As Archbishop Hunthausen Turns 95, Remembering Him as a Precursor to Pope Francis

Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen turned 95 in August, and he was hailed by writers for the National Catholic Reporter and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a forerunner of the activist, pastoral, and socially-conscious style of church leadership that has been championed by Pope Francis.  Not least among Hunthausen’s qualities that are similar to the pontiff was his readiness to offer words of welcome to LGBT people.

Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen

Hunthausen retired as archbishop of Seattle in 199o, leaving a long legacy of courageously speaking out on issues which sparked controversy such as nuclear weapons, LGBT equality, communion for the divorced/remarried, general absolution, and lay decision-making.  In a 2015 article for the National Catholic Reporter, Kenneth Briggs summarized the proud history of stands that Hunthausen took, which eventually earned him the ire of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II:

“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 Seattle 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.”

America magazine ran a review of a biography of Hunthausen last year where they spelled out the upshot of the Vatican’s investigation of Hunthausen:

“The Vatican’s reaction was to appoint an auxiliary bishop with special faculties, Donald Wuerl. Hunthausen sought the advice of the Rev. James Coriden, the best canon lawyer in the United States, who told him he did not know what to advise because the Vatican seemed to be making up the rules as it went along. Bishop Wuerl gained final authority over six areas: liturgy, marriage, clergy and seminarians, ex-priests and any issues related to health care and homosexuals. In effect, the archbishop was symbolically stripped of office.”

Last month’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer article provided some important details on some of Hunthausen’s LGBT involvement:

“Hunthausen spoke for the human rights of gays and lesbians, in the pews and in society.  Using an article in the Catholic Northwest Progress, he decried ‘the terrible impact that discriminatory patterns in society have upon individuals and the total community.’

“Hunthausen let the LGBT Catholic group Dignity close its annual conference, being held in Seattle, with a mass in his cathedral.  It was one of the ‘sins’ that brought Cardinal Hickey of Washington, D.C., out here on a Vatican-ordered investigation. The investigation came under the auspices of Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who would become Benedict XVI.

“The long ago Dignity mass came to mind after the Orlando massacre.  An anti-violence march wound from St. Mark’s Cathedral to St. James, with Mayor Ed Murray and young LGBT activists taking the pulpit of St. James for readings. The cathedral’s pastor, the Very Rev. Michael Ryan, served as chancellor of the Seattle Archdiocese under Hunthausen.”

One other detail about the Dignity mass incident was that Hunthausen had planned on welcoming the conference members to the Cathedral personally.  However, he had been summoned to appear in Rome at the same time that the Dignity group was meeting.  Undaunted, Hunthausen provided an audio tape recording of his welcome which was played at the beginning of the mass.

Briggs was explicit in comparing Hunthausen to Francis:

“His [Hunthausen’s] 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.”

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer article drew similar parallels:

“The advent of Pope Francis has brought back the virtues for which Hunthausen was beloved by Western Washington Catholics, so much so that the Vatican backed off from its effort at public humiliation and stripping the archbishop of his powers.

“As an example, Pope Francis has named a panel to explore letting women serve in the role of Catholic deacons, as they did in the early church.  Under Hunthausen, the Archdiocese of Seattle halted ordaining new deacons until the role of women in the diaconate was addressed.

“Hunthausen was a pastor in his diocese, living simply and reaching out — always reaching out.”

When Hunthausen retired, he returned to his hometown of Helena, Montana, where he now lives in a retirement home with his brother Jack, also a priest, according to a biographical article in the Helena Independent Record.  The article mentioned that he now needs 24 -hour physical care, but that his mind is still as sharp as ever.  This sharpness is evident in a quote from Hunthausen about Pope Francis that America magazine reported last year:

“Francis is doing the things I tried to do!”

Archbishop Hunthausen, on many levels and for many issues, has been a prophet.  It is more than pleasing to note that he sees his legacy finally being carried out at the highest levels of our church.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


21 replies
  1. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    What a disgraceful way to treat a man with a brain, a heart and a conscience. I had not heard of him before so thank you for this story.

  2. Paula Mattras
    Paula Mattras says:

    I just want to wish the Archbishop a very Happy Birthday and to thank him for his dedication to blessing the lives of so many LGBTQ families. God bless your courage, honesty, dedication to truth and caring so deeply.

  3. Richard Young
    Richard Young says:

    I was among the priests who ritually concelebrated at the Dignity Convention mass in 1981 at the Seattle cathedral. As we were waiting outside of the cathedral for the procession to begin, a group of protestors across the street prayed the rosary. They objected to our using the cathedral for our mass, as if our presence desecrated the cathedral. After the leader prayed the first half of each “Hail Mary,” we prayed with them and responded with the second half (Holy Mary, Mother of God…”) After it was over, another priest remarked, “Never before have I ever heard the rosary recited with such hate.”
    The hate is still there, of course, but thanks to Archbishop Hunthausen, it has dissipated somewhat. What a prophet!

  4. Friends
    Friends says:

    He clearly shared (and was inspired by) the vision of Pope St. John XXIII, the beloved (and jolly and good-humored) Pontiff who gave us “Vatican II Catholicism” — which some of our own contributors have proposed to establish as a “Vatican II Rite” with the larger Church. This would represent the reality that there are different Rites in the Middle East and Far East which remain in full Communion with Rome, while demonstrating the possibilities of cultural diversity across a vastly complicated planet. It’s a splendid suggestion. As I see it, everything depends upon Francis’ successor being far more in the “Francis” model than in the “Ratzinger-Benedict” model. Let’s hope and pray that the Holy Spirit is fully engaged and active at the next Papal Conclave!

  5. Glenn Slocum
    Glenn Slocum says:

    Several years ago I attended a conference where Robert Blair Kaiser, now deceased, a former Jesuit and author/historian who covered the Second Vatican Council for Newsweek, related a story of a Synod of bishops from Washington State headed by Archbishop Hunthausen, who is the subject of this fine piece. JP II often had visiting bishops and other guests for dinner in his apartment, served by Polish nuns. At the outset of the dinner discussion, Hunthausen offered that the subject of married priests should be discussed during the Synod. The Pope said nothing. At the end of the meal, Hunthausen repeated his suggestion, to which JP II, holding a knife and fork, slammed them down on the table and yelled: ‘There will be no discussion of married priests.”

    It i gratifying to know that the archibishop is still with us at 95, and discouraging to learn the role that non-Cardinal Wuerl has in trying trim his sails.

  6. Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf says:

    For God’s sake, Cardinal Dearden (Detroit) did similar things. Of course, Dearden was a though archbishop, known among some clergy as “Iron” John. However, he was extremely pastoral also.

  7. Fr Aidan
    Fr Aidan says:

    A prophetic voice and a modern day Saint! How lonely it must have been for him. Obviously at the center of his being he knew he was loved by God as expressed in paschal mystery! Amen
    God is good!

  8. Paul Morrissey, OSA, author of The Black Wall of Silence
    Paul Morrissey, OSA, author of The Black Wall of Silence says:

    Bravo Bishop Hunthausen! I have been so inspired by you all of my life as a priest I remember the Dignity Mass at the Seattle Cathedral in 1981 and Bishop Hunthausen’s video welcome. It was one of the great moments of the Spirit breaking through the bars of the part of the Church that wants to crush it. And right before the mass began, the Gay Mens’ Chorus of San Francisco tapered off their closing song with, “…if happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” Truly a great moment in our Church. Thank you Bishop Hunthausen, and Happy 95th Birthday.

  9. Bernadette
    Bernadette says:

    What an example of truth and courage! What a promoter of the Gospel! Yes, you trusted in the LOVE that God is and we are supposed to be. How can the Christ’s life on earth, His Church be so narrow, ignorant, arrogant and stubborn when they have an prophet like the Archbishop? But the “Powers that Be” did the same thing to Jesus, didn’t they? Thank you, dear Bishop, for your profession of love.

  10. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    Hunthausen is certainly a saint among us. He faced humiliation and denunciation but realized what the Spirit called him to do. Unfortunately thus far Francis is not worthy to touch the hem of his robe; with a smile on his face he marches to the JPII/B16 tune. May we all have the courage to live like archbishop Hunthausen.

  11. ermadurk
    ermadurk says:

    This article is a beautiful tribute to Archbishop Hunthausen. As one of many, many Catholic parents of GLBT persons, we thank Hunthausen for believing that the very beings of our children are valuable, and that their spiritual lives are welcomed, and worth nurturing in the Catholic Faith.

  12. miriamtf
    miriamtf says:

    Very interesting. I had never heard this side of Hunthausen’s story. In the 80’s and early 90’s, when I read The Wanderer, he was frequently portrayed as the evil enemy, as I recall.

  13. Doughco
    Doughco says:

    JessiAnne, how long do you think his canonization will take even with the new-fangled ‘fast tracking?” A good bit longer than five years, I’d bet. Met him at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver long ago; totally unlike any other priest I’d met up to then. And only two I’ve met in the intervening 45 years!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *