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“No Guilty Bystander” chronicles life of peacemaker Thomas Gumbleton

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.Arthur Schopenhauer

By Tom Fox

He seemed to be an unusual bishop from the day I first met him at a downtown Detroit gymnasium. It was midday in the early 1970s, and I was at the gym to play some pickup basketball with my Detroit Free Press colleagues. Tom Gumbleton, whom I quickly recognized, was running on a track circling the court one story above. Having finished our lunch break exercises, we met shortly afterward. I was immediately impressed with his openness and informality, a remarkable contrast to the more distant and formal members of the Catholic hierarchy I had encountered over the years.

The next thing that stood out about Gumbleton was that when the bishops would meet annually, he would not stay in a hotel but rather at a local YMCA to save money. It wasn’t long before we were speaking more frequently, sometimes sharing stories of my time in Vietnam during the war when I first worked as a volunteer for International Voluntary Services, a private nonprofit, and later as a local hire for The New York Times and Time magazine. We shared anguish for the direction of US foreign policy and the plaguing injustices in US society, so clear already in the 1960s.

A few years later, in June 1980, I was appointed editor of the National Catholic Reporter. Almost immediately, Gumbleton and I struck up conversations about the dangers of, and the general lack of attention people were paying to, the escalating nuclear arms race. At that time, few viewed nuclear deterrence as a moral issue. It was simply accepted as an element of our foreign policy. That changed remarkably after Gumbleton forced the U.S. bishops to address the issue from a moral perspective. By that time, Gumbleton was becoming known less as a team player and more as a stubborn nuisance among his episcopal colleagues. From my perspective, he was setting himself apart as a man whose conduct was the result of his focus on his understanding of the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus.

More than four decades later, the remarkable journey of this singularly important bishop has been documented in a new book by Orbis Press, written by Frank Fromherz and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Suzanne Sattler, titled “No Guilty Bystander.”

Let me say this clearly: Tom Gumbleton, I believe, will eventually be known as the most noteworthy U.S. bishop in modern church history, a unique member of the Catholic hierarchy who both spoke and lived the Gospel of universal love and radical nonviolence. Appointed bishop in 1968, a post he accepted reluctantly after counsel from Detroit Cardinal John Dearden, Gumbleton from the start found himself torn between institutional proclamations and the prophetic voice required of the time. This conflict emerged again and again during the decades of Gumbleton’s episcopacy, and time and again, he chose the latter, providing enormous support, relief, and hope to ostracized and outcast minorities, whether the issues were war, clerical sex abuse, or gender identification. In each instance, Gumbleton’s stubborn focus, personal counsel, compassionate acceptance, and unpopular embrace made him many enemies, including within the church hierarchy, making him an almost scorned outsider. The most stinging blow came in 2007 when Catholic authorities, unquestionably embarrassed by his expressed support of clergy sex abuse victims, led to their removal of him from his inner-city Detroit parish, his beloved St. Leo’s.

At the age of 93, Gumbleton might be viewed as a fading voice in Catholic history. The contrary is true, as clearly documented in “No Guilty Bystander,” a rich source for any eventual devil’s advocate to explore.

To be sure, Fromherz and Sattler are not the first authors to single out Gumbleton’s remarkable journey. That was done in 2019 by former NCR News Editor Peter Feuerherd who wrote “The Radical Gospel of Thomas Gumbleton,” also published by Orbis. While Feuerherd captured a segment of Gumbleton’s career, his later years as bishop, “No Guilty Bystander” is a more expansive and footnoted effort. It is a biography that places Gumbleton’s journey in a more expansive context, making the evolution of his radical and humble voice all the more exceptional.

The authors present the Gumbleton story in three parts. The first begins with a critical moment in the bishop’s evolution from insider to outsider. This happened when he first began to question the morality of the Vietnam War and was assigned to speak to Catholic war protesters and was won over by their anti-war moral convictions. The story then shifts back to his mostly unremarkable childhood, his conventional seminary life, his early priesthood, and his appointment as bishop in 1968. This part documents Gumbleton’s conversion to radical Gospel non-violence and his work as a member of the U.S. bishops’ committee to draw up a document on nuclear deterrence, published in 1983. One of the most dramatic stories deals with the Iran-orchestrated and deeply emotional Gumbleton meeting on Christmas Eve with some embassy hostages held captive in Tehran.

The second part tells the story of Gumbleton’s growing awareness of the harmfulness of Catholic teachings on sexuality, triggered by the coming out of his brother, Dan, as a gay man. It documents his lonely episcopal advocacy for the LGTBQ community. It also explains how the assassination of San Salvador’s Archbishop Romero and the brutal rape and murder of his friend Sr. Dorothy Kazel and three other missioners in El Salvador further radicalized him.

The third part of the book, titled “Character,” observes that Gumbleton’s portrait as an activist might distort a deeper understanding of the man as a quiet and introverted person. It explores the deep influence on his thinking that stemmed from Vatican II and the impact of Thomas Merton’s writings. Indeed, it is Merton’s 1966 “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” from which the authors took the title of the book. In Merton’s book, he expressed that he wrestled with feelings of guilt over the suffering in the world as well as his contemplative role in it. Merton wrote that all human beings are complicit in the violence and injustice of the world simply by virtue of being alive in it. He dispassionately argued one cannot simply stand by and watch and leave the work of building justice and peace to others. Fromherz and Sattler undoubtedly argue Gumbleton has not been a “guilty bystander.”

This part of the biography switches notably from storytelling to personal observation. The authors interview key leading Catholic figures. Sister Christine Schenk, CSJ, notes that Gumbleton “ministers to the rejected of the world,” adding that “he loves his people and knows what it is to share their rejection.”

We owe gratitude to Fromherz and Sattler for having chronicled this inspiring story, one that will only grow in importance over time.

As Jesus said (Mark 6:4), “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown.” Should the Catholic Church, as institution, as bishops, catch up with the “People of God”, they will come to see the life of Thomas Gumbleton in an entirely new light. One step they might take to help discern their new roles as bishops would be to read “Not a Guilty Bystander.”

—Tom Fox is Editor/Publisher Emeritus at the National Catholic Reporter.

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