WASHINGTON — Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle, disciplined by the Vatican for his liberal church practices, presented his side of the controversy to fellow bishops Tuesday, but the prelates were unable to reach agreement on how to respond after four hours of closed-door discussion.
A memo and a paper prepared by Hunthausen were given to members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the archbishop spoke briefly. Then, after discussion, the meeting was adjourned until this morning to allow more time for the bishops to prepare a carefully worded statement, sources familiar with the proceedings said.
The bishops wrestled "in spirited debate" with the prickly issue of how they could publicly support the embattled archbishop without defying the Vatican, one source said, adding that there was strong concern that any statement should protect the "good name and public image" of the U.S. church.
A tight lid of secrecy was clamped on the proceedings, and bishops who had freely talked to reporters earlier in the conference avoided questions, saying that they had been asked to pledge silence until the bishops had resolved the issue.
Hunthausen has ducked the press and did not speak in the public meetings of the conference Monday and Tuesday. He seemed uncomfortable when press and television photographers repeatedly focused their cameras on him.
The only official announcement about the closed session Tuesday afternoon was from a staff member of the bishops' group. "The executive session will continue tomorrow. There is no press conference," she told waiting reporters when the 300 prelates emerged from the private meeting in the chandelier-lit ballroom of the Capitol Hilton.
The Hunthausen affair has shadowed the bishops since September when the popular prelate announced that the Vatican had reassigned his authority in five sensitive pastoral areas, including liturgy and homosexual issues, to a more conservative auxiliary bishop trained in Rome. Later, Hunthausen, 65, publicly disagreed with a Vatican version of events that led to his discipline.
According to those familiar with events at the executive session, a memo presented by Hunthausen further outlined the discrepancies between Hunthausen's perception of the investigation and the Vatican's published chronology of it.
A discussion of church and civil law and how they might apply to the case, as well as what procedures the bishops should use in trying to resolve it, consumed much of the alloted time, several sources said. The doctrinal "insufficiencies" cited by the Vatican as reasons for disciplining Hunthausen were barely touched upon in the private discussion, one observer said.
He added that Hunthausen had come prepared to present his papers orally but that the bishops' administrative board had decided instead to distribute copies to each bishop during Tuesday's executive session.
Hunthausen's supporters had expected an announcement of some kind by the bishops at the end of the private session. While the bishops met in the hotel ballroom down the hall, a Hunthausen "support committee" of seven from the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., passed out news releases in the press room. The flyers protested "the lack of due process in the events which led to the censure" of Hunthausen. The process, the statement said, "fell far short of the obligations imposed by Christian charity and justice."
John Mitchell, a lay teacher of religious studies at Seton Hall, a Roman Catholic university in New Jersey and chairman of the committee, said, "a lot of people will be disillusioned if the bishops don't take a stand here" for Hunthausen.
"But, obviously," he continued, "the fact that there is no announcement (now) means they aren't satisfied with just a cosmetic solution" to the problem.
'It Won't Wash'
Mitchell, who wore a button proclaiming "Hunthausen: the Just Man Shall Flourish," added: "If they don't do something substantial here, it won't wash to do it later."
Earlier on Tuesday, the bishops elected two moderate archbishops to head their organization, taking a middle road of leadership in a critical period of tension that has followed several recent Vatican crackdowns on dissent within the American church.
Following tradition, the bishops elected Archbishop John May of St. Louis, the vice president of the national conference, to succeed Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, for a three-year term. May won on the second ballot with 164 of the 280 votes cast among nine candidates.
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati defeated Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, regarded as a theological conservative, for the vice presidential post on a third ballot, 159 to 116. Pilarczyk picked up many of the 70 votes that had been cast on the second ballot for Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, an acknowledged liberal who was eliminated from consideration before the final ballot.