Although the third and final draft of their long-awaited pastoral letter on the U.S. economy tops the official agenda for the Catholic bishops' meeting in Washington next week, the prelates' closed-door discussion of disciplined Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen is certain to generate the most heat and media attention.
The 53,000-word economy letter, which calls on U.S. Catholics to adopt a "preferential option for the poor" and tangles with the Reagan Administration on several important policy issues, has been in the making for six years. In contrast, the Hunthausen case came to light only two months ago when the liberal archbishop revealed that Vatican authorities had relieved him of pastoral authority in five sensitive areas and turned it over to an auxiliary.
Letters From 60 Bishops
According to a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Seattle, more than 3,000 people--including 60 Catholic bishops--have written letters supporting Hunthausen since the Vatican move against him became known Sept. 4.
The scene now is set for a pivotal discussion when the 315 bishops gather for their annual four-day meeting beginning Monday. The matter is not listed on the agenda, but a spokesman said it will come up during a scheduled three-hour executive session on Tuesday.
The bishops are expected to decide then whether to close ranks in support of Hunthausen, who has become a standard-bearer for liberal U.S. church activists. Whether the bishops will issue any public declaration following their executive session remains to be seen.
"You're going to have a solid minority of bishops raising hell" at the meeting, declared Father Richard P. McBrien, the liberal theologian who chairs the University of Notre Dame theology department.
The action against Hunthausen has stirred spirited debate over how the hierarchical, doctrine-bound Roman Catholic Church should function in the United States, where open democratic processes are a national tradition.
Reacting to a groundswell of U.S. protest to Hunthausen's censure--by lay Catholics, priests and bishops--the Vatican last week released a detailed four-page chronology of complaints it said had led to the decision to curtail Hunthausen's authority. It suggested that Hunthausen had reneged on an agreement to let an auxiliary bishop, Donald Wuerl, take control of the disputed areas: liturgy, the archdiocesan marriage court, homosexual and health care issues, education and training of priests, and priests who have left the priesthood.
A day later, the embattled archbishop released his own brief accounting of what happened, saying it "differed significantly" from the Vatican version. He said he will comment more fully when his colleagues take up the matter.
According to the Vatican chronology, Hunthausen permitted sterilizations in Catholic hospitals, allowed non-Catholics to receive Communion at Catholic Masses, employed former priests as teachers in Catholic schools, misapplied church law in granting annulments and permitted affiliations with homosexual groups that disavowed church teachings.
Spreading Fire of Revolt
His longtime friend, Archbishop Francis Hurley of Alaska, said the Hunthausen case has sparked a spreading fire of revolt.
"It is no longer a question of Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle," Hurley said. "It's a question of the state of the church."
Bishop Michael Kenny of Juneau, Alaska, said the U.S. bishops must "express to the Holy See our sense that this has not been just."
Another of Hunthausen's friends traveled to Rome at his own expense to lobby for the archbishop. Retired Bishop Nicolas E. Walsh, now living in Boise, Ida., said he went to the Vatican last month "to show my personal solidarity with Pope John Paul II and the archbishop, and to visit the cardinal-prefects of the Vatican offices handling the case."
A group calling itself Concerned Catholics and composed of 35 Seattle-area priests, nuns and lay persons has appealed to the American hierarchy to intercede on Hunthausen's behalf and end what the group calls a "great scandal." The group sent each U.S. bishop a 10-page document regarding Hunthausen.
Calling him "a man of extraordinary faith, integrity and vision," Concerned Catholics said that "our church of western Washington has been harmed and scandalized" and that the Catholic Church's credibility had been compromised.
'Period of Calm' Urged
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago has urged "a period of calm" and an airing of "as much of the factual situation as possible." The uproar "has adversely affected (Catholic) morale," Bernardin wrote in a recent column in his archdiocesan newspaper.
The likely successor to Bishop James W. Malone as president of the National Council of Catholic Bishops is the present vice president, Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, a theological moderate.