Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen died on Sunday, aged 96. The archbishop emeritus of Seattle was the last surviving American bishop to have attended Vatican Council II. He died in his home diocese of Helena, Montana, in the company of his extended family.
Archbishop Hunthausen was an outspoken and often controversial leader in the American Church. His pubic image was anchored by a bold and uncompromising stance against nuclear weapons, but his twenty-one years in Seattle were marked by division and dispute over his governance of the archdiocese.
Born August 21, 1921, in Anaconda, Montana, Raymond Gerhardt Hunthausen was the eldest of seven children. As a young man, he attended Carroll College in the state capital of Helena, graduating with honors and a chemistry degree. While he initially intended to become an engineer, his spiritual director Fr. Bernard Topel, later Bishop of Spokane, helped him discover a priestly vocation.
Hunthausen entered St. Edward’s Seminary in Kenmore, Washington, in 1943 and was ordained a priest three years later. In 1946, as a newly ordained priest, he returned to Carroll College, serving as a chemistry instructor and earning a Master of Science degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1953. In 1957, he was made president of Carroll College.
In July of 1962, Pope St. John XXIII named Hunthausen as the sixth bishop of Helena. He became the youngest and newest American bishop at Vatican Council II, where he attended all four sessions.
Pope Paul VI appointed Bishop Hunthausen to lead the Archdiocese of Seattle in February of 1975, and it was in this position that he would come to national attention.
As Archbishop of Seattle, Hunthausen took a prominent and unflinching stance against nuclear weapons. The Trident program, which equipped a new generation of ballistic missile submarines, was based in the archdiocese. In perhaps his most famous quote, Archbishop Hunthausen called Trident the “Auschwitz of Pugent Sound.” His public decision to withhold half his federal taxes in protest resulted in the government garnishing his wages. His opposition to nuclear weapons and his steadfast commitment to peace led to his receiving the Thomas Merton Award in 1982.
Yet, despite his leading role in campaigns for peace and justice, concerns about his doctrinal leadership of the archdiocese came to overshadow much of his time in office.
From at least 1978, Vatican authorities received numerous complaints that parts of church teaching were being obscured or ignored in the Archdiocese of Seattle, and that this was influencing pastoral practices.
Those complaints led to an apostolic visitation in 1983. The visitation, a kind of canonical inspection and fact finding mission, was conducted by Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, D.C., who interviewed more than 60 people, clergy and laity, and submitted a report to Rome.
The visitation ended in 1986 with a letter to Hunthausen from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The letter praised Hunthausen as “a man of Gospel values, sensitive to the needs of the sufferings and the aggrieved” and said his concern for justice and peace was well known.
While observing that Hunthausen had been subjected to “exaggerated criticism” from groups “wholly lacking in a spirit of cooperation,” Cardinal Ratzinger outlined several areas in the archdiocese in need of “correction and improvement.”
Those areas proved to forecast some of the most contentious issues in the Church today.
Among the issues was the widespread practice of encouraging divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist, despite the Church’s clear teaching that these relationships were objectively irregular and the practice itself was a witness contrary to indissolubility of marriage.
Ratzinger also noted “repeated instances” of allowing non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist at Mass, and instances in which Catholics were allowed to receive communion at Protestant services.
In total, five areas needing attention were outlined. The others included concerns that some local Catholic hospitals were providing contraceptive sterilization services, that Church teaching on homosexuality was being distorted or obscured through the influence of outside groups, and that there were problems with priestly formation of seminarians.
While the CDF recognized that Hunthausen had made positive efforts to respond to the criticisms, Donald Wuerl was appointed an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese in 1986, with special responsibility for the five problem areas. Despite public hostility to Wuerl by some in the archdiocese, he and Hunthausen forged an enduring personal friendship before Wuerl was relieved of his responsibility in 1987, and appointed Bishop of Pittsburgh in 1988.
Nevertheless, an air of resentment toward perceived Vatican interference overshadowed the rest of Hunthausen’s tenure. Bishop Thomas Murphy was appointed archbishop coadjutor in 1987, and Pope St. John Paul II accepted Hunthausen’s resignation in 1991. Aged only 70, this was five full years before Hunthausen would have reached the ordinary retirement age for a bishop.
In 2002, at the height of the sexual abuse crisis, it emerged that police had informed him in 1986 about an investigation into the Bishop of Spokane, Lawrence Welsh in 1986. Police met with Hunthausen following an accusation that Welsh had attempted to strangle a male-prostitute during an encounter in Chicago that year. While Welsh admitted to the encounter, no further action was taken and he was allowed to continue in episcopal ministry.
In retirement, Hunthausen returned to Montana, living with his brother, also a priest. His reputation as an outspoken advocate for peace remained intact, though his time in Seattle remained a source of controversy.
While perhaps inextricably linked to controversy, Archbishop Hunthausen will be fondly remembered by many in the Church, especially in Montana and Seattle. Even many of those most often considered to be his critics considered him to be a man sincere in his convictions who, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, “strove with heart and mind to be a good bishop of the Church, eager to implement the renewal called for in the decrees of the Vatican Council II.”