Washington archbishop denounces Trump visit to Catholic shrine as 'baffling' and 'reprehensible'

David Jackson, Michael Collins and Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – A day after a much-criticized photo op at a fire-damaged church near the White House, President Donald Trump took his anti-protester "law and order" message to a Catholic shrine, a visit that drew swift condemnation from a top church official.

Trump and first lady Melania Trump traveled across town Tuesday for a brief visit to Saint John Paul II National Shrine adjacent to the Catholic University of America. The shrine is a place of prayer for Catholics but welcomes people of all faiths.

The Trumps posed for photos in front of a statue of Pope John Paul II outside the shrine and stood silently for a few minutes, hands clasped in front of them. They did not make remarks.

Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory slammed the presidential visit in a statement shortly before the Trumps' arrival.

“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 said in a statement.

Trump visited the shrine a day after he walked across Lafayette Park next to the White House and posed for cameras outside St. John's Episcopal Church, which was slightly damaged after it was set on fire by protesters late Sunday night.

A visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump drew a rebuke from Washington's archbishop June 2.

Violent protests erupted in Washington and dozens of other cities across the country after the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died in the custody of police. Former police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death. 

Critics hammered Trump because police used smoke canisters, pepper spray and shields on protesters in Lafayette Park, clearing a path for the president to walk to St. John's, the historic building known as the church of presidents. The show of force came roughly half an hour before a 7 p.m. curfew was to take effect in Washington.

"Tear-gassing peaceful protesters without provocation just so that the president could pose for photos outside a church dishonors every value that faith teaches us," said a joint statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

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Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said in a speech Tuesday in Philadelphia that the St. John's event proves Trump is "more interested in serving the passions of his base."

"When peaceful protesters are dispersed by the order of the president from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House – using tear gas and flash grenades – in order to stage a photo op at a noble church, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle," Biden said.

The U.S. Park Police on Tuesday said its officers used smoke canisters, not tear gas.

Church officials protested that Trump did not call them about his plans to visit St. John's on Monday.

Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes St. John’s Episcopal Church, told CNN she was outraged by the use of force to get people out of the way for a photo op.

"The president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for," she said.

Bishop Gregory noted that Pope John Paul II was “an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings" and "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."

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White House officials said Trump wanted to pay his respects to St. John's after a fire was set in its basement during protests Sunday.

The president wanted to leave the White House grounds to prove he was not “in the bunker“ because of the protesters, said one official who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s communication strategy.

The president was particularly angry when word got out that the Secret Service escorted him to the bunker of the White House during protests just beyond the gates of the executive mansion Friday, the official said.

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After the St. John's visit, the White House put out a statement saying protesters had been repeatedly warned to exit the park before the curfew.

“The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before," spokesman Judd Deere said. "Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police."

In a tweet less than two hours before his visit to the shrine Tuesday, Trump took credit for crackdowns in Washington – and Minneapolis.

"D.C. had no problems last night," he said. "Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination. Likewise, Minneapolis was great (thank you President Trump!)."

A couple of hundred peaceful protesters gathered down the street from the national shrine before Trump’s arrival, holding signs and chanting, "No justice, no peace" and "Black lives matter." Police on the scene wore vests but not riot gear.

As Trump's motorcade arrived, some protesters shouted expletives, and others raised their middle finger.

Kathy Warner, 77, a retired teacher, said she was there to honor Floyd’s memory and to protest the president. She held a sign that read, "In solidarity – RIP George Floyd – Black Lives Matter.” Warner said she hoped passing drivers would read the message and “think about the injustice done to African Americans for centuries.”

Warner said she has a 49-year-old son and her heart “hurts for moms whose sons can’t reach that age.”

She called Trump’s visit to St. John’s on Monday “obscene” for the way he “poses with the Bible.”

Some drivers honked in support as they passed by and shook their fists out their car windows.

The White House originally planned for Trump to sign an executive order on international religious freedom during his visit to the shrine, said Ken Balbuena, the shrine spokesman. Trump instead signed the order when he returned to the White House.

Staging the signing event at the shrine "was fitting, given St. John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate," Balbuena said. "International religious freedom receives widespread bipartisan support, including unanimous passage of legislation in defense of persecuted Christians and religious minorities around the world. The shrine welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II.”

The shrine to the late pope sits on the site of the former John Paul II Cultural Center, which the Knights of Columbus bought in 2011. The lay Catholic organization established it as a shrine to John Paul and added a permanent museum exhibit about his life. Daily Masses are held at the shrine, which is a destination for Catholic pilgrims.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared it a national shrine March 14, 2014, after John Paul was canonized as a saint.

"It is meant to be a place of genuine encounter with God that leads to a renewal of individuals, families, societies, and cultures," according to the shrine's official website, which calls it a place where God "heals and renews every dimension of human life."

Contributing: William Cummings

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: George Floyd: Trump visits Catholic shrine amid 'photo op' criticism