The Archbishop of Washington DC has drawn a line in the sand between the Church and President Donald Trump.
When historians look back on this period, his intervention may well go down as a courageous move demonstrating that at least some at the highest levels in the Church were willing to stand up to the US President.
The damning rebuke of a Republican president by the archbishop of the country’s capital is highly unusual and without obvious precedent. By doing so, some have accused the archbishop of becoming embroiled in partisan politics. Yet rather than taking a side, the archbishop is taking a stand.
It is also in keeping with Pope Francis’ allergy to the Church becoming too closely aligned with any political interests: by doing so the Church loses its prophetic freedom and becomes thirsty for worldly power. Yes, the Church must be involved in politics, but it must avoid politicisation.
“The world sees us only as on the right or left, with this ideology, with that one; the Spirit sees us as sons and daughters of the Father and brothers and sisters of Jesus,” Francis said on Pentecost Sunday. “The world sees conservatives and progressives; the Spirit sees children of God.”
In the Gospel reading for the day Archbishop Gregory released his statement, Jesus is tested by some Pharisees and Herodians on whether it is permissible to pay taxes to Caesar.
“Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God,” Jesus replies.
By going to the John Paul II shrine for a photo opportunity, day after he held up a bible in front of St John’s Episcopal Church, the president is using religion for political ends. He is seeking to take for Caesar what is God’s.
With an election just five months away, churchgoers should be under no illusion that the president is looking to shore up votes from them. You are either with Trump or against him. And Many Catholics and evangelicals in the US are. In 2016 the president won 81 per cent of the white evangelical vote while 60 per cent of white Catholics supported him compared to 37 per cent who backed Hillary Clinton.
He has won over the religious vote thanks to his anti-abortion stance and promotion of religious freedom the plan was for him to visit the John Paul II shrine so he could sign a religious freedom executive order.
But freedom of religion, as set out in the US constitution and the Second Vatican Council, makes a separation between Church and state, based on the demarcation of what is God and Caesar’s.
Furthermore, President Trump's own faith commitment – and pledge to speak for religious believers – has been met with scepticism. He does not belong to a particular congregation, occasionally attends a service, cannot name a favourite scripture passage and has said he does not like to ask God for forgiveness.
By putting clear water between the Church’s leadership and the presidency, Archbishop Gregory is standing up to the powerful forces within US Catholicism, particularly those who donate to Church causes, who have thrown their support behind Trump.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The archbishop was chosen by the Pope last year as the first African-American to lead the archdiocese of Washington DC. His appointment came on the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
More than 50 years since the turbulence of that period, civil unrest and violent protests are breaking out again. There is anger following the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who perished when a white police officer in Minneapolis was filmed with his knee on the right side of Floyd's neck for almost 9 minutes.
The 72-year-old Washington prelate has repeatedly spoken out for civil rights saying that “people in our nation continue to be victimised because of their colour, or their first language, or their sexual orientation, or their religious beliefs like too many people did 50 years ago.”
Last August, he criticised the coarsening of public discourse saying: “The growing plague of offence and disrespect in speech and actions must end,” adding that “recent public comments by our president and others and the responses they have generated, have deepened divisions and diminished our national life”.
Back in 2002, at the apex of the clerical sexual abuse scandal, Archbishop Gregory was president of the US Bishops Conference. During that time he pushed for the Church to adopt a tough new system for handling abuse allegations while offering repeated apologies for what had happened. His calm, yet determined leadership was widely praised.
Eighteen years after he helped the Church walk through the dark hour of the clerical sexual abuse crisis scandals, the question is whether Archbishop Gregory can untie the knots of the Catholic alliance with Trumpism, a political force which many see as antithetical to the Gospel.