“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles," he said in a statement.
Gregory has put himself in an unusual position for a top U.S. bishop, one challenging church and civic officials at the intersection of religion, politics and race. In a heavily liberal city with one of the biggest black Catholic populations in the country, the force of Gregory’s critique may seem mainstream. But for a U.S. Catholic leader, especially one in the nation’s capital, his words were so striking that some people who had worked with him through his career suspected he didn’t write them.
Others are glad he did.
“Thank God for Archbishop Gregory,” Edward Rankin, a black member of D.C. Knights Council 15723, told the National Catholic Reporter in an interview published Friday.
Canon law blogger Edward Peters, on the other hand, tweeted: “I find Abp. Wilton Gregory’s condemnation of the National Shrine devoid of any sense or Christian sentiment.”
On Friday, Gregory made clear the thoughts he expressed were his own. Speaking on a panel about racism that was organized through Georgetown University, he said he sees criticism of him as similar to that hurled at priests and nuns who marched for civil rights in the 1960s.
The Knights’ willingness to host the president at the St. John Paul II Shrine after the Trump administration ordered a crackdown on crowds protesting the death of George Floyd, he said, was hurtful and inappropriate.
John Paul “was a man of incredible concern about the dignity of human beings. His whole life … he was battling systems intended to destroy weakened populations and deny human dignity. That shrine is a holy place because of the man it honors. And it should never have been used as a place for a political statement," he said, “People said [to clergy during the civil rights era] as well: ‘You shouldn’t be in the political area!’ … If we don’t work together, I believe we will miss perhaps the most significant moment for real national transition I’ve experienced.”
Gregory declined a request for an interview. On the online panel, which drew more than 6,500 subscribers, he didn’t delve more deeply into criticism of the president, saying Catholic leaders should align with neither political party. But he spoke in a calm voice about how watching the Floyd video felt familiar in a way.
“It brought me back to my childhood, when I was taken to the viewing of Emmett Till,” the 72-year-old Chicago native said of the 14-year-old boy who was infamously lynched in the 1950s. “I remember as a youngster, being overwhelmed by the awful event, but it was one of those moments that, as a young black man, a black person, your parents had to give you ‘the talk.'”
The intensity of Catholic discussion around Gregory’s outspokenness this week reflects the deep divisions among U.S. Catholics over whether racism is an urgent spiritual sin or a subjective political matter. Catholics, like other Americans, are largely divided along racial and ethnic lines about the president.
The killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody, and the protests that have followed, prompted Pope Francis to make a rare foray into specific U.S. politics this week. He congratulated Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso after Seitz attended an anti-racism protest and, holding a Black Lives Matter sign, took a knee. Francis also spoke in his General Audience about Floyd’s killing, denouncing “racism and exclusion in any form” as well as violent riots.
Some Catholic figures said Trump’s visit to the shrine to John Paul II, an ardent anti-communist and defender of religious freedoms, was appropriate on a day when the president would later sign a measure adding resources for international religious freedom issues.
“He is aligning himself with the anti-communism stance of the former Pope. JPII relied on faith to usher in true freedom, justice, and peace in his homeland. May America heed his example,” tweeted Raymond Arroyo, a host on the conservative Catholic megachannel EWTN and a Fox contributor.
After Gregory denounced the visit, the White House criticized the archbishop.
“It’s shameful for anyone to call themselves a person of faith yet question the President’s own deeply-held faith or motives for going to mark an important milestone for Catholics,” White House spokesman Judd Deere told The Washington Post in a statement. "President Trump’s visit gave comfort and hope to Catholics in this country and all over the world that this President is a man of God who will always protect the sanctity of life and promote religious freedom.”
The Rev. Peter Daly, a retired priest from the archdiocese, said he shared Gregory’s outrage and would resign his membership in the Knights.
“I feel the Knights injected themselves into the political fray by allowing Trump to use the shrine as a prop,” he said. “It’s a perversion of everything John Paul stood for."
The Knights declined to answer questions about how the visit — which was planned before Floyd’s death — came together. In a statement, the organization said it has worked with the last two White House administrations on issues of international religious freedom.
“We have great respect for Archbishop Gregory. We enjoyed working with the Archbishop during his tenure at the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and we look forward to continuing to work with him as he leads the Archdiocese in Washington," the statement read.
Gregory was raised in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago. His mother was a singer who played the role of Aunt Jemima in radio ads and pancake breakfasts, according to a 2002 Post profile. His father was a computer technician. Leaders in Atlanta gave him mixed reports on issues related to racial justice. Some recalled statements he’s made about police shootings, while others said he wasn’t a presence during recent fights over Confederate statutes and racially charged symbols.
Anthea Butler, a religious history professor at the University of Pennsylvania who writes about race and the Catholic Church, said she sees Gregory writing his legacy.
“Never forget this: For him to come out and say what he did asserts his authority as archbishop of one of the most important archdioceses in the country,” Butler said. “This comes out of his whole body. He’s a black man at the end of the day.”