When Pope Francis needed someone to help heal Catholics in the nation’s capital recovering from the latest round of clergy sex abuse that had engulfed now former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, he tapped Archbishop Wilton Gregory as its new leader in April 2019.
Both men have been put in their positions with a mandate for reconciliation and are united by a shared admiration for Pope Francis who on Saturday elevated Gregory to the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals, making him the first African American to receive the honor.
Gregory’s new title is more than mere symbolism. While it will increase his collaboration with the pope and his profile among the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, it also presents him with a rare opportunity for partnership with Biden who has a more complicated relationship with Catholics and with the church than President John F. Kennedy did 60 years ago.
Kennedy’s ties with numerous clerics — such as Boston priest and later cardinal John Wright; Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, who gave the invocation at Kennedy’s inauguration; and Washington Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle — and his popularity among Catholics benefited from the fact that there were fewer divisive issues for conflict between the president and the leaders of his church compared to today. Back then, the only major public obstacle was Kennedy’s opposition to federal funding for parochial schools.
“Kennedy had more maneuverability,” said Shaun Casey, author of “The Making of a Catholic President”, in contrast to Biden “who faces a host of issues that go long and deep.”
Those tensions were on full display earlier this month when the U.S. Catholic bishops met virtually for their semiannual meeting and Archbishop José Gomez, the president of the bishops, announced the formation of a working group to deal with Biden’s Catholicism and his support for legal abortion and LGBTQ rights.
While some bishops have expressed reluctance to work with a Biden administration, Gregory has already signaled a different approach.
Just days before receiving his cardinal red hat in Rome, Gregory said he intends to dialogue with the Catholic president, “working with him in those areas where we can collaborate because we are pursuing issues that are important both to the church as well as to his own administration.” He has also made clear he will not deny Biden Communion.
(In Delaware, Biden’s former bishop, Michael Saltarelli, would not allow Biden to speak to Catholic diocesan schools, due to his stance on abortion. And in October 2019, he was denied Communion at a church in South Carolina.)
John Carr, who worked for 25 years as the top policy adviser for U.S. bishops and has worked with both Gregory and Biden, said he believes their historical trajectories have positioned both the president-elect and his pastor to be uniquely suited to find ways to work together.
Biden’s Irish Catholic faith was an indelible part of his childhood, and as a teenager, he took inspiration from Kennedy that his religious roots wouldn’t interfere with his political ambitions. Gregory is a convert who decided he wanted to become a priest before he was even Catholic. Both men have had their faith tested in deeply personal ways. For Biden, it was the loss of his young wife and daughter in 1972 and then later the death of his son to brain cancer in 2015. For Gregory, it was witnessing clergy abuse scandals up close and personal as president of the U.S. bishops conference during the first wave of the crisis in 2002 and then being appointed as archbishop of Washington at a time when it was ground zero for the second wave of the crisis in 2019.
Now, in their new assignments, both men will find themselves confronting strikingly similar situations: a church and country fractured by racial wounds, tremendous infighting and a loss of trust in institutions and their leaders.
“In difficult times, you need grown-ups,” Carr said. “In different ways and in different fields, Biden and Gregory are grown-ups. They know how to have real, complicated relationships, and they can treat each other with respect without abandoning principle.”
In Carr’s view, the relationship between church leaders and the White House needs to navigate between three different kinds of issues: areas of agreement, such as immigration and combating poverty and climate change; areas where there is some common ground and differences, such as health care and religious freedom; and areas of principled disagreement, such as abortion.
“The problem with Washington and the problem with some in the church is that this is a time of no distinction. You’re either a cheerleader or you’re an enemy. Gregory is neither,” Carr said. “This is a pastor and believer.”
Biden does has some prominent Catholic allies, such as Sister Simone Campbell of the Nuns on the Bus entourage and Sister Carol Keehan, the former head of the Catholic Health Association — both of whom proved to be essential to the Obama-Biden administration for the passage of the Affordable Care Act — along with a cadre of Jesuit priests. And he has laid the groundwork for a promising relationship with Gregory by congratulating him on his elevation as a cardinal and saying it offers a “larger platform to continue his lifelong commitment to social justice and those on the margins of society.”
Kerry Robinson of the Leadership Roundtable, a group working to promote best practices in finance and management among church leaders that was formed when Gregory was president of the U.S. bishops, says his experience bodes well for his relationship with the incoming president.
“His commitment to justice for victim survivors [of sex abuse] and to positive managerial reform for the church encouraged us in our mission. There was a kaleidoscope of strong opinions and stark differences in response to the sexual abuse revelations, but right in the center was profound human suffering. Human suffering informed the archbishop’s leadership,” she said, noting that, given Biden’s own experience with suffering and their shared faith, “in Washington, D.C., they will make for deeply simpatico neighbors.”
Past archbishops of Washington have differed in their approach to the presidency. Some have succeeded at responding to the engraved invitations, the cocktail parties and requests to lead public prayers, and have avoided substantive policy engagement. Others have relished the chance to shape public discourse, but sought to remain behind the scenes. Although mild-mannered and reserved, Gregory will function well on both fronts, those who know him say.
“When he goes to the White House, he will bring the unborn and the undocumented, the poor and the vulnerable with him,” Carr said.
“It’s going to be fascinating watching the Biden White House, and ‘navigate’ isn’t the right verb. It’s ‘engage,’ ” Casey said in agreement. “And Cardinal Gregory will be a very interesting person in that drama.”
Christopher White is the national correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.