Joe Cummings illustration of Person in the News Wilton Gregory
© Joe Cummings

Until this week Wilton Gregory, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, was probably best known outside religious circles as the man who lambasted Donald Trump for a photo-op stunt in June. The president had brandished a bible at St John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House, after tear gas had been used to clear his way of protesters against the police killing of George Floyd.

The archbishop did not mince his words, calling the decision to allow Mr Trump to visit a Catholic shrine the next day for an event on religious liberty “baffling and reprehensible”. He said he was appalled that “any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated”. With tensions over racial injustice in the US still seething, and days before a presidential election that has riven the country, Pope Francis has made Archbishop Gregory a cardinal — the first African-American to wear the red hat of the Catholic Church.

The careers and religious outlooks of Francis and the new cardinal have much in common. Since his election in 2013, the Argentine-born pope has sought to reorder the priorities of a two millennia-old Church that serves 1.3bn Catholics worldwide, including almost a quarter of the US population. The core idea is to create a missionary Church, more pastoral than clerical in nature. Part of Archbishop Gregory’s job, after he is installed next month, will be to advance this vision.

Francis has reached back to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962. That attempt to bring the Church into less abrasive alignment with its modern flock, debating everything from clerical celibacy to liberation theology, was shut down by the pinched and defensive orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis’s two predecessors.

Archbishop Gregory was a protégé of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, a towering influence on American Catholicism and standard-bearer of Vatican II ideas. He became a leading figure in his own right almost two decades ago. Traditionalists and culture warriors in the US Church, the spearhead of opposition to Francis, have long had him in their sights.

Yet behind the pastor’s beaming exterior is tempered steel. Michael Sean Winters, a Catholic affairs columnist, says: “Wilton Gregory is a churchman through and through, but has never been one to bury his head in the sand.”

He was the first black president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, when the church was engulfed by a Boston Globe investigation into clerical sexual abuse of minors. It was the then bishop Gregory who forged consensus on zero-tolerance for predator priests. Mr Winters recalls that Cardinal Raymond Burke, who now leads the reaction against Francis, told the conference that “they could not apply the rules to bishops”. Bernard Law, the Boston cardinal who covered up the abuse, was forced out anyway.

More recently, the traditionalists have taken aim at Amoris Laetitia, a 2016 apostolic exhortation in which Francis enjoined priests and bishops to adopt a “merciful” approach to divorced and remarried people wishing to take communion. This relaxation of an old anathema merely aligned the Vatican with reality. To conservatives, it decentralised doctrinal judgment.

To Archbishop Gregory it was a papal challenge “to move beyond thinking that everything is black and white”. Speaking at Boston College in 2017, he said the tract “recognises the real and serious problems and challenges facing families today”, calling this red rag to traditionalists “a proclamation of hope through the mercy and grace of God”.

Born in Chicago in 1947 to working-class parents who would soon divorce, Wilton Daniel Gregory embarked early on his mission. He was 11 when he converted to Catholicism and decided to become a priest. He was ordained at 25 and consecrated as a bishop at 36, one of the youngest in US history.

In the interim he picked up a doctorate in liturgy in Rome. He was made archbishop of Atlanta in 2005, and moved in 2019 to a Washington archdiocese rocked by revelations of sexual abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, defrocked last year by Francis. Those who know Archbishop Gregory say he likes Boodles gin.

He is one of 13 new cardinals, clinching a sort of majority for Francis in the College of Cardinals that will elect the next pope. This eventual contest may not be the election currently on Catholic minds. The US is focused on the possibility that Joe Biden — who once described himself as “a [Pope] John XXIII guy” — may become the country’s second Catholic president. Yet traditionalists are reportedly already compiling dossiers on the papal electorate to try to prevent a repeat of the 2013 conclave that chose Francis.

In seven years Francis has named 73 out of the 128 current elector cardinals (only those under 80 can vote). That makes it increasingly unlikely his opponents can roll back his reforms. Archbishop Gregory looks set to become a lightning rod in this tempestuous contest, long before their eminences next file into the Sistine Chapel.

He is, nonetheless, more consensual than his censure of Mr Trump suggests, Mr Winters says: “Wilton is a bridge-builder not a bomb-thrower, but he has a spine and it can come out quite suddenly, especially when racism hides behind religion . . . [Mr Trump] deserved calling out. Millions of Catholics were proud of Archbishop Gregory for doing it.”

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