Thomas Gumbleton, Detroit Catholic bishop who opposed war and promoted social justice, dies at 94

DETROIT (AP) — Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic bishop in Detroit who for decades was an international voice against war and racism and an advocate for labor and social justice, died Thursday. He was 94.

Gumbleton’s death was announced by the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he was a clergyman for more than 50 years. A cause was not disclosed.

“Bishop Gumbleton was a faithful son of the Archdiocese of Detroit, loved and respected by his brother priests and the laity for his integrity and devotion to the people he served,” said Archbishop Allen Vigneron.

Gumbleton became a national religious figure in the 1960s when he was urged by activist priests to oppose the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. He was a founding leader of Pax Christi USA, an American Catholic peace movement.

“Our participation in it is gravely immoral,” Gumbleton said of the war, writing in The New York Times. “When Jesus faced his captors, He told Peter to put away his sword. It seems to me He is saying the same thing to the people of the United States in 1971.”

Gumbleton said if he were a young man drafted into U.S. military service at that time he would go to jail or even leave the country if turned down as a conscientious objector.

His opinions led to hate mail from people who said he was giving comfort to cowards, authors Frank Fromherz and Suzanne Sattler wrote in “No Guilty Bystander,” a 2023 book about Gumbleton.

“The war had become a personal turning point,” they wrote.

The archdiocese said he spoke out against war and met victims of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Colombia, Haiti and Peru.

Gumbleton’s activism sometimes led to his arrest at protests in Washington and elsewhere. He was taken away in 1996 while supporting striking newspaper workers in Detroit.

“Bishop Gumbleton took the gospel to heart and lived it day in and day out. 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 John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, said Thursday.

Gumbleton retired from active ministry in 2006, the archdiocese said.

He was ordained a priest in 1956 and promoted to auxiliary bishop in 1968. He worked at numerous parishes but was best known for 20-plus years of leadership at St. Leo in Detroit, which had a large Black congregation.

A newspaper, National Catholic Reporter, regularly published his sermons in a column called “The Peace Pulpit.”

In 2006, Gumbleton spoke in favor of legislation in Colorado and Ohio to give sexual abuse victims more time to file lawsuits. He disclosed that he was inappropriately touched by a priest decades earlier.

Gumbleton in 2021 joined a Catholic cardinal and a group of other bishops in expressing public support for LGBTQ+ youth and denouncing the bullying often directed at them.

In the preface to “No Guilty Bystander,” Gumbleton urged readers to be publicly engaged by defending democracy, supporting LGBTQ+ rights or choosing another cause.

“Lest all of this seem overwhelming,” he wrote, “the important thing is to recognize that each of us has a small part to play in the whole picture.”


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