A hero retires

Human rights activist Bishop Thomas Gumbleton vows to maintain ministry

By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman

DETROIT - After a year of "discussion," Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an internationally-known human rights activist and champion of reform within the Catholic Church, has offered his resignation. As he predicted in an interview with the Toledo Blade in 2005, his resignation was accepted.

High-ranking church officials, with the exception of the pope, are required to submit their resignations at the age of 75. However, Gumbleton told the Blade, the process is "so arbitrary - some of them they ignore, but if you are the least bit progressive, they accept it immediately."

Gumbleton turned 75 in 2005, but rather than resign at that time he began what he called a "discussion" with Rome regarding his reasons for postponing his resignation. According to a Jan. 26 statement by Gumbleton to his parishioners at St. Leo's in Detroit, "Finally, I decided to end this discussion. On Jan. 21, 2006 I wrote to Pope Benedict asking him to accept my resignation from my office as auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Maida."

Detroit's Cardinal Adam Maida, long an opponent of equal rights for LGBTs, is also over 75, but as yet there has been no news of his impending resignation.

Since being named bishop in 1968, Gumbleton has been active nationally and internationally in support of peace, ending poverty, and supporting human rights for all people. According to a web site with Gumbleton's resume, the bishop is the founding president of Pax Christi USA, former president of Bread for the World and co-founder of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights. He has been a board member of numerous organizations including the MK Gandhi Institute of Non-violence, New Ways Ministry, Witness for Peace, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He has received numerous awards for his actions on behalf of peace and justice including the Pax Christi USA Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award (1991) and Call To Action's Leadership Award (1995). He was bestowed the University of Notre Dame Peacemaker award in 1991, and in 1997 he was awarded the National Peace Foundation Award of Peacemaker/Peacebuilder in Washington, D.C. Gumbleton has traveled to Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, Haiti and Afghanistan promoting peace, and has risked his personal safety to do so.

As a part of his work promoting human rights, Gumbleton is also a member of the Triangle Foundation, as well as Catholic organizations that are attempting to work within the church to change the Vatican's policies of discrimination against homosexuals.

In his statement, Gumbleton vowed that his "retirement" would not end his ministry. "It affects the canonical office of bishop only. It does not change anything as far as the sacrament of Holy Orders is concerned. I will continue to exercise my ordained ministry as a bishop as long as I am physically capable of doing so. This means that I will continue to teach, preach, celebrate sacraments and carry on my work for justice and peace wherever I am called to do so. This, of course, includes as a priority my ministry at St. Leo's."

However, Gumbleton's ability to stay on at St. Leo's will depend on Maida's decision; a decision that according to an Archdiocese statement has not yet been made.

"Cardinal Maida plans to meet with Bishop Gumbleton to discuss how to accommodate the bishop's interest in continuing to serve the Archdiocese of Detroit in his new retired status," said the statement by Ned McGrath, the director of communications. "They have not yet had their meeting and the staffing of St. Leo Parish is among the matters still to be resolved."

The statement continues, "This is a decision to be made by Cardinal Maida based upon his discussions with Bishop Gumbleton."

"Basically, the Cardinal of a diocese decides who's going to be pastor of a parish. This is not a democracy," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a California-based scholar who is an expert on church structure. "About all the parishioners can do is write letters, making their views known" to Cardinal Maida.

Regardless of whether Gumbleton is able to stay on at St. Leo's, the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 26 quoted Reese as saying that Gumbleton's resignation may mean he will be able to accomplish more, not less.

"If anything, this resignation as an auxiliary to Cardinal Maida will make him even freer than he was before to travel, to speak and to write," Reese told the Free Press.

It may be hard for some within the church hierarchy to imagine Gumbleton being any "freer." According to the National Catholic Reporter, on Jan. 11, 2006 Gumbleton announced that a priest had sexually abused him 60 years ago. Gumbleton made the statement while in Ohio promoting a law that would extend the deadline for other victims to file suit against sexually abusive priests - a position that is opposed by Ohio's bishops and by Cardinal Maida's office. Nor has Gumbleton hesitated to take his church hierarchy to task on issues ranging from homosexuality to the church's emphasis on legislating personal morality over other issues.

"In married life, the Catholic Church at one time taught married people that you could not engage in sexual intercourse and not commit sin because you would experience pleasure. Now people would be astounded at that," Gumbleton said in a 1997 Frontline interview. "Now there's a much deeper understanding of the importance of intimacy and sexual intimacy within marriage as a way to strengthen and build the bond between two people.... And I don't think we've come to as clear and final understanding of homosexuality. Even from a psychological or a scientific point."

As for the church's teaching that homosexuals are "intrinsically disordered," Gumbleton said in the same interview, "I say to myself - if I were a father I couldn't say to my son or my daughter, 'you're disordered, intrinsically disordered.' That's a terrible thing to say about your child. And I just can't believe it's true."

And in a Jan. 26 interview with an Australian radio station, Gumbleton suggested that his church spends more energy on issues like abortion, rather than anti-war policies, because doing so does not threaten its donations.

"In the United States we've spent the last 30 years spending huge amounts of money, lots of staff people, energy what have you, trying to reverse Roe V Wade. We've spent almost no time in trying to reverse the U.S. public policy on weapons of mass destruction. And that, in Vatican II is put parallel with the condemnation of abortion," he said. "You know, if the church starts speaking out against U.S. policy in regard to war, weapons of mass destruction and that sort of thing, right away you are going to find out you don't love your country. You're not patriotic. The church is against the government and so on. And it puts a lot of pressure on the bishops because many of their big donors are also people who are big donors, well frankly, to the Republican Party."

Gumbleton did not return calls from BTL regarding his future plans as of press time.

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