Today is the 90th birthday of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, retired auxiliary of Detroit, and an early and long time courageous supporter of LGBTQ people. We at New Ways Ministry were honored to present him with our Bridge Building Award in 1995, and we were privileged to have him serve on our Advisory Board. Most importantly, we have been blessed by his friendship and encouragement. Happy Birthday, Bishop Gumbleton! Ad multos annos!
“We need credible witnesses,” exhorted Pope Francis in 2017, explaining that credible witnesses are people who refuse to be indifferent and who choose to risk for the Gospel. Few Christians living today offer as credible a witness as Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, his life a masterclass in how to pursue justice even when it hurts. Thankfully for younger Catholics and for historical memory, Peter Feuerherd captures this witness well in a new book, The Radical Gospel of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (Orbis Books, 2019).
Bishop Gumbleton has been active and outspoken on major social justice issues since the 1960s. In his early days as a priest, he challenged the Vietnam War, and for decades after as a bishop he has championed the cause of nonviolence, co-founding Pax Christi USA. He has decried both repression in Central America and the United States’ deep-seated racism, chancing arrest by the state and scorn by his fellow Catholics numerous times. Still, in these efforts for peace and justice, the bishop had episcopal supporters.
But Bishop Gumbleton’s advocacy did not stop at the church’s threshold. What has set him apart from so many clergy, indeed Catholics generally, is his willingness to name honestly the sins of the church that he clearly loves. Even in his early days as auxiliary bishop of Detroit, Gumbleton protested the archbishop’s closing of urban parishes in the city. And that ecclesial critique has meant Gumbleton played a decisive role in Catholic efforts for LGBTQ inclusion.
Feuerherd captures the LGBTQ aspect of Bishop Gumbleton’s ministry in a chapter titled “A Mother’s Question.” That mother was Gumbleton’s, and the question she posed to him was whether her son Dan was going to hell for being gay. He was clear in his answer: no. Dan’s coming out would prompt Bishop Gumbleton to become a strong advocate for LGBTQ people. He moved from being a priest guided by anti-gay seminary lessons to a bishop who lived “Who am I to judge?” decades before Pope Francis. He began to speak out for gay rights. In 1974, Bishop Gumbleton joined Bishop Joseph Imesch in calling for the church to “root out structures and attitudes that discriminate against the homosexual as a person” in response to the Detroit diocesan newspaper firing an employee because he was gay. He addressed New Ways Ministry symposia in the 1990s and 2000s, even though he received severe criticism for his inclusive message. He was instrumental in getting the U.S. bishops pastoral letter Always Our Children developed and approved. He held listening sessions, ministered to gay priests around the country, and refused to join Michigan’s bishops in condemning marriage equality. In short, he is a prophet for inclusion.
At just over one hundred pages, The Radical Gospel of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton is a quick read. But crowded in those pages are the lessons from a credible witness that we should contemplate deeply. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said in a dust jacket endorsement that the book is a gift to the church:
“Peter Feuerherd beautifully captures the rare mixture of this shepherd’s courage and humility-two virtues which have made him an effective advocate for marginalized groups. This book, like its subject, is a gift to the Catholic community.”
I am pulled to biographies because the lives of others, the meek of history as much as the great figures, can be so instructive for how we should live our own. I first met Bishop Gumbleton years ago at a Pax Christi USA event, and in the intervening years met him through LGBTQ work. But I had no idea just how profound his commitment to justice is and how much he has done until I read Feuerherd’s book. It was necessary reading for this younger Catholic. And, in the wounded church and the troubled world we inhabit, studying the credible witness of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton who refused to be indifferent and risked so much for the Gospel is precisely what we need to be people of hope and action.
For more information on The Radical Gospel of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 26, 2019
Previous Bondings 2.0 Articles on Bishop Gumbleton
December 27, 2017: Catholic LGBT History: Responding to the Murder of Matthew Shepherd
November 25, 2017: Catholic LGBT History: Bishop Gumbleton’s Tour of LGBT Listening Sessions
April 19, 2013: Bishop Gumbleton Preaches on Christ’s Radical Love for All
January 20, 2012: Bishop Gumbleton Offers Words of Hope and Encouragement