CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Bishop Gumbleton’s Tour of LGBT Listening Sessions

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Gumbleton Hears Gay Stories, Some Angry

When the history of LGBT issues in the Catholic Church gets written, a large chapter (or maybe several) will have to be devoted to Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, now a retired auxiliary bishop in Detroit, Michigan.  As early as 1974, Bishop Gumbleton was one of the first U.S. Catholic bishops to speak out against injustices towards lesbian and gay people.  At that time, he criticized his own archdiocese for firing Brian McNaught, a gay man, from the staff of the archdiocesan newspaper.

Bishop Gumbleton really made LGBT issues a focus of his peace and social justice ministry in 1992, when, at New Ways Ministry’s Third National Symposium, he spoke about his own and his family’s struggles to come to acceptance of his gay brother, Dan Gumbleton.  From that point on, a trajectory was set for him, and Catholic parishes and organizations around the U.S. began inviting him to speak about LGBT ministry in the Church.

On November 11, 1994, The National Catholic Reporter published an article by Dawn Gibeau, which profiled Gumbleton’s outreach to LGBT Catholics.  Entitled “Gumbleton Hears Gay Stories Some Angry,” the story chronicled his listening tour of five parishes in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.  The tour was organized by several parishes and the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities, a lay organization which no longer exists.  The article’s lead paragraph’s epitomize Gumbleton’s bold courage:

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton in the miter with a pink triangle, cross, and rainbow ribbon.

“Bishop Thomas Gumbleton rarely wears a miter, but he wore one October 28 at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.  Adorning the miter was a cross , and on the cross a pink triangle.  A wide border rimmed the miter, the multicolored stripes of the gay/lesbian rainbow.

“The miter was a gift from Bill Kummer and Leo Bowe, two of the planners of Gumbleton’s Oct. 27-29 visit to thed Twin Cities, and it was stitched by Poor Clare Sr. Caroline of Bloomington, Minn.  The Detroit auxiliary bishop wore it appreciatively as he walked to and from the ‘eucharistic liturgy of liberation,’ a Mass followed by a question-and-answer session.

“The Mass was one of five events, all of which included listening sessions. It drew the biggest crowd, perhaps 500 people; the smallest turnout was about 250 people.”

When asked at one of the sessions about gay marriage, a topic that was not one in the political conversation at the time, Gumbleton said:

“. . . ‘[T]he church isn’t at the point where we would simply say yes, it’s okay. . . .It’s something we’re struggling to understand.’ People must try ‘to come o grips with the teaching of the church as it is set forth’ and as they understand what it means for them.

“He quoted from Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s observation that ‘it seems clear to me that gay people, like all of us, fare better when they are able to develop stable relationships, when they are not relegated to a same-sex society, when they are not permitted to contribute their talents to relieving injustices in our society, when they are loved and respected as people striving to grow humanly and spiritually.’

“Gumbleton told his questioner, ‘Your experience can contribute to the understanding of the church and could contribute to the articulation of theology. . . . So I think your experience is very important.’ “

Gumbleton did not go so far as to fully endorse gay marriage, saying:

“I guess I tend to keep pushing forward, but I feel it is important for me to stay within the church.  If I were to be suspended, I could not work within the church.”

He also added:

“[W]e need to support gay and lesbian people in their relationships.”

At another stop on the listening tour, he offered the example from the writings of Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic political commentator.  He quoted Sullivan’s remark that when he allowed himself to fall in love with another man, he felt “an enormous sense of the presence of God for the first time in my life.” Gumbleton commented on this idea:

“We need love in our lives to be good Christians.  We can’t say ‘I love you, but don’t be who you are.’ “

The reporter commented on the uniqueness of a bishop listening to people talk about their lives:

“The three days and five forums during which a bishop listened and talked appear to be unprecedented in this nation or any other. “

Gumbleton himself commented on what an important opportunity these sessions were:

“Gumbleton , at several forums, emphasized ‘how important it is,what we are doing here’ in the dialogue sessions.  He hopes that more and more, people will share their experiences,will rise above anger and hostility to respond to one another with compassion and love,he said,so they can learn from one another and build the community of disciples of Christ.”

What a different church we would have today, in regards to many issues, if more bishops followed Gumbleton’s example.  In their 1997 pastoral letter, Always Our Children, addressed to Catholic parents of lesbian and gay people, the bishops offered the following recommendation to pastoral ministers:

“Strive first to listen.”

What a different church we would have if church leaders would live out that simple teaching.

It’s not too late to do so.   Cardinal Blase Cupich has promised to dialogue with the LGBT community.  Such events can transform our church.

To learn about what Bishop Gumbleton has been up to more recently on Catholic LGBT issues, click here.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 25, 2017


4 replies
  1. Miriam
    Miriam says:

    Wow. Back in the 80’s I was a poor educated person who would be considered a conservative, recognizing Gumbleton and Weakland as bad guys. I’ve changed.

  2. Deacon Tom Smith
    Deacon Tom Smith says:

    Meting A Prophet Again. A short story about Bishop Tom Gumbleron visiting our diocese recently: While attending the reception after Cardinal Tobin’s Pallium ceremony, I noticed a familiar face enter the room. I knew him from 25 years ago, when he spoke so eloquently at CTA….that’s Bishop Gumbleron! I invited him to join me at a table I was sharing with another guest, an older woman from a parish in Hudson County. He is a personal friend of Joseph Tobin, also from Detroit, who was honored to be joining us in celebrating our new Shepherd.

    During the course of our conversation, which I had steered toward discussion of the bishop’s dialoguing about GLBT issues in the Church, the woman suddenly said, “We cannot discuss sodomites”! The word shocked us both. There is was….homophobia in the midst of celebration, right in our faces. A hate word, if I ever heard one. “Sodomites!” stabbed our happy hearts like a knife. Bishop Tom and I looked at each other in disbelief, and moved our conversation to another table.

    This scenario seemed to epitomize our situation today in the RCC. Even amidst all this long-time and new-found joy and acceptance of our true selves by church leaders, the ugliness of ignorance and fear can raise its hideous head. I wanted to explain to this woman that the sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality (per se), but Bishop Tom and I both realized we could not educate her. Enormous fear had closed her heart, so we politely dismissed ourselves and moved away to continue our celebration of Cardinal Joe. Just like our toxic political environment now, we refuse to spend our precious time engaging in negativity and arguments with the willfully ignorant. There’s too much important work to do, too many enlightened people to celebrate. No time for hate.

  3. Kris
    Kris says:

    There aren’t many saints in the history of Roman Catholicism that rouse me to both piety and courage, but Bishop Gumbleton is among them.


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