Editorial — The nation’s first Black cardinal

Glenn Rutherford

There is little doubt in this awful year of COVID and political confusion and unrest that our nation is finally beginning to face a reckoning on institutional racism.

In many ways we’ve never been the people we claimed to be — equal justice under law has been a phrase that has, over the years, rung hollow for a good percentage of America’s non-white population.

That’s just one reason that Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s elevation to cardinal is so significant. Pope Francis announced on Oct. 25 that the Washington, D.C. archbishop would become the nation’s first Black cardinal.

The announcement comes at a perfect time. As COVID-19 threatens us; as the election has roiled us; as racial divisions seem to be widening and not narrowing, along comes our wise and diligent pope to provide his church with not just a shining example, but a ray of hope.

Archbishop Gregory, 72, will become a cardinal Nov. 28 at a ceremony at the Vatican, along with a dozen others named at what the Catholic News Service called the Oct. 25 “surprise consistory, or ceremony.”

And for a nation as troubled as ours, a nation that often looks to its religious leaders and institutions for guidance, the elevation of Archbishop Gregory could not have been better timed.

Wilton Gregory has never been a church leader to dodge controversy or complications. He is a perfect figurehead for the American church as it attempts to guide both the Catholic religious community and to the extent it can, the nation, through the turmoil that currently engulfs us.

By elevating Archbishop Gregory to be a cardinal, the pope has taken a step that will, in the words of The Washington Post editorial board, “amplify the new cardinal’s voice both in the Catholic Church and nationally.” That elevation comes within a church that is about four percent Black, but has a priesthood that is only one percent African American.

So Archbishop Gregory’s elevation is a very good thing.

In the past, the archbishop has been unafraid when it comes to adding his voice to issues of crisis and controversy. For instance, he has helped shaped the church’s “zero tolerance” policy with regards to clergy sexual abuse. In recent months he has voiced his disappointment in President Trump’s visit to the national Pope John Paul II Shrine. That visit came a day after troops used tear gas, horses, rubber bullets and helicopters to clear demonstrators from an area near the White House, just so the president could stand before an Episcopal church holding a Bible.

The archbishop said he found that particular bit of political theater “baffling and reprehensible.” Not the words of a timid man, and they come at a time when a mincing of words isn’t called for or effective.

As you might expect from the nation’s first Black archbishop — and now its first African American cardinal — Wilton Gregory has provided outspoken leadership in the call for racial equality. Within the Diocese of Washington, D.C., soon-to-be Cardinal Gregory has helped create an anti-racism initiative that, according to the Associated Press, focused on prayer and listening sessions.
And Archbishop Gregory has drawn attention to the need for inclusive treatment of LGBTQ Catholics, mirroring the recent statement by Pope Francis.

“The Church lives in society,” Archbishop Gregory recently told the Washington Post. “The Church does not live behind the four doors of the structures where we worship.”

Those are the words of a man who has consistently led his church into the light of what’s right. They are also the words of a man who has been unafraid to draw attention to what’s wrong, both in the church and in society.

Pope Francis has recognized as much. He’s recognized that Wilton Gregory’s leadership is what the church and the nation need right now.

Glenn Rutherford
Record Editor Emeritus

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