Former Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was beloved by many and castigated by others for his support of nuclear disarmament, gay rights and broader roles for women within the church.

Share story

Raymond G. Hunthausen, who led the Seattle Archdiocese from 1975 to 1991 and became one of the nation’s most controversial bishops, beloved by many and castigated by others for his support of nuclear disarmament, gay rights and broader roles for women within the church, died Sunday. He was 96.

The archbishop emeritus, a Montana native, died at his home in Helena, according to a news release late Sunday from the Seattle Archdiocese.

“He was someone who through his example, a lot of people really saw that there was a place in the church for them,” Denny Hunthausen, nephew of the archbishop, said Monday. “The messaging we’re seeing from Pope Francis now was something he was doing 20, 30 years ago: the message of love and mercy. That really resonated with a lot of people, especially people on the margins both of society and the church.”

By most accounts, Archbishop Emeritus Hunthausen was a humble man, soft-spoken and unpretentious. Yet the modest prelate’s vision for the Catholic Church made huge waves.

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Spurred by the ideals and reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Hunthausen championed the poor and disenfranchised; involved more lay people, priests and nuns in the running of the church; and pushed for greater cooperation with those of other denominations and faiths.

Tangible signs of his legacy remain throughout the archdiocese, from the work of Catholic Community Services, which became the largest non-profit provider of social services in Western Washington under his tenure; to Hunthausen Hall, home of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry; to the Hunthausen Fund at St. James Cathedral that helps house the working poor.

Archbishop Hunthausen was a “humble and loving servant of the Lord, and a man of peace … Above all, he loved the Lord, and that stood out in every conversation I had with this loving and compassionate servant of God,” Archbishop of Seattle J. Peter Sartain said in a statement on Sunday.

Yet his life was not without controversy. The Vatican conducted an investigation of Archbishop Hunthausen — an inquiry that became a focal point for the tensions roiling within the American Catholic Church and that resulted in the archbishop having to share power with another bishop for a time.

The IRS garnished his wages after he withheld half his income tax to protest the nuclear arms race.

Archbishop Hunthausen’s reputation also suffered as he was criticized by sexual-abuse victims and others who said he knew or should have known about abusive priests and religious-order members during his time heading the Seattle and Helena dioceses. In both dioceses, abuse survivors have alleged that church leaders, including Archbishop Hunthausen, did not do enough to protect them.

From about 1987 to 2010, the Seattle Archdiocese paid about $42 million to some 300 victims who alleged abuse, some of which dated back decades. The Helena Diocese filed for bankruptcy in early 2014 in the face of more than 350 allegations of abuse.

Inspired by Vatican II

Archbishop Hunthausen was born in Anaconda, Mont., the oldest of Anthony and Edna Marie Hunthausen’s seven children.

After graduating cum laude from Carroll College in Helena, he came to Washington state and entered St. Edward Seminary in Kenmore. After his ordination in 1946, he returned to Carroll College, teaching chemistry and coaching sports, before being named president of the college in 1957.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII appointed him bishop of Helena.

A few months later, he took part in one of the most pivotal events in modern Catholic Church history: the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, called by the pope with the intention of renewing the church, updating its rituals and considering its relation to the modern world.

Among the Vatican II reforms: Priests celebrated Mass in local languages, rather than in Latin; lay people, in addition to those in the church hierarchy, were seen as playing important roles; friendlier relations were encouraged with those of other faiths and denominations; and peace and social justice teachings were emphasized.

Archbishop Hunthausen “was the epitome of the Vatican II bishop — pastoral, ecumenical, inclusive, and relevant,” John McCoy, former Seattle Archdiocese spokesman, said in emailed comments on Monday. “He was committed to addressing what he viewed as the compelling moral issues of the day: poverty, nuclear arms, human dignity and justice in the world and, with the church, women, gays, and shared responsibility with the laity.”

“Like Pope Francis, he put the emphasis on mercy and compassion rather than law and doctrine,” added McCoy, who is the author of a book about the prelate called “A Still and Quiet Conscience: The Archbishop Who Challenged a Pope, a President, and a Church.”

Archbishop Hunthausen carried the spirit of Vatican II back to the Diocese of Helena, then to the Seattle Archdiocese, which the pope appointed him to lead in 1975.

During his tenure in Seattle, church organizations that served the needy grew. He created an archdiocese-wide advisory council that included many lay people. He established a women’s commission and wrote an open letter about the role of women in the church — a letter interpreted by some as advocating for women’s ordination.

Sister Joyce Cox, who directs the archdiocese’s ecumenical and interfaith efforts and who served as the archdiocese’s first female vice chancellor under Archbishop Hunthausen, disputes that interpretation.

The archibishop “was always very interested that women would have a role within the archdiocese, the leadership of the archdiocese,” Cox said on Monday. “He did not mean that they have ordained ministry.”

Archbishop Hunthausen at one point allowed a group for gay Catholics to celebrate Mass at St. James Cathedral — a decision that riled critics. A ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics also was formed.

The archbishop also reached out to other religious leaders, often joining a weekly gathering of local Protestant denominational heads.

Archbishop Hunthausen and some of the other religious leaders spoke out together against the nuclear-arms race.

The archbishop opposed the “first strike” capability of the Trident nuclear submarine base in Bangor, speaking at anti-nuke demonstrations and suggesting that residents withhold half their income taxes in protest, as he did.

Eventually, the IRS collected more than $800 in back taxes for 1982 and 1983 from Archbishop Hunthausen by garnishing his wages.

The archbishop’s outspokenness on this and other issues drew many admirers but also plenty of critics.

Some critics began a letter-writing campaign to Rome, charging Archbishop Hunthausen with a lack of leadership and failure to observe strict Catholic teachings on homosexuality, liturgical practices and divorce, among other issues.

The campaign resulted in a Vatican investigation in 1983.

“He used the archdiocese and the resources of the archdiocese, to promote his own political agenda,” Gary Bullert, who wrote the book “The Hunthausen File” and is now a political science professor at Columbia Basin College, said Monday.

Rome eventually affirmed the archbishop’s loyalty to the church but took away his authority in certain areas, requiring him to share power with an auxiliary bishop who took charge of liturgy, the marriage tribunal, and instruction of priests.

The archbishop’s supporters protested, and the Vatican in 1987 restored full authority to Archbishop Hunthausen but assigned another archbishop to work with him as his assistant with the right of succession.

Back to Helena

Archbishop Hunthausen retired in 1991 at age 70 and moved back to Helena, where he kept a low profile but also occasionally helped around the diocese, celebrating Mass and hearing confession at parishes.

“The cruel irony is that Hunthausen did what Pope Francis asks of church leaders today,” McCoy said. “He listened and served. And he reached out to the People of God, welcoming their wisdom and their involvement in their church.”

Archbishop Hunthausen is survived by by his brothers Tony and Jack, his sisters Edna Hunthausen and Jean Stergar, and by his 34 nieces and nephews, 101 great-nieces and nephews and 64 great-great nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Hunthausen Fund in Helena at Good Samaritan Ministries and the Hunthausen Fund at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, according to the press release.

Memorial services will be held in Helena and Seattle. Details have not been announced.

Seattle Times staff reporter Sarah Wu contributed to this report.