Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit drew an overflowing and enthusiastic crowd at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church June 24. Although several speakers welcomed him before he spoke, no official from either local diocese offered a word of welcome to him, even though he has just observed the 50th anniversary of his ordination. The fact that Topics to Go, the group inviting him here to speak about homosexuality and the church, felt that a Catholic facility was out of the question for his address is itself a measure of the bishop’s courageous sense of mission as he seeks to comfort and encourage LGBT Catholics.
Gumbleton was embarrassed when he learned his brother was gay. His brother had heard the Church’s condemnation of his “abomination,” had married and had four children, and tried not to be gay. When he decided to come out, he divorced his wife (they are still friends) and wrote a letter to the bishop and other siblings, which Gumbleton at first refused to read. Eventually Gumbleton realized he had not been adequately trained and began an earnest study, which led him to propose what eventually became “Always Our Children,” published in 1997 by the US Catholic Conference. The pastoral document affirms the inherent worth of LGBT folks and counsels parents to love them.
“You don’t have to tell me to love my child!” is one kind of response Gumbleton heard. For such parents, the document may be only a tiny step forward, but for many others ready to disown their children, it was really big.
For the first time, the bishops’ pastoral letter accepts the notion of sexual orientation. It rejects “reparative therapy,” which tries to change homosexuals into heterosexuals, affirms that GLBT persons are “beloved of God as they are,” and insists that the fundamental human rights of homosexuals must be protected. This means the Church should be fully inclusive; gays should even be encouraged to be extraordinary eucharistic ministers.
Obviously the folks at St. Agnes Church, which dismissed their gay music leader recently, had not attended to the bishops’ pastoral letter.
Using various documents, Gumbleton sketched the doctrine of the primacy of conscience for Catholics. For example, before his elevation as Pope Benedict, then- Cardinal Ratzinger said that the conscience must be obeyed even over the order of the pope.
The 1965 “Church and the Modern World” condemns all modern war because it is impossible to prevent innocent noncombatants from injury and death. Yet this principle is routinely violated by those whose conscience permits them to soldier.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic in good standing, in his conscience supports capital punishment against the clear teaching of the church, and says any Catholic who obeys the church is unfit to be a judge. He has never been denied communion because of it.
Why, then, cannot two people of the same sex who love each other and wish a stable relationship in good conscience be accepted and treasured as participants and leaders in the Church?
To critics who insist the Church cannot change its teaching on sexual ethics, Gumbleton recited some history. At one point, any intercourse without the clear intent to produce children was sinful. (Masturbation was considered worse than rape because rape could result in pregnancy.) Now the rhythm method accepts the value of sex with the clear intent not to produce children.
Although I am not Catholic myself, supporting those pursuing justice within the Church for GLBT people will help us all. For that reason, I encourage you to learn more about the Topics To Go folks. Email me and I’ll put you in touch with them. Their Sept. 16 program examines matrimony.
The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching, and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday. Vern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org