A prominent Catholic Archbishop has condemned the visit by President Donald Trump to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine today.
The Archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, who is the first African-American to hold that post, was speaking in advance of the visit, when President Trump and the First Lady visited the shrine in private but emerged briefly to stand beside a statue of the former pope outside. President Trump also tweeted about the visit.
Earlier, the president was criticised for posing with a Bible outside St John's Episcopal Church near the White House after space was cleared for him to do so by police using smoke cannisters and pepper balls. The US Centre for Disease Control classifies pepper irritants as a type of tear gas. Later, the president signed an order on international religious freedom.
Archbishop Gregory said: “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, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree.
“St Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. 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.”
In addition, a leading academic joined the criticism, focusing on the president's pose with a Bible outside St John's.
James Hudnut-Beumler, Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University, told The Tablet: “Going to church holding a Bible as a prop to signify piety was not invented by Donald Trump, but it probably was never carried off so badly.
“When asked by a reporter if the Bible he was holding was his Bible, Trump replied, ‘It’s a Bible.’ That’s about right – nothing about the stunt concocted by Hope Hicks for her president boss was authentic. President Trump displayed not his faith in God nor his love for neighbour in having the crowd dispersed by riot police, horses, and tear gas, all so that he could preach anger from in front of St John’s Episcopal Church. As much as conservative evangelicals have stood with Trump, I wonder whether his blatant abuse of their symbols will not be seen as extreme hypocrisy.”
Archbishop Gregory is due later this week to take part in an online dialogue with the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University to discuss “Racism in Our Streets and Structures – A Test of Faith, A Crisis for Our Nation”.
Last Sunday, the Archbishop said in response to the death of George Floyd: “In astonishment, we are seeing the reactions of people across the United States as they express feelings of frustration, hurt, and anger in their cry for justice for George Floyd, whom we painfully watched being suffocated in front of our eyes on video in Minneapolis, Minnesota this past week.
“Many of us remember similar incidents in our history that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement, where we repeatedly saw Black Americans viciously brutalised by police on television and in newspaper photos.
“Those historic moments helped to rouse our national conscience to the African American experience in the United States and now, in 2020, we tragically still see repeated incidents of police brutality against African Americans.
“We find ourselves in this national moment again with the awakening of our conscience by heartbreaking photos and video that clearly confirm that racism still endures in our country. On television and in social media, we are observing an overflow of pain felt acutely in the African American community and shared by too many other communities. Moments like this cause people of good will, who believe in the value, respect and dignity of every human life, to wonder if and how we can move on from here.
“The horror of George Floyd’s death, like all acts of racism, hurts all of us in the Body of Christ since we are each made in the image and likeness of God, and deserve the dignity that comes with that existence. This incident reveals the virus of racism among us once again even as we continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.”
And in another statement, on the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, he said: “We as a society must find ways to understand and to respond to the pain of our brothers and sisters. We see racism destroying the lives of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian people because of their religious and ethnic heritages. Racism triggers the divisive and xenophobic attitudes of nationalism. It also targets people because of their cultural traditions or physical appearances and it threatens immigrant people who seek nothing more than the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their children.”