‘No Guilty Bystander’ Tells the Inspiring Story of Thomas Gumbleton

REVIEWS, 10 Jul 2023

Leonard Eiger – TRANSCEND Media Service

6 Jul 2023 – What does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus in the struggle for justice in today’s world? No Guilty Bystander: The Extraordinary Life of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton tells the inspiring story of a bishop who has lived such a life in a world deeply in need of healing.

The authors of this well-researched book published by Orbis Books, Frank Fromherz and Suzanne Sattler, IHM, have done a deep dive into the rich and often stormy career of a Catholic bishop in the USA who took on so many issues – including racism, poverty, war, clerical sex abuse, gender issues and nuclear weapons. Through his story we see that it is possible for a member of the clergy to be a follower of the Gospel teachings within a church structure that is itself flawed and in need of healing.

In my own time leading a social justice ministry in the United Methodist Church some years ago, I regularly read The Peace Pulpit, Bishop Gumbleton’s weekly homily in the National Catholic Reporter. His homilies were unlike any I had heard from other priests, and greatly informed my own work in the church and beyond. A bold example of his work was his 2004 Christmas morning homily, in which he spoke of the horrific violence in Iraq and said that, “War will not ever bring peace. That’s clearly part of the message communicated to us through Jesus who is the full revelation of God. The only way you can bring peace is by transforming the world through love and goodness, spreading the message of Jesus, spreading the love of Jesus. That’s the only way.”

At that time I was beginning to meet and work with Catholic priests, nuns and lay people who were the antithesis of what I had experienced as Catholicism, and Gumbleton was certainly among them. For someone “trained and socialized in a hierarchal-clerical culture,” he broke out of the mold, and with open heart and open mind listened deeply – both to The Word and to those around him who challenged the established and rigid church dogma – and grew as a follower of the loving, nonviolent Jesus. This growth informed his work in the church on every level throughout his career as priest and bishop.

Bishop Gumbleton initially found himself immersed in the issue of the Vietnam war. For him this was what Chapter 1 calls his “Personal Turning Point,” a time of great inner transformation. Many factors came together to inform his understanding, including the writings of Thomas Merton, the pacifism of Dorothy Day, and the statements of young draftees “who faced their own personal and existential questions of conscience.” The sacrifice paid by Franz Jaggerstatter in World War II also had a major impact on his objection to the war and his support of conscientious objectors. Gumbleton admitted that it was no easy journey: “I was struggling to determine what my response to the war should be…”

Gumbleton’s trip to Vietnam in 1973, in which he witnessed atrocities committed on behalf of his own government, was one of many trips he would make in witness to suffering in other countries – including Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these journeys motivated him find “ways to help and provide effective solidarity” to those in need. As Gumbleton once said, “You can’t know the situation of the poor and their suffering from the violence… unless you see some of it firsthand, experience it, and come to understand their life from their perspective.”

It is no small irony that this humble follower of the nonviolent ways of Jesus was once “characterized as ‘the most radical member of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference… who is into very questionable stuff.’” This was in the context of El Salvador where Gumbleton was considered a subversive by both the U.S. and Salvadoran governments. After Gumbleton travelled to Nicaragua in 1986, “he told the press: ‘We’ve been lied to in order to promote the current war between the Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.’” Although it was not the bishop’s natural inclination to be in the spotlight, Gumbleton time and time again spoke out strongly about injustice wherever he found it.

In a chapter that could have been titled The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back we learn of Gumbleton’s ministry to, and advocacy on behalf of, victims of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. As with every other issue it began with him compassionately listening to what victims had endured, and in this case he provided testimony for the Ohio state legislature arguing that, “full disclosure of the abuse is essential to hold perpetrators and the church accountable, heal victims and restore the church’s ‘moral credibility’ at a time when ‘more than a few feel that church social teachings ring with hypocrisy…” Gumbleton had barely arrived home when the political firestorm began.

When all was said and done (in 2007), Bishop Gumbleton was removed from both his roles as bishop and as pastor of St. Leo’s in Detroit, Michigan. The book quotes Canon lawyer Thomas Doyle referring to Gumbleton’s prophetic stance on clerical sex abuse: “If a bishop stands up for what is right and has the courage to express his stand, he will quickly find himself cast out with the rest of us… Bravo for Tom. He did what Jesus would have done.” Indeed he did!

The authors have not only told the stories of Bishop Gumbleton’s experience with Vietnam and the clerical abuse scandal. From ministering to the people of his parish to his support for LGBTQ+ rights to nuclear weapons, the book chronicles Gumbleton’s growth and prophetic activism as a member of the human family and as a bishop, doing the work he felt called to do.

I spoke with Bishop Gumbleton in 2021 about his friend and colleague Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen who is remembered for his strong stance against nuclear weapons. During that conversation Gumbleton spoke prophetically about the extraordinary immorality of our nation’s worship of nuclear weapons. He noted that while some bishops have said President Joe Biden should be denied Communion for his stance on abortion, Catholics serving on a Trident ballistic missile submarine can receive Communion from a Catholic chaplain. “They reinforce these enlisted people wherever we have these weapons, essentially giving their blessing and that of the church,” Gumbleton said. “You have Catholic chaplains supporting the military people who have the intention to use nuclear weapons.”

Instead, Gumbleton said, the church needs reform to contend with the evil that threatens to destroy the planet: through war and environmental destruction. “Right now we need a profound conversion within the church if we are going to speak God’s word with any type of authenticity,” he said. “That is not going on right now. … So that makes someone like Ray Hunthausen stand out all the more. If we had 300 of the bishops speaking out like Ray Hunthausen, we might be getting someplace.”

After reading No Guilty Bystander I realized that there was much about this humble servant of God that I had not known. It also became clear just how much his earlier homilies inspired my work to this day – that it is (to quote Gumbleton) – “not enough… to be privately, individually moral, in the face of evil embedded in the very structure of the social system… The believing person says, I will try to speak God’s name into this madness and stop it.” If there were 300 bishops today speaking out like Tom Gumbleton, the church might be leading the way to a better world.

The authors took the title of their book from Thomas Merton’s 1966 Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in which Merton wrestled with his contemplative life in contrast to the immense suffering in the world outside of his retreat. Yet, his writings reached far and wide and informed so many people’s lives and work including Gumbleton, whose life is evidence that he, too, was No Guilty Bystander.

Thanks to Frank Fromherz and Suzanne Sattler for this rich and comprehensive telling of the life’s work of a humble and, if I may be so bold, radical priest.

You may order No Guilty Bystander from Orbis Books, which will give (as designated by the authors) all royalties from sales of No Guilty Bystander to the Kay Lasante Health Clinic in Haiti, which Bishop Gumbleton helped to establish.

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Leonard Eiger is an activist and coordinates communications and outreach for Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action (gzcenter.org). Ground Zero offers the opportunity to explore the meaning and practice of nonviolence, while witnessing to and resisting all nuclear weapons. The US Navy’s Trident ballistic missile submarine base, adjacent to Ground Zero, represents the largest deployed concentration of nuclear weapons in the United States.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Jul 2023.

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