Action Against Prelate Called Rare : No Precedent Seen in Shifting Power From Seattle’s Archbishop

Times Religion Writer

The Vatican’s action to strip Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of much of his authority is rare and may be unprecedented in modern times, several Roman Catholic Church historians said Friday.

The historians recalled cases where an auxiliary bishop had been named to take over functions for elderly prelates who were physically or mentally ailing--and once for a San Diego bishop who ran up a huge financial deficit. But they said they could not think of another example where Rome had stripped a bishop of his authority over moral and doctrinal concerns by shifting power to an associate.

“As far as I know this is the first instance of such conferring of authority on an auxiliary bishop. I am not aware of such a precedent,” said Father Robert Trisco, a professor of church history at Catholic University in Washington and the executive head of the Catholic Historical Assn. The 1,100-member group is the nation’s only professional organization of Catholic church historians.


Prelate’s Press Conference

Hunthausen, 65, disclosed at a Seattle press conference on Thursday that the Vatican had removed his authority in five major areas. They include moral and ethical issues in such matters as contraception, premarital sex and homosexuality, the training of seminary students and continuing instruction of priests.

Other areas assigned to Auxiliary Bishop Donald Wuerle, 45, include the marriage tribunal, which determines marriage annulments; worship and liturgy, and oversight of priests who are leaving or have left the priesthood.

Hunthausen retains overall administrative and financial leadership of the 360,000-member archdiocese, as well as its schools, charities, missions, adult education, youth organizations and publications, an archdiocese spokeswoman said Friday.

Announcement of the crackdown on Hunthausen came two weeks after the Vatican declared that Father Charles E. Curran, a tenured Catholic University professor of theology, could no longer be an official teacher of Catholic theology because of his persistent disagreement with Rome over certain church teachings on divorce, contraception, masturbation and homosexual practice. Curran has vowed to fight the ouster.

Two to Work Together

Hunthausen and Wuerle denied at the Seattle press conference that the Vatican’s transfer of power was a punishment against the archbishop for his perceived liberal views and doctrinal laxness, and they vowed to work together.

But other religious leaders said the clampdown reflects the continuing efforts of Pope John Paul II to enforce conservative doctrine upon dissenting U.S. clergy.


“To some extent, the American church is perceived as having exceeded its boundaries,” said Father Leo Stanford, director of the Institute for Theological Studies, a graduate student program jointly administered by Jesuit-run Seattle University and the Seattle Archdiocese.

“There seems to be a clear movement on the part of Rome to place a whole lot of limits on the American church.”

Investigations Not New

Father Trisco, editor of the scholarly journal Catholic Historical Review, said investigations of U.S. bishops by their peers--stemming from complaints by priests or parishioners--are neither new nor unusual. But, he added, to his knowledge, the Hunthausen case is the first in which the Vatican has attempted to solve a problem of dissent by granting powers to an auxiliary bishop that supersede the authority of the bishop himself.

“If something has been done confidentially somewhere, I suppose we wouldn’t know it,” Trisco said, “but it probably couldn’t be kept secret for very long. . . .”

Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, 81, a pre-eminent Catholic historian and retired professor of church history at Catholic University, said in a telephone interview that the Vatican’s granting of powers to an auxiliary “occurs from time to time in the church all over the world. When a bishop becomes unsatisfactory to the Holy See, or perhaps incompetent, it occurs.”

Dean of Church Historians

But Ellis, known as the dean of Catholic church historians, said he could not recall any other situation where a bishop’s powers over moral and doctrinal matters had been supplanted by Rome.


The closest comparison, Ellis recalled, was in 1963 when Pope Paul VI named Bishop Francis J. Furey, auxiliary bishop of Philadelphia, as coadjutor bishop with right of succession to Charles Francis Buddy, the first bishop of San Diego.

The transfer of power to Furey revolved around “the enormous burden of mounting financial deficits” Buddy had incurred during the 1950s to construct the $25-million University of San Diego, Ellis said, adding that Buddy had not been involved in any scandal or wrongdoing.

Ellis and Trisco also cited 19th-Century examples in the U.S. Catholic Church where coadjutors were named by Rome to take over for aging bishops who ruled into their late 80s and 90s. During the 1960s, however, Pope Paul VI set a mandatory retirement age of 75 for prelates.

In the Seattle investigation, conducted in 1983, Archbishop James Hickey of Washington spent a week interviewing Hunthausen and more than 70 of his priests and lay members. The investigation centered on the archbishop’s alleged ignoring of church doctrine forbidding contraceptives, premarital sex and homosexual activity.

Popular in Archdiocese

In addition, the Seattle prelate--though popular in the generally liberal archdiocese--drew sharp criticism from some conservatives for his leadership in the nuclear disarmament and sanctuary movements.

After the investigation ended last November, Archbishop Pio Laghi, the papal representative to the U. S. Catholic Church, said Hunthausen had “suffered from exaggerated and mean-spirited criticism.”


At the press conference, Hunthausen said he had not realized the extent of power the Vatican had granted to Wuerle, and that he had anguished over being ordered to turn over five principal duties to a man he thought had come to be his assistant.

“I’m only human,” Hunthausen said. “Of course I wonder, but now we are challenged to find a way to make this work.”