THIS MONTH IN CATHOLIC LGBT HISTORY: Remembering Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, Advocate for Gay Equality and Prophet of Vatican II

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a prophet of Vatican II and noted advocate for lesbian and gay Catholics, passed away earlier this week at age 96. July’s “This Month in Catholic LGBT History” pauses to remember his witness and celebrate his legacy.

Archbishop Hunthausen tirelessly defended the oppressed as Seattle’s archbishop from 1975 until his forced retirement at 1991, even when it entailed great personal sacrifice. His broad efforts for justice included an honest reckoning with abuses in the institutional Church. An early supporter of  the U.S. bishops’ 1976 Call to Action meeting, he advocated for lesbian and gay people, Catholic women, and persons who are divorced and remarried. He also developed one of the first U.S. diocesan policies on clergy sexual abuse back in 1988.

Concerning lesbian and gay equality, Hunthausen practiced not only a welcoming attitude but true solidarity. Biographer and former spokesperson John McCoy wrote in A Still and Quiet Conscience that beginning in 1972, he allowed Dignity members to gather at Catholic churches and be pastorally supported by priests. In 1983, Hunthausen welcomed DignityUSA’s national convention to Seattle and planned to celebrate Mass for the group at the cathedral. Though called away to Rome, he still offered video and print messages of welcome to the attendees. Mass at the cathedral went ahead with more than 1,000 people and forty-five concelebrating priests present.

Hunthausen cared attentively for gay priests under his care, according to McCoy. He quoted the archbishop as saying of gay men who left the priesthood, “When they see the way society treats homosexuals and the things their own church says about them, how can they really believe that God loves them?”

Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen

In civil society, Hunthausen was a voice for lesbian and gay civil rights, a point McCoy elucidated on further in his biography. Citing the U.S. bishops’ release of a 1976 pastoral on sexuality, the archbishop published a letter arguing that discrimination based upon sexual orientation was “contrary to sound religious principles.” In 1977, he welcomed the City of Seattle’s first public proclamation of Pride Week. In 1978, he publicly opposed a ballot initiative in Seattle that would have repealed lesbian and gay non-discrimination protections. In 1983, he became the first Catholic bishop in the U.S. to address secular gay activists when speaking to a group of Seattle’s gay businessmen.

Perhaps most significantly, Hunthausen was a force behind the Washington State Catholic Conference’s 1983 largely positive pastoral letter, “The Prejudice against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church.” This letter stated “the prejudice against homosexuals is a greater infringement of the norm of Christian morality than is homosexual orientation or activity.” The letter admitted as well that “the manner in which church teaching has been concretely conveyed has contributed to the prejudices against gays and lesbians.”

When Hunthausen turned 95 last year, several Catholic and secular publications marked his birthday with commentaries that compared the archbishop to Pope Francis given their similar pastoral sensibilities. Hunthausen said of the pope at that time, ““Francis is doing the things I tried to do!” Unlike the pope, however, Hunthausen was investigated by the Vatican for his many prophetic and pastoral acts, and ultimately forced into early retirement at the age of 70.

Archbishop Hunthausen’s witness is both a powerful testimony to Vatican II and an indictment of those who have suppressed its implementation. He took seriously the Council’s call for justice and then lived accordingly despite the risks and sacrifice doing so entailed. His solidarity with lesbian and gay people was a logical extension of this commitment. Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, said of Hunthausen:

“Archbishop Hunthausen was a humble, fearless, and prayerful man. Whether he was facing the U.S. government by refusing to pay taxes that support the military establishment or standing up to the Vatican for LGBT Catholics, he was a model Church leader. Pope Francis would say that Archbishop Hunthausen smelled like the sheep. The Church needs more shepherds like him.”

What can the archbishop teach Catholics today? The archbishop’s legacy will be widespread and the lessons many. I believe there is a particular lesson for church leaders when it comes to LGBT issues. Writing about his friend in the National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Michael Ryan commented, “he was a builder of bridges, never of walls, and he was always the first to cross any bridge he built, smiling his disarming smile and offering the hand of friendship.” Archbishop Hunthausen’s actions on lesbian and gay equality should challenge today’s church leaders not only to accompany LGBT people with greater courage, but to take the first steps in bridging divides.

For the faithful generally, Hunthausen’s life proves that LGBT civil rights are positive goals to be supported by Catholics, that the institutional Church has a necessary role in defending them, that non-discrimination should be prioritized over sexual ethics, that LGBT people are wholly part of the people of God with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, and that more than anything, love and not law should dictate our actions. Marking his passing, we can join in the words with which I am certain God welcomed Raymond Hunthausen home, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 28, 2018

Sources and Related Articles:

John A. McCoy, A Still and Quiet Conscience: The Archbishop Who Challenged a Pope, a President, and a Church

The New York Times, Raymond Hunthausen, Liberal Archbishop Rebuked by Rome, Dies at 96

The Seattle Times, “Seattle Archbishop Emeritus Raymond Hunthausen dies at 96

National Catholic Reporter, “Archbishop Hunthausen was a man of prayer, a man of God

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