Hunthausen, Archbishop Raymond Gerhardt (1921-2018)

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 6/09/2013
  • Essay 10404

The Most Reverend Raymond G. Hunthausen was Archbishop of the Seattle Archdiocese from 1975 to 1991. Born and raised in Montana, Hunthausen entered the priesthood in 1946, and later became Bishop of Helena. In 1962 he was the youngest American bishop to attend the Second Vatican Council.  In 1975, Hunthausen was named Archbishop of Seattle, where he practiced many of the tenets of Vatican II, but also found himself embroiled in controversy.

The Path to Priesthood

The oldest of seven children, Raymond "Dutch" Hunthausen was born on August 21, 1921, in Anaconda, Montana, to Anthony and Edna Marie Hunthausen. As a young child he took an interest in athletics, and enjoyed fishing and hiking in the great outdoors. He and his siblings attended parochial schools in Anaconda, and when it came time to go to college, Hunthausen considered pursuing a chemical engineering degree at Montana State University.

At the urging of a local priest, Hunthausen instead attended Carroll College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Helena. While there, he majored in chemistry, and enjoyed playing football, baseball, and basketball, excelling in all three sports. Hunthausen graduated cum laude in 1943.

Hunthausen had considered entering officer's training at the urging of his father, who had hoped his son would become an airplane pilot. Instead, he entered the priesthood under the encouragement of Father Bernard Topel (1903-1986) -- later the bishop of Spokane -- a professor at Carroll. Hunthausen later recalled that it was a tough decision to make, and that he wanted to fly planes, and was also attracted to marriage and family life. Topel convinced him that he was "cut out to be a priest" (Seattle Weekly, December 21, 1983).

Back to School

Hunthausen trained at St, Edwards Seminary in Kenmore, where he still had his doubts. Other students found him deeply spiritual, but not very pious. Instead of studying theological tracts, Hunthausen was more interested in learning about the peace movement or the role of women in the church.

After he was ordained on June 1, 1946, all of his doubts were resolved, and he found himself at peace with the path he had taken. He returned to Helena, assuming that he would one day run a parish, but instead found himself back at Carroll College, teaching chemistry.

His love of sports was unabated, and he also ended up coaching football, baseball, basketball, track, and golf. His teams won eight conference championships, and Hunthausen was later inducted into the National Associating of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.

Bishop at Vatican II

In 1957, Hunthausen became president of Carroll College, and on August 30, 1962, was ordained into the episcopate and installed as Bishop of Helena. No one was more surprised than Hunthausen, who again had doubts that he up to the task. He put his faith in God to "make me big enough for the job" (Seattle Weekly, December 21, 1983).

Less than two months after his appointment, Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) convened the Second Vatican Council -- also known as Vatican II. It was the first ecumenical council in nearly 100 years, and the most radically reformative since the Reformation of the sixteenth century. At the age of 41, Huntahuasen was the youngest American bishop to attend all four sessions.

The Second Vatican Council brought sweeping change to the Catholic Church and its relation with the modern world. The council sought to build bridges between the church and other faiths, empowered the laity to help define Catholic morals, and permitted languages other than Latin to be used during Mass. This last change was most important in Third World countries where the church was engaging in outreach, but many traditional Catholics bristled at the loss of a Latin mass.

Upon his return to Helena, Hunthausen applied the teachings of Vatican II by sharing the governance of the diocese with his clergy and laity. Many of his parish priests were thrilled to have a say in how the gospel should be taught, rather than submitting to ecclesiastical authority. Hunthausen brought a new sense of democracy to the diocese, perfectly in tune with Vatican II. A decade later, he brought even bigger changes to Seattle.

Applying Vatican II

In 1974, Archbishop Thomas Connolly (1899-1991) announced plans to retire as head of the diocese of Seattle. Connolly had done much to build and strengthen the diocese, but was considered by many to be administrative and authoritarian. When the church polled members of the diocese, asking them what attributes they'd most like to see in a new archbishop, the clergy and laity responded that they wanted someone who was more affable and approachable.

The Vatican chose Hunthausen to replace the outgoing archbishop. Once again "Dutch" was filled with doubt. He thought of himself as a small-town persona, unaccustomed to big-city life. He also had no desire to leave Montana, where he had been born and raised. But as before, he put his faith in God to show him the way.

Hunthausen was named archbishop on February 25, 1975, and was formally installed three months later. Almost immediately, he began traveling around Western Washington to meet with members of his flock and with the clergy. Local Catholics found their new archbishop to be warm and affable, and willing to hear what they had to say, rather than telling them what to do.

Hunthausen also brought the "shared responsibility" concept to his clergy and laity, as he had done in Montana. Father William J. Sullivan (b. 1930), president of Seattle University later noted that "There is no archdiocese in America where the spirit of Vatican II is taken more seriously." But although some Catholics welcomed the changes that Hunthausen brought to the archdiocese, others worried that they were coming too quickly and might be too radical.

Speaking Out


In 1977, Archbishop Hunthausen came out in opposition to the "first strike" capability of the Trident nuclear submarine base in Bangor. In a letter sent to priests of the archdiocese, Hunthausen stated that the time was right to support nuclear disarmament, and that the United States appeared to be changing from a defensive to offensive posture in order to  strike first in a nuclear war.

A few months later, Hunthausen publicly defended the rights of gays and lesbians in a letter he penned for Catholic Northwest Progress. In the letter, which was reprinted in Seattle Gay News, he noted "the terrible impact that discriminatory patterns in society have upon both the individual and the total community," and that gays and lesbians should be allowed to have an active role in the Christian community.

Both issues raised more than a few eyebrows in the Catholic community, and while some objected to his stance on each matter, others viewed his underlying messages of peace, love, and goodwill as being very Christian indeed.  But as Hunthausen became more vocal about these issues, some of the more conservative members of the archdiocese struggled to maintain their support of the archbishop.

Civil Disobedience

Hunthausen was a strong supporter of young people, urging for improved support for Catholic schools. He also sought ways to provide a better Catholic education to underprivileged children. But it was his controversial statements and actions on other issues that garnered the most press.

In 1980, Hunthausen joined 40 national religious leaders in signing a document opposed to draft registration. In 1981, still upset with a nuclear-submarine base practically in his archdiocese's back yard, he referred to Trident as the "Auschwitz of Puget Sound," and urged taxpayers to revolt to protest the buildup of nuclear arms. The following year he went one step further and withheld half of his personal income tax to protest the nuclear arms race.

This did not sit well with the Internal Revenue Service. Hunthausen believed that he had a right to "peacefully disobey certain laws under serious conditions," but the IRS eventually garnished his wages.

Even the some of the most anti-war Catholics were put off by the archbishop's method of direct action, and began speaking out. Hunthausen refused to back down, stating, "The bishop is supposed to speak out on the moral aspect of public questions. That is not only his right, more importantly, it is his duty. He has to make the effort to apply the values of the Gospel to the concrete social situation of his day" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 9, 1982).

Hot-Button Topic

In 1982, a group of 12 church leaders, including Archbishop Hunthausen, announced plans to demonstrate at the arrival of the nuclear submarine Ohio at Bangor. Once the federal government got wind of this peace blockade, it set up security zones around the submarine's path and at the naval base. Rather than face felony charges for coming within 1,000 feet of the sub or base, a peace rally was organized at Point Julia near Port Gamble.

On August 8, more than 6,500 protestors filled the tideflats at Port Julia to speak out against nuclear weapons. The crowd cheered when Hunthausen climbed a wooden platform to speak to the masses, and were happy to have such an influential man of the cloth on their side.

Hunthausen expressed his "deep hatred" for the submarine, but his "deep passion" for the crew, for whom he offered prayers. Methodist bishop Melvin Talbert (b. 1934) spoke next, urging the crowd to continue taking nonviolent action in the name of peace.

The rally ended without incident. By this time, more than a few conservative Catholics had written letters to the Vatican, questioning the political motives of the archbishop. For the time being, the Seattle Archdiocese had not received any indication from the Vatican that Hunthausen's actions were unacceptable. That would soon change.

A Church for All

In September 1983, Hunthausen allowed Dignity, a group of Catholic homosexuals, to celebrate mass at Seattle's St. James Cathedral at the close of a conference. For Dignity, his decision was nothing short of miraculous, inasmuch as the church forbids homosexuality, and the group had been forced into holding mass in hotel rooms. Hunthausen knew that his decision would not please everyone, but stated, "They are Catholics. How could I deny them a church?"

On September 4, about 1,250 people gathered at the cathedral to celebrate mass. More than 800 of them had been delegates to the Dignity conference. Archbishop Hunthausen was attending a meeting in Rome, but had videotaped a welcome message for the parishioners. Outside the cathedral, approximately 100 people chanted the rosary and sang hymns in protest, claiming that the mass constituted a sacrilege.

A full-page ad, paid for by the National Parents League, appeared in Seattle newspapers, censuring Hunthausen for his decision. Mary Royer, the Portland-area president of the group, told The Seattle Times that the Dignity convention was yet another example of the "lascivious left," adding "Do I detest liberalism? Yes, with a purple-painted passion" (The Seattle Times, November 5, 1983). Members of her group and many others sent letters of complaint to the Vatican.

Papal Probe

In October, the Vatican announced that it would investigate Hunthausen to clarify conflicting information it had received about the diocese. The probe was led by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (b. 1927) -- later Pope Benedict XVI -- who dispatched Archbishop James A. Hickey (1920-2004) of Washington D.C. to meet with Hunthausen and his critics.

Hickey was in Seattle for less than a month, but it took two years for the Vatican to render a decision. On November 27, 1985, Hunthausen received a letter from Rome affirming his ministry, but expressing concerns about some of his practices. The letter made little mention of his anti-war stance, focusing instead moral issues, such as homosexuality and marriage.

The letter also stated that Hunthausen had received exaggerated and mean-spirited criticism from his detractors. The letter praised Hunthausen for his "apostolic zeal'' and his concern for peace and justice, noting, "You have been described repeatedly as a man of Gospel values, sensitive to the needs of the suffering and aggrieved. Time and again you have given clear evidence of your loyalty to the church and your devotion and obedience to our holy father" (The Seattle Times, November 27, 1985).

Stripped of Power

One month later, the Vatican appointed Donald Wuerl (b. 1940) as Auxiliary Bishop of the Seattle Archdiocese. Hunthausen assumed that he would retain final authority of the governance of the archdiocese, and was unaware that Wuerl was given an unclear mandate to assume duties in five areas of concern: moral issues, including health care and gay rights; Tribunal, the archbishop's court that deals with annulments; worship and liturgy; clergy formation, seminary and ongoing instruction for priests; and priests who were leaving or have left.

When Hunthausen was told to surrender control of those responsibilities in September 1986, he strongly resisted. Some saw the Vatican's decision as a ploy to get Hunthausen to resign, which he refused to do. In November, he brought his complaints to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, stating that the Vatican's process of investigation and discipline against him was "badly flawed" and "extraordinarily inadequate given the kind of open church we have become since the Second Vatican Council" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 13, 1986).

Hunthausen had hoped to win support from his fellow brethren, but the bishops would not defy the Pope. With the help of Fr. Michael Ryan, then Chancellor of the Archdiocese, and the support of countless numbers of Catholics nationwide, Hunthausen continued to put pressure on the Vatican to restore his powers.

Redemption and Retirement

The Vatican eventually backed down and in 1987, most of Hunthausen's authority was returned to him, and Wuerl was removed from the Archdiocese (he was later named Archbishop of Washington D.C.). But Hunthausen's supporters found this a hollow victory when the Vatican put in place a three-cardinal team to oversee the diocese, and named Thomas J. Murphy of Great Falls-Billings, Montana, as Seattle's coadjutor archbishop. Murphy was well-liked, but the naming of a coadjutor was a more traditional way of grooming a potential successor.

And that it was. Archbishop Hunthausen retired on August 12, 1991, and was given a warm farewell by more than a thousand well-wishers attending a prayer service at St. James Cathedral. After retirement, he moved back to Montana, the home of his youth, where he enjoyed fishing, hiking, and the great outdoors.

In 2012, Hunthausen celebrated the 50th anniversary of his episcopal ministry at St. Mary Catholic Community in Helena. At the time, he was the last surviving American bishop who had attended Vatican II. Raymond Hunthausen died at his home in Helena on July 22, 2018, a month shy of his 97th birthday.


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Note: This article was updated on July 23, 2018.

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