We need your help to continue and expand the Outreach ministry.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton remembered as a supportive friend to LGBTQ Catholics

NewsViews Ryan Di Corpo / April 5, 2024 Print this:
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton speaks from the chancery office of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1972. (Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bishop Thomas Gumbleton)

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton was rattled when his brother Dan, a former Catholic seminarian and the father of four, mailed the family a letter with a surprising revelation: He was gay. 

A stalwart champion of anti-war causes and an outspoken defender of clergy sex-abuse survivors, a stance that would lead to his eventual resignation, Bishop Gumbleton told Frontline in a 1997 interview that he had an admittedly selfish reaction to his brother’s confession. He wondered how the faithful would react if they learned a sitting bishop had a gay brother or if he should cut ties with Dan. He wondered what his brother’s revelation meant not for his brother and his family, but for himself.

In addition to his own concerns, Bishop Gumbleton faced another, perhaps more pressing question from his mother: Is Dan damned to hell? 

What made Bishop Gumbleton fairly unique among Catholic leaders was his public willingness to support gay Catholics.

These reactions and questions led the bishop to reconsider how society and the church treated gay people.

“God doesn’t condemn Dan for being a homosexual,” he counseled his mother. “And so he’s not going to hell because of who he is.” 

Bishop Gumbleton died on April 4 at age 94, as reported in a statement from the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he served as an auxiliary bishop from 1968 to 2006. As a bishop, he would press the church to be more accepting of its LGBTQ members, clash with other prelates over his support for survivors of clergy sexual abuse and urge Catholics to take their faith’s teachings on nonviolence more seriously.

What made Bishop Gumbleton fairly unique among Catholic leaders was his public willingness to support gay Catholics and his moral courage to confront homophobia in the church. While he did not voice an outright rejection of magisterial teachings on homosexuality, he faulted his seminary training for not distinguishing between a person’s inherent sexual orientation and their sexual practices. He would continue to articulate his concerns over the church’s teaching on homosexuality well into his retirement. As recently as 2019, Bishop Gumbleton said the church was still “developing” its stance on the topic. 

Bishop Gumbleton took particular issue with the Vatican’s description of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered,” a phrase he labeled as injurious to LGBTQ people and a catalyst for homophobia inside and outside the church. 

Bishop Gumbleton took particular issue with the Vatican’s description of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.”

“No parent should ever tell a child that he or she is ‘intrinsically disordered,’” the bishop told an Italian reporter in 2019. “For the church to teach such a thing is insulting to the parent and child.” 

After publicly discussing his brother at a conference hosted by New Ways Ministry in 1992, Bishop Gumbleton embarked on a national campaign speaking to various Catholic groups in support of LGBTQ people and urging the church to adopt a more welcoming posture towards an often excluded community. He occasionally donned a mitre festooned with a rainbow design and a pink triangle, a reference to the imprisonment and murder of gay people during the Holocaust. In concert with more than a dozen Catholic bishops, he urged the U.S. church hierarchy to address the LGBTQ faithful and offer positive, constructive guidance for their spiritual lives. The American bishops responded in 1997 with “Always Our Children,” a pastoral letter that stressed church teaching on chastity but nonetheless instructed parents to accept their gay children.

When three gay Catholics who had been denied Communion were arrested after protesting a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at a Washington, D.C., hotel in November 2002, Bishop Gumbleton testified in their defense at the trial. Judge Mildred M. Edwards, a Catholic, was moved by the activists’ protest. She found them guilty but did not impose a sentence

Born in 1930 in Detroit, Thomas Gumbleton studied at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in his native Michigan and earned his doctorate in canon law at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. Ordained a priest in 1956, he was appointed an auxiliary bishop by Pope St. Paul VI in 1968. At age 38, he was the nation’s youngest bishop. He served in that role until 2006, when his support for extending the statute of limitations in Ohio to sue sex offenders ran afoul of the stance taken by his brother bishops. In 2011, Bishop Gumbleton said he was made to resign at the direction of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the former prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. 

Bishop Gumbleton urged the U.S. church hierarchy to address the LGBTQ faithful and offer positive, constructive guidance for their spiritual lives.

When the clergy sexual abuse crisis became more widely known in 2002, Bishop Gumbleton criticized church leaders who sought to prohibit gay men from the priesthood and who falsely tied homosexuality to the sex abuse crisis. 

“All this must stop: the scapegoating of gay priests for the sex abuse crisis, the demand to reject homosexual persons for the priesthood and religious life, the unchallenged suggestion that the ordination of a gay man would be invalid,” he wrote in a 2002 essay for America. 

Catholic leaders remembered Bishop Gumbleton on Friday, highlighting his commitment to various social justice causes.

Calling Bishop Gumbleton “a giant spiritual figure,” Sister Jeannine Gramick, S.L., the co-founder of New Ways Ministry, cast the bishop as a prophetic servant known for his humility. “I love him for … embracing LGBTQ rights and social justice, but I cherish him most for his humility in acknowledging that he was merely doing his part in God’s grand design,” wrote Sr. Gramick in an email to Outreach. 

Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, praised Bishop Gumbleton on Friday for his tireless, decades-long commitment to the LGBTQ community. 

“Bishop Gumbleton did more than any other member of the hierarchy to move church members, theologians and pastoral ministers to extend a friendly and welcoming hand to LGBTQ people,” Mr. DeBernardo said in a statement

An ardent advocate for peace, Bishop Gumbleton also helped establish the American branch of the international Catholic peace movement Pax Christi in the early 1970s. 

Francis DeBernardo: “Bishop Gumbleton did more than any other member of the hierarchy to extend a friendly and welcoming hand to LGBTQ people.”

“In every aspect of his being, Tom lived out the ‘peace of Christ,’” Johnny Zokovitch, the executive director of Pax Christi USA, said in a statement

Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., of Lexington, Ky., the group’s bishop president, remarked on Bishop Gumbleton’s commitment to minister at the peripheries. 

“He preferred to speak the truth and to be on the side of the marginalized than to toe any party line and climb the ecclesiastical ladder,” Bishop Stowe wrote. 

Updated April 5, 6:06 p.m.

Ryan Di Corpo

Ryan Di Corpo is the managing editor of Outreach. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, America, Boston College Magazine, The Emancipator and elsewhere. He holds an M.A. in journalism from Northeastern University, in Boston.

All articles by Ryan Di Corpo

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.

  1. The archdiocese of Detroit is surely a mixed bag. I ministered there for about two years in the decaying section. It did me in. But Gumbleton was a light in much darkness as was Ken Untener who became the bishop of Saginaw. Untener sold the bishop’s mansion and lived for a time in various rectories of the diocese. His little black books inspired me and many others.

  2. Thanks to Bishop Gumbleton for living the Good News of our Maker’s LOVE for all—no exceptions.
    Sr. Mary Lou Geraets