BY A ROUGH count, no more than about 50 American Catholic prelates have attained the rank of cardinal since 1900, and every one of them was White. On Sunday, Pope Francis gave word that will change when he announced that the current archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, will be elevated and become the first African American cardinal.

His installation at the Vatican next month will be an important milestone. It will also amplify the new cardinal’s voice both in the Catholic Church and nationally. His promising track record so far this century, as an archbishop taking over the scandal-ridden Washington archdiocese and, before that, as the first Black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and as archbishop of Atlanta, suggests he may be an influential voice for a church that is more inclusive, tolerant and racially clued-in, unafraid to take firm stances on socially divisive issues.

There is no understating the import of his elevation. Roughly 4 percent of American Catholics are Black, but they represent fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s 36,500 Catholic priests. Including Archbishop Gregory, just eight of 250 American bishops are African Americans.

Archbishop Gregory, whose jurisdiction encompasses populous swaths of Maryland, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has acknowledged the church’s shortcomings and cited them as impetus to now “place ourselves at the forefront” of the fight for racial justice in Maryland, as he put it in a letter following George Floyd’s killing this spring. He also aligned himself squarely on the side of police reforms, saying at a virtual town hall meeting, “Until we can get to the point where a young Black kid, a young Black man, can feel safe when he’s encountering a police officer, we’ve got to talk.”

Archbishop Gregory has earned a reputation for diplomacy, yet he has also been willing to speak truth to power. He did so during his tenure in Atlanta, when Georgia Republicans pushed legislation allowing worshippers to carry guns into church if their congregations allowed it. In response, he imposed a ban on bearing firearms in Catholic institutions for most civilians. He has also reached out to LGBTQ Catholics, ostracized for years by the hierarchy, saying they too were “sons and daughters of the church.”

As president of the national bishops’ conference, in 2002, he was a principal author of the American church’s so-called zero-tolerance policy toward clergymen who sexually abused minors, which mandated that abusers be removed from ministry and reported to civil authorities.

Archbishop Gregory’s past is not unblemished; six years ago he apologized after spending lavish amounts of church funds on a palatial official residence near Atlanta. Yet his overall record is admirable, and he stands poised now to help nudge a massive global institution in a positive direction.

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