Mercy for Hunthausen?

by Ken Briggs

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Thirty years ago, Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen was figuratively clapped in irons and thrown into the dungeon by now pope emeritus Josef Ratzinger, with the explicit approval of John Paul II. Not for committing crimes of theft or child abuse, which went unpunished then and mostly now, but for demonstrating values and practices that Pope Francis appears to approve in whole or in part. 

In his 1985 indictment of the Seattle archbishop, Ratzinger summed up accusations gathered in his investigation whose point man in the U.S. was Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, D.C. Among the charges: that Hunthausen had allowed divorced Catholics without annulments to take communion; gave lay people unauthorized influence in shaping programs as "a kind of voting process on doctrinal or moral teachings"; permitted intercommunion at weddings and funerals, calling it "clearly abusive"; and supported a homosexual group to meet in the cathedral, which risked ignoring the Magisterium's judgment that same-sex acts were "an intrinsic moral evil, intrinsically distorted and self-indulgent." In addition to welcoming the gay group to the cathedral, he'd stood up for homosexual dignity in the Seatte Gay News in 1977.

He was also chastised for giving the green light to general absolution.

Not mentioned but clearly decisive in this offensive was the archbishop's staunch protest against nuclear arms in general and the Trident submarine base near Seattle. He had joined anti-Trident demonstrations and refused to pay half of his federal income tax.

A traditionalist group called the Roman Catholic Laity for Truth peppered the Vatican complaints about the archbishop which in large measure brought about the hammer blow.

Many American bishops bristled at the attack but were struck dumb by the force of hierarchy, so  punitive actions were taken with little to no resistance by Hunthausen's "brother" bishops. Auxiliary Bishop Donald Wuerl was dispatched to Seattle to literally take over five major areas of Hunthausen's authority. Wuerl, fresh from a stint in Rome, was a trusted and compliant deputy (who's now on the Francis team as the direction of the wind has shifted), but frictions mounted so quickly in that volatile atmosphere that Wuerl was diplomatically removed little more than a year later, to be replaced by Bishop Thomas J. Murphy as the archbishop replacement when Hunthausen was gone. The beleaguered archbishop stepped down four years later and retreated into retirement in his beloved Montana where he remains at age 94, still widely loved and revered by Catholics who recall his bold stands.

His stands sound a great deal like the kind that harmonize with the church Pope Francis inspires, one which forgives, treats those who fall outside strict doctrinal with tolerance and bestows mercy on those who might be considered unworthy under other regimes. Openness to homosexuals, broader welcome to communion, a greater, equal role for lay people, a witness to faith determined by compassion and attention to suffering rather than law and order: the overlap between Francis and Raymond would appear to be astounding.

What would it meant if Francis had made a point of exonerating Hunthausen during his visit to the United States as an exemplar of the Catholicism he espouses? He celebrated two other unconventional American Catholics -- Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton -- as role models, and the tainted Junipero Serra was made a saint, but Hunthausen got no mention so far as I know, nor am I sure how much Francis understood of Hunthausen's plight. If he had the opportunity,he could have done much to dissipate a dark cloud over the Vatican and the American church. Day and Merton benefit from distance in time; Hunthausen is still relatively present. Confronting the present,of course, is usually much harder and takes more nerve. But the fountain of mercy are said to flowing more freely.  

Francis strikes surpassing chords when he speaks of the Christianity he envisions. He is a consummate Proclaimer. He may prove to be equally the Innovator of the visions he creates but so far has done little. Not everyone can do it all and needs partners who can put the words into action. It's possible to call for reform and to do reform in your own ranks. Hunthausen can still be liberated; church funds can still be withdrawn from fossil fuels; direct action can help break the stranglehold of rich over poor. All resonate Francis' preaching and could bolster follow-through in the variety of ways at the church's disposal.




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