New Hunthausen bio depicts Seattle prelate as Francis before Francis

New Hunthausen bio depicts Seattle prelate as Francis before Francis

New Hunthausen bio depicts Seattle prelate as Francis before Francis

Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen smiles at the celebration of his 40th anniversary as a bishop at St. James Cathedral in Seattle in 2002. (Credit: Mike Penney/CNS.)

A new biography examines the life of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a controversial churchmen of the 20th century.

NEW YORK — Long before Pope Francis made headlines for efforts to expand women’s leadership in the Church, show greater openness to the LGBT community and emphasize local Church governance, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen made a name for himself doing just that in Seattle.

Hunthausen, who died last July at the age of 96, served as Seattle’s archbishop from 1975 until 1991 — a tumultuous period that would lead to a Vatican investigation and the appointment of then-Bishop Donald Wuerl as an auxiliary, vested with certain governing powers.

While the Vatican placed Hunthausen under investigation for matters related to liturgy and doctrine, he had garnered a reputation for his calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament at the height of the Cold War — a position that put him at odds with President Ronald Reagan. Some have speculated that Reagan’s close relationship with Pope John Paul II motivated the Vatican’s crackdown against Hunthausen.

In his new biography, A Disarming Spirit: The Life of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, Frank Fromherz explores that history and analyzes what made Hunthausen one of the most storied churchmen of the 20th century.

In his interview with Crux, Fromherz describes why Hunthausen became known in Seattle as an early champion of ecumenism, his take on the investigation, and Hunthausen’s impressions of Pope Francis.

Crux: Why did Hunthausen insist that you wait until after his death to publish this biography?

Fromherz: Archbishop Hunthausen told me, when I interviewed him on Memorial Day 2011, that he really would much prefer that any book about him not be published until after his death. As to his reasons, which I have honored, he did not specify, but I believe he was not a person who ever wished to be in the public spotlight. The “Storm over Seattle” period of the Rome-Seattle controversy had troubled him deeply, as he never wanted to be a divisive figure.

So, to have a book come out — one that would tackle the Rome-Seattle controversy — while he was still alive is simply something he would not have wanted. I made a decision to refrain from publishing the book until after his death and I informed all the people who I interviewed that this is what I would be doing; so I also felt I should keep to my commitment to him and to his family — and I believe many family members appreciated this decision as well. He simply did not want to be in the spotlight again in the last years of his life.

In your view, what do you believe conditioned Hunthausen to be so open to ecumenism?

Hunthausen’s experience of the Second Vatican Council was crucial for his openness to ecumenism. He became a bishop on the eve of the first session (autumn 1962) and his whole experience as a bishop thereafter was shaped by the council spirit of openness and dialogue — as in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Also, his experience growing up in Anaconda and then living in Helena provided him with ample interactions across faith lines — small town ecumenism in the everyday life of human relations. He certainly saw that faith called him to address social concerns, war and peace, and a host of injustices, and none of these concerns ever could be limited to the Catholic community. Human beings, our common humanity, this is the core of his ecumenism.

The archbishop managed to become a polarizing national figure — known for his religiously motivated opposition to nuclear weapons — in a part of the country that at the time of his opposition was among the least religious places in the U.S. What affect did this have on people of faith in the region? 

The Church Council of Greater Seattle and the Washington Association of Churches were crucial experiences (as documented in the book) for Dutch Hunthausen. His personal interaction with Bill Cate, the head of the CCGS, and his regular meetings with various members across denominations – to tackle the great questions of the Trident submarine and the military-industrial complex in the region – these were key.

Leaders of the CCGS and the WAC realized that they needed to work together to be a significant voice — precisely given the large percentage of unaffiliated or “unchurched” people in the region. So often when he spoke he was supported by leaders of other faith traditions and denominations in the region–and many people of other denominations and faiths saw him as “our archbishop” precisely because he worked so closely with the CCGS and the WAC on so many social issues — especially on the theme at the heart of the opening chapter of the book, Faith and Disarmament.

So for people of faith in the region he became a representative character (as I explain in the book, see references to the work of Robert Bellah, co-author of Habits of the Heart), an inspiring prophetic voice for many, but also a highly disturbing voice for others (for those people of faith who tied Pro Deo with Pro Patria).

In your ultimate assessment, was his investigation by the Vatican fueled by the Reagan administration? 

The Vatican investigation of Archbishop Hunthausen, in my estimation, would not have taken place had it not been for his outspoken Faith & Disarmament speech and the actions (e.g. his war tax resistance and redirection to a peace fund, his presence on the witness boat for the arrival of the first Trident submarine, his continued speaking on this central issue, his reference to the Trident base as the Auschwitz of Puget Sound) that ensued and the media coverage that was so extensive.  So in that sense the Reagan administration, and especially Navy Secretary John Lehman, was key.

However, the Vatican was also concerned about the whole approach to church — Hunthausen’s Vatican II spirit of shared responsibility — given that John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger (who would become Benedict XVI) were highly critical of the model of church Hunthausen represented and encouraged.

Hunthausen’s spirit of egalitarian respect for women, for all people regardless of their sexual orientation, and for a very synodal approach to church — these were factors that motivated Rome in that era to make the Seattle Archdiocese a lesson for others across the nation.

So the answer is layered: without his highly prophetic stand on Trident, I doubt he would have come under fire, but Rome was not simply doing the bidding of the Reagan military-buildup machine. Then too, we must keep in mind John Paul II, with his background in Poland, and wariness about the Soviet Union in those Cold War times.

Hunthausen’s public profile was limited during the final years of his life, but what do you know of his impressions of Pope Francis?

I learned from family very close to him that he was so pleased with Pope Francis —with the spirit of shared responsibility, the Vatican II-spirit of commitment to solidarity with the poor (Gaudium et Spes), the joys and hopes, the grief and anxieties of all, especially the poor or those in any way afflicted. These too are the joy and hopes, the grief and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 


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