Politics By Other Means

Feb 28, 2012

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton probably won’t vote in the primary today, though he spends his life doing work that’s greatly affected by the political world. Nor does he seem impressed that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are fellow Roman Catholics.

Actually, he seems pretty appalled by them.

“They take some small part of the church’s teaching and focus on that and ignore everything else,” he told me late yesterday, when I went by his office to see him. That office is in an ancient building in a very poor section of Detroit, next to St. Leo’s, the church he was pastor of for a quarter-century. The surrounding neighborhood looks like a battlefield, and you wouldn’t leave your car on the street overnight. He’s totally comfortable there. The church made him give up St. Leo’s a few years ago, despite angry protests by parishioners.

But while they pushed him out of his duties, what he does doesn’t look much like retirement. Last month he was in Colombia, working with a town on a mountaintop which is fighting corporate efforts to destroy their entire area for a mine.

Earlier this month, Bishop Tom was back in Haiti, working with a clinic he started amid hundreds of thousands of refugees still living in tents after the earthquake two years ago. Yesterday, he was just putting the finishing touches on an article he was writing for the British newsletter Pax Christi, an update on the nuclear arms race.

Then, this weekend, it is off to Washington, D.C. Gumbleton’s schedule resembles that of a presidential candidate, except there is no one to carry his bags, and no swank hotel rooms.

Oh, and one other difference. Gumbleton is eighty-two years old. He looks like a man in his sixties. “I’ve been blessed with good health,“ he says. “I’m very fortunate.”

The man Detroiters call Bishop Tom avoids getting involved in partisan politics, though years ago, he once wrote an article slyly making the case for a vote for George McGovern. I got the sense that he thought this year’s race was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing good. “They are saying we should bomb Iran,” he said. “Ron Paul is the only one talking sense about that.” How “can we get so riled up about the possibility of Iran having a bomb when we are still testing new intercontinental ballistic missiles?”

Gumbleton knows what places that have been bombed look like. He’s been visiting suffering places in the world for many years now. There have always been those critical of him for taking his ministry to the world. Some think he should stay home.

But he can’t. He was a graduate student in Rome during the revolutionary church council we now call Vatican II. He says he got the idea the church’s job was “to transform our world into as close a copy as possible,“ of the kingdom of heaven. So he keeps at it.

You don’t have to be a Catholic or even a Christian to admire that. When the candidates talk about the poor, they mainly speak of them as economic abstractions. Gumbleton visits them where they live. Somehow, I’d feel much better about any candidate who’d followed him around and helped with his work for a month.