His Eminence Wilton Cardinal Gregory, first African American cardinal, on Joe Biden, race and COVID-19

Jan 23, 2021

WASHINGTON (RNS) — It has been barely two weeks since Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., returned from Rome, where Pope Francis made him the first African American cardinal in history. The groundbreaking title change comes in a year filled with protests over racial injustice and inequity and during a pandemic that has disproportionally impacted communities of color in the United States.

He has also come home to face questions about the reception he’ll give President-elect Joe Biden, a Catholic president who supports abortion rights.

Religion News Service sat down (virtually) with Gregory this week to discuss his plans for the archdiocese, his thoughts on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how he plans to forge a relationship with President-elect Joe Biden — the second Catholic president in U.S. history.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How does your elevation to cardinal change how you’ll do your job?

Well, I have a new title and I have some new attire, but my first job is the Archbishop of Washington. So the things that I’ve inherited in terms of pastoral responsibility — visiting with parishes, being engaged in the administrative service and the archdiocese, promoting vocations, evangelization — they remain the same. I just do it with a different color hat.

As the first African American cardinal, what role do you see yourself playing to address racial injustice? What kind of support do you expect from the Vatican?

To be perfectly honest, I already feel the support of the Holy See — obviously the appointment itself comes with a letter of endorsement and support. I see my responsibility now, as one who has a direct relationship with the Holy Father as one of his cardinals, is that I can, to the best of my ability, articulate the aspirations, the hopes, the dreams of the African American community in a unique way.

I’m not the only voice, I’ve never been the only voice, and I don’t see myself being the only voice. But I do have a particular entree now to present those issues to him. And he has already demonstrated an openness to hear and to respond to the issues that affect the life of the church here in the United States and, in particular, the life of the church in response to African American presence, evangelization, social outreach and social justice issues.

Are there particular concerns within the church regarding this issue? Things the church needs to address or can address?

The Catholic Church exists within society. It is a leaven. It is supposed to be a source of renewal, conversion. But we are Catholics who live in the American environment, and therefore we share some of the very same problems that the wider society does: racism, inequality, a lack of opportunity.

This pandemic, for example, validates the fact that people of color — the Hispanic community, the Native American community and the aged community — are more directly impacted by the coronavirus than other larger segments of society. So I have to make sure that I call my church to acknowledge where we have failed and hopefully invite us to do better in the tomorrows that lie ahead.

Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory attends a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis the day after he raised 13 new cardinals to the highest rank in the Catholic hierarchy, at St. Peter’s Basilica, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

How can the church help with the next phase of the pandemic here? Some people are talking about faith leaders very publicly getting the vaccine, for instance.

Well, I certainly hope to encourage my people to take advantage of the vaccines.

Within the African American community, there is a history of hesitation because of historic issues that impacted our community: African American women being forcibly, without their knowledge, sterilized; the awful events that took place with the Tuskegee medical examinations for syphilis, where Black men were being used as Guinea pigs.

So there is present, in the African American community, hesitation. And I have to, I think, as a religious leader, be willing to say, ‘Yes, those events did happen. They were awful. They should never have happened. But let’s not miss the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of this medical scientific discovery. Let’s not allow the past to keep us from having a future.’

The incoming president will be the second Catholic president in American history. What kind of relationship do you hope to forge with him? Also, you’ve received pushback from some in the church for saying you won’t deny Joe Biden Communion because of his stance on abortion. What do you say to your critics?

I want to begin a relationship with him that allows us to have a serious conversation, knowing full well that there are issues that he and I will be diametrically opposed to, but hopefully also being able to capitalize on issues that we can advance together.

I don’t want to go to the table with a gun on the table first.

And are there specific things you do hope to work with this administration on — specific issues or concerns?

I certainly would like to see his approach to the status of immigrants more positively advanced. I’d like to see his position on the environment, on equality, racial justice. I certainly would like to see those things as part of the conversation.

You’re also serving in our nation’s capital during a time of deep division here in the United States. Do you have plans to try to heal those divisions, which appear to overlap with divisions within the church?

As I’ve said already, the church lives within society. We don’t float above society. We’re immersed in the world in which we try to serve. So one of the things that I would hope is that I could foster a spirit of encounter. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, loves to use that word, and I think with good reason. We have to encounter people. And encounter means not just talking to them, but also listening to them and trying to understand the world in which they live.

Hopefully by that kind of openness and dialogue, we can foster a spirit of collaboration and understanding.

That’s part of my job. And it’s a part of my job that I welcome.