Obituaries

Thomas Gumbleton, Progressive Voice as a Catholic Bishop, Dies at 94

Thomas J. Gumbleton, a Roman Catholic bishop from Detroit whose nationally prominent support of liberal causes often clashed with church leadership, but who grounded his views in the 1960s Vatican reforms that promoted social justice, died on Thursday in Dearborn, Mich. He was 94.

His death was announced by the Archdiocese of Detroit, where he served for 50 years.

Bishop Gumbleton protested the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy regarding Central America in the 1980s. He opposed fellow Catholic bishops by speaking out in favor of same-sex marriage and the ordination of women. He championed victims of clergy sexual abuse and blamed that advocacy for his ouster as pastor of St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit in 2007, a contention that the archdiocese disputed.

Bishop Gumbleton during the 1983 National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Chicago. In 1968, he became the youngest bishop in the nation at age 38.Credit…Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

As an activist for the sick and the poor, Bishop Gumbleton visited more than 30 countries, including Haiti, where he celebrated his 80th birthday in a pup tent after delivering medical supplies following a devastating earthquake in 2010. In El Salvador, he bore witness to the condition of villagers during the civil war there in the 1980s. He later protested outside the School of the Americas in Georgia, an Army facility that trained Salvadoran military leaders tied to death squads.

In the preface to a biography about him, “No Guilty Bystander: The Extraordinary Life of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton” (2023), by Frank Fromherz and Suzanne Sattler, Bishop Gumbleton wrote of a formative experience visiting Egypt as a young priest.

While looking for a place where Catholic tradition held that Mary and Joseph took Jesus after fleeing to Egypt, he entered a neighborhood in Cairo teeming with people living in the street, dressed in rags and hungry and thirsty. “I grew up in Michigan during the Depression,” he wrote. “It was a struggle for my parents to pay their bills and keep us dressed and fed. But our poverty was nothing like that which I experienced that day.”

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