Content warning: This article references sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis named current Washington, D.C. Archbishop Wilton Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals on Oct. 25. The appointment will make Gregory the first Black American cardinal in the Catholic Church.
While the announcement was sudden, the appointment itself has been long expected: most D.C. archbishops are elevated to cardinalship after several years. But the anticipation of Gregory’s elevation did not temper its significance, which marks a long-overdue victory for Black Catholics in the U.S.
At 72, Gregory’s experience within the Church is extensive. He became the first Black president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001, and he previously served as the archbishop of Atlanta before being tapped to take over the D.C. archdiocese.
Gregory’s tenure within the Church has been marked prominently by his zero-tolerance policy toward the Catholic Church’s ongoing sex abuse scandal. As a bishop, he pushed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to adopt a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in response to the rising accusations of sexual abuse of minors within the Church. In 2019, Gregory replaced Cardinal William Wuerl as D.C. archbishop, who resigned after he was implicated in the coverup of sexual abuse scandals throughout his tenure. Wuerl himself replaced a cardinal whom Pope Francis has since defrocked for sexual crimes against adults and minors.
Gregory has also emerged as one of the Church’s most fervent supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and has openly discussed systemic racism in the U.S., calling on his fellow Catholics to confront racism and discrimination within the Church. In a virtual panel, “Racism in our Streets and Structures,” held by Georgetown on June 5, Gregory urged students to push for structural change in a pivotal moment.
“They said, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be in the political arena. You should be in the church’,” Gregory said at the panel regarding the criticism he has faced for his support of the movement. “The Church lives in society. The Church does not live behind the four doors of the structures where we worship.”
Gregory garnered both praise and opposition this summer after issuing a statement criticizing President Donald Trump’s controversial photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church amid mass protests against racism. In the statement, which was issued as Trump conducted a second photo op at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, Gregory condemned the misuse of Church property as well as Trump’s decision to gas protesters and deploy military force against peaceful protestors to conduct the photo op.
“Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth,” Gregory said. “He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”
Despite his historic promotion, Gregory currently remains the only Black American archbishop. While four percent of America’s Catholics are Black, less than one percent of Catholic priests are, indicating substantial work to be done regarding racial equality within the Church.
Gregory’s elevation will take place at the Vatican at a ceremony on Nov. 28.