By People Staff
December 22, 1986 12:00 PM

On a winter’s eve in a racially mixed neighborhood in south Seattle, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen is celebrating Mass at St. Edward’s Roman Catholic Church. A balding, bespectacled man in a white robe and gold stole, he has the mien of a simple parish priest. Only the wooden crosier and the green batik mitre—its design incorporating Seattle’s Space Needle and a salmon—indicate that Hunthausen is shepherd to 300,000 Catholics in western Washington.

But the unassuming Hunthausen, 65, is also at the nave of a controversy that has shaken the Church throughout the U.S. Alarmed by such deviations from church policy as allowing a cathedral service for gay parishioners and permitting altar girls to serve during Mass, the Vatican intervened. Last year Pope John Paul II stripped the Archbishop of his authority in five key areas and transferred the powers to a conservative confrere. When Hunthausen disclosed what had happened, many American Catholics were deeply disturbed by what they perceived as yet another proof of the Pope’s hard-line attitude toward dissent.

Ironically, when Raymond Hunthausen learned in 1983 that the Pope was sending a special envoy to Seattle, his response, he said, was, “Great! We’ve got some great things going on [and] we’d like to share them.” In the eight years since his appointment as Archbishop, financial contributions and parish participation had increased substantially, and his archdiocese had been recognized as a model of long-range planning. But envoy James A. Hickey, the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., had not been dispatched to cull helpful hints for ecclesiastical managers. A small Washington State group called Roman Catholic Laity for Truth had been peppering the Vatican with angry letters, and Hickey was to determine whether Hunthausen was distorting church teachings.

Erven Park, the Kelso, Wash. businessman who founded the group, has termed the Archbishop “a subversive” and accused him of numerous offenses. Among them: allowing “in-valid married couples” (including divorced-and-remarried Catholics) to receive the sacraments; looking the other way while a Catholic hospital performed contraceptive sterilizations; and sanctioning general absolution in place of individual confessions. Hunthausen’s social activism irritated others among the vocal minority. He became deeply involved with Ground Zero Center, a local antinuclear group, even to the point of withholding half the taxes on his $10,000-a-year salary.

Hunthausen’s supporters say that the two-year investigation of the Archbishop, during which Hickey grilled priests, laity and Hunthausen himself, was a considerable strain. Midway through the inquiry, in December 1984, the Archbishop suffered a heart attack. Notified the following November that the Vatican had identified five areas of concern with his ministry and was about to dispatch an Auxiliary Bishop, Hunthausen protested. “I indicated, not out of any kind of anger but simply as a matter of conscience, that this would be something I couldn’t accept,” he said recently. When Bishop Donald Wuerl arrived in Seattle from Pittsburgh last December, the story took a curious turn. According to Hunthausen, the Vatican informed him that Wuerl would “help him” in areas including moral teachings, sacraments and the training of clergy but would not assume decision-making powers. The Archbishop concluded that Wuerl had been told differently. When the two asked Rome for a clarification six months later, the Pope’s lieutenants not only confirmed that some of the Archbishop’s authority had been removed but accused him of misrepresenting the Church’s position.

With the vast majority of his priests, nuns and laity rallying behind him—13,000 signed a petition protesting what they called “the injustice”—the Archbishop fought back. Last month he asked the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for its support, calling the Vatican solution “impossible.” The bishops’ written response, reluctantly backing Rome, compared the impasse to a painful family dispute. It was seen as a victory by Hunthausen and his supporters.

Those who know the Archbishop well find it ironic that he should be cast as a rebel. “He has no rancor; he is the least defensive person I know,” says Seattle University President William Sullivan. “If the Pope had asked him to step down, he would be back in a little parish tomorrow [and] I think his heart would be lightened by a number of tons.”

A storekeeper’s son, born in Anaconda, Mont., Hunthausen was the oldest of seven children in a traditional Catholic family: sister Edna became a nun; brother John, a priest. “Our parents taught us that truth was all-important,” says John. Nicknamed’ Dutch, Raymond was shy, smart and, above all, respectful as a student at St. Paul’s parochial school. He was a favorite with the Ursuline nuns, who pushed him into making welcoming speeches when the Bishop came to town.

Being nudged into an unexpected role became a theme in Hunthausen’s life. A gifted athlete with wartime dreams of becoming a pilot, he was majoring in chemistry at Carroll College in Montana when his spiritual director suggested that he consider the priesthood. He was still uncertain about his calling when he entered Seattle’s St. Edward’s Seminary in the fall of 1943. But when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, his fascination with P-38s gave way to a broadened social consciousness. “From that moment on, I could never accept the bomb,” he said later. “I could never accept its use again. Why couldn’t we have warned [the Japanese]? We did not have to drop it on people the first time around.” By the time Hunthausen was ordained, he says, his doubts about the priesthood had disappeared.

Until 1957 Hunthausen lived quietly as a chemistry teacher and coach-of-all-sports at Carroll, where his football and basketball teams won eight conference championships. His promotion to the college presidency that year was as unexpected as his appointment as Bishop of Helena in 1962. “I think all of the advancements in his life came as a complete surprise to him,” says the Rev. Michael G. Ryan, chancellor of the Seattle archdiocese. “He is not an ecclesiastic politician.”

Although he was happy in his low-pressure diocese, he answered the 1975 call to Seattle, where the clergy had been hoping for a pastoral Bishop sensitive to social concerns and committed to decentralized, democratic management. Despite the promotion, he clung to his Volkswagen and his minimalist way of living. In the cathedral rectory, he chose a single room formerly occupied by a third-assistant priest.

For now, Hunthausen and Wuerl are attempting to make the best of an awkward situation, and there is talk that they may be called to Rome to discuss their progress. Hunthausen still appears at antinuclear rallies, travels to even the most obscure parishes to say Mass, and tries to keep the controversy from interfering with his work. “The irony,” he says, “is that I am in the midst of a conflict that has the potential of causing a serious rift in the Church, and I’m constantly talking about the need to avoid that very thing in the human family. We’ve got to recognize that there are ways of working it out.”