This story was originally published on December 21, 1983 under the title “Peace on Earth,” and is being resurfaced as part of the Weekly Classics series.
If God had told a college sophomore named Raymond Hunthausen he didn’t have what it takes to be a priest, the young man might have become a stunt pilot flying the P-38s he loved to watch flashing across the Montana skies. His interest in chemistry might have led him toward a medical career. Or he might have inherited the brewmaster’s job at his grandfather’s Rocky Mountain Brewery in Anaconda. But God, Hunthausen’s professors, and the young man’s own conscience wouldn’t let him off the hook.
So one day in 1941, he told his father he’d decided to become a priest. They were playing golf, and the senior Hunthausen, a veteran of World War I, had just been urging his oldest boy to move into officer’s training, where he’d have the best shot at flying. But the sudden news that his son’s life had taken a different turn thrilled him, and later he was to write, “When I think of that day, my Adam’s apple becomes unruly.”
It’s safe to say that neither father nor son had any inkling then that the quiet, deferential Raymond Hunthausen would eventually find himself one of the most controversial Roman Catholic leaders in the country, or that his unqualified opposition to the nuclear arms race—and his consequent act of civil
disobedience—would unsettle the public conscience. Nor would these two staunchly loyal Catholics have imagined that Archbishop Hunthausen would end up the target of an unprecedented public investigation by the Vatican, an event with larger implications for the American church itself.
In fact, the archbishop’s life at 63 is full of contradictions no one would have predicted. Despite his position as head of the largest church in Western Washington, he is virtually unknown in local civic and political circles, and can walk down the street unrecognized. He had to be introduced to the Seahawks’ owners at a pre-game brunch last season, yet a few weeks ago the mention of his name evoked prolonged applause at peace vigils in Washington DC and New York City. He lives in the least-Catholic American city outside the South, yet during his tenure the Archdiocese of Seattle has become known to outsiders, depending on their political stripe, as a laboratory for the evolution of a new church, or as the Berkeley of Catholicism.
As the “peace bishop” who will not add his tax-support to the nation’s nuclear arsenal, Raymond Hunthausen has become a symbol of the activist, liberal wing of the American Catholic church, as well as a kind of public hero. The real nature of his prominence is puzzling, however. It was Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, not Hunthausen, who spent a year forging the consensus among American bishops that finally led to their controversial pastoral letter condemning nuclear weapons. It is leaders like Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, not Hunthausen, who are voicing the American church’s tentative but unmistakable resistance to Vatican pressures to follow a more conservative line. These are the men most likely to cause real change in the lives of American Catholics; but since Hunthausen has made his dramatic gesture of civil disobedience, the media’s spotlight has focused most sharply on him.
What propelled a man utterly without evangelistic zeal or political ambition to take such a bold step? More important, will this unlikely leader sustain the attention of his church or the public long enough to influence American defense policy in any meaningful way? Is he the prophet his most devoted admirers believe might save us from nuclear winter, or is he merely a “holy naif,” an impressive witness to the purest form of Christian morality, but a man unable to affect the course of history?
Anyone looking for a magisterial bearing or other tangible sign of Raymond Hunthausen’s episcopal eminence will be disappointed. The archbishop doesn’t fit the part. He has the short, compact body of a wrestler, the square hands of a truck driver, the silver-gray receding hair and kindly expression of a favorite uncle. Everything about him bespeaks small-town warmth, which seems perfectly natural when he talks about a boyhood family life, straight off a Norman Rockwell canvas. His parents, German stock on both sides, settled in Anaconda before World War I and married after Anthony Hunthausen returned from duty in France. Raymond, “Dutch” by age 6, was the oldest of seven children whose lives were full of enormous family gatherings at the homes of their grandparents. “Those were noisy, happy times,” Hunthausen says with a grin. “We recall them with such delight that my brothers and sisters and I will throw a family reunion at the drop of a hat.” (That’s no small project these days; Hunthausen has 36 nieces and nephews and 20 grandnieces and -nephews, and a gathering of his father’s clan last summer in Wyoming drew 140 relatives.) The Hunthausens weren’t immune from trouble—the future archbishop wrecked the family car as a teenager; and his father extended enough credit from his grocery store that the family had to scrape some during the Depression—but generally Hunthausen remembers “lots of comfortableness” in their home and a rock-of-Gibraltar sense of stability. “We were more blessed than most.”
No doubt that security was bolstered by an easy intimacy between his family and the church, in a town that was 50-percent Catholic. The Hunthausen children went to parochial schools during the week, trooped down the street to mass every Sunday, sang in the choir, and visited the Ursuline nuns’ convent across the street from their grandparents’ house at Christmas. The archbishop still drops in on his old Ursuline teachers on return trips to Montana, because “I’m their boy.”
Though Anthony Hunthausen was a civic leader by temperament—big, jovial, easy with people—his son Dutch shied away from the spotlight. “I always have found it easier to follow,” he confesses. But the nuns pushed “their boy” to give the welcoming speeches whenever the bishop of Helena would visit, thereby setting the pattern Hunthausen repeats to this day. “It killed me, but I did it out of duty and respect,” he says of that time. “Now I realize it was important to have been pushed. I still feel a sense of pressure about everything.”
That’s a typical Hunthausen statement. So is “I never had my own a-to-b-to-c agenda,” and each provides a clue to why the archbishop doesn’t meet traditional expectations of a leader. Instead of initiating action, Hunthausen’s lifelong habit has been to respond. He seems always to have set out in one direction, only to have been steered another way—by people, by events, and ultimately, he says with a faint smile, by God. Thus, despite his interest in pursuing chemical engineering at Montana State University, he went to Carroll College, a small men’s school known for its religious education, because “my local priest would be happy.” There he met Father Bernard Topel, later bishop of Spokane who strongly influenced him to enter the priesthood. “Humanly speaking, I didn’t want to be a priest,” Hunthausen recalls. “I was attracted to marriage and family life, and I wanted to fly airplanes. I’d have been relieved if Father Topel had said, ‘Don’t, you aren’t cut out to be a priest.”’ “Humanly speaking” is another characteristic expression of a man who often describes his life as the road not taken.
The road he did take led next to the St. Edwards Seminary in Kenmore, where he found the 6am to 11pm regimen disciplined but not onerous, despite the fact that he arrived only minimally equipped to read the Latin texts. “The real struggle was over whether or not I should be there at all,” he says. Yet he kept his doubts about his vocation mostly to himself, airing them only in his correspondence with Father Topel.
Seminary training didn’t make Hunthausen a scholar or a theologian. “I avidly sought challenging theological material,” he says frankly, “but I’d honestly rather read books on the peace movement, women’s roles in the church, or US Catholic. I’d rather know what people are reading.” He didn’t see himself as a leader at St. Edwards, either, but he was chosen head sacristan.
Preparing the chapel for the liturgical celebration was an honor in the seminary world, but Hunthausen points out wryly that when the students joked about who among them was “ecclesiastical timber,” his name never came up. Even if no one thought he’d be a bishop, Hunthausen was well liked for what former classmate Father Joseph Oblinget calls “his genuine manliness. He was deeply spiritual, but never pious.”
Hunthausen was ordained June 1, 1946. “At the moment of ordination, when I heard myself promising a life of prayer and celibacy, all my doubts were resolved, even though other choices were finally cut off.” He went back to Helena with a sense of peace in his heart and expectations of running a parish, but he was soon returned to Carroll College as a chemistry professor. Though “being a teacher had never entered my mind,” he loved working with the intense pre-med and pre-dental students he found there, and he fell accidentally into coaching, his second great love.
Dutch Hunthausen had played football (back), basketball (guard), and baseball (shortstop) as a student at Carroll, and as a new faculty member, he began working out with coach John Gagliardi. The explanation for Hunthausen’s success as a coach depends on whom you talk to: Hunthausen credited Gagliardi for handing on winning game plans, but Father Joseph Sullivan, who played football and basketball under Hunthausen, called his former coach “a great strategist who knew how to play to the strengths of his team.” In four years for coaching football, basketball, baseball, track, and golf, Hunthausen’s teams won eight conference championships, and the winning coach was inducted into the the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame. (He also installed the sprinkler system and turf for the new football field himself.) The archbishop’s football days are over now, but he still plays racquetball, rides a five-speed bike—“What would I do with the other five?”—skis, and shoots 18 holes of golf in the mid to high 80s. “It would be hard to find a better all-round athlete,” Father Oblinger says.
By 1957, Hunthausen was president of Carroll College and thought he’d found his ultimate niche. He was comfortable, attached, and not much troubled. But five years later, he was appointed Bishop of Helena. It was an unlikely event, since his predecessor had also been from Montana, and native-son bishops are rare. “Becoming a bishop was the remotest thing from my mind,” Hunthausen says. “ I wanted to run away because I was sure I didn’t have what it takes. Finally I said if God wants this, it’ll have to be his doing. He’ll have to make me big enough for the job.”
It’s been said more than once that God changed the job to fit Raymond Hunthausen. Personally unassertive and little interested in politics or administration, Hunthausen probably would not have fit into the ranks of traditoinal American prelates. These were the “brick-and-mortar” bishops, the autocratic administrators who built the physical structure of an immigrant church. While amassing money to open parishes, schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the pre-welfare era, they also built up the church’s political power and civic prestige and controlled that power with iron hands. In many cases, the traditional bishop’s interest lay more in the strength of the institution than in the souls it was meant to serve.
Just two months after Hunthausen’s appointment in 1962, however, Pope John Paul XXIII waned the Sectind Vatican Council, an event that was to transform the church, its bishops, and their relation to its people more radically than any since the Reformation. Concerned about Roman Catholicism’s declining credibility, the pope called for a sweeping reexamination of the church’s doctrines, liturgy, and relation to the world. The question he posed to the assembled Magisterium was, Are we being faithful to the Gospel?
In its search for the answers, the council for the first time acknowledged that the church was subject to history, time, and change, that its fundamental truths might be expressed differently in different cultures, and that each individual “has the duty, and therefore the right to seek the truth in matters religious, in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of Conscience.” Before Vatican II, most doctrines and details of the mass had been frozen with adamantine finality, their administration the sole providence of the clergy. But in redefining the church as “the whole people of God,” whose faith was a matter of personal experience rather than submission to ecclesiastical authority, the council empowered the laity to help define Catholic morals and to share in the governance and ritual life of the Church.
Above all, explains Hunthausen, “Vatican II called us back to the primacy of love in our lives. We had become overly reliant on the power of law and discipline, and had put aside the very principle that undergirds the church’s existence. The council and the Gospels tell each one of us to be responsible, to discern as we can in the spirit of love just what God is asking us to do.”
Many Catholics found such ideas devastating to the doctrinal clarity and absolutism that had been the basis of traditional Catholicism. Many still do. But the young Bishop Hunthausen, for whom the awesome council was in effect a training ground, welcomed each, acknowledgement of the individual conscience and each step toward collegiality, pluralism, and social involvement. He was already so firmly convinced that “the spirit of God moves among all people” that it was natural for him to open the governance of his diocese to parish priests and lay people. “He made the church a democracy,” says Robert Beaulieu, a priest who served under the new bishop of Helena. “He expected us all to be mature in applying gospel principles to our jobs, and it gave the whole diocese a new sense of energy and life.” Even before Vatican II, Hunthausen believed that racial, class, and sexual inequities conditioned the individual moral response, so he naturally addressed the church’s energies to improving social justice. By temperament, his interest already lay in the church as a community, not a corporation. In other words, it required no change in principles and no redirection of focus for Hunthausen to become the new “pastoral” bishop envisioned by the Second Vatican Council. From the earliest days of his appointment, in fact, he has been called “the quintessential Vatican II bishop.”
Without that reputation, Hunthausen might not have come to Seattle. By the early ’70s, many priests and nuns here were chaffing under the old-style authoritarianism of Archbishop Thomas Connolly, who “many credit with having built the church of Western Washington, but who could not let go of the power he acquired in the process. Encouraged by Vatican II to believe a change was possible, the clergy submitted a profile of their ideal archibishop to the Most Reverend Jean Jadot, then Rome’s apostolic delegate to the U.S. They asked for a man of deep spirituality, a man sensitive to social concerns, committed to decentralized, democratic management, and able to enliven the church community with a fresh spirit of love.
It was a prescription for Hunthausen, but his appointment in 1975, like every important turning point in his life, was not on his personal agenda. “I never wanted to leave Montana,” the archbishop admits. “I’m not a big-city product, and I found coming here an extraordinary change in my life. I told God I just didn’t see it, that if he wanted it, he’d have to provide.”
Despite his initial reluctance, Hunthausen soon put his personal stamp on nearly every part of church life. “There is no archdiocese in America where the spirit of Vatican II is taken more seriously,” says the Reverend William J. Sullivan SJ, president of Seattle University. Guided by a wisdom of the heart that routinely overrules caution, Hunthausen has reached out to divorced Catholics, those who’ve had abortions, women, homosexuals, refugees, and minority communities. This fall, for example, he allowed a group of Catholic homosexuals called Dignity to celebrate mass at St. James Cathedral, knowing it was “a no-win choice.” The archbishop realized his decision could be interpreted as condoning homosexual activity, which the church forbids. “Yet they are Catholics,” he says simply. “How could I deny them a church?” A few weeks later he announced that he would support any parish in the archdiocese whose people decided to extend public sanctuary to Latin American refugees, even though that would involve an act of civil disobedience.
Hunthausen has endorsed the ERA, and in 1980 wrote what is thought to be the first pastoral letter by an American archbishop identifying concrete steps the church was to take to “value the gifts of women equally with those of men in its decision-making and the carrying out of its mission.” He has stopped short of calling for the ordination of women as priests, but he insists that the issue can’t be sidestepped. Despite the pope’s recent warning to American bishops to “withdraw all support” from groups which advocate ordination for women, he regards his brother bishops’ decision last month to issue a pastoral letter on women’s rights as “a joyous moment in our history.” (Church women find this attitude particularly important just now. In June; Pope John Paul II directed the American prelates to study the country’s religious orders, and the request is being widely interpreted as pressure from Rome to force nuns back into religious garb and cloistered living. But Hunthausen’s moderate reaction to the study—like other bishops, he has indicated he may interpret the issue of religious dress to mean nuns should wear small badges—seems to have calmed initial fears.)
His impulse to reach out keeps Hunthausen on the run. Unlike many bishops, he refuses to hold court each Sunday at the archdiocesan cathedral, St. James; except for special occasions like Christmas and Easter, he’d rather sample life in the parishes, and he manages to celebrate mass and hear confessions in one, sometimes two, each weekend. “It’s terribly important that I be present to the pastors,” the peripatetic archbishop says. “They do the real work of the church, and their views of its problems have to direct the work we do in the Chancery.”
Most of Hunthausen’s week is consumed by a hectic round of meetings with boards, councils, and committees which help in that work. He lives on the third floor of the rectory next to St. James, but the five other priests who live there miss him at dinner more often than not. “I sometimes have no idea where I’m supposed to be next,” he sighs. “We have a joke around here that if we could burn the red [appointment] book, we’d all be free.”
Once the archbishop reaches his next stop, though, he rarely seems frazzled. It’s clear to those who see him in meetings that he comes to listen, not to lead, and that he is uncommonly free of defensiveness about his own opinions. He’s plain-spoken, and not embarrassed to admit that terms like apartheid sometimes escape him. Friendly and easy in small groups, and sometimes funny, he tends to stay in the background of larger meetings.
Above all, says Millie Russell, a UW minority-affairs counselor who has served on two boards with Hunthausen, “he makes me feel close to him. He’s easily approachable because he’s one of the community, not above it.” While most of Russell’s experience has shown that working within white institutions “is not useful to non-whites,” she found serving on the Social Justice Committee of the Washington State Catholic Conference “extremely worthwhile” because Hunthausen was there.
If the archbishop’s pastoral ministry has won strong loyalty, however, it also has made him vulnerable to critics at home and to suspicion in Rome. In ministering to “the people,” he has offended the conservative Catholic elite, many of whom miss the pomp, majesty, and stability of the old church. “He behaves with excessive humility,” complains a former member of Archbishop Connolly’s kitchen cabinet. “He’ll carry your coffee; if you don’t watch him, he’ll turn into a waiter. He never has understood that kings wore elegant clothes for a reason, that he should look and live like a bishop to give the Roman Church visibility in the secular world.” Others fault Hunthausen for not cultivating civic and political power outside the church. His predecessor, they recall, wielded considerable clout in Olympia and in Seattle.
It was probably inevitable that Hunthausen’s collegial style of management, which worked well enough in the 65 parishes of Helena, has drawn fire in the more complex l30-parish archdiocese of Seattle. Since he arrived, the Chancery has burgeoned into a bureaucracy with a nearly $5-million budget and a host of services, and as it has grown the archbishop has delegated what even Chancery insiders consider excessive authority to his staff. If parish priests, nuns, and lay workers felt they were too tightly controlled under Connolly, many now complain that no one’s in charge, that in consulting everyone about everything, the archbishop has dropped the reins. Ironically, they say, Hunthausen has become a prisoner of his own bureaucracy: the net effect of delegating so much is not true collegiality, but oligarchical rule by a staff that follows only its own liberal agenda.
Most of these complaints reflect the frustration any unwieldy bureaucracy causes its inhabitants, but not much more. “The archdiocese isn’t a smoothly sailing ship,” remarks Sam Sperry, a lay veteran of several boards, “but it’s no Seafirst.” In fact, the books are comfortably in the black. The stewardship fund, which finances a plethora of archdiocesan activities, jumped 40 percent between 1981 and 1982, from 18,000 donors who gave $1.83 million to 26,000 who donated $2.35 million. And despite the internal chaos, the National Pastoral Planning Conference, an association of about 60 archdioceses around the U.S., looks to Seattle as a model of effective long-range planning.
For the most part, complaints about the Chancery staff’s “liberal agenda” seem to come from “single issue” Catholics, who blame Hunthausen for allowing his staff to diffuse the church’s energies in a wide variety of social issues—food stamp regulations, the arms race—while slighting “classic” Catholic concerns. The Respect Life Committee, an advisory body charged with addressing pro-life issues, resigned en masse last June because its members felt the Chancery staff they were to work with had refused to combat abortion directly. “We told the archbishop we were concerned,” reports a former committee member. “He had the power to bring the staff back to its proper role, but he didn’t.”
Most of those who consider Hunthausen’s style too democratic or his stand on abortion too soft find far more in his ministry to admire than condemn, and they don’t consider themselves his adversaries. But the archbishop has enemies on the far right, and it’s widely believed that an outspoken minority of ultra-conservative Catholics here was largely responsible for last month’s Vatican investigation.
For at least three years, conservative Catholics have been complaining to various Sacred Congregations in Rome that the archdiocese is rife with abuses of liturgy and moral doctrine. Last January, for example, they were outraged by an unusual funeral held at St. Michael’s Church in Olympia, because it included an interpretive dance and a clown who tied balloons to a pine coffin that was driven away in the dead man’s pickup truck. In fact, the deceased had been a charismatic Catholic whose six-year battle with cancer had been an inspiration to his community. “The most salient thing about his life and death was his spirit of joy,” explains the Reverend Paul Dalton, who conducted the service. The man’s wife and sister designed the funeral to express that joy—he’d often dressed as a clown to amuse the children at family gatherings—and the unusual elements were kept outside the Eucharist. No canon law was broken, and a second, more traditional service was conducted for the dead man’s parents.
Even so, Erven Park, founder of a local group called Roman Catholic Laity for Truth, and a friend of the outraged parents wrote an eight-page attack in his newsletter castigating the priest and Hunthausen. Park implied, incorrectly, that such services occurred frequently. His interpretation of the funeral found its way into a story in Time magazine. More importantly, it got to the Vatican, where it added to a recent flood of back-channel denunciations of bishops, priests, and nuns all over the U.S. who are operating in the spirit of Vatican II.
Seattle church officials take a compassionate view toward arch-conservatives, considering them theologically misinformed believers who can’t face the world without the clarity of the Catholicism of their childhood. “They have not become post-Vatican II Christians,” one Catholic leader says. “They still believe that every rule is engraved in stone and they’re using the archbishop as a lightning rod to vent the frustrations they’ve been carrying ever since the council adjourned.” Erven Park says he considers Hunthausen one of a group of U.S. bishops who intend to sever the American church from Rome, and thanks to a truculent tabloid called The Wanderer, groups like his seem to have acquired a degree of influence far out of proportion to their small numbers. (Park claims a readership of 1,500 people, but at least 300 parish priests receive his newsletter unsolicited.) While its expected the Vatican investigation will exonerate Hunthausen, church insiders are appalled that such extreme charges could find such a credulous audience in Rome.
In fact, the Hunthausen investigation is being interpreted by many as a warning to the American church that, in the eyes of a conservative pontiff, it has applied the liberating message of Vatican II far too freely. In Poland, a centralized, highly disciplined church is historically the only bulwark against communism. Church officials here say that background makes Pope John Paul II suspicious of the democratic direction the American church has taken, and of its liberal attitudes toward women, contraception, and homosexuals. “Since Vatican II the movement of our church has been centrifugal,” Father Sullivan explains. “Now the pope is trying to exert a centripetal effect.”
Given these tensions, church observers say several other “pastoral” bishops would have made equally likely targets for a papal probe. But Raymond Hunthausen’s much-publicized opposition to the nuclear arms race has made him, temporarily at least, the most visible American prelate. This is not to say the investigation was a challenge to Hunthausen’s stand on arms; in fact, the pope himself has issued increasingly urgent statements since 1981 calling on the superpowers to disarm, and recently he implied that scientists should refuse to engage in research for military ends. But because Archbishop Hunthausen is in the anti-nuclear spotlight these days, church analysts think the investigation into his pastoral ministry is likely to send an especially powerful warning to others.
That Raymond Hunthausen should be so much in the spotlight astonishes his friends; the moral imperative behind that public prominence does not. “His life always has ben headed this way,” observes Father Oblinger. “He sees fighting [nuclear weapons] as a Gospel value, so he has no choice.”
To reach his admittedly radical stand against nuclear arms, Hunthausen has followed his familiar pattern. First came the call to conscience, then the pressure of events, other people, and God. In this case the catalyst was a meeting in 1976 with former Catholic theologian Jim Douglass, who was then bound for Washington D.C. to lead a peace vigil against the Navy’s plans to base the Trident submarine at Bangor. Unable to ignore the example of a man he felt was following a conscience informed by the Gospels, Hunthausen alerted his priests to Douglass’ activities, joined a protest march at Douglass’ Ground Zero Center outside the future base, and offered mass at the county jail when Douglass was arrested.
In the spring of 1981, Hunthausen attended a bishops’ conference where he heard another prelate say he would withhold part of his taxes as a way to alert people to the escalating arms race. Hunthausen already had agreed to speak to a local Lutheran conference in June, and in that speech he declared that “the teaching of Jesus tells us to render to a nuclear-armed Caesar what that Caesar deserves—tax resistance.” At that point he hadn’t decided to disobey the tax laws himself, and he had misgivings about having spoken out so strongly. But when he concluded several months later that withholding half of his own taxes was a personal moral obligation, his doubts disappeared. He never read the tax laws to see what penalties might lie ahead, and admits that the federal taxes on his $10,000 annual income “wouldn’t buy a single bolt or screw on a single weapon.” He’s convinced, though, that “The Spirit has been working” to bring him to this point. (Only recently, nearly 18 months after Hunthausen first acted, the IRS sent a computer printout telling him he’s in arrears.)
By the fall of ‘81, the archbishop had grown bolder, partly because his tax stand had brought in over 800 invitations to speak. He told a peace rally sponsored by the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign that if the Soviets would not agree to a nuclear weapons freeze, the U.S. should disarm unilaterally. With that, the truly radical element of Hunthausen’s thinking emerged: “I am challenged increasingly by the nonviolent truth of the cross, by the call of the God of Love to lose our lives for peace,” he said then. “What further steps that will mean in my life, I hope to leave to God’s will, as that will is revealed in response to prayer. Whatever it is, I am certain it will be harder than anything I have in mind today. I think one consequence of praying our way into nonviolence is that God takes us more seriously than we wish. A prayerful nonviolence is dangerous to our lives.”
lt’s rare indeed for a modern leader of any stripe to acknowledge that the course he endorses could lead to totalitarian rule or death. Yet Hunthausen has not backed away from either as a possible result of unilateral disarmament. If the Soviets do not respond in kind as we disarm, he told a Target Seattle audience last year, “I am willing to grant that in the end, the worst thing short of nuclear war might occur.” The bedrock of his willingness is that Christ died rather than allow his disciples to kill others in his defense. “Human life is sacred,” Hunthausen says. “The ultimate evil is that as a nation we are willing to destroy life to protect our lifestyle. There can be no justification whatever for the killing of millions of people. You can’t look at the life of the Lord and come to any other conclusion.”
This “Gospel logic,” as he calls it, brought Hunthausen first to conclude that St. Augustine’s theory of the “just war” has been rendered obsolete by modern weapons. Traditionally invoked by Catholic thinkers to justify wars of self-defense, the just-war theory includes the principles of proportionality (the amount of damage done must be proportionate to the end sought) and discrimination (non-combatants must be spared). Clearly, Hunthausen says, neither of these conditions could be fulfilled in a nuclear war. He then rejected the U.S. policy of deterrence, since “the intention alone to wage nuclear war is an inconceivable sin,” and he called for complete renunciation. “From the rejection of any intention whatever to use nuclear weapons, it follows that unilateral disarmament is an unavoidable moral imperative. If we cannot morally use them, nor intend to use them, how can we justify having them?”
While Hunthausen’s critics consider this a suicidal form of pacifism, the archbishop sees it as the only true form of self-protection, for he believes that trusting our safety to an arsenal of deadly weapons is the greatest form of danger. He describes unilateral disarmament as a step-by-step process which, by planting the first seeds of trust in a people who don’t want to die any more than we do, will lead the Soviets to follow suit. “Unilateral initiatives are not a substitute for disarmament treaties,” he insists. “They are a way to make such treaties possible.” ln Hunthausen’s view, such initiatives would “create an alternative power of love in us and in others, and, indeed, a new kind of world.”
Few others have followed Hunthausen far, and more than one ideological opponent has seized the ammunition the archbishop has himself supplied by sometimes getting his facts wrong. He has called the Trident missile a first-strike weapon, though many experts contend that the term is to be applied only to faster, more accurate weapons capable of destroying enemy silos or command centers. His labeling the Trident base “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound” may have alienated more people than it convinced in a region heavily dependent on the defense industry. In addition, says one close observer, “he lost lots of potential support when he took the path of civil disobedience.” “He doesn’t understand the power of the symbols he creates,” adds another. “If he were more careful about his facts and more astute about people’s political sensibilities, he’d make his point much more strongly.”
But Hunthausen has resolutely refused to deliver his message in any but moral terms. “I’m not going to argue megatonnage,” he insists, “when the fundamental issue is the destructive nature of any nuclear weapon, and the unspeakable, life-denying sin of using them.” The archbishop’s sole appeal, even on this highly complex question, is stunningly simple: “What I am doing is challenging people to look at the choices and to make a decision,” he explains. “Life has only two fundamental issues: love and hate, life and death, God and Satan. We always struggle to choose one of the other, and that is our greatest glory. We don’t want to accept the fact of a God who expects us to make decisions, yet that responsibility is our greatest privilege, and people can’t relieve themselves of trying to cope. I say to people, you must decide. I don’t say how to do it.”
Compelling as this message is, it raises uncertainties about how far Hunthausen can lead his church in addressing issues that have political, technical, and military dimensions. Spirituality is profoundly attractive in a religious leader; but is it enough, by itself, in the leader of a pluralistic institution?
By opting so single-mindedly for the pastoral role, Archbishop Hunthausen has eschewed ecclesiastical politics, and that lifelong omission may be blunting his effectiveness now. A certain amount of political savvy, for example, might have given him the clout he needs to convince his fellow bishops that in condoning deterrence as a step toward disarmament, their pastoral letter on nuclear arms does not go far enough. It’s unlikely, however, that a man who has preferred testifying to his own conscience rather than building political coalitions can carry enough weight to swing the majority of the church his way.
In his intense spirituality, Archbishop Hunthausen has not placed himself at the church’s center of gravity. Twenty years after Vatican II, that center shows signs of stabilizing; many Catholics seem to be taking a collective breath, pausing to assay the limits of change, asking themselves how much more they’ll accept. They aren’t about to return to pre-Vatican II rigidity, of course; on many issues the church will probably continue along the trajectory Hunthausen is following. But neither does the majority of American Catholics show signs of immediate and radical rejection of nuclear deterrence. On that issue, Hunthausen may find himself more a witness to conscience than a shaper of events.
Ultimately, of course, life for Raymond Hunthausen is lived on the hook of conscience. Perhaps that’s what gives him the disquieting power men of conscience always have: while probing their own inner lives for tentative and startling answers rather than preaching universal truths, they inevitably throw us back on ourselves. Feeling his way spiritually from one conviction to the next, Hunthausen doesn’t believe bishops have the luxury of absolute answers any more than anyone else does, and he clearly does not know where his Gospel values will lead tomorrow. But he firmly believes he is being led by God through the work of his conscience. “I’m grateful for my ministry,” he says quietly. “It’s a gift and a grace from God. I’m more frustrated and anxious than ever in my life, but I’ve never been in deeper peace.”