Read8: On Catholic Hill

These excerpts, from Chapter Sixteen, “On Catholic Hill,” chronicle the courage of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in his attempt to create a home for gays and lesbians within the Seattle archdiocese in the late 1970s and 1980s. His efforts prompted a Vatican investigation of the Seattle archdiocese for its openness to gay and lesbian ministry and an unprecedented intervention ordered in the 1980s by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. 

 For an update on current relations between the Seattle Catholic Archdiocese and the local LGBTQ community, following the recognition by Washington state of marriage equality, see “Mass Uprising” by Dominic Holden in The Stranger. In April 2012, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain — in dramatic contrast to Hunthausen’s welcoming stance — ordered parishes to collect signatures for a referendum to overturn the Washington law. See Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “Catholic Bishops Bless Gay Marriage Rollback;”  The Stranger, “Archbishop Turns Every Seattle Mass into an Anti-Gay Political Rallyand Seattle Times,  “Catholic Church Mixes it Up with Politics.” Also:  SartainLetter .  Archbishop Sartain has also been assigned by the Vatican to investigate the leading nuns’ leadership organization in the United States. “New Vatican job for Sartain: Make Nuns Toe the Line,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/18/12; “Sisters of Compassion Need a Hand in Dealing with the Pope,” Seattle Times, 4/26/12

Dutch Hunthausen, as friends called him,had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, the poor side of Anaconda, Montana, where an earlier generation of Catholics  immigrants, German and Irish, had gone to work the mines. He was plainspoken and even grandfatherly, not at all given to flashy suits, fancy speeches, or pomp. Yet, like the Reverend Mark Matthews, Hunthausen would have an enormous impact on Seattle; arguably the two were the city’s most important religious leaders during the 20th century. Both followed a social gospel, promoting programs for the poor and calling

Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, 1987

attention to injustices. But whereas Matthews excoriated the undesirables with Calvinistic glee and went to great lengths to actively destroy the saloons that he saw as the source of vice, Hunthausen would preach a different tone. Compassion, he would urge. Always compassion.

In Anaconda, he had always fit the definition of the “good little boy,” bright and deferential to those in authority, particularly to the Ursuline nuns who had taught him in elementary school. Extremely shy as a child, he never sought the spotlight but he also respectfully agreed to the nuns’ request that he give the welcoming speeches whenever the bishop visited.  “It was good for people to push me,” he would say in an interview years later. “They saw things that I should be doing even if I didn’t see them.”  By the peak of his career in Seattle, Hunthausen would be known worldwide for his stance against nuclear weapons. He denounced a nearby Trident submarine base as the “Auschwitz of Puget Sound” and refused to pay taxes to support war. Daniel Berrigan, the famous Jesuit, would call him one of the “modern visionaries of our history, a bishop walking toward a new center . . . creating a center of understanding.”

Hunthausen felt a passion for social justice. When he arrived in Seattle, he eschewed the fancy archbishop’s house where Connolly had lived and chose instead a simple room in the rectory next to St. James. He drove a Volkswagen and, sometimes, he ate lunch at the McDonald’s a block away from the cathedral, joining the fast food lines like everyone else.

The major influence upon him had been the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which he had attended as a new bishop in Helena. There, he listened to the debates that would forever excite and shape him. “Everything that happened there resonated with my own sense and feelings about what church is and what it ought to be,” Hunthausen would say. Eagerly, he became part of the new wave of bishops determined to carry out the Council’s reforms. Little did he know that his greatest test would be finding a way to respond to the calls for justice from his now more visible gay neighbors in Seattle.

In fall 1976, shortly after Hunthausen arrived at St. James,  the U.S. bishops issued an official declaration about homosexuality. It said, “Homosexuals, like everyone else, should not suffer from prejudice against their basic human rights. They have a right to respect, friendship and justice. They should have an active role in the Christian community.”

Trying to implement that statement would eventually bring Hunthausen into a direct conflict with Rome. …

Read Archbishop Hunthausen’s 1977 statement in support of ending discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and “other forms of public participation” : HunthausenStatement1977

In the summer of 1983, as a strange new virus began to make its way into Seattle’s gay community and raise the visibility of homosexual sex and relationships toward a new peak, the underlying conflict over dogma began fatefully rumbling toward an explosion.

At the beginning of that year, gay political activists from the Dorian Group had again asked the state Legislature to amend the state civil rights law to prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.  Once again, the Catholic bishops in Washington state had endorsed the request. And, once again, the bill had been defeated.

This time, though, following Archbishop Hunthausen’s lead, the bishops in the state decided in June–during the gay pride celebrations–to issue a teaching document called “The Prejudice against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church.” Filling more than two full pages in the [Catholic newspaper] Progress, it provided, one the one hand, a detailed reiteration of church doctrine about the evil of homosexual sex, but, on the other, it contained remarkable pastoral statements of appreciation for homosexuals. Among them, for example, was this comment: “A homosexual person may manifest virtues and qualities that are admirable by any standard. In fact, there is some evidence that many homosexuals possess important attributes that are often, unfortunately, lacking in their straight counterparts. Thus, it appears that sensitivity to the needs of persons and the ability to express warm feelings towards both men and women are frequently present in gays. Hence, the church, which considers a person as a whole, can find much good to be praised.”

Here, suddenly, was a church document–from bishops, no less–citing homosexuals as role models and actually commending their “important attributes” to heterosexual attention–not to mention adopting the street language referring to heterosexuals as “straight.”

The document also attacked attempts to get homosexuals to change their sexual orientation, saying they were not to be blamed for failing to do so.

During the June gay pride events, Hunthausen moved even further in his pastoral role, agreeing for the first time to address the [lesbian/gay civil rights ] Dorian Group in a meeting at the downtown Mayflower Park Hotel. Delicately, the title of his speech focused on his favorite topic of “Peace and Disarmament.” But, at one moment, the archbishop paused and acknowledged the significance of the occasion. It was the first time in Seattle that someone with such rank in the Catholic Church had met officially and publicly with a gay activist group.

“I hope it’s not the last,” he quietly told them.

By then, Hunthausen had already made what would become his most controversial decision, one that would bring Rome directly into the changes that were occurring on Catholic Hill.

* * *

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of Hunthausen’s favorite themes was “conversion.”  By that word, he did not so much mean converting others to Christianity, as missionaries might,  but converting an individual away from the convenient values offered by society toward those offered by the Gospel. Theologians that he hired for the archdiocese argued that the Christian church was never meant to be comfortably aligned with the majority, but rather represented a minority people actually living as witnesses to a different set of values. Hunthausen’s tone distinctly differed from that of Seattle’s other most charismatic religious leader, Mark Matthews, who in the early twentieth century had instead sought conversions for the purpose of forging a political majority and legislating public policy.

Hunthausen had no grand political strategy for converting people. It was more a matter of slow discernment–figuring out what the appropriate response was to whatever question suddenly presented itself. One night in an interview at the chancery next to St. James, he wryly smiled and told me, “The Spirit doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head.”

In 1983, local members of Dignity relayed a request to him. The national organization of Dignity had decided to schedule its annual conference in Seattle. The local organizers wondered, Would the archbishop permit St James Cathedral to be used for a special Mass for those attending the conference?

Hunthausen had not sought out the question, but neither did he shrink from it. Looked at one way, it was a simple enough “yes.”  Masses for special occasions were not that extraordinary. But no one would miss the symbolism of allowing Dignity to transport itself, even once, from the Jesuits’ St. Joseph [Church on Capitol Hill] to the archdiocese’s St. James Cathedral.

After pondering, Hunthausen agreed. In an unusual move, the Northwest Progress then carried a long interview in which the archbishop explained himself. Catholics, he insisted, must no longer scorn homosexuals. “They must be recognized as full members of the church, integrated into the parish community.”  That, he acknowledged, “is painfully hard for many of our people to accept.” Hunthausen would lead.

On Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, more than 1,200 people, mostly gay and lesbian, moved across the cathedral’s balcony with its expansive view of downtown Seattle and went inside to pray. Some forty-five priests, chaplains from the various Dignity chapters around the country, assembled to celebrate what was no ordinary Mass. At the time, Hunthausen himself was in Rome, but he sent a videotape of welcome. “While I am not able to be with you in person,” he told the delegates through the video, “I am surely with you in spirit and prayer.”

Outside the cathedral, about 150 people, including some priests, marched with signs proclaiming: “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah,” “Pray for Gays,” and “God is not Gay.” One priest from Portland condemned the use of the cathedral by homosexuals as “a profanation” and “a sacrilege.”

In the Progress interview, Hunthausen had said, “I decided that this was a risk that ought to be taken in order to deal with this delicate and highly charged issue in a Christian manner.”

Then, he had admitted, “I would be naive if I did not acknowledge that the subject is sensitive and volatile.”

 With that, gay Catholics in Seattle, for all practical purposes, no longer held the title role as the protagonists pushing for changes in the church conversation. Like the rest of the city, they would become observers of a titanic clash over dogma and ministry between Rome and Seattle.

The Vatican moved surprisingly swiftly. Fewer than eight weeks passed before the Vatican ordered a special investigation, dispatching a well-known conservative on social issues, Archbishop James Hickey of Washington D.C., to examine, as Hickey obliquely put it, the “criticism regarding pastoral ministry in Seattle.”  Some tended to assume the Seattle archbishop’s stance on peace and nuclear weapons had caused the Vatican’s response, but that was not the case. The catalyst, it would become clear, was the Dignity Mass at St. James. Publicly, Hickey tried to soften the appearance of what was occurring, saying he was coming “not as a grand inquisitor . . .  but to support my brother bishop.” Yet no one missed the obvious elliptical coding in his communication: that Hunthausen somehow required the “support” of a conservative bishop hand-picked by a conservative Pope.

During November 1983, Hickey questioned about seventy critics and supporters. Then he left and, for two years, nothing happened, at least in public. Simply leaving the matter unresolved cast doubt on Hunthausen, though, and became an irritating way of discrediting his sympathetic response to gays.

In fall 1985, the Vatican finally acted again.

The first news the public heard was overwhelmingly positive for Hunthausen. A church heavyweight, Rome’s ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Pio Laghi, sent a letter in November that bluntly attacked the “exaggerated and mean-spirited criticism” that Hunthausen’s opponents had been making, and warmly praised the archbishop’s “clear evidence of loyalty to the church.” However, there were “areas of concern,” Laghi noted, where Hunthausen needed to show “greater vigilance in upholding the church’s teaching.”   One was the ministry to homosexuals. In the letter released to the public, Laghi said no more than that. It seemed the gentlest possible of criticisms.

But what was not publicly known at the time was that six weeks earlier, at the end of September, another powerful Vatican bureaucrat, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had sent a  confidential and far blunter letter. He headed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor to the church’s Inquisition office. In that letter, Ratzinger said, “The Archdiocese should withdraw all support from any group which does not unequivocally accept the teaching of the Magesterium concerning the intrinsic evil of homosexual activity. The ill-advised welcome of a pro-homosexual group to your cathedral . . . served to make the Church’s position appear to be ambiguous on this delicate but important point. A compassionate ministry to homosexual persons must be developed that has as its clear goal the promotion of a chaste lifestyle . . . ”

It was a clear order to expel Dignity, to have no further dealings with the group, and to create a pastoral ministry that would press homosexuals to remain chaste. The fact that Rome had assigned two powerful spokesmen to write the letters indicated the seriousness with which the Vatican held the issue.

Two weeks later, Rome suddenly announced that an “auxiliary” bishop named Donald Wuerl would soon be arriving in Seattle to “help” Hunthausen with his duties. That added a new element of mystery to what the public knew. The official guise was that Hunthausen had requested such help with pastoral duties; his previous assistant had retired two years earlier. But even under normal circumstances, Wuerl would have been the oddest of choices. A native of Pittsburgh, the forty-five-year-old priest had never worked in the Northwest and he had only been slightly involved in any pastoral ministry whatsoever. Instead, he had worked as a secretary to Pittsburgh’s Cardinal John Wright and had followed Wright to the Vatican, where for ten years as a church bureaucrat, he had mingled with cardinals and the Pope. Then he had returned to Pittsburgh to become a seminary professor. Some who knew him called him a “rock-hard orthodox priest,” his doctrinal understandings not yet enhanced by pastoral insights. Also, the Vatican had curiously chosen the title of “auxiliary bishop with special faculties” rather than the more customary “assistant bishop”. What could that phrase indicate, local Catholics wondered. Hunthausen’s opponents immediately celebrated the appointment.

If there was any doubt about why Wuerl was being sent, it disappeared a month later when Pope John Paul II himself called Wuerl to Rome to be ordained as auxiliary bishop. For the ordination, the Pope gave Wuerl one of his own personal miters–the one that the Pope had worn on a visit to the Netherlands when liberal Dutch Catholics had booed him.

No one familiar with the Church’s sometimes elliptical and metaphorical way of speaking could miss the symbolic message.

Copyright (c) 2003 University of Washington Press


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