The 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?