During his time as a bishop, Archbishop Wilton Gregory – who will be installed as the new archbishop of Washington on May 21 -- has been outspoken about social justice issues like abortion, the death penalty, poverty, racism, and caring for the environment, and he often draws connections between how those issues affect the dignity of the human person.

As the archbishop of Atlanta, he made regular visits to death row, where he celebrated Mass for the inmates. According to the Georgia Bulletin newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory has said he writes frequently to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles urging its members to commute the sentences of death row inmates to life in prison. 

“I have no illusions that these inmates do not represent serious offenders of the laws of our society,” he wrote in a Jan. 10 column for the Georgia Bulletin. “Still, they are human beings and some of them have come from incredibly harsh and highly dysfunctional personal backgrounds…the violence that they may well have inflicted on others does not rob them of their human dignity.”

Archbishop Gregory has spoken on many occasions about the seriousness of the death penalty, and supported Pope Francis’s recent decision to change the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that the death penalty is never acceptable. In that same Georgia Bulletin column, he wrote about the human dignity that all people share.

“This is the very same truth that underpins the dignity of nascent life within the womb. Infants waiting to be born are also worthy of the reverence that all human life enjoys,” he said.“…The people who reject the humanity of the violent criminal assert that they are not worthy of human dignity because they forfeited innocence by committing crimes -- unlike those innocently awaiting birth. But our human dignity does not rest in our innocence, but on the fact that we all have been created by God himself. Human dignity is never dependent upon race, age, social class, legal immigration status, criminal background or health.”

Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrates a Jan. 4 2007 Mass in the chapel at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, in Jackson, Georgia. (Georgia Bulletin photo/Michael Alexander)

Archbishop Gregory has spoken many times on the importance of respecting the lives of the unborn, particularly at the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s annual Mass for the Unborn. During his homily at that Mass in Jan. 2012, he said the United States was “born while proclaiming life to be among the greatest and most enduring of all human rights,” but when it struck down laws restricting abortions in 1973, “at that moment we became a kingdom divided against itself – by pitting life against liberty and making it subordinate to an individual’s pursuit of happiness.”  

During an address that he gave at the Georgia State Capitol in January 2005, Archbishop Gregory drew connections between the civil rights movement in the city of Atlanta, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “waged a great and noble struggle for justice,” and the current struggle for justice for unborn lives.

“We have been engaged in this struggle for 32 years. We are willing to continue our efforts for as long as it takes to secure the safety of all the unborn,” he said. “…We shall not go away. We shall only grow stronger and more determined to make certain that some day a human life within the womb will not be considered a choice to be made, but a child to be loved.”

In November 2015, just a few months after Pope Francis issued his encyclical Laudato Si, Archbishop Gregory released an “Action Plan” for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, put together by scientists at the University of Georgia, that includes practical examples of steps that individuals and parishes can take to follow Pope Francis’s call to “care for our common home.”

The Action Plan was broken into a several categories: energy conservation and efficiency, purchasing and recycling, transportation, water conservation, buying and sharing food, creating sustainable landscapes, assisting climate vulnerable populations, making Laudato Si for young people, and political action.

Some of the practical suggestions include forming “Green Teams” at parishes, using recyclable or metal/porcelain utensils and plates for parish events, using rain barrels for outdoor watering, planting trees and native plants, encouraging parishioners to lobby to their elected representatives, supporting ethical and sustainable businesses, and installing electric car charging stations at churches and schools.

In his keynote address at the Mid-Atlantic Congress in Baltimore in February 2017, Archbishop Gregory spoke about the book of Genesis, when God looked at his creation and “saw how good it was.” Archbishop Gregory said this creates a moral and spiritual obligation for people today to also “see how good it was” and to take care of God’s creation.

Just as Pope Francis did in Laudato Si, Archbishop Gregory acknowledged in that address that “the portion of humanity that is especially and directly impacted by the destruction of our environment are those who are poor – those who have the least ability to halt or to modify the exploitation of the natural resources that sustain us all.”

In June 2005, Archbishop Gregory spoke on the topic of poverty and hunger at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which was the church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached.

“Here in this place an extraordinary, prophetic preacher called people of his day and time to see that injustice was incompatible with God’s kingdom. We can do nothing less in response to the injustices of our own day,” he said. “Surely the alleviation of the causes of hunger in our society and the feeding of the poor are works of justice and in strict conformity with God’s design as the very word of Scripture repeatedly makes patently clear.”

The archbishop has said that Dr. King has served as an inspiration for him, and he speaks frequently on the ongoing fight against racism. In a 2016 column published by the Catholic News Service, he spoke of racism as a disease that must be cured. Like Zika, Ebola or cancer, he wrote, “racism – the belief that one group is superior to another due to race – is a grave moral disease whose recurrence, aggressiveness and persistence should frighten every one of us.”

At an address given at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Oct. 31, 2017, a few months after violence broke out in that city at a white supremacist rally, he said, “Racism is only able to survive as long as there is ignorance. Racism grows only in the soil of ignorance and unfamiliarity.”

Later in that address, he said, “Racial healing is an aspiration that will only be possible because of the ceaseless attention of all people of good will who believe in the value and significance of living harmoniously in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.”

In this photo from 2006, Archbishop Wilton Gregory participates in a pro-life “Life Chain" in Atlanta. (Georgia Bulletin photo/Michael Alexander)

Archbishop Gregory has also spoken out about gun violence after tragedies like the recent attack on Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. In an April 21 column in the Georgia Bulletin titled, “Beyond grieving for Christchurch, action needed,” the archbishop encouraged people to take action to try to confront hate and too-frequent violence.

“Asking God’s powerful healing, consolation and intervention is the first, most important thing we can do, but beyond those ‘thoughts and prayers,’ what earthly actions can we take here and now?” he wrote.

Some of the steps he suggested taking were casting a critical eye on the role that media plays in broadcasting the acts of violence, holding the corporate sponsors of that material accountable, and teaching children about peace, respect, and love of others.

In a homily given soon after the racially motivated shooting that killed nine African-Americans during a prayer service in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, Archbishop Gregory likened the emotions following the shooting to the emotions of Jesus’s disciples as He slept in the midst of the storm that surrounded their boat.

“For many people, it might seem that Jesus is indeed asleep during the midst of these terrors,” he said, likening them to a tsunami that is “powered by blatant racism, the unattended or under-attended needs of individuals who suffer emotional or psychological illnesses, and by the means of the easy availability and proliferation of weapons.”

But just as the disciples were adept fishermen who knew how to steer the boat, he said, “people of faith are not helpless, and we are obliged to work for lasting peace and justice.”

“Faith is not a substitute for moral courage. Faith is not a placebo for living,” he said. “Faith is not an excuse for a lack of effort, and we are all called to renew the struggle for lasting racial harmony. We must redouble our efforts to pursue justice wherever we encounter injustice.”