In “A Still and Quiet Conscience,” John A. McCoy tells the story of Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, whose progressive views put him at odds with the conservative leadership of the Catholic Church.
Indecisive, easily influenced and overly permissive — or a faith-driven leader struggling to discern what God wanted of him in the face of a heartless, ham-handed inquisition by a church bureaucracy?
There’s no doubt how author John A. McCoy sees Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who headed the Seattle Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church from 1975 to 1991.
To McCoy, a former religion reporter who became the archbishop’s public-affairs director for the agonizing final years of his tenure, Hunthausen is, in the common vernacular, a saint.
Because Hunthausen felt the pain of marginalized, talented religious women, of priests who fell in love and of disenfranchised gay Catholics, he struggled to include them. Because he shuddered at the potential horrors evoked by nuclear weapons, he joined protests against the missile-carrying, Bangor-based Trident submarine, calling it “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound,” and refused to pay taxes.
The author of “A Still and Quiet Conscience” will discuss his book at 7 p.m., Monday, June 15, at St. James Cathedral Hall, 803 Terry Ave., Seattle; free. For more information, call 206-622-3559 or go to stjames-cathedral.org.
And because he took such steps, inspired by the reformist Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, tradition-bound critics attacked him. Ultimately, the Vatican, abetted by powerful conservative kingmakers in the U.S. political realm, undermined and dismembered his authority.
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In “A Still and Quiet Conscience: The Archbishop Who Challenged a Pope, a President, and a Church,” McCoy details a tumultuous period in Catholic Church history, focusing on Hunthausen’s life and influences. Despite the title, Hunthausen was no firebrand, but a “reflective, soft-spoken introvert who was humble, guileless, and blessed with personal integrity,” McCoy writes.
“You are my ideal of the best kind of archbishop,” then-Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh wrote Hunthausen during the turmoil, “courageous, idealistic, dedicated, fearless, and most of all, unambitious.”
McCoy, a former newspaper journalist whom I know and respect, is no neutral observer. His own deep Catholic faith and closeness to Hunthausen, now 93 and physically disabled from strokes, is both a weakness and a strength of the book. Conservative readers will disagree with McCoy’s interpretation; sympathetic readers who persevere to the final chapters will be roused by McCoy’s palpable outrage at Hunthausen’s treatment by church leaders he paints as mean-spirited, spiritually flawed and ethically defective.
To set that stage, McCoy traces Hunthausen’s spiritual, emotional and psychological evolution, beginning in a close-knit, devoutly Catholic family in a blue-collar Montana mining town.
From his father, a grocery-store owner who carried customers on credit during the Depression, Hunthausen learned to play fair and respect others. From his priest-professor mentor, Bernard Topel, ultimately bishop of Spokane, he learned his life task was to discover God’s will for him. And from Vatican II, the young bishop of Helena learned his job was to “extend Christ’s love to a poor and suffering humanity.”
It was a lesson Hunthausen took to heart — fatefully.
In later chapters, McCoy sharpens his point, recounting Hunthausen’s persecution, particularly by the doctrinal-purity watchdog some dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the same Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI, an “aloof, asexual loner” obsessed with the gay-sex issue, in a male-run church with a woman problem. There were secret deals and political machinations, some involving then-President Ronald Reagan, obsessed with communism and rattling his WMDs.
It’s no surprise that a Catholic leader of that era who allowed gay Catholics to hold Mass in St. James Cathedral, appointed women as church leaders and badmouthed nuclear weapons was going to take some heat.
But this Kafka-esque inquisition, McCoy suggests, deeply wounded both Hunthausen and the church’s claim to authenticity.
McCoy sees hope in Pope Francis — like Hunthausen, “humble, kind, compassionate, plain spoken, and unpretentious,” with a Vatican II vision of the church. Hunthausen was an “unlikely leader who showed the way to a church that might have been,” McCoy writes; with Francis, perhaps that church still has a chance.
‘A Still and Quiet Conscience: The Archbishop Who Challenged a Pope, a President and a Church’ by John A. McCoy. Orbis Books, 368 pp., $26