On My Bookshelf: A Still and Quiet Conscience

A_Still_and_Quiet_ConscienceThe central narrative of this biography is the struggle between Rome and the Archdiocese of Seattle. A very sympathetic author sets up the tale with an account of his archbishop’s involvement in the 80’s anti-nuclear and peace movement. In Chapter Three, he shifts to a chronological account that takes the reader from family origins in Montana to St James Cathedral here in my new diocese.

The second half of the book was difficult, and I write this, as you readers suspect, as someone who views Archbishop Hunthausen favorably. The detail is considerable, the research meticulous and well-documented. A continent away as a grad student, I followed the story closely thirty-some years ago. Renewing this acquaintance and going deeper with the perspective of the modern tussles of Catholicism put me in a very thoughtful mood.

First, I noticed the swell of outrage in me as I finished the book. That was the main difficulty. John McCoy is a fine writer, but he goes a bit over-the-top with a few gratuitous insults that don’t help his narrative. He has a clear bias, but his account is generally fair to all parties.

Next, I pondered one criticism of Archbishop Hunthausen, that he cultivated an atmosphere of laxity. Are there times when a leader must be directive, telling people what to do? Bosses who let competent employees do their jobs: this seems to get praise in a lot of quarters. Did some people take advantage of the bishop’s leadership style to do as they pleased? The author offered at least one example of that. The truth is that I don’t like to tell people what to do. How does that hamper my role as a parish minister, a music leader, or as a parent?

As you might expect, the Vatican investigation does not come off looking competent, moral, or cohesive. Secrecy bites the institution badly here. One example: Archbishop Hunthausen proposed that he invite a Vatican visitator to accomplish the mission and to calm Seattle Catholics. Rome insisted on a secret process, news of which leaked out anyway. So things got quite contentious, including accounts of shouting matches between priests and the Vatican-appointed auxiliary, Donald Wuerl. The sub-current of “they never listen” was palpable.

Before Pope Francis, I would have found this depressing reading. The author himself didn’t resurrect his notes until 2013 and begin putting together this book.

Do I recommend it? Sure: if you have the stomach for politics. And a morality tale that ponders the question: does the end justify the means? Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger had a vision for the Church. We can only now begin to consider the fruits of a third-of-a-century of dialing back Vatican II. The Culture of Complaint was emboldened in the 80’s, even before the internet. Basic human courtesy gets dialed back: does this have consequences for the attack dogs, even if they are assured that they are wrapped in virtue?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to On My Bookshelf: A Still and Quiet Conscience

  1. Katherine says:

    I spent my latter teenaged and undergraduate years in the archdiocese of Seattle, in the mid-late 70s. For whatever it’s worth, from the standpoint of an ordinary (if Catholic nerdy) young person in the pew, Abp Hunthausen was as much, if not more, distant a figure as his predecessor Abp Connolly. The auxiliaries were far more likely to be the ones who turned up for the ordinary occasions in parishes, etc. that called for the presence of a bishop. They had the smell of the sheep.

    Whether he cultivated an atmosphere of laxity, I don’t know. But he didn’t convey any sense of resistance to it, so far as I can recall. In the notoriously unchurched environment of the Pacific NW, that’s a greater fault in a bishop than in an area with more robust cultural supports for the faith, I think.

    And there are still folks out there who remember then-Bp. Wuerl with fondness.

  2. Liam says:

    Well, having encountered shouting matches *during* liturgy (well, they were one-sided shouts, so calling them “matches” is not quite right…)*, I can say that the Culture of Complaint is not only a feature of one side of the ideological spectrum. It’s part of ideology, across the spectrum: a consequentialism that rationalizes a rejection of charity in means as an evasion or dereliction of duty towards Noble Ends(TM).

    Because We’re Prophets And We Say So.

    We are a (not-so) gentle, angry people . . . .

    * And not merely that. Among other pearls of public strife: people walking up in the Communion procession to very publicly refuse to receive Holy Communion from someone as an coordinated act of shunning of that person.

  3. Devin says:

    As someone unfamiliar with the events, what specifically did at the Archbishop do to earn the persecution/fraternal correction he received?

  4. Timothy Lewis says:

    For the sake of a different perspective (and some information regarding McCoy’s sources), you may want to read this review: http://thewandererpress.com/frontpage/the-hunthausen-scandal-revisited/

    I realize that the publication in question may startle, upon seeing the URL, but I still find that it’s helpful to read widely and among a wide audience on these matters.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for the link. I certainly think it’s helpful to read widely.

      Just to peel out something from the beginning, regarding that public event at St James Cathedral:

      “Since the book actually maligned successor bishops for abandoning Hunthausen’s vision of the Church, the apparent acquiescence of the Seattle Archdiocese in promoting the book is somewhat peculiar.”

      I think “maligned” is an exaggeration. I think Archbishop Murphy is portrayed very favorably. Archbishop Brunett less so. Remember that Fr Michael Ryan is now the cathedral rector and perhaps the current archbishop thought this … pungent account of the 80’s deserved to be told, or promoted. This is the same Fr Ryan who prominently called for the English MR3 to be put on hold. The cathedral does not quite match congruent to the archdiocese.

      “… Fr. Michael Ryan, who served as Hunthausen’s primary and most militant advocate, consultant, speechwriter, and catalyst for several mass mobilizations of priests, nuns, bishops, and laity …”

      It seems to me that Seattle clergy and laity had rather strong opinions and needed no urging or catalyst to speak their minds. The whole point of Archbishop Hunthausen’s vision was for independent, discerning, thoughtful engagement. He tried to save Rome and the CDF from the criticism, but they lacked the will or wisdom to take good advice.

      As for the book, it was clear to me that the archbishop’s pro-peace activities were unwanted by both the US president and Rome, and likely the catalyst for the Vatican investigation which, from the author’s view, was largely being made up as it went along.

      Given the archbishop’s reception by Pope John Paul II, I could see how his remark, “The last thing I want is anything against the Holy Father. We are not drawing up sides,” can be taken as credible. Vatican observers have long noted that many curial initiatives are active independent of the pope. John Paul II himself was angry when he discovered he was misinformed on issues by his advisors. It is possible to be critical of the CDF and ap-prove of the pope, for example.

      On sex abuse cover-up, I don’t think the retired Seattle archbishop compares well with today. I suppose an expose could be written on it. But that wasn’t the point of this book, nor were his advocacy for women, his pastoral sensitivity to people same-sex attracted, or his views on liturgy.

      Professor Bullert has his opinion. He is free to write about it, naturally. But I think he gets a small pile of connectors misplaced.

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