frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

Interview with Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, Archdiocese of Detroit Appointed bishop in 1968, he is an outspoken critic of the Vatican's position on gays.  In 1997, Bishop Gumbleton issued a call at a gay religious conference in Pittsburgh for gay clergy and religious to come out of the closet.

Can you share your story with us?

I think I am probably typical of many people in my generation, and within the Catholic Church maybe especially, who without knowing it, developed a kind of homophobia. A very deep homophobia. And it comes from the way I was raised--in a Catholic family that did not speak much about sex and in an elementary school system where there wasn't sex education and no one really explained much to you. And you just grew up sort of discovering things by yourself.

We point out that the Catholic teaching is that homosexual activity is wrong. Now there's homosexual orientation--it's not wrong to be a homosexual, and you can fully love yourself, accept yourself, and so on. But Catholic teaching says activity is wrong. Then in high school, I went into seminary in the 9th grade. And the system then was all male. The main thing I remember about relationships was the talks that we were given about never having a particular friendship--which meant we could not be on a very intimate level with any other individual person. All your friendships had to be very widespread, and be part of a group all the time. And during those years I really didn't know much about homosexuality at all. Except this talk about particular friendship made me realize that there was some concern about being too friendly with one other person who would be a male. Even though I didn't know it at the time, obviously they were giving us these talks because they wanted to make sure that there was no homosexuality or homosexual relationships being developed in the seminary.

And so the whole idea of homosexuality very early on became a very negative thing. And a very, well, evil thing. And when I learned moral theology in my major seminary, I only learned about homosexuality as activity. Nobody made a distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual activity. And so I never thought of it except in terms of homosexual activity. And that was condemned. Wrong. And so I didn't have an understanding as a priest and a confessor, people coming to me to confess their sins, if they confessed such a sin I had no idea of how I might help them in any way. Because I felt with a deep conviction, that this was a simple choice, and like any other choice, we can choose this or choose that. And so there should be no big problem. And I would talk that way, which was not helpful to somebody who's coming out of the situation where their whole human person is moved, in regard to relationships and affective relationships, toward people of the same sex.

And so I went along with that kind of understanding, and I guess lack of understanding of homosexuality. Until suddenly in my own family I was confronted when my brother wrote a letter to my siblings and me and my mother coming out--saying he is gay and had been all his life--had struggled against it in various ways as many homosexual people do. Because first of all, you're taught it's wrong. And so you somehow feel it's wrong. And you're trying to do the right thing. So you're trying not to be who you are.

And so he had gone so far as entering the seminary at one point, which is sort of a safe place for a homosexual actually because you do have male relationships, even though you could be committed to celibacy. So you're in more of a friendly environment. And you've a very respected role. And nobody questions why you're not married if you're a priest.

But then quickly he discovered that that was not where he should be, and so he left. But then he married. Again, in an attempt to say "No, I'm not gay." And he was married for fifteen years or so and had four children. But could never shake who he was because you can't--it's something that is part of your person.

So when he came out, I suddenly had to deal with this in a way I never had before because it was on a very personal level. Do I reject my brother? Do I despise him because he's evil? And so on. So the first thing I had to do was deal with my own homophobia. Because I did have very negative reactions when he ...wrote this letter. In fact, I say with some embarrassment and shame almost--I didn't even read the whole letter. I knew what was coming because my sister already received it and kind of warned me. So when I received it, I just kind of threw it aside.

And in a very selfish way I guess it was partly--here I am a bishop, and I have a brother who's openly gay. What's that going to do, or what are people going to think about me? I mean somehow, when someone in a family comes out, the whole family's out. And so I'm involved in this. And I felt it would be an embarrassment to have to admit that I have a sibling who's gay. So I'm going through all this kind of turmoil within myself trying to deal with it. I didn't want to reject my brother and yet I somehow had this feeling I needed to. I mean, how could I be a Roman Catholic bishop, have a gay brother, and say that's OK? And so, I had to rethink a lot and re-examine why do I have such a negative reaction.

I began to look into my life and discover how I had been sort of formed in this way to be negative to homosexuals. And I began to understand that better and to understand much more about orientation. And since I was studying in the seminary, there is a lot of development in moral theology about orientation as opposed to activity, and so forth. And I know that in my own family my siblings and my mother were disturbed by this, but we never talked about it really. Which is not very good but it is typical...I think other families might do the same thing. Some things you just don't talk about.

But it was very troubling to my mother. Although I should have been much more sensitive to this. But I was still dealing with it too much myself to be able to feel like I could help her very much. Until finally, one night. She was in her middle eighties at the time and I'm sure that she was thinking about her own death and her main concern was that there were nine children in my family that she had raised. And she was concerned...by the time she died, she wanted to feel that we were all OK and in our right path.

And so one night when I was visiting she followed me to the door and we were talking. We stood there and talked for a few minutes and what she said was very direct. She said, "Is Dan going to Hell?" I knew I had to answer. And I wanted to answer honestly and to help her.

And so I did say immediately, " No, Dan's not going to Hell." And I could assure her that with great confidence because by that time I had thought it through and I realized that this is the way Dan is. And God knew this from the beginning of Dan's life. And God doesn't condemn Dan for being a homosexual. And so he's not going to Hell because of who he is. This is the way he is and God made him the way he is and in the providence of God, that's Dan's life. And so I was able to say that to her and it was very reassuring--the fact that I was a priest and a bishop, and I've helped over the years. My brother was killed and my dad died. You know, in a sense I was ministering, and within my own family.

And so this was very important to her how I felt about it. More important than any of my other siblings I'm sure. And so I was glad I could say that with conviction and with confidence. And with a calmness on my own part. And so it made it very good for her. And I'm sure it she was able, a couple years later, to die in peace. Because that problem was settled.

Can you talk about the Church's position on homosexual orientation vs. homosexual activity and the distinction it makes?

The Catholic bishops of the United States have written a pastoral letter called "Always Our Children". It's an attempt on the part of the bishops to reach out with some sort of understanding and reassurance--to the parents especially--where there's a gay or lesbian person. And to assure them that these children of theirs are loved by God. Not to be condemned. Not to be rejected. But to be fully accepted as who they are. And that's a very important step on the part of the Church and the Catholic bishops of the United States to do this. And it has been very helpful to many parents.

Now, a few parents of homosexual persons reacted by saying 'don't tell me to love my child, I'm a parent, I'm going to love my child regardless of what the bishop said.' And yet the Church has been so strong in its condemnation of homosexuality--and never making any distinction between orientation and activity. So that many parents when it happened, were totally confused and thought they did have to reject their child. And thought that their child couldn't be loved by God. Even as many homosexual persons had internalized that same conviction: I can't be loved by God, there's something wrong with me, I must be despised by God and rejected. And they lead to a very self-destructive spirit where they begin to reject themselves, and so on. It's something that demands a tremendous change in people's thinking--the homosexual person, the family, the parents especially.

So the fact that the Catholic bishops of the United States were able to say this was important. In that, we follow the teaching of the Church. And I voted for the letter and I certainly follow it very carefully.

And we point out that the Catholic teaching is that homosexual activity is wrong. Now there's homosexual orientation--it's not wrong to be a homosexual. And you can fully love yourself, accept yourself, and so on. But Catholic teaching says activity is wrong.

Now most homosexual people--who knows how many the percent is--but a very high percentage of homosexual people find that contradictory and very difficult to accept. And probably most can't accept it--that I have the orientation but that somehow I can never act on this orientation. That my life is going to be deprived of any kind of sexual intimacy at any point in my life, I just can't have it.

Now, what do such persons do? I say to them that you must do what any human person must do. You must keep struggling to find a way to integrate your sexuality in a healthy and spiritually good way into your life. And I say that as a celibate person. I have to learn--and this doesn't happen when you first make the promise of celibacy when you're ordained--how you can still be a sexual person and enter into friendships and deep friendships and still maintain celibacy. You have to learn how to integrate who you are as a sexual person into your whole life. It has to be a healthy integration and there are some unhealthy ways to be celibate. That is you can repress your sexuality. But then of course you act out in various ways that are not healthy, when you repress a very important part of your whole person. And so you have to learn how to integrate sexuality into your life, maintain your commitment to celibacy, and yet grow in a psychologically and spiritually healthy way.

Well, the same is true of homosexual persons. Over the years of their life they have to struggle with this. And I tell them you have to take into account what the scripture say. You have to take into account what Catholic teaching is. You have to take into account your own discernment of God's will for you. You have to take into account your consultation with mentors or spiritual guides. And then you have to struggle to find a way that you as a person grow into a fullness of personhood, and you integrate your sexuality into your life. And going along with that is the teaching of the Church, which is very traditional. That is what we call primacy of conscience--beyond anything else, I must respond to God for what I do, what choices I make. And within your struggle, when you make certain choices that you do it in as careful a way as possible and you're doing this out of your own deep conscience convictions. You're not condemned by God, you can't be, if you really follow your conscience. And it's an informed conscience, based on what you discern from scripture, based on what you discern from Catholic teaching, what you discern from your own prayer life, and what you discern from spiritual directors and so on.

And you keep on trying to grow into the most complete and healthy person you can be. And I feel that I can't tell somebody else what is the best way for him or her to act. They have to learn for themselves, and integrate that into their life. And if they're following their conscience in a very sincere and authentic way, they are not condemned by God.

Do you feel comfortable with the Church's teachings on homosexuality?

The Church, over the centuries, has tried to teach about sexuality in single life, married life, homosexual life, and our teaching has evolved. And that's true of almost any moral teaching within the Church. As we get new insights, new understanding, the teaching evolves. Teachings on slavery. 100 years ago in this country Catholic bishops accepted slavery--said it was perfectly justified. You would find no person in the Church saying that today.

Look what's happening with capital punishment. A few years ago the Catholic Church had no hesitation about supporting capital punishment without any kind of limitations at all. Now the Pope has come to the United States and said that 'No, there's no way to justify capital punishment in the world in which we live.'

And so we have a different understanding of the world in which we live, and so our teaching adjusts to that understanding. In married life, the Catholic Church at one time taught married people that you could not engage in sexual intercourse and not commit sin because you would experience pleasure. Now people would be astounded at that. And yet that's what we taught. Now there's a much deeper understanding of the importance of intimacy and sexual intimacy within marriage as a way to strengthen and build the bond between two people. And that the sexual relationship is a very important part of the whole married relationship. Nothing wrong with it. Not any way you can be in a sense tainted with sin. And so we have a deeper understanding of that.

And what Pope John Paul has himself written about married life is very idealistic and beautiful, and very supportive. And so that comes out of a deeper understanding of how sexual intimacy is an important part of married life. And I don't think we've come to as clear and final understanding of homosexuality. Even from a psychological or a scientific point

So, personally, what is your degree of comfort with the Church's teachings?

Some discomfort is present I think for me in the Church's teaching about homosexuality. That comes from something I heard a parent say--a father whose son began to realize he's homosexual. And the father says, 'how can I say to my son, you're disordered?'-- which is the words that were used in the Papal document.

I say to myself--if I were a father I couldn't say to my son or my daughter, 'you're disordered, intrinsically disordered.' That's a terrible thing to say about your child. And I just can't believe it's true. That a person would be so essentially disordered, in this way.

So I just think those are cruel words and unjustified words and I would never expect a parent to say that to his or her child.

The Church's rigidity on issues such as homosexuality--how should we view this in the context of the Church's history over the centuries?

Over the centuries, the Church has struggled to discern the truth and to teach the truth as revealed to us by God and especially through Jesus. And there have been various times where the institutional Church and its leadership have felt that they have the whole answer. And so there have been periods of repression within the Church of thought and development of thought, and so on.

And so I don't think that any one papacy can be identified as a papacy where this is the only time that this has ever happened. From the beginning of this century up until Vatican II which took place in 1962, there were many theologians who were silenced and forbidden to speak and publish and condemned even. Yet those very theologians became suddenly the experts at Vatican Council II and the things that had been condemned were now affirmed.

And so, to me, that shows again that it's wrong for the Church, officially in any way, to try to stop the development of thought, the development of ideas, the evolution of understanding about various issues. Because, at some point we discover the ones that were silenced were actually saying the truth.

home | discussion | interviews | his faith | testimonies on faith | the church and sexuality | the pope and communism

biography | anecdotes | his poems | "abba pater" | encyclicals | video excerpt | tapes & transcripts | synopsis | press | teachers' guide
FRONTLINE | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
../etc/bio.html ../sex/ ../etc/faith.html ../interviews/ ../talk/ ../