The leaders of two D.C.-area LGBT supportive Catholic groups say they are optimistic that Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the newly appointed head of the Archdiocese of Washington, will continue his policies of welcoming LGBT Catholics into the fold of the church that he established during his tenure as the Archbishop of Atlanta for the past 14 years.
Gregory, 71, will be installed on May 21 as the seventh Archbishop of Washington. Pope Francis announced on April 4 that he has appointed Gregory to the position as the successor to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who has headed the Archdiocese of Washington since 2006.
Knowledgeable observers of the Vatican’s practice of appointing leaders of the Archdiocese of Washington say Archbishops of Washington traditionally have been elevated to the position of cardinal if they haven’t already become a cardinal.
Gregory is thus on the path to become the first African-American cardinal, church observers have said.
“It’s incredibility historic, first of all, because he’s the first black Archbishop of Washington and is expected to become the first black cardinal in the U.S.,” said Vin Testa, president of the LGBT Catholic group Dignity Washington.
Testa and Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the Mt. Renier, Md., based LGBT supportive Catholic group New Ways Ministry, also point out that Gregory strengthened his reputation in Atlanta as a supporter of LGBT Catholics last fall. The two noted that Gregory forcefully defended two priests who came under attack by conservative Catholic activists for allegedly violating church teachings in their support for the LGBT community.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gregory expressed support for a proposal by Monsignor Henry Gracz, pastor of the LGBT-supportive Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Church in Atlanta, to invite Jesuit priest and noted author, Father James Martin, to speak at his church about one of Martin’s books.
The book, “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” has been hailed by LGBT Catholic activists but condemned by conservative Catholic leaders who consider it a breach of church teachings on homosexuality.
A coalition of conservative Catholic activists, the Journal-Constitution reports, organized a petition drive last fall calling on Gregory to remove Monsignor Gracz from his position as a spiritual adviser for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, a position he has held since 2011. The activists cited as their main objection to Gracz his ministry to the LGBT community.
In a public statement, Gregory said he had no plans to remove Gracz from that position, calling him one of the “most compassionate and understanding priests who does not hesitate to respond to anyone in need of help.”
Gregory added in his statement, “Msgr. Gracz is following the admonition of Pope Francis to accompany people on the periphery of society. His priestly heart is not closed to those who find themselves misunderstood or rejected.”
In explaining his action concerning Gracz’s proposal that Father Martin be invited to speak at one or more churches within the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Gregory stated, “Several weeks ago I was asked by one of our pastors to invite Father Martin to share his perspective on ministry to the LGBT community as part of a larger, local parish conversation. I did not hesitate to support that pastor in extending the invitation.”
Testa of Dignity Washington called Gregory’s handling of the Father Martin issue a “huge” positive development for LGBT Catholics.
“So we’re very hopeful,” he said. “And I think we can definitely keep lots of communication open with the archdiocese” under Gregory, Testa said.
DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry said he, too, is optimistic about Gregory’s future actions in Washington.
“In Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory has shown that he is willing to take a pastoral approach to LGBT issues,” DeBernardo told the Blade. “He has displayed a willingness to listen to the concerns of LGBT people and their family members. He has also been courageous in refuting ultra-conservative Catholics who disparage LGBT people and advocates.”
Added DeBernardo, “If he continues this trajectory, he shows promise of being a friend to the LGBT community in the Washington, D.C. area, which is one of the largest, per capita, LGBT communities in the nation.”
While praising Gregory for his recent LGBT supportive statements, Marianne Duddy-Burke, president of the national LGBT Catholic group Dignity USA, notes that Gregory – like Pope Francis – has not called for changing the official Catholic Church teachings that still characterize homosexuality as a “disorder.” The church teachings define marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman, and consider any same-sex sexual relations as a sin.
Duddy-Burke said Dignity USA received information from LGBT Catholics in Atlanta that under Gregory’s tenure as Archbishop of Atlanta at least three gay employees reportedly have been fired from jobs at archdiocesan run agencies. She said one of the employees filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the archdiocese, which acknowledged in its response that the employee was let go because of the employee’s sexual orientation.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Archdiocese of Washington couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
“My sense is he may be somebody whose thinking on LGBT issues is really evolving over time,” Duddy-Burke said. “And like anyone in their system, they definitely take their cues from their boss,” meaning the Pope, said Duddy-Burke.
“I think Gregory is like many other Catholic officials who are trying to figure out how do they negotiate the untenable position that the church teachings puts them in and try to manage a complex organization that has a pastoral mission,” she said.