Bishop Gumbleton: against the grain


Bishop_Thomas_GumbletonNewBy luke eggleston
SUN staff writer

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of the Archdiocese of Detroit was ordained a priest June 2, 1956, and has been an influential and controversial figure during the course of his priesthood.

In 1952, he received his bachelor’s degree from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and in 1956 he received his master’s from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Mich. In 1964 he received his doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

He served as assistant chancellor for the Archdiocese of Detroit from 1960 to 1965 and as vice chancellor from 1965 to 1968. He was the archdiocese’s vicar general from 1968 to 2006 and he was named auxiliary bishop March 4, 1968.

An outspoken advocate for the poor and an opponent of U.S. involvement in Iraq as well as Vietnam among other foreign conflicts, Bishop Gumbleton was the founding president of Pax Christi-USA in 1972. He remains a staunch supporter for peace.

Bishop Gumbleton was set to speak Sunday, March 9, at St. James Church in Johnson City.

In 2006, Bishop Gumbleton drew considerable criticism when he spoke in Columbus, Ohio, and said he supported a bill that would have created a one-year window for civil cases involving sexual abuse by extending the statute of limitations. According to the bishop, his outspoken position on the sex abuse scandal was the reason he was asked to cease ministering at St. Leo’s Parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Bishop Gumbleton is a member of the Bishops Committees that drafted the pastoral letter “Challenge of Peace” in 1983 and initiated the letter “Always Our Children” in 1997. He is a co-founder of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights and the founder and co-chair of the Catholic Caucus of Southeast Michigan.

He has traveled around the world serving as an expert witness, an endorser of significant causes and a participant in actions of civil disobedience. Bishop Gumbleton has also been featured in numerous television, radio and documentary programs; he has participated in national and international speaking engagements, and he has written and published many articles, reports and book reviews. The bishop has received numerous awards recognizing his contributions on behalf of various causes involving social justice.

Bishop Gumbleton’s papers are preserved in the Archives of Notre Dame University, 607 Memorial Library, Notre Dame, Ind.

The Catholic SUN recently asked Bishop Gumbleton about his experiences in the social justice arena:

SUN: Could you explain to our readers why you feel the church needs to take a stronger stance against U.S. involvement in Iraq? Do you see the church as a fulcrum for social change in general?

BG: Since the Second Vatican Council when we had the Pastoral Constitution: the Church in the Modern World, there has been a call to put a greater emphasis on the original mission of the church as preached by Jesus. By church we mean the whole Christian community with a strong emphasis on the poor because the document says that the hopes and dreams and the anxieties of people everywhere — especially the poor and the oppressed — are the joys of the hopes and dreams and the anxieties of the church. That sentence makes it clear that the church is intimately involved in the world, especially with the poor and the oppressed in the world, and that’s modeled on Jesus of course. He was deeply engaged in the society in which he lived and he especially was concerned about the poor and the oppressed.

A follow-up to the Pastoral Constitution: The Church in the Modern World, the Synod of Bishops document of 1971, which is a document of justice in the world, and that document has a very clear statement, and it’s a statement that demands a response from all members of the church that says [the church must engage in] action for justice and participation in the transformation of the world. These are constitutive dimensions in the preaching of the Gospel. And by constitutive, it means they constitute what you really mean by preaching the Gospel, living the Gospel. It means action for justice and transformation of the world, for participation in the transformation of the world. So, if someone who is a Christian, a follower of Jesus, isn’t doing action for justice, isn’t trying to participate in transforming the world, then you’re failing to live out the Gospel that Jesus preached because those things constitute what it means to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.

SUN: You were the founding president of Pax Christi-USA in 1972, but the political environment in the U.S. changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. In light of the unpopular war in Iraq, do you see the climate shifting to the left once more?

BG: I don’t really pay attention to what is left or what is right so I really can’t answer that.

SUN: Would you mind discussing the circumstances around your removal from St. Leo’s parish in Detroit?

BG: It came as a result of my public request of the Ohio legislature to provide a “window of opportunity” regarding the statute of limitations of sex abuse crimes. Current statutes of limitation make it almost impossible for a child victim of sex abuse to receive justice through the civil court system. It takes many years for a victim of sex abuse to be able to speak publicly about it and many more to go to the civil authorities. My position was in opposition to that of the Ohio Catholic Conference. By publicly opposing the position of the Ohio bishops, I was deemed to have violated canon law. My doing this was brought to the attention of the papal nuncio and later to Rome. As a result I was deprived of my ability to be pastor of St. Leo’s.

SUN: Many of your controversial stances, such as advocating for the victims of sexual abuse as well as your position on homosexuality, are inspired by personal experience. How important is personal experience in regard to change in the church and society in general?

BG: I think that in any kind of a situation where pastors in a church or leadership in a church or society, if you’re going to make decisions about something and decisions that affect people in quite serious ways in their lives, then it’s important to know and to share the experiences of the people that you’re dealing with. If you’re going to try to do something about poverty in society, well it’s good to know what it really means to be poor and in a sense to walk in the footsteps of someone who is poor. And I think your compassion, your understanding and then ultimately your decisions are much better because they come out of the experience of those for whom you’re making the decisions.

SUN: You’ve taken a strong stance regarding church teaching on homosexuality. Why do you believe it is so important for clerics, religious and Catholic lay people to “come out”

BG: My position on homosexuality is a church position. I have always believed that we are all God’s children and I have always adhered to that teaching, which was published by the Catholic bishops but then subsequently approved by the congregation in Rome and so I feel that what I’ve said on that issue is in line with church teaching. That document for example says that there’s nothing wrong with being homosexual or being lesbian. That’s a person’s orientation and says in there that homosexual people should be welcomed as part of the parish family and it ends up with the saying, “Do not be afraid, you are always our children, we cherish you.” Well, if that’s the case then why is it discouraged? We should publicly say, “I am homosexual.” If you are our children then you should be who you are as one of our children. In church and in our whole society, people should be accepted as who they are. If a priest comes out and is comfortable with his orientation and leads a wholesome life, it would give young people who are struggling with this as they’re growing up someone they can talk to who would understand them and I think that would be very helpful.

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