Washington’s new Catholic leader — the country’s lone black archbishop — on Thursday issued his first public statement since his installation, accusing President Trump of “diminishing our national life” with his recent tweets about lawmakers of color.
Wilton Gregory, who came to Washington in May, is known through his long, prominent career for being nonconfrontational on hot-button issues in public while working quietly behind the scenes — a model similar to that of the man he replaced, Cardinal Donald Wuerl. But on Thursday, Gregory signaled that he wants to use his higher-profile perch in the nation’s capital to challenge the use of identity — by race, national origin or otherwise — as a tool of attack.
“I have stressed that I am a pastor and fellow disciple of Jesus, not a political leader,” he said in the statement. “There are, however, sometimes, when a pastor and a disciple of Jesus is called to speak out to defend the dignity of all God’s children.”
He said in his statement — which drew attention from many prominent Catholic leaders for its direct reference to Trump — that he has been meeting privately with major Catholic lay groups, including the massive Knights of Columbus, to press them to “promote respect” and to work to “reject racism, disrespect or brutality in speech and action.”
His comments come as other high-profile religious leaders in the Washington area, including those at Washington National Cathedral, have begun increasingly decrying Trump’s recent attacks on lawmakers of color.
Most recently, Trump ignited controversy by going after Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), describing part of the African American lawmaker’s district, the majority-black Baltimore, as “disgusting, rat and rodent infested.” In the days before that, Trump tweeted attacks on four congresswomen of color by saying they should “go back” to their countries of their ancestors if they were going to criticize aspects of this country.
Polls show most Americans find Trump’s comments about the four women racist.
Earlier this week, leaders of Washington National Cathedral — the national cathedral of the Episcopal Church denomination — issued a striking critique of the president.
“As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral … we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?” they wrote in an impassioned statement titled “Have We No Decency? A response to President Trump.”
Also this week, faith leaders in Baltimore, including Catholic Archbishop William Lori, reacted to Trump’s tweets about Cummings.
“It was horrible, demeaning and beneath the dignity of a political leader who should be encouraging us all to strive and work for a more civil, just and compassionate society,” wrote leaders including Lori and the local heads of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Cities, which bring together diverse races, languages, cultures, economic and social conditions, are frequent targets for those who cannot — or will not — see their beauty through the eyes of God and in their inhabitants. To their detractors, cities are seen only through the lens of social evils such as poverty, crime, violence and racism. To God, however, cities are seen primarily as vessels of hope, lights of God’s reign, and opportunities for living in blessed community.”
Gregory’s message will probably face a mixed greeting among Catholics. Recent polls show Catholic approval of the president is about 36 percent, but among white Catholics the figure is around 44 percent, Pew Research said in March. About 60 percent of U.S. Catholics are white.
The letter from Maryland clergy members was not signed by any evangelical Protestant pastors. Evangelical Christians — who tend to be more politically conservative — have supported Trump in very high numbers throughout his administration.
Stephen Schneck, the former director of the Institute for Policy Research at Catholic University and an adviser to President Barack Obama on Catholic issues, said Thursday that while Wuerl and several other bishops have made recent public comments about a lack of civility, Gregory’s statement means more because he’s an African American speaking in the U.S. capital.
“That can’t be underestimated,” Schneck said. He said U.S. bishops have shifted since Trump took office toward critiquing specific policies — on immigration, capital punishment and the climate, among others — but not regularly naming names, which Schneck said was more common under Obama.
“Where Obama was mentioned over and over in those statements, it’s a clear pattern now to speak in more general terms, and there might be something telling there,” he said. “Maybe they’re afraid of getting tweets from the president.”
In an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, Gregory said he decided to speak out a few weeks ago, after meeting with lay Catholic groups, where the topic of civil discourse came up as a cause of concern. Participants in the meetings had asked what specific things Gregory wanted them to focus on.
“And that’s the opportunity I had to share,” he said. “I wanted them to stress in their business communities and parishes and neighborhoods to tone down the rhetoric.”
Gregory’s statement was addressed broadly. It mentioned “President Trump’s tweets on some members of Congress, deploring Baltimore and related matters.” Asked whether he was speaking about Cummings or the four congresswomen or anyone specifically, he said those were parts of a whole.
“It touches on all the recent conversations that have just heightened the level of hostility,” he said. The women, he said, “were not the focus, although they are an example.”
Asked whether it is possible to separate the morality of Trump’s comments with policies many religious conservatives like — such as his call to overturn Roe v. Wade — Gregory said it is not.
“I don’t see how one can pursue a conversation with an individual that degenerates into character assassination and say, ‘Oh, that’s acceptable because we agree with their message’ " he said.