Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton is a writer and retired Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit. He was also the founding president of Pax Christi USA and a co-founder of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights. Bishop Gumbleton earned a B.A. degree in 1952, a M.Div. degree in 1956 and then later earned a J.C.D in 1964.
On Aug. 28, I interviewed Bishop Gumbleton by telephone about his life and work. The following transcript has been edited for style and length.
You are 85 years old, but you recently visited Austria to spend time with the family of Bl. Franz Jagerstatter, a conscientious objector who was executed for refusing to fight in World War II. What inspired you to make this trip at your age and what did you find there?
Actually, I’m in denial about my advanced age and I’m in good health, so I can travel pretty well. I go there regularly because I’ve gotten to know his family, especially his children, over the past 30 years. I also go to connect with people from Pax Christi Austria and to attend the anniversary of his execution in Austria; they have events around that and around his feast day in May. I stay at the home of his daughter Maria and her husband Herman.
It’s always very inspiring to go there. The home where Maria grew up is still there and is now kind of a shrine for visitors. A group of Italians from the Focolare movement came there on a pilgrimage while I was there this summer. They stayed at the home, sleeping on the floor, and they heard Maria’s story of her family. We also talked about Pax Christi and Franz’s influence on it in the United States. Europeans are starting to come there pretty regularly now, as Franz’s reputation is spreading and his Gospel witness is recognized. Fifty years ago, it was pretty tough for his wife Franziska and the children after Franz refused to go to war in support of Nazism and they were despised in the village. Now they’re well respected and the diocese is promoting the idea that when Franz is canonized, Franziska—who died two years ago—should be canonized with him.
As you look back at your life and ministry today, what have been some personal highlights?
I guess the first thing I would say is that it turned out differently than what I thought it would be when I was ordained. At some point, we all probably experience God taking our lives in a different direction than what we imagined. I was ordained to be a parish priest, not to work in social justice, and I started at a parish with 4,000 families. After four years, I was sent to the chancery and then to Rome for a canon law degree, and got caught up there in the middle of the Second Vatican Council. I met a number of the peritii like Hans Kung and Yves Congar when they came through our North American graduate residence to discuss what was going on. We learned just enough to be aware that extraordinary changes were happening in the church.
When I came back home to do full-time work at the chancery office, it was very different from when I had left, and we started trying to implement things from the council. We were implementing collegiality and making the church more dialogical with things like parish councils and adult education program. That brought a lot of changes in my own ministry. After the council, with developments like “Populorum Progressio” by Paul VI and the Justice in the World synod in 1971, social justice came to the forefront as a constitutive element of preaching the Gospel. That meant involvement in the social structures of the world, trying to transform them to represent what God wanted for humankind. So that’s what brought me into a lot of social actions in the late 1960s, including the peace movement and civil rights movement. Although I was trained for one-to-one sacramental ministry, I found myself working in social justice.
What have been some particular challenges of your life and ministry?
Listening is one thing. When you come out of the seminary, you think you’ve got the answer to everything, but then you find out you don’t. Obviously, the church was very authoritarian before the council, and to learn how to interact with people on basis of mutuality and equality—the priest can’t simply dictate things to others, but is part of a community—was a challenge for me. I don’t know that I’ve achieved that kind of mutual dialogue even today! It’s something difficult for clerics and for the Catholic Church in general. Nuns do it pretty well, but bishops’ meetings are still pretty authoritarian, without much discussion or give-and-take. Francis is desperately trying to change that with this current synod.
You’ve sometimes found yourself at odds with the Vatican and with your brother bishops in the Catholic hierarchy. How do you reconcile the tension between your personal beliefs and obedience to the magisterium?
There wasn’t that much tension when I became a bishop. The spirit of the U.S. bishops’ conference under Archbishop Dearden was very collegial and based on mutual respect. It didn’t matter if you were the archbishop of New York or auxiliary bishop from Phoenix, you were still a bishop and still respected on that basis alone. It was only much later that the U.S. conference reverted to a much more hierarchical structure, but I fit in pretty well for quite a while.
As things began to change, my friends and I became the minority, to the point that there was a group of us—maybe 30 to 40 bishops—who gathered before general meetings to discuss what we wanted to include in the agenda that wasn’t being included. That began to phase out as these bishops began to retire and I became more of an outlier on issues like nuclear war and peace. The thinking and style of the bishops changed so much that it became very hard and I was left more alone. In the past 20 years, a lot of people who considered themselves “Vatican II bishops” were retired or had died. At one point, we had 140 or so bishops who were members of Pax Christi USA, and now there are five or less. We were trying to take a lead on John Paul II’s “never again war” cry, but we were ignored on that and on a number of other issues.
Over the years, I’ve never gotten in real trouble, although I’ve received a couple of letters for veering close to the edge with my statements on women’s issues. Once you get tagged as a “peace bishop,” you don’t get in quite as much trouble, as long as you don’t live in places like Virginia.
What really got me in trouble is that I testified in Ohio on the sex abuse crisis, asking for the statute of limitations to be extended for people who were abused as teenagers and to suspend the statute for a time to bring forward any case from the past. I knew from my own experience as a survivor that abuse is not something you can talk about easily. Within days of a complaint about my testimony, I was forced to retire as auxiliary bishop and from my post as pastor of a parish in the archdiocese. I got a letter from Rome saying I had violated the communio episcoporum, the “communion of bishops.” The bishops of Ohio had spoken with one voice. My “crime” was to offer a different perspective.
We shouldn’t have relied on the legal system to handle the abuse crisis for us. I thought it was a mistake from the very beginning for the bishops to go to the lawyers, creating an adversarial role between bishops and victims and eliminating the pastoral role of the bishop. Genuine pastoral care from the bishops themselves did not exist in the early days and I think it was a major mistake. I’m sorry to say it’s not altogether different today.
As you recall, you testified in 2006 to the Ohio House Judiciary Committee that you were sexually abused by a priest when you were a teenager in the high school seminary. What has helped you to heal from that experience?
First of all, it wasn’t that profound a trauma because I was old enough at the time to resist and get myself out of the situation. I was already 15 when it happened, and even though I was quite innocent about sexuality, I knew what was right and wrong. I knew what was happening to me wasn’t right, so I struggled against the guy and was able to stop it. So it wasn’t as traumatic for me as it is for many victims who were younger and more powerless. But I knew how traumatic it could be, I counseled many victims myself, and I knew they needed pastoral care.
That’s why I spoke out and why I’m still convinced that the legal process is the wrong way to handle this crisis. If the U.S. bishops would set up truth commissions like the process used in South Africa under the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu, then we could bring about reconciliation. But that will not happen when the perpetrator is never brought face to face with the victim.
You’ve written and worked for peace throughout your life, but there seems to be more violence in the world than ever. What is the biggest threat to world peace today?
It’s the number of nuclear weapons present in the United States, Russia, China and other places on a hair-trigger alert. These can be activated within minutes. People don’t seem to care about that. I just read an article complaining that Iran never lived up to the non-proliferation treaty, but neither did the United States—and that’s why the world is so dangerous. When we signed that treaty, we committed ourselves under Article VI to gradually bring about mutual disarmament. But we’ve never made any genuine efforts in that direction. We’ve reduced them, but we’ve also made them more destructive and made the world more dangerous than ever with our “hair trigger alert” policy.
We’ve also hung on to the mentality that war is the solution. Starting with Jesus and moving through Catholic social teaching, it’s very clear that war isn’t the solution to our problems. However, we haven’t really taught that lesson to our people. We’ve never admitted or asked forgiveness for our use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When we say “that was ok” to explode an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, then all other violence looks insignificant and we can justify just about any kind of violence. Instead of asking forgiveness for what we did, we’ve just looked for ways to increase the capacity of our weapons. When he came out against the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King once asked, how can I tell protesters not to use Molotov cocktails when our own government does much worse?
Although religious identification among U.S. Catholics and Christians seems to be in an ongoing demographic decline, there have also been bright spots. In your view, what are some signs of hope in the Catholic Church right now?
Ultimately, hope is “not by sight but by faith” and that is how we live. Once you accept that Jesus is still alive within the church, that’s your hope. As for more concrete signs that aren’t based on faith, it is hard to find any because of the violence that seems out of control in this country. I see people talking all the time about introducing common sense into gun control, but even the president isn’t taking any real steps because violence is so ingrained in our culture.
That’s civil society. Within the church, you see hope in Francis because he’s much more open, saying everyone is welcome in the church and even atheists are in heaven—that sort of thing. But local parishes are being closed all over the country, even parishes of 300 people, because we say they’re too small. The real problem is that we won’t deal with the priest shortage. There’s also a loss of trust in the bishops and in the church due to financial mismanagements like the Vatican bank scandal and the sex abuse scandal.
The church doesn’t have the credibility it had when I was a kid. Young people don’t have the allegiance to the church—especially to its leadership—that used to be there. Until we have a real transformation of church leadership, we need to hope that the presence of Jesus will show us the way, even though I can’t see it right now with my limited human capacity.
On the topics of Catholic action and social justice, you were once a proponent of 1960s-style civil disobedience, but some Christians now believe civil disobedience is no longer an effective witness in a complex world where injustices are so widespread. How would you respond to them?
I may be more on the side of those who don’t believe in civil disobedience today. I think it’s lost its main effectiveness and ability to change things because it’s not much of a shock anymore, the way it was in the 1960s when people started doing it and accepted the sufferings that came with it. In the civil rights movement, people really put their lives on the line, and that doesn’t happen anymore. The government is now able to make civil disobedience go away very easily. There’s no violence, but they take you away to a courthouse and give you a citation before they let you go. The government doesn’t make a big deal about it, so it doesn’t make a difference to people in power. As Dan Berrigan says, it keeps you honest, but it doesn’t do much else.
What do you think about Ferguson and other race protests in the past year?
They’re protesting, which they have the right to do, but those things seem to fade out so quickly. It was the same thing with Occupy Wall Street—a big burst of activity that seemed to have potential and then suddenly disappeared when it was co-opted by the government. The police let protesters sleep in the park and do what they wanted, so people got tired and went home.
Donald Trump represents a certain protest movement, not one I like, but people say “at least he hasn’t been bought out by the billionaires.” That’s because he is a billionaire, so he has all the money he wants and doesn’t have to watch what he says. He represents a large segment of people who don’t like the way things are.
Events like Ferguson have impact while they are happening, but they seem to go away very quickly. Nothing changes when it’s over. It’s not a sustained movement and I don’t know how to build such a movement.
What’s your biggest social justice concern at this moment?
Three things. First, poverty, including millions of desperate refugees and migrants who relocate to other regions because of war and lack of money. Second, violence around the world, including the threat of nuclear weapons. Third, the environment, including the changes in our lifestyle that we need to make to protect the planet from destruction.
As the founding president of Pax Christi USA, how do you assess the group’s evolution and status today?
It’s undergone a change, partly because they don’t have the impact on the bishops’ conference that they used to have. But now the leadership is starting to become more attuned to the big issues that need to be faced. I was concerned for a while, but I like what’s happening at Pax Christi now. They’re focusing on anti-war and anti-nuclear issues in addition to developing a sustainable lifestyle and rich spiritual connection. It’s certainly a movement I would continue to support for making a positive change in the church and world.
How do you pray?
Mostly Scripture and lectio divina. I started making Jesuit style directed retreats in the early ’70s and that changed my whole pattern of prayer.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
It’s probably 1 John 4, the part that says: “God is love, where there is love there is God. This is what I mean by love: not that we love God, but that God first loved us.” Once you accept this truth, it changes everything.
What’s your sense of God wants for you today?
To struggle to be faithful to the end. I want to follow Jesus in the world as a faithful disciple.
Who are the people, living or dead, who inspire you the most right now?
Ray Hunthausen, a retired bishop. Bishop Frank Quinn out in Sacramento, another retired bishop. I also get quite a bit of inspiration from the Erie Benedictines. I’ve had a chance to visit and make retreats there, which have been very helpful.
What do you want people to take away from your life and ministry?
I hope that I’ve shared the conviction that our task as disciples of Jesus is to transform the world into as close an image of the reign of God as possible, fulfilling what Jesus said at Nazareth in the fourth chapter of Luke: “The spirit of God is upon me; he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor, give the blind new sight, heal the broken-hearted and set the downtrodden free.” I’ve been profoundly inspired by the poor, in my life and ministry.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?
I would ask for even greater transparency in the church. I think we’re still not being totally transparent on the financial problems and scandals in the church. We haven’t been totally transparent and effective on responding to the abuse scandal. We need a greater transparency and willingness to ask forgiveness.
What are your hopes for the future?
I hope the leadership of the church will be more transparent and that we’ll really become a church of the poor and for the poor.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I pray and work for peace. That’s the greatest gift we could give to the human family.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.