Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington is pictured with Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, retired archbishop of Washington, in June 2019 (CNS Photo/Paul Haring).

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory could have played it safe. He could have hewed to the unwritten rules requiring church officials to defer to influential donors and powerbrokers. Instead, the archbishop set down an important marker for the church’s integrity last week. When President Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine—which is managed by the influential Knights of Columbus—Gregory, a soft-spoken leader known for his pastoral instincts, issued a notably blunt statement. “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.” And, commenting on the treatment of peaceful protestors preceding the president’s appearance at Saint John’s Episcopal Church the day before, the archbishop added a clear rebuke to Trump, saying that John Paul II would “certainly not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter, or intimidate for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship.”

The Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882 by an Irish immigrant out of a church basement in New Haven, Connecticut, had an original mission of helping poor and working-class women and children through an insurance program. Today it is a financial juggernaut with $2 billion dollars in revenue, raised mostly from selling health insurance to its approximately two million members. The Knights do laudable charitable work in the United States and globally; their commitment to persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere is tireless and commendable. Over the past two decades, under the leadership of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson—a former staffer of segregationist Senator Jesse Helms who held various posts in the Reagan administration—the Knights also became a powerful political force inside and outside the church, helping to bankroll campaigns against same-sex marriage and for the bishops’ religious liberty initiatives, which often took on partisan overtones during the presidency of Barack Obama. The “strong right-arm of the church,” as John Paul II once called the Knights, in 2010 compared the violent persecution of Christians in Mexico under the 1920s-era strongman Plutarco Calles with Catholic claims of persecution under contraception-coverage provisions in the Affordable Care Act. The Tablet, a London-based international Catholic newspaper, has described Anderson, who earned a salary of $1.2 million in 2015 and once served at the Vatican Bank, as “one of the most influential Catholics in the world.” The organization showers dioceses across the country with millions of dollars. The Knights also pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into renovation projects to refurbish Saint Peter’s Basilica. In criticizing the Shrine’s decision to host Trump, Gregory knew he was taking on well-connected Catholics who write big checks and have friends in high places.

In criticizing the Shrine’s decision to host Trump, Gregory knew he was taking on well-connected Catholics who write big checks and have friends in high places.

“For more than a decade and a half, under the leadership of a former political operative, the Knights of Columbus has increasingly used its enormous wealth to influence the direction of the church, underwriting think tanks and news outlets while gaining entrée to some of the highest levels of decision-making in the church,” Tom Roberts wrote in a detailed analysis of the Knight’s influence in a 2017 National Catholic Reporter article. “Its capacity for funding has given the Knights of Columbus an inordinately loud voice, potentially drowning out that of others, and no other lay group can match the Knights’ ability to leave its mark on the church.”

The backlash against Gregory from well-funded Catholics on the right was swift and revealing. Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote—which is leading a major organizing effort to re-elect Trump—called the archbishop’s statement “a partisan attack on the president.” “Archbishop Gregory is a Catholic priest and, supposedly, a spiritual leader. Not a politician,” reads a petition on LifeSiteNews that encourages readers to ask the archbishop to “apologize for, and withdraw, these churlish, hurtful and unspiritual remarks.” Edward Peters, a canon lawyer and professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit, tweeted that Archbishop Gregory’s condemnation was “devoid of any sense of Christian sentiment.” Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States and a leading critic of Pope Francis, wrote in a June 3 letter to priests and laity of the Archdiocese of Washington: “Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is led by many false pastors.” A few days later, Viganò followed up with a letter to President Trump that described the president’s opponents as “the children of darkness—whom we may easily identify with the deep state which you wisely oppose and which is fiercely waging war against you in these days.”

At an online event later in the week, hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, Archbishop Gregory did not back down. A “holy place” should “have never been used as a place for a political statement,” the archbishop said, and he commended those who “take to the streets to protest injustice.” Watching the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneel on the neck of George Floyd, the first black archbishop of Washington recalled a memory from his childhood, when he was taken to the viewing of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago who was lynched in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman in her family’s Mississippi grocery store.

In addressing his critics, the archbishop compared claims that he was being partisan to the backlash Catholic priests and sisters who marched and spoke out during the civil rights era also faced. “The Church lives in society,” he said. “It does not live behind the four walls in which we worship.” Black Catholics in Washington have expressed appreciation for the archbishop’s stance. In a sign of how out-of-step the Knights of Columbus national leadership can be with some of its own members, a local chapter of the Knights at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington D.C., a historically black church, also criticized the decision to host Trump at the shrine. “If your purpose is to see yourself as a sign instituted by Christ, then it’s baffling to see the president of the United States use their institution as a political backdrop,” St. Augustine pastor Father Pat Smith told the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s reprehensible and simply inexcusable. As a black Catholic priest for almost thirty years, there is no better way to communicate to me that I don’t matter—and the calls and consent of the people, in light of what’s going on, don’t matter.”

An online petition started by grassroots Catholics is asking Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who serves as the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights, to issue an apology that the invitation to Trump was not rescinded and “to acknowledge that the Knights’ decision on June 2 is part of their long history of complicity with prejudice and institutional racism.” The petition notes that no person of color currently serves as a supreme officer of the organization. “The Catholic Church always has an obligation to atone and make amends for its participation in institutional racism, and this is especially true now,” the petition reads. “To this end, we urge the Knights of Columbus to commit to engaging in an internal process of healing and reconciliation with its racist legacy.” Other Catholic institutions have led the way on this, the petition notes, including Georgetown University and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. In the wake of widespread criticism, the Knights’ national leadership quickly pulled together a novena for this week focused on ending racism. “The Knights join Pope Francis in urging all to express their anger and cries for justice in nonviolent ways to end the sin of racism,” it announced.

Black people and communities of color deserve more than after-the-fact public relations campaigns. White Catholics with money and status in the church and politics, along with so many in our country, have refused to acknowledge how such influence has been used to prop up white supremacy. Archbishop Gregory has unsettled the guardians of the status quo in our church by speaking out against the use of a sacred space as a backdrop for a president who fans the flames of white resentment for political gain. There is an opening now for a more honest, and difficult, conversation about race and power in the Catholic Church. Do we have the courage to have it?

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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