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Opinion Wilton Gregory could be the religious bridge-builder Joe Biden needs

Then-Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory leads his first Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle on May 26, 2019, in Washington. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life Action Fund and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.”

When Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory became the first African American cardinal on Saturday during a ceremony in Rome, the historic moment was one of particular pride for Catholics in the nation’s capital. But it’s Gregory’s prominent pulpit a few blocks from the White House that puts him in the national political spotlight at the same time the first Catholic president since John F. Kennedy prepares to take office.

Gregory and President-elect Joe Biden are poised to become important allies during an era of deepening divisions in both the United States and the Catholic Church. Catholics from the same generation, Gregory, 72, and Biden, 78, are bridge-builders who look for common ground, a style that can feel out of fashion these days, especially in Washington. Though Gregory has had a prickly relationship with President Trump, he could become a key sounding board for Biden.

The new cardinal sent a warm welcome message to the Biden administration. “I want to begin whatever conversations ensue in a positive vein, rather than in an adversarial mode,” Gregory told CBS News.

In contrast, Catholic and other conservative religious leaders who view abortion as the defining fault line in politics have already embarked on a tense relationship with the president-elect. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, recently announced a special working group focused on what Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez called Biden’s positions that “undermine our preeminent priority of the elimination of abortion.” Gomez went further by saying the president-elect causes “confusion among the faithful” because of his support for abortion rights, a curious claim given that most Catholics know what the church teaches on this issue and yet, according to polling, a majority of Catholics oppose criminalizing the procedure.

Pope Francis named 13 new Roman Catholic cardinals on Oct. 25, including Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. (Video: Reuters)

Gregory disagrees with Biden on abortion, but his public statements recognize that protecting life can’t be reduced to a single issue. This puts him on the same page with his boss, Pope Francis, who called Biden after his victory and accentuated areas where the Vatican and the White House can work together to address global poverty, refugees and climate change.

“I would much prefer that the bishops of the United States had used Pope Francis’ more expansive description of the life issues,” Gregory told NPR last month, signaling his disagreement with the U.S. bishops’ choice to define abortion as the “preeminent” issue in an election-year guide for Catholic voters. These other life issues include economic inequality — what the pope calls an “economy of exclusion” that “kills” — as well as protecting migrants and addressing racism, which Gregory has compared to a deadly virus.

In his first public statement after being installed as Washington’s first Black archbishop in May of last year, Gregory criticized President Trump for “diminishing our national life” after a series of demeaning tweets the president directed at lawmakers of color. After federal officers used tear gas to clear protesters for Trump’s Bible-toting photo op in front of St. John’s (Episcopal) Church in D.C. this summer, Gregory called it “baffling and reprehensible” that the St. John Paul II National Shrine welcomed the president the next day.

The president-elect is preparing to overturn Trump-era policies on the environment, refugee policy and immigration in ways that are more aligned with Catholic social teaching. Biden has appointed his fellow Catholic John F. Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate. Both Kerry and Biden have praised the pope’s role in rallying world leaders to address climate change. During his tenure as Atlanta’s archbishop, Gregory worked with scientists at the University of Georgia to develop a detailed action plan to implement Francis’s environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si,” in Catholic schools and churches.

Gregory has also challenged policies that target refugees and calls xenophobia “racism’s clone,” an area where the cardinal and president-elect are closely aligned. When Biden recently announced plans to roll back Trump administration policies and dramatically increase the number of refugees resettled in the United States, he did so in a speech to the Jesuit Refugee Service, a Catholic organization. And while bishops will clash with the president-elect’s stated goal of broadening protections for LGBTQ people, Biden could possibly find a more sympathetic ear from Washington’s new cardinal, who has earned a national reputation in church circles for welcoming LGBTQ Catholics.

The nation’s first Black cardinal and the second Catholic president share a commitment to social justice and finding common ground. Our nation, and the world, would benefit if they can overcome divisions and work together for the common good.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Archbishop Gregory’s elevation to cardinal is an important milestone for the Catholic Church in America

John Gehring: It’s not just about abortion: What ‘pro-life’ means for Catholics in the 2020 election

Jennifer Rubin: What the election tells us about religion in America

Michael Gerson: Kamala Harris exacerbates Biden’s existing problem with religious voters. He must work to reassure them.

Michael Gerson: White evangelicals and Catholics may finally be opening their ears