At a Challenging Moment, Cardinal Gregory Makes His Mark

Amid a national reckoning on racial equality, a polarized campaign season, and the Vatican’s release of the McCarrick Report, Washington’s Catholic shepherd became the first African American to be named a cardinal.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory receives the red hat from Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica on Nov. 28.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory receives the red hat from Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica on Nov. 28. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

WASHINGTON — During the Nov. 28 consistory at St. Peter’s Basilica where he would become the first African American cardinal, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington heard Pope Francis preach on the Gospel and warn against the temptation to abuse ecclesial power.

In his homily for the consistory, the Pope reflected on the passage from Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus refers to his crucifixion while walking with his disciples to Jerusalem. On that journey, said Francis, Jesus alludes to his death to prepare his disciples “for the trials to come” and to encourage them to accompany him to the cross.  

But James and John want to take a different path, the “road of those who, perhaps even without realizing it, ‘use’ the Lord for their own advancement,” the Pope added, calling out the use of “the scarlet of a cardinal’s robes” for “worldly” gain. 

This message in the papal homily surely resonated with Cardinal Gregory, in particular. 

Just 18 months ago, he was appointed archbishop of Washington in the wake of a cascade of crises sparked by the fall of Theodore McCarrick, the retired cardinal-archbishop of Washington, who faced credible allegations of sexual abuse involving minors and seminarians and was laicized by the Pope. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor, resigned after he was accused of covering up the misconduct and then failed to restore trust in his leadership.

“This is obviously a moment fraught with challenges,” he noted after the Vatican made the announcement in April 2019, almost six months after Cardinal Wuerl’s departure, and “nowhere more so than in this local faith community.”

Since then the challenges have only multiplied, particularly in 2020.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a national reckoning on racial equality, and a polarized campaign season ending with a Catholic elected president of the United States, Cardinal Gregory, now 73, has gone to court to ease caps on Mass attendance and has fought to keep Catholic schools open with CDC protocols in place. He has also launched his own initiative to address racism in the Church. 

Meanwhile, the cardinal has stirred controversy as he reacted to fast-moving developments in the nation’s capital, most recently when he announced his decision to allow President-elect Joe Biden to receive Communion despite his pro-abortion policies. 


Addressing Clergy Abuse

But Catholics who have worked closely with him in past years say his overall priorities in Washington and style of governance are consistent with his legacy, dating back to his installation as bishop of Belleville, Illinois, in 1994. 

The small rural Diocese of Belleville was reeling from a clergy-abuse scandal that would lead to the removal of almost 10% of its clergy when then-Bishop Gregory, a Catholic convert in elementary school and a Chicago native who became a protégé of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, took the helm. 

“It was the honest interactions with survivors, his diocesan pastoral council, his priests, his staff and the faithful that shaped [his] response to the situation in Belleville,” David Spotanski, vice chancellor of the diocese at the time, told the Register. 

He recalled one diocesan pastoral council meeting where a senior member “shared a story of sexual abuse within his own family and how it had affected every aspect of their lives over time.” The bishop was “viscerally” affected by the council member’s testimony and stayed in regular touch with him thereafter. 

Throughout the crisis, the pastoral needs of his flock came first, said Spotanski, adding that the bishop delegated what he could to “those who had specialized expertise.” 

Belleville’s tragedy prepared Bishop Gregory for leading the Church’s response to the national clergy-abuse crisis, which exploded after he was elected president of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001. 

As media outlets and lawyers exposed the shocking scope of clerical predation and cover-ups by bishops, he helped to craft and build support for the 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People’s zero-tolerance policy for priests credibly accused of abuse. 

Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent and the first executive director of the USCCB’s Office of Child and Youth Protection from 2002 to 2005, was inspired by Bishop Gregory’s “exceptional pastoral presence,” as he met with abuse survivors and others in the Church.  

She was also struck by his “skill in achieving consensus among his brother bishops on the adoption and implementation of the Dallas Charter.” 

Russell Shaw, who served as the spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference from 1969 to 1987 and later covered the tumultuous 2002 Dallas meeting as a journalist, said the relatively young Belleville bishop “did a terrific job as the presiding officer at that extremely tense meeting,” handling everything with “aplomb, good humor and fairness.” 

Like Cardinal Bernardin, his mentor, Bishop Gregory “disliked confrontation” and sought to “bring conference members together by forming a consensus,” Shaw, the author most recent of Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity said.


Progressive Perspectives

During his subsequent 14-year tenure as archbishop of Atlanta from 2005 to 2019, Archbishop Gregory faced fresh challenges posed by the dramatic growth of the local Church, which swelled to 1.2 million as new jobs opened up in the Atlanta metro region.

Over time, he also emerged as a strong progressive voice in the Church. The archbishop registered his support for Pope Francis’ environmental initiatives, developing his own local program, and participated in discussions intended to assist in the favorable reception of Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the controversial papal document that provoked calls for changes to Church discipline on marriage.

In 2019, after the Vatican announced his appointment to Washington, D.C., Jesuit Father James Martin said Pope Francis “wanted someone who was thoughtful, progressive and open-minded to lead one of the most important archdioceses in the world.”

Once established in the nation’s capital, however, Archbishop Gregory focused on repairing the breach of trust caused by the McCarrick scandal. 

“His priority has been to calm the storm and listen,” Father Dan Carson, the vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Washington Archdiocese, told the Register.

The November 2020 release of the McCarrick Report has rubbed more salt into a wounded local Church.

The report showcases the failure of U.S. bishops, Curial officials and three popes to effectively investigate mostly anonymous claims against McCarrick, remove him and tend to the seminarians and young priests he victimized and who feared the consequences of speaking out. 

However, the report also offered a measure of reassurance. It found that the Washington Archdiocese had not received any allegations of sexual abuse against McCarrick during his tenure, nor had it been forwarded information on previous allegations and settlements handled by New Jersey dioceses. 

Critics have raised objections regarding the report’s limited scope, among other issues. 

But Father Carson described the document as “very thorough. We have paid a lot of attention to it.” 

The focus now is on maintaining vigilance and strengthening accountability. And Father Carson noted that victims and whistleblowers now have primarily two avenues for reporting misconduct: the Office of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment and the bishop abuse-reporting service.

So far, the vicar general said, the archdiocese “has not received any recent reports.” 


Anti-Racism Initiatives

Cardinal Gregory’s experience with the 2002 abuse crisis made him a strong candidate to rebuild trust in the archdiocese. But after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minnesota in May ignited a national reckoning on race earlier this year, local Black Catholics have come to view his presence as especially providential.

“How is racism, this silent but deadly virus, passed on to other people? Is it learned at home? Is it transmitted through our structures?” the cardinal asked during a June 2020 online public forum, where he likened the ongoing discrimination against people of color to the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The cardinal has launched a new initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” which features “listening sessions, faith-formation opportunities and social-justice work.” 

Ansel Augustine, executive director of cultural diversity and outreach for the archdiocese, noted the cardinal’s firsthand experience with racism and told the Register that the program’s initial goal was to provide a faith-based platform for promoting understanding and respect across religious, racial and cultural lines.

Father Pat Smith, pastor of St. Augustine’s Church, a historic Black-majority parish with a school in the District, told the Register that he was “encouraged” by both the cardinal’s leadership on racial issues and his appreciation for the vital role of inner-city parochial schools as engines of evangelization and social advancement. 

Some of Father Smith’s older parishioners took part in the civil-rights protests of the 1960s, while younger members have joined recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, including those near the White House. 

In early June, as tensions between the protesters and the White House sharply escalated, and President Donald Trump visited the St. John Paul II Shrine to celebrate International Religious Freedom Day, many Catholics were surprised when Archbishop Gregory publicly rebuked the Knights of Columbus for inviting Trump to the shrine. 

But Father Smith said his parishioners were hurt by Trump’s handling of the protests and backed the archbishop, though the parish sponsors a Knights of Columbus council.

And during the June 5 online panel discussion at Georgetown University, the cardinal sought to provide further context for his outspoken comments and offered implicit criticism of fellow Catholics who might see one of the nation’s two political parties as the Church’s primary ally.

“No political party is completely aligned with the Church’s social-justice teaching, the teaching of the Gospel,” he said. “And when you get too close to any one party, you lose the capacity to speak the Gospel to everyone.” 

In an unscheduled appearance during the online forum, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, reported that racism had driven some Catholics from the Church. The African cardinal’s participation signaled the Vatican’s approval of the Washington archbishop’s stance. 


Biden and Communion

Cardinal Gregory returned to the national spotlight in November, after Joe Biden was elected president and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, announced plans for a working group to address confusion generated by Biden’s pro-abortion policies and ongoing reception of Communion and develop a unified plan for engaging the new administration. 

Stepping out ahead of his brother bishops’ efforts, the cardinal said after the announcement that he would not withhold the Eucharist from Biden and vowed to engage in “dialogue,” looking for common ground on social policy.

John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, defended the cardinal’s decision to allow Biden to receive Communion as a continuation of a practice long adopted by his predecessors. 

“To say what he said is to reflect the way things are,” Carr told the Register. 

But Brad Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America, was perplexed by the striking difference between the cardinal’s handling of Trump’s visit to the St. John Paul II Shrine and Biden’s pro-abortion record.

“One might have expected a stronger statement about Biden's views on abortion, which have often been articulated in ways that distort Church teaching,” Lewis told the Register.  

“It seems to me a bit curious to use the word ‘dialogue’ in relation to President-elect Biden. Insofar as Mr. Biden is a Catholic, Cardinal Gregory is his teacher, and if and when Biden speaks in ways that spread error or cause scandal, that should not go unnoticed.”

“A bishop’s first responsibility is the spiritual welfare of his flock — all of it,” Lewis added. “I don’t envy the cardinal; this will not be easy.”