Why aren’t U.S. bishops speaking out against a racist and homophobic verbal attack against one of their own?
Religion News Service reported this week that right wing media outlet Church Militant attacked Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C. with anti-gay, racist slurs. More specifically, in a video the outlet’s founder, Michael Voris, asserted that Gregory was part of a “gay cabal and an “accused homosexual.” Voris referred to the archbishop as an “African Queen.” The attack comes shortly after Gregory sharply condemned Donald Trump’s visit to Washington’s St. John Paul II Shrine last week, which the archbishop called “baffling and reprehensible.”
Against an attack even on one of their own, the hierarchy has remained largely silent, and is totally silent when it comes to the homophobic aspect of Church Militant’s attack. The Archdiocese of Detroit tweeted a brief statement condemning “an organization in SE Mich.” for “racist and derogatory language” against Gregory, clarifying that “the organization in question is not affiliated with or endorsed by the Archdiocese of Detroit.” Two further tweets quoted Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who expressed “hope that the faithful will turn from this and all other acts or attitudes which deny the inherent dignity shared by all people.” He acknowledged the racist aspect of Church Militant’s attack, but was mum on the anti-gay aspect. Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville also sent a tweet acknowledging the racism of the video. [Update: The Archdiocese of Detroit issued a second statement that specifically named Church Militant and said “unequivocally condemns the offensive language.”]
It is worth noting, as others have, that this is the same archdiocese which just this spring expelled LGBTQ groups Dignity/Detroit and Fortunate Families from church property, even barring priests from providing pastoral support to the Dignity chapter. These expulsions, implemented by Auxiliary Bishop Gerard Battersby, came without any dialogue and, in the case of Dignity/Detroit, a condemnatory letter that claimed the chapter’s lived faith was “incompatible with the path of sanctification on which Christ bids his Church to travel.” Yet, for years and despite repeated cries for the archdiocese to act, Vigneron has done little to condemn or curtail Church Militant’s damaging antics.
Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of the Pulse LGBTQ nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, when forty-nine people were killed and dozens more injured. What was striking then is how silent most bishops were and, but for a few exceptions, those bishops who did speak out could not bring themselves to name the victims as targeted specifically for being LGBTQ. Perhaps it was too much to expect a U.S. episcopate that collectively spent two decades condemning LGBTQ people and opposing their civil rights to stand with the LGBTQ community, even in the wake of mass death. But now, is it too much for these bishops to even defend one of their own, by explicitly naming the homophobia that is part of the attacks against Gregory?
As usual, it is left to non-hierarchical Catholics to fill the void the bishops’ collective silence leaves. RNS reported on some of the necessary condemnations:
“The Church Militant video triggered swift backlash from prominent Catholic scholar Anthea Butler, who serves as associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“She called the video racist.
“‘As a black Catholic, I’m appalled,’ Butler told Religion News Service. ‘At a time of racial division in this country, Church Militant produced this racist diatribe in the hopes of creating more fissures within the church. … They are willing to step over the bodies of black people in order to promote their filth.’
“She added: ‘For them to do this, in this particular time of pain in our country, is a slap in the face to every black Catholic in America.'”
Butler called on Archbishop Vigneron to condemn the video and Church Militant explicitly. To not do so, she claimed, “is basically saying to the black Catholics of Detroit that they don’t matter.”
Jamie Manson, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and noted queer Catholic advocate, tweeted that Voris’ “hate speech is an ugly collision of racism and homophobia.” The attack shows, once again, why LGBTQ equality and racial justice work must intersect, she wrote.
Fr. James Martin, SJ, also tweeted about the video:
“The day Jesus tells us not to call people names (Mt 5:22) and as we confront racism @Church_Militant releases video calling Archbishop Gregory an ‘African Queen.’ Church Militant is in Detroit. Will Archbishop Vigneron or anyone in the @USCCB condemn such #racist hate speech?”
Gregory has been an increasingly positive voice for LGBTQ equality. Last year, he told a transgender Catholic that “you belong to the heart of this church.” He took several positive steps while archbishop in Atlanta, too. He invited Fr. James Martin, SJ, to speak despite some criticism, and has acknowledged that the Church needed to improve its pastoral care for LGBTQ persons. After marriage equality was legalized in the U.S., he called for all sides to be respectful and civil. Gregory has suggested the work of the 1960s civil rights movement continues today and includes efforts for lesbian and gay protections. In 2016, Gregory supported the Georgia governor’s veto of a “license to discriminate” bill that would have expanded anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
There can be no toleration of the homophobia and the white supremacy expressed by the “African Queen” moniker, and as Jamie Manson and many others point out, the fight against these oppressions intersects and so our response must itself be intersectional. Too few bishops can bring themselves to say Black Lives Matter or that LGBTQ people must be respected. But where the bishops are silent, the rest of the faithful need to be outspoken. Catholics must make clear to our co-religionists that such hate will be actively resisted.
If you would like to send a respectful note of support to Archbishop Gregory, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave positive comments on the Archdiocese of Washington’s social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram).
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 13, 2020