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He's not disordered, he's my brother: a bishop risks some straight talk about gays.

A bishop risks some straight talk about gays

"Is Dan going to go to hell?"

The question came on a warm evening on the front porch of a home in Detroit. The 87-year-old woman wanted to know from her son, the bishop, if his younger brother, who had recently told the family he was gay, was facing eternal damnation.

That simple question, put to him in 1989, turned out to be a clarifying moment for Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. And it certainly is one of the reasons Gumbleton agreed to tackle the explosive subject in three days of talks and a workshop, Oct. 27-29, in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area.

One workshop, "The Unfinished Agenda of Social Justice Ministry: Inclusion of Sexual Minorities as Providers and Receivers of Ministry," serves as a central theme in Gumbleton's approach to gays and lesbians and their place in the church.

For at least two years before that encounter on the porch, he had avoided the issue, Gumbleton said in an Oct. 26 telephone interview. His brother, who had divorced after years of marriage and four children, had written to his seven living siblings and explained his long struggle coming to terms with the fact that he was gay.

The bishop was a self-described "klutz" in handling the news. "I really hardly could deal with it. I even set the letter aside and didn't even finish reading it."

Homosexuality was taboo. It was a subject that, from his seminary days, was dealt with in unyielding terms.

He was still trying to come to terms with the issue that night when, as he often did before his mother died in 1990, he stopped home at the end of the day for a cup of coffee and something to eat.

"It was a warm evening. As I was leaving, my mother came out on the porch to talk to me. She asked me point blank, 'Is Dan going to go to hell?' I had to sort of swallow and try to answer this. I said, no, of course Dan's not going to hell. That is the way God made him, and God wouldn't make people a certain way that means inevitably they are going to hell.

"In answering her, I had to face my own convictions." His mother, he said, "had totally accepted" his brother "and continued to visit him." Still, it was unsettling. She knew her church was opposed to homosexual activity.

"I think she was really troubled. She was thinking of herself dying and she wanted to die in peace knowing we were all OK. She needed to know Dan would be OK."

Gumbleton has a long reputation as a champion of difficult causes and has consistently spoken out on such matters as violence, poverty and militarism.

The letter from his brother and his mother's question were two of the moments that pushed Gumbleton to add homosexuality to the list of justice issues.

He has spoken out on the matter before. In March 1993, Gumbleton, Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., and Bishop William Hughes of Covington, Ky., discussed a pastoral perspective on sexual minorities during a meeting of New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to homosexuals in the church.

Another moment was the encounter about a year and a half ago in Minneapolis with a mother whose daughter is a lesbian. She approached Gumbleton after he gave a talk on another subject. "She wanted to know if I would come back and talk about gays and lesbians in the church," he recalled.

He assumes he is the first bishop to agree to a three-day session on the place of gays and lesbians in the church. It is risky territory. Others who have spoken out in favor of homosexual rights or who have granted gays permission to use church facilities have come under attack from conservatives in the United States and have felt the sting of Vatican discipline.

So how will a bishop approach the subject when the Vatican has issued documents that describe homosexuals as "objectively disordered" and claim that discrimination against gays is sometimes justifiable.

First, he said, joking, "I'll try to avoid the most difficult questions."

And he fends off the problems that might stem from the "objectively disordered" view by simply stating: "I don't, accept that. I don't feel I have to accept that. I think that was a mistaken statement that was in something from Ratzinger," he said, referring to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"So it was not a papally defined doctrine or anything of the sort. I can't understand how they would say such a thing."

So what can he teach?

"I will say what the church teaches - that to be actively homosexual is wrong. But every one of us has to come to terms with church teaching and apply it to our own lives in light of our own conscience with the guidance of the church," he said.

"I don't make judgments about a gay person's conscience any more than about the military man at an SAC air base or on a Trident submarine who would fire a nuclear weapon if ordered to. I think in some ways the church teaching on that is clearer than on homosexuality. Any act of war that would destroy an entire city indiscriminately is an abomination.

"That is what nuclear weapons are all about. Anybody who has the intention of using such weapons is, in my judgment, in a situation that is drastically evil. And yet I cannot judge another person's conscience. If that person comes to communion, I cannot refuse."

Gumbleton's motive is not to dispute Vatican documents. Primarily, he said, he decided to meet with and speak so publicly about homosexuals in the church "to try to bring healing to people who are suffering so much and who are being hurt by a church they love. There are many who are in danger of being alienated, and my heart goes out to them, my heart goes out to their parents."

"I really sense this terrible struggle, as I did in my own mother. My heart goes out to people who are so alienated and so rejected," Gumbleton said.
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Title Annotation:Detroit, Michigan, auxiliary bishop Thomas Gumbleton
Author:Roberts, Tom
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Nov 4, 1994
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