John A. McCoy. A Still and Quiet Conscience: The Archbishop Who Challenged a Pope, a President, and a Church. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015. 288 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62698-117-1.
Phyllis Theroux. The Good Bishop: The Life of Walter F. Sullivan. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013. v + 262 pp. $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62698-024-2.
Reviewed by John A. Dick (Catholic University of Leuven)
Published on H-Catholic (October, 2017)
Commissioned by Carolina Armenteros
Hunthausen and Sullivan: Prophetic US Bishops
In 1962, gathered from around the world, 2,540 bishops were present for the opening session of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The US delegation of 241 members was second in size only to that of Italy. Vatican II had a major impact on US bishops and inspired them to issue two remarkable pastoral letters in the 1980s: “The Challenge of Peace” and “Economic Justice for All.”
Many of the bishops involved in the tense drama of the council are now deceased. Fifty years after the closing of the Second Vatican Council, therefore, two biographies of US bishops animated and shaped by the vision and message of Vatican II deserve special attention. These biographies of prophetic US bishops—Walter F. Sullivan (1928-2012) and Raymond G. Hunthausen (1921-)—detail how the spirit of Vatican II shaped their ministry and the institutional sanctions they endured following that inspiration. They are important men in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States; and their biographies do them justice.
In Phyllis Theroux’s The Good Bishop, most of the historical report covers Sullivan’s life from 1953, when he was ordained a priest, to 2003, when at age seventy-five he retired as bishop of Richmond, Virginia. That fifty-year period witnessed the US civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the rise in feminist consciousness, and the assassination of one president and the resignation of another. In the Roman Catholic Church, one pope, John XXIII, opened the ecclesiastical windows to aggiornamento (updating), with the Second Vatican Council; and another pope, John Paul II, tried to reshape, slow down, and occasionally reverse the pace of change in the church. These events had a major impact on the life and ministry of Sullivan.
Between April 1973 and July 1974, Sullivan was the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Richmond. During that same period, Archbishop Luigi Raimondi, apostolic delegate to the United States, retired and was replaced by Archbishop Jean Jadot, who was apostolic delegate from 1973 to 1980. On July 19, 1974, Archbishop Jadot installed Bishop Sullivan as the eleventh bishop of the Diocese of Richmond. Following Sullivan’s installation, he and the archbishop walked across the street to a city park to share hamburgers and hot dogs with a crowd of well-wishers and just plain hungry people. The new bishop was a new-style bishop. Sullivan and Jadot were strongly committed to a Vatican II-styled pastoral church. Both men eventually paid the price for living out that vision. As long as Jadot was in Washington, however, Sullivan had a supportive and empathetic ally.
Sullivan incurred the wrath of conservative Catholics by supporting progressive (and occasionally controversial) priests, opening his churches to gays and lesbians, condemning wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, calling for nuclear disarmament, and speaking out against the death penalty. He strongly supported giving women a greater role in the church as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, and pastoral administrators. He also appointed a woman as his chancellor.
He incurred problems with Rome as well, which accelerated under Pope John Paul II and his new apostolic delegate (later Pro-Nuntius) to the United States, Pio Laghi. Rome was alarmed that the use of general absolution was widespread in the Richmond Diocese, and was upset that Sullivan wrote the introduction to A Challenge to Love: Gay and Lesbian Catholics in the Church (1983), an anthology of essays about homosexuality and the Catholic Church, edited by Robert Nugent. Rome strongly objected as well to joint liturgies at the ecumenical Holy Apostles Anglican-Roman Catholic Church in Virginia Beach. A host of other complaints, some bordering on the ludicrous, were continually sent to Rome by extremist Sullivan critics. Rome had received complaints, for instance, about a Richmond Diocese priest presiding at a summer Eucharist wearing shorts. Sullivan’s snappy response: “At least he wore underwear” (p. 166). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Jean Jérôme Hamer from what was then known as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (SCDF) saw nothing humorous in Bishop Sullivan’s ministry and leadership in Richmond. Traditionalist Catholics deluged the Vatican with letters urging his removal. Nevertheless, Sullivan carried on and remained bishop of Richmond for twenty-nine years.
In a great many ways, Sullivan was a kindly, pastoral, and courageously prophetic bishop. He had a passion for peace and served for years as bishop-president of Pax Christi USA. He was not faultless, however, and his major blind spot and shortcoming—so true of many bishops—was dealing with clerical sexual abuse. Theroux observes: “Therein lies the tragedy. His imagination failed him” (p. 210). Sullivan did not do enough to deal with sex abuse issues; he, for example, did not involve law enforcement quickly.
Theroux, well-known essayist, columnist, author, and teacher, first approached her project about “the good bishop” as an oral history. The more she got to know about Sullivan, the more her book emerged as a well-researched biography based on the issues that defined him and his ministry. Her biography is warm and friendly, but never hagiographic nor lacking in objectivity. It is a very good read indeed.
John A. McCoy’s A Still and Quiet Conscience is very much a defense of Archbishop Hunthausen. Readers who hold Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI in high regard will not appreciate this book, because they are clearly the antagonists. For many years, McCoy was a journalist working on the city desk of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1989, he became the public affairs director for the Archdiocese of Seattle. He held that position through Archbishop Hunthausen’s early retirement in 1991 and for the first four years of the administration of his successor Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy. McCoy had access to all of Hunthausen’s correspondence and worked in close friendship with the archbishop. His book, which one could say has a friendly bias toward Archbishop Hunthausen, is very well written, based on primary sources, and deserves a special place on every church historian’s bookshelf.
As I write this review, at the end of December 2015, Archbishop Hunthausen, who was Archbishop of Seattle from 1975 to 1991, is the only surviving American bishop who participated in all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. He was also the last US bishop appointed before Vatican II began on October 11, 1962. And at forty-one he was the youngest bishop from the United States.
McCoy begins his book with chapters about Hunthausen’s Trident opposition and his US tax protest. These closely related actions put the archbishop on front-page news reports in the United States and aggravated a Vatican already concerned about his deviations from Catholic episcopal practice. In 1982, Hunthausen withheld half of his income tax to protest the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the Trident missile program, which had a base near Seattle, in Puget Sound, calling it “the Auschwitz of Puget Sound.” Pope John Paul II found himself faced with an archbishop whose conscience and whose understanding of Vatican II led him to challenge US President Ronald Reagan—a strong Vatican ally against the Soviet Union—over the issue of nuclear arms.
In chapters 3 and 4, McCoy explains how “Dutch” Hunthausen, a young football star at Carroll College in Montana, changed his ideas about being a military pilot and a married man under the influence of Father Bernard Topel, a math and physics professor at Carroll and the diocesan vocations director. Topel, who was appointed bishop of Spokane in 1955, became Hunthausen’s spiritual mentor and confessor for forty years. Father Hunthausen returned to Carroll College for the 1953-54 school year as chemistry and math professor as well as athletic director and dean of men. In 1957, he was appointed president of Carroll College, where his style was consultative and inclusive. In July 1962, Hunthausen was appointed bishop of Helena. In October, he was in Rome for the opening of Vatican II. There the young bishop found himself in a group of bishops who were asking, along with Pope John XXIII: Who are we? What are we about? Where are we going?
As bishop of Helena, following Vatican II, Hunthausen embraced the council’s call for shared responsibility. He created a priest senate, a diocesan pastoral council, a finance council, parish councils, and special commissions entrusted with implementing Vatican II-spirited church reforms. In 1969 and 1970, Bishop Hunthausen endorsed statements from his priest senate objecting to the installation of MX anti-ballistic missiles in Montana; and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Helena began collecting articles and information for its confidential file on an already questionable bishop.
On May 22, 1975, not at the St. James Cathedral but at the Seattle Center Arena sports pavilion, Hunthausen was installed as archbishop of Seattle. He had been Jadot’s first recommendation for the position and Pope Paul VI was in complete agreement. The installation was a complete break with the past and Hunthausen was a totally different kind of archbishop than his predecessor, the monarchical Thomas Connolly. Very soon the new archbishop was issuing a pastoral letter on bishops. “We cannot expect women to accept a role that limits their growth, opportunity, freedom, dignity, and particularly their rights,” he wrote (p. 155). Women’s ordination was not in the pastoral letter but it was on everyone’s mind. Then Hunthausen took a new look at homosexuality. As he met and counseled gay people, the archbishop became convinced that homosexuality was God’s gift to some people. And if God made some people gay, he asked, would God also require that they be celibate. Alarm bells started going off at the Vatican.
Chapters 8-10, “The Visitation,” “The Explanation,” and “The Humiliation,” detail the Vatican crackdown on Hunthausen. “In the early 1980s,” as McCoy narrates it, “with Pope John Paul II consolidating ecclesial authority in Rome and US President Ronald Reagan attempting to achieve global supremacy in nuclear arms, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was on the firing line.... The archbishop’s call for unilateral disarmament was jeopardizing the Vatican’s relationship with Washington. And his emphasis on the priority of conscience was compromising Rome’s demands for unequivocal adherence to church teaching” (p. 205).
In 1983, the Vatican authorized Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF (the former SCDF) to launch an investigation into Hunthausen’s administrative and pastoral practices. Archbishop (later Cardinal) James Hickey of Washington, DC, was named apostolic visitor. In early 1984, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to Hunthausen and reiterated his and Archbishop Hickey’s concerns: sterilization at Catholic hospitals, general absolution, intercommunion with Protestants, first communion before first confession, and Hunthausen’s granting an imprimatur to an unorthodox book on sexual morality. In September 1984, Ratzinger sent Hunthausen a letter pointing out again the deviations in the Archdiocese of Seattle; and this time he emphasized that Hunthausen had failed to stress that women cannot become priests and that homosexual activity is an intrinsic evil.
In January 1986, Pope John Paul II appointed Donald Wuerl as auxiliary bishop of Seattle. In effect, Wuerl had been given complete and final authority in certain areas. By May 1987, however, the Wuerl/Hunthausen situation had become untenable and Wuerl was removed from his position. The Vatican then appointed Bishop Thomas J. Murphy of Great Falls, Montana, as coadjutor archbishop of Seattle. After Hunthausen’s retirement four years later, Murphy succeeded him as archbishop.
When Hunthausen announced his retirement, he explained how Vatican II had deeply resonated with his hopes for a church that would transform lives and the world. The Second Vatican Council had taught him, he said, that the church is semper reformanda (always in need of being reformed). That ongoing reform, as Hunthausen learned and as McCoy carefully narrates, often comes with intrigue, institutional upset and maneuverings, and occasional old-fashioned administrative nastiness.
Both books have some issues with presentation of sources. Theroux’s book has no list of sources but more than ample notes, which clearly indicate her sources. When she gives a citation, it is clear where she found it. McCoy’s book includes a bibliography and a lengthy list of detailed sources at the end of each chapter. I would have liked to see notes, indicating in his text where specific citations (and they are abundant!) came from.
More important, however, the pairing of these two men’s biographies invites us to compare their destinies. Over the years, Sullivan’s liberal reputation occasionally got him in hot water at home and at the Vatican. During the 1980s, he faced a Vatican investigation in response to complaints about various perceived doctrinal and liturgical abuses. The investigation did not lead to disciplinary action against Sullivan; it never produced a formal exoneration either. Sullivan remained bishop of Richmond for close to thirty years until he retired in 2003 at seventy-five. Archbishop Hunthausen’s relations with the Vatican were far less felicitous. His outspoken antinuclear armaments protests and US income tax resistance bothered President Reagan and greatly annoyed his anti-Communist friend in Rome, Pope John Paul II. Hunthausen’s hot water in Rome became particularly steamy when he began to verbally challenge Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Hamer at the CDF. He remained archbishop of Seattle for a turbulent sixteen years and was forced to retire early in 1991.
All in all, however, these two biographies convince me that the Catholic Church in the United States could use a few more bishops like Sullivan and Hunthausen.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-catholic.
John A. Dick. Review of McCoy, John A., A Still and Quiet Conscience: The Archbishop Who Challenged a Pope, a President, and a Church and
Theroux, Phyllis, The Good Bishop: The Life of Walter F. Sullivan.
H-Catholic, H-Net Reviews.
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