from within .

  12. From the outside, I sometimes wonder. Since Francis has become Pope, I have learned in the comment sections (from Catholics) that some like a pastoral leadership from the Vatican and some believe that the Pope’s main purpose is to be defender of the doctrine so that it never changes. As for all the abuse scandals, well, they are complicating factors.

  13. If lay Catholics in Memphis give shekels to their parishes and also, on occasion, directly to their diocesan administration, they should know why their bishop has been fired. To brush aside this hierarch’s removal by the pope as nothing of any real importance as you seem to suggest is irresponsible and an example of “clericalism of the laity”. When the people don’t give a damn, their leaders won’t give a damn. If church renewal, the main theme of Vatican II, is to have any real chance of success, it will come from the ground up, not ultimately from the top down. Money talks. The hierarchs know it. Ignorance of administrative affairs is not bliss. It’s a recipe for trouble.

  14. “The bishops are not among them.”

    1) you have no way of knowing that . you’ve done a survey for the usccb on the subject ?

    2) were there any truth in it, highly unlikely, it were be their loss . they certainly cannot get any real news from their own dioceses papers, if they can still afford to run them .

    and as i noted “most all independent media, is struggling with the change over from print to online support .” the aggiornamento comment on the ncr article or reflection was good but only fleshed out what i said .

  15. the catholic church has had a siege mentality since the protestant reformation . vatican ii lessened it a bit noting that we all pray to the same god and all . but the vatican bureaucracy has taken that with a certain gain of salt .

    francis seems to want to move a bit of the power of the vatican to the regional bishop conferences . but to do that he loses the administrative power to solve problems from the top down .

    it is also ironical that benedict xvi’s practical and reasonable decision to resign, as he understood that his stamina no longer allowed him to work to solve the church’s problems, made it easy for those with other interests to imagine moving the church in their own direction by forcing francis out .

    understand that francis, as a churchman, is a rather conservative person . he is not of his own going to change a great deal .

    what he would do by decentralizing the church allow, as catholic would see it, the holy spirit to speak from the pews . this would be a slow and at times a chaotic process but would move the church much further along the lines that vatican ii conceived, and the traditionalists fear .

  16. if you would jump over the argument about the pope making a decision here, after the diocese made it clear that there was a problem, to the idea that the bishops — and on down to the priests in the parishes — should be presented to the people of the diocese for approval , if not an outright vote,

    then i would agree .

    i would further suggest that if any boycott of money were done it would be to force open the financial books of parishes and diocese .

    no where should you think my suggestion is that people not give a damn .

    we agree that the ultimate success of vatican ii will come from the bottom up .

  17. Thank you for sharing your opinions on the soon to be going-out-of-business National Catholic Reporter.

    The pendulum has swung the other way, all of that type have effectively left the Catholic Church, their children are Buddhists, their grandchildren live in communes or run businesses, and the people in the pews are uninterested in the Revolution.

  18. Allowing the “Holy Spirit to speak from the pews” is the whole point of any church, isn’t it? I mean, why else do we have church? Why else would anyone go to a church or support a church or identify with a church. (Of course I “get it” that half or more than half of church people would view those as crazy questions. That’s why we should be asking them.)

  19. yes . but that point can be lost by the structure of any church .

  20. Mark, i understand that you don’t like the national catholic reporter . nor the positions that it takes .

    but that is quite irrelevant to any reality . the church and theology really don’t exist on a pendulum . that is a tired attempt to understand history, a meme really that explains little . the church’s existence is well beyond any pendulum .

    “live in communes” suggest you are lost in the sixties . are you that old ?

    “the people in the pews are uninterested in the Revolution.”

    taking that trite sentence seriously, let me note only that many in the pews are interested in the church rooting out the last of the scandal we have been living with; then continuing to implement the instructions of the vatican ii council; greater involvement of the laity in the church, including the actual administration; greater transparency of how the administration is done and the finances; and, more fundamentally, to more visibly anchor its structure in the message and mission of christ, starting with the sermon on the mount and continuing through the gospels .

    that revolution the people in the pews are interested in .

  21. It has been lost by the structure of most of them IMHO.

  22. I understand you’re completely taken with the rapidly folding money-losing National Catholic Reporter and the positions that it takes.

    Unfortunately for you those positions are quite irrelevant to any reality.

    “the people in the pews are uninterested in the Revolution.” would only be trite if you heard it often.

    “trite – adjective – (of a remark or idea) lacking originality or freshness; dull on account of overuse.”

    You haven’t.

    What the folks in the pews are interested in is good Catholic priests, hearing the Gospel, the sacraments available as the Church describes them, and good education.

    What they are no longer interested in is “continuing to implement the instructions of the vatican ii council” – which is primarily the interest of folks 60 and up, and greater involvement of the laity in the church – which is primarily the interest of a handful of dissidents.

    However, those ARE the thrust of the National Catholic Reporter, which helps explain its death spiral.

  23. I have no problem with the people of the local diocese having input in episcopal selection. In fact, I think they should have the final “say” as long as the Vatican has had an opportunity to offer its input. As for parish pastors and clerical assistants, I think they should be rotated on a scheduled basis in order to avoid the phenomenon of parish “fiefdoms” not uncommon in some dioceses. Presbyters serve the bishop since they assist him in his ministry as head of the local church. He is ultimately responsible for their performance and behavior.

    I wholeheartedly support *full disclosure* of parish and diocesan income and expenditures. No secrets.

    Thank you for your clarifications.

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