Washington’s Roman Catholic archbishop has roundly criticized President Donald Trump’s visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine on Tuesday.
One day after Trump used federal police to forcefully disperse a peaceful protest in front of a D.C. Episcopal church for a photo op with the Bible, Archbishop Wilton Gregory insisted that the former pope the shrine is named after would never have condoned the president’s tactics.
“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,” Gregory, the first Black archbishop of Washington, said in a statement.
Saint Pope John Paul II, known for opposing communism in his native Poland during his papacy, was an “ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings,” the archbishop said.
“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,” Gregory added.
Trump briefly visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine with first lady Melania Trump, who identifies as Roman Catholic. The pair posed for media photos before turning to gaze at a statue of the former pope for a few minutes. They also laid a wreath of flowers at the shrine. Trump did not make any public comments at the shrine, The Washington Post reported.
The president then returned to the White House and signed an executive order intended to promote international religious freedom.
The Saint John Paul II National Shrine is managed by the conservative lay Catholic men’s organization, the Knights of Columbus.
In a statement, its leaders said that the shrine “welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II.”
“The White House originally scheduled this as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom. This was fitting given St. John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate,” the shrine’s statement read.
Several hundred people gathered outside the shrine to protest Trump’s visit. Catholic activists prayed the rosary, listened to a reading of the Beatitudes, and held signs, including one that read, “Our church is not a photo op.”
Susan Gunn, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, a Catholic ministry, helped to organize a prayer vigil outside the shrine. After watching videos of what had happened at St. John’s Church the night before, Gunn said the vigil was planned to be “far enough away that we felt safe from overly aggressive police tactics to move a crowd and yet close enough to see the presidential motorcade.”
Gunn said she felt “outraged” that Trump would use the Catholic faith for what she suspected would be another “photo op to further his political agenda.”
“We wanted to pray for healing for those who are grieving and for our fractured communities, and we wanted to share our message of solidarity and love in a public way,” Gunn said of the vigil.
Bob Cooke, a leader for Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore, local chapter of a left-leaning Catholic group, told HuffPost that he believes the Trump administration has long acted in ways that are antithetical to the gospel. But violently dispersing peaceful protestors for a photo op while the nation grieves 400 years of racism was “more than many Christians could take.”
“So as a Catholic, I needed to be out there today to protest his misuse of Christianity and the Bible for his own temporal, evil plans,” Cooke said.
Bishop John Stowe, from the Catholic diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, also criticized Trump’s visit.
Sister Simone Campbell, who leads the Catholic social justice advocacy group Network, accused Trump of using the Catholic faith “in another photo op to defend his appalling refusal to address racism and police violence in the United States.”
“He is trying to create a false dichotomy of peaceful protestors versus the Church. That could not be further from the truth, and any Christian who believes it does not understand Jesus’s message,” Campbell said in a statement.
“Saint John Paul II himself spoke out against racism multiple times during his papacy, I hope President Trump learns that history during his visit,” she said.
Rev. James Martin, editor at large of the Jesuit Catholic magazine America, also said that Trump was visiting the shrine “for another photo op at a religious site.”
Gregory’s condemnation of Trump’s visit to the shrine comes just one day after Washington’s Episcopal bishop lashed out at the president for using one of the churches in her diocese for a photo op.
On Monday evening, law enforcement officials in riot gear fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators gathered at Lafayette Square to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in police custody last week in Minneapolis. The square is located right in front of St. John’s Church. Clergy who had gathered at the church to offer water and solidarity to protesters were among those who reported being tear-gassed and driven off the church’s property.
The president then walked from the White House to pose with a Bible outside of St. John’s Church, which had been set on fire during protests a day earlier.
Rev. Mariann Budde, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, accused Trump of using the Bible and St. John’s Church as a backdrop for a message that is “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for.”
Budde said that she was sad about the damage to the church, but that she and her diocese still stood in solidarity with protesters demanding an end to police brutality against Black Americans.
“In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation,” Budde said.