A shadow of scandal hanging over the Washington, D.C. archdiocese has been lifted with the appointment of a new archbishop, Wilton Gregory, currently leading the archdiocese of Atlanta.
Gregory, 71, is generally well regarded in the church, having served as a bishop for 35 years, including a three-year term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the only living African-American archbishop in the United States, and with his appointment in Washington, Gregory is poised to become the first African-American cardinal from the United States.
The archdiocese of the nation’s capital is considered one of the most important in the country, hosting the Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine, the largest Catholic church in North America. By tradition, the pope names the D.C. archbishop as a cardinal.
Gregory will be challenged to restore the trust and prestige normally accorded to the D.C. archdiocese. His immediate predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, resigned in October of last year after facing allegations that as the bishop of Pittsburgh he failed to deal aggressively with priests accused of sexual abuse.
Wuerl’s own predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked and forced to resign from the College of Cardinals last year in response to allegations that he had abused young seminarians during his tenure as archbishop of Newark, New Jersey.
Gregory took over the leadership of the U.S. bishops conference in 2001, just prior to the explosive revelations of widespread clergy sex abuse in the Boston archdiocese. He was a prominent force behind the adoption of a 2002 charter mandating new steps Catholic leaders were required to take when facing reports of sex abuse by priests.
In Washington, Gregory may have to move quickly to make his mark, however. Bishops are obligated to offer their resignation when they reach the age of 75, though the pope may choose to keep them in their positions.
As the most prominent African-American Catholic bishop, Gregory has been a strong voice for civil rights and tolerance. His appointment as the D.C. archbishop comes on the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorating the event last year in a homily at a remembrance mass in Atlanta, Gregory said the nation was dealing with “as problematic” a political situation as it faced in 1968.
“Xenophobia, racism’s clone, masquerades today as a patriotic response to the presence of immigrants and refugees who are in our midst,” he said. “Moreover, people in our nation continue to be victimized because of their color, or their first language, or their sexual orientation, or their religious beliefs like too many people did 50 years ago.”
While Gregory will be constrained by the Catholic church’s steadfast opposition to same-sex marriage, he is seen as being far more friendly to LGBT Catholics than many of his fellow bishops.
While serving as a young bishop in Chicago, Gregory was close to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Chicago archbishop and one of the most esteemed Catholic leaders in the country. Bernardin was famous for his pro-life vision, which he defined broadly. Abortion in his view was wrong, but so was capital punishment, militarism, and social injustice. A true pro-life commitment, Bernardin said, had to be carried like a “seamless garment.”
Gregory has long been seen as a strong supporter of Pope Francis at a time when some conservative bishops have openly criticized what they see as a leftward drift in the Vatican.