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RAY SUAREZ: Last month Bishop Wilton Gregory of the diocese of Bellville in Southern Illinois was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the first African-American named to the office. Bishop Gregory was ordained a priest in the archdiocese of Chicago in 1973 at 25. A decade later he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Chicago. And after spending the last three years as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he was elected by his fellow bishops to his current post as president. Bishop Wilton Gregory joins us now. Welcome.
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Thank you very much, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the spiritual health of the nation since September 11. What have you seen as you traveled around the country?
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Well, Ray, this is obviously become a very fragile time for us as Americans. I happen to have been in transit on September 10, leaving from Newark to go to Washington, and I can remember the trauma that people felt and continue to feel as violence has touched us deeply and personally and left us with a lot of unanswered questions.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of people have headed to church and to other places of worship — maybe people who didn’t go there regularly before. What do you make of that?
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Well, it is not surprising that when we are faced with danger, with tragedy, with sadness that most of us have a tendency to reach back and touch those dimensions of our lives that are our faith heritage. I’m not surprised that many people found comfort and solace in being with other believers in houses of worship, in churches and synagogues and mosques because I think that’s what faith does best. It is a source of reassurance and comfort, and it draws people together. I believe Americans wanted to be together in the light of the events of September 11.
RAY SUAREZ: Since withstanding this blow, the nation has embarked on a war. What does Catholic teaching tell us about the justification for war and how it should be prosecuted?
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Well, first of all, as Catholics, our moral teaching and our ethical positions go all the way back to Saint Augustine, who said that the state certainly has a right and an obligation to protect its people; and if that obligation and right need to be exercised, it can resort to military action but it must be an action that is proportionate to the harm that has been done. It must be an action that protects to the extent possible innocent life. It must be an action that somehow uses the least amount of violence necessary and certainly must not extend any damage to civilians if that is all possible. And it must be an action that is grounded in justice and in security and not in revenge.
RAY SUAREZ: And from what you’ve seen so far as we head toward the new year, does America’s effort pas on all those counts?
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: I believe that we as a nation are struggling mightily to follow as close a just approach as possible. There will obviously always be those who disagree with one or another action, but I am pleased and I think that we as Americans are trying to be a just people, ting to protect our nation and to respect the dignity of all human life including those of people in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, the Catholic Church is in an interesting position in the United States in the year 2001. It is the largest single faith community by far yet at the same time a distinct minority in American life. So you speak with a tremendously loud voice but still only to some Americans. As a pastor speaking on big issues like war an peace, justice and revenge, who are you trying to reach with what you have to say?
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Well, as a pastor, as the bishop of the diocese in southern Illinois, I have to speak clearly to my own Catholic flock, but I must also urge them to be in dialogue with members of other religious faiths and traditions which we have done. If the events of September 11 have had any positive results, it’s that Catholics and Christians, Jews and Muslims, people of faith of a wide spectrum of churches and religious traditions, have begun to speak with each other in all kinds of circumstances. For example, since September 11, I’ve personally been involved with inter-faith activities that involved Christians and Jews and Muslims. Those are graced moments, when we as Catholics along with Christians and Jews and Muslims can come together and to rediscover the richness of our own faith traditions but also attempt to dialogue in a real and sincere way with one another. I think that such opportunities and such moments will bode well for us as a nation and as a people with a wide variety of religious traditions.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Conference of Bishops pastoral letter after September 11 called on American Catholics to indulge in prayer, fasting, teaching, dialogue, witness and service. It’s kind of an interesting list, both personal and outward looking at the same time.
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: I think that is part of the tradition of our Catholic faith, that we have always attempted to combine our religious traditions with our social outreach. One without the other is incomplete. But when they are joined together, they present, I think, a complete picture of that which we as Catholics profess.
RAY SUAREZ: And there is a… What kind of spirit when it comes to inter-faith prayer? Some American denominations have gotten into arguments inside the family about, well, just what are we saying when we pray with others not of our own faith, that we’re equal, that we’re the same, that we’re on different roads to a commonplace? It’s an interesting argument to listen to.
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Well, certainly the occasions that bring people of various religious traditions together in prayer is not an attempt to reduce all religions to the same. It is not an attempt to deny that there are serious, deep and still unresolved differences that separate us. But when we do come together in prayer over a particular issue, it seems at that time we are coming together to emphasize those values that we do share in common. Such inter-faith services are always delicate. They have to be carefully planned, but they should take place in order to strengthen the faith, the tradition and the cooperation that really is a source of our unity in spite of the differences that still exist.
RAY SUAREZ: Your Excellency, thanks for joining us.
BISHOP WILTON GREGORY: Thank you very much, Ray.