The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. has its first black archbishop, but what took so long? Look to the history of black U.S. Catholicism.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, designated by Pope Francis to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, speaks at a news conference in Hyattsville, Md., on Thursday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory’s appointment to lead the Archdiocese of Washington is a long-overdue honor for Gregory and the long-suffering black Catholic community in the United States. Often taken for granted, black Catholics now have an archbishop who heads a storied political archdiocese and is likely to become first black cardinal from this country.

Gregory’s appointment however, raises two important questions: Why did it take so long to appoint an African American bishop to one of the most important dioceses in the country? And why isn’t he a cardinal yet?

The answers partially lie in the history of racism within the U.S. Catholic church — and in the Washington region in particular.

The Jesuits ordained Patrick Francis Healy, a former slave, as president of Georgetown University, but the Maryland Province Jesuits also owned slaves. Only recently has the story of the sale of those slaves and restitution for their descendants become an important discussion within the university and Jesuit communities.

Many black men ordained to the priesthood did not enter until the 20th century, because they weren’t allowed to before. And even now their numbers remain small. Black women who wanted to be nuns also experienced racism in religious orders. Many opted to join the Oblate Sisters of Providence or the Sisters of the Holy Family, two orders founded for black women.

Vatican announces Atlanta’s Wilton Gregory as new archbishop of Washington

Gregory arrives to an archdiocese with a rich history of racism — but also of vibrant black Catholicism. Washington is considered one of the country’s centers of black Catholicism, along with Chicago and New Orleans, among other places.

St. Augustine Parish, on V Street in Northwest Washington, was founded in 1858 by freed black Catholics and is one of the oldest black Catholic parishes in the United States. The parish school was operated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest order of black nuns in the country. Washington was also the site of the first National Black Catholic Congress in 1889. There, 200 delegates met with President Grover Cleveland and Father Augustus Tolton celebrated the high Mass.

In the 20th century, the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus would call out the racism of the American Catholic church in the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., stating that “the Catholic Church, primarily a white racist institution, has addressed itself primarily to white society and is definitely part of that society.”

Later in the 1970s, the Rev. George Augustus Stallings Jr. would lead a vibrant black Catholic community in Washington before being excommunicated for renouncing church teachings. The archdiocese later paid $125,000 to a man who accused Stallings of sexual misconduct when the man was a teen. The Washington Post interviewed two men who said Stallings sexually abused them when they were boys. Stallings denied the charges and said his accusers were part of an effort to stymie Afro-Catholicism in the United States.

What caused the clergy sex abuse crisis? Catholic universities are pushing for debate on the answer.

Gregory’s appointment is a turning point, but this appointment alone does not mean that racial issues are resolved in the U.S. Catholic Church. Racism is the reason it has taken so long for a black bishop to be in contention to become a cardinal.

Gregory is one of eight black bishops in the United States, and this position puts him that much closer to becoming a cardinal. Gregory is the first black bishop in the country to hold such a prominent post.

Since an avowed white supremacist murdered nine African Americans during a prayer meeting in 2015 in Charleston, S.C., the Catholic bishops have reviewed their response to racism. As a result, in November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a pastoral letter against racism titled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” It was their first letter on racism since the 1960s, the bishops told reporters as they unveiled it.

Gregory’s predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a year earlier had issued an impassioned pastoral letter against racism. Against the backdrop of the rise of racial incidents, the new archbishop will have his work cut out for him with this appointment in the nation’s capital.

For the estimated 100,000 Catholics of African and Caribbean descent in the Washington area, Gregory’s appointment is good news. They and their fellow Catholics have an advocate for their needs and the needs of a church that is increasingly populated with people of color and immigrants.

For black Catholics (American-born and immigrants) such as myself who have often felt ignored by the Catholic Church, this will be an important moment for their life and trust in it.

While Catholics across the country may feel that this particular time in the church is an ongoing battle among conservatives, moderates and liberals politically, it is a good move on the part of Pope Francis to appoint Gregory as a steadying hand and influence for the most politically placed archdiocese in the nation.

It is fitting that the announcement was made near the anniversary of King’s assassination. Washington may not feel like the promised land, but this appointment is a promising start of a time of healing for the beleaguered archdiocese.

Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.