Pope John Paul II has restored full pastoral powers to embattled Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, church sources said Tuesday.
In an unprecedented action last year that reverberated throughout American Catholicism, the Vatican stripped Hunthausen of responsibility in five key pastoral areas and assigned it to Auxiliary Bishop Donald Wuerl.
At the time, the Vatican found Hunthausen lacking in “firmness necessary to govern the archdiocese” and said he had not upheld official church positions in granting annulments, offering general absolution, working with homosexual groups, administering health-care institutions and instructing clergy leaving the priesthood.
Among items cited were Hunthausen’s allowing Mass to be celebrated by a homosexual Catholic group in the Seattle cathedral and contraceptive sterilizations in Catholic hospitals.
The unusual solution to the case calls for Wuerl to be assigned to another diocese and for Bishop Thomas Murphy of Montana to become Hunthausen’s assistant.
As a coadjutor--an assistant with the right of succession--Murphy, 54, will have no authority over Hunthausen, 65, as long as the senior bishop is in office. Mandatory retirement for Catholic bishops is age 75.
A church source, who asked not to be named because the appointments were not to be made public until today, said the arrangement did not specify a retirement date for Hunthausen.
“Hunthausen approved each step of the plan . . .” the source said.
The conciliatory actions, based on the recommendations of a special commission of three bishops, were seen as a victory for Hunthausen and his supporters, and as a way of easing tensions that have intensified in the U.S. Catholic Church since Hunthausen revealed last September that Wuerl had been named to take control over the areas in which Hunthausen was allegedly lax.
The five-point proposal of the commission, headed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, said that Hunthausen had taken “laudable steps” to respond to the Vatican criticisms, according to a church source familiar with the seven-page report.
“Virtually all persons interviewed by the commission agreed that the present arrangement of the divided authority was not effective and should be changed,” the commission said.
Hunthausen himself had called the division of powers with Wuerl “unworkable” at a closed-door session of the U.S. bishops meeting last November in Washington. The Hunthausen affair, as it came to be known, consumed much of the prelates’ time at their annual meeting. But the bishops said that, while they sympathized with Hunthausen, they were powerless to step into what was essentially a matter between an American bishop and the Vatican.
However, the commission, which also includes Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco and Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, reiterated Vatican criticism of the “climate of permissiveness” in the Seattle Archdiocese that was blamed on Hunthausen and said that it gave some Catholics the feeling they may “design their own policies and practices.”
A church official said the commission members would not comment beyond their written report, but “will continue to support Hunthausen, Murphy and Wuerl in meeting the challenges of the readjustment.”
While it is unusual for a coadjutor to be named for a bishop who is in good health and 10 years away from normal retirement, it is not without precedent, church officials said. Hunthausen had a prostate cancer operation in December but reportedly is fully recovered.
Murphy is a native of Chicago who has served as bishop of the Great Falls-Billings Diocese since 1978, three years before Hunthausen left his post in neighboring Helena, Mont., to take over the Seattle Archdiocese.
Murphy is considered an able administrator and serves on a number of committees of the bishops’ national conference. Unlike Hunthausen, he has not attracted wide attention for outspoken stands on political or doctrine matters. However, he was one of 14 Catholic bishops who signed a 1983 statement that called production of the MX missile “unwise and unjustified.”
Hunthausen, one of the most popular prelates in the U.S. church, has been widely known for his staunch anti-war positions and his strong sense of compassion for the poor. Church conservatives attacked his liberal stands on doctrine and civil disobedience and complained to the Vatican. But when the Vatican took the disciplinary action, it created a storm of negative reaction across much of the U.S. church.
Some leaders in the 53-million American Catholic Church had voiced concern that the Hunthausen matter, if left unresolved, could trigger demonstrations by liberal Catholics against Pope John Paul when he visits nine U.S. cities this September.
The National Federation of Priests Councils, representing most of the nation’s Catholic priests, on May 14 overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for immediate restoration of Hunthausen’s full authority, saying the resumption should be unconditional in order to end the “impasse that exists” in Seattle.