An Interview with Frank Fromherz

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: When and why did you decide to be a teacher?


Frank: I began some forty years ago when I was a mere 25 years of age. Mt. Angel Seminary’s college program sought a teacher to step in to cover sociology, Western Humanities segments on social thinkers (and Miguel de Cervantes), and some other “utility infielder” needs which St. Benedict Abbey (the home of the seminary program, in Mt. Angel, Oregon) had at that time, autumn 1978. I had studied during my sophomore year of college at La Universidad de Valencia , in Spain, was fired up with love for the language and had encountered unforgettable moments with people who had fought on either side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), together with other experiences witnessing the effects of war and of economic injustice in the lives of people. During my time in the Iberian Peninsula I managed to obtain a Bultaco 250 cc for $100.00 from a Valencia student and I proceeded to ride that 2-cycle motorcycle all the way around the western Mediterranean (during Christmas break from studies). My eyes were opened to so much and I suppose I had also gotten an initial taste of teaching when, in my final year of secondary at Tillamook Catholic High on the Oregon Coast, I taught my peers a segment on The Communist Manifesto, by Marx and Engels, and found myself already engaging in a critical examination of the claims of dialectical historical materialism and the potential problems—as well as the merits—of the class struggle Hegelian dialectic. The rest is history, I always had a passion for ideas and for life of the mind—if related to real social concerns, and that is what I did with my teaching career that only ended (formal teaching, that is) this past spring 2018, when I decided I wished to dedicate full time energy to research and writing.


Gordon: What did you study and what was your most challenging course and why?

Frank: Well, over the years of my undergraduate work, Masters and Ph.D period, I studied a broad range in the fields of sociology, social ethics, religion and society. I suppose the most challenging “course” for me was my many years of doctoral independent study with the late great sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. He always challenged me to try to understand major realities in the intersection of religion and society. He remains, even after his passing a few years ago, a true mensch and mentor in my life—and certainly his work has influenced how I have studied the lives of prophetic religious leaders such as Seattle’s Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. Notions such as representative character, civil religion, communities of memory, and various other ideas developed in Bellah’s own work have helped to shape me. Having said this, there is another sociologist who always has fired up my imagination, C. Wright Mills, who coined the expression, “the sociological imagination” which is all about relating personal biography and public social history as well as social structural analysis—precisely what I did, or tried to do, in A Disarming Spirit: The Life of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen , the new book.


Gordon: What was your favorite course that you taught at Portland State University?


Frank: I would have to answer that I taught, for ten years, three courses in tandem: Sociology of Religion, Sociology of Peace, and Sociology of War—all three, together, have had enormous influence especially because of what students have taught me over these years as they share their personal experiences in relation to the concepts and ideas we engage. Imagine spending year after year with some students who have fought in various wars—and who then have the courage to take a course on the subject and lend so much insight. A professor could learn much from such experiences. Same with personal backgrounds in relation to religion and in a secular cultural context, and of course also with those who have been involved in nonviolent social change (a key focus of the Sociology of Peace course).


Gordon: What is Yamhela Oak Conservation Overlook (YOCO)?


Frank: YOCO is 170 acres of land here near Yamhill, Oregon which my spouse, Bridget, and I have dedicated to native oak habitat restoration. We have worked with the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District as well as with a range of groups including US Fish and Wildlife and the Trust for Public Lands, and now, after many years of sweat equity working to clear many of the invasive species so that the native oak and concomitant flora/fauna could flourish, we have YOCO as a public nature preserve in perpetuity.


Gordon: What inspired you to be an anti-war activist?


Frank: I see myself as an intellectual with a passion for justice and peace at the core of the life of the mind. One cannot, in my estimation, get very deep into study—or into study that is grounded and human and compassionate and unpretentious and anti-academic tower nonsense narcissism—if one does not roll up sleeves and join in the real struggles. I have always seen concerns about militarism as tied to economic injustice and ecological degradation, to racism, classism, sexism, and even to some versions of eschatology which mistakenly instruct believers to see this life as only a vale of tears and therefore they do not strive to bring about as much of the kingdom of God here on earth as I wish they would do so. Probably that personal encounter with folks, some who had lost limbs, on either side of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, there sitting with them in a bar/coffee shop in a peasant village on outskirts of Valencia, in 1972, I believe that experience etched into my conscience a sort of Guernica (Picasso) passion to see a way beyond the horror of lethal conflict. Ike’s brilliant if rather belated calling out of the Military-Industrial Complex, as he did in his Farewell Address in 1961, when I studied this years later, this too would prove major in my thinking. Weapons are a major business and not one I would ever find coherent with a Christian vision – or coherent with probably almost any and every world religious wisdom tradition.


Gordon: What happened when you convened a regional discussion on the US bishops pastoral letters on war and peace and on economic justice?


Frank: Well, fair to say I seem to have some gift for convening big public gatherings. I learned this when in my early days on the Mt. Angel Abbey (the seminary there) Hilltop, as we call it, I just could not keep from focusing on issues. We held a major gathering, for instance, on Christianity and Crisis in Central America, inviting the then US Ambassador to Guatemala and at same event we invited a woman who was on a death list back in Guatemala but who had fled over border into Mexico. The US policy at the time was supporting the very regime that had targeted this woman who was involved in faith-based community organizing and who indeed did support the struggle within her country, a struggle to challenge the grip on power of a repressive regime. These two persons, one blacklisted, the other working for the US government, both stayed in the home where I had a young family just getting started, there in downtown little Catholic Mt. Angel. In same house, for the same conference that went a couple of days, we at our home also hosted the Cuernavaca, Mexico Archbishop Sergio Mendez Arceo, who we also invited to speak said conference, given that he was a major voice in Latin American liberation theology and only three years earlier his brother bishop in El Salvador, Oscar Romero, had been killed—and again, as with the blacklisted woman organizer from Guatemala, Romero was a Catholic inspired by the Gospel to struggle nonviolently for justice. What an experience, one I shall never forget, when all three of these people were staying over at our place, together under the same roof, and then during the conference they held forth with at times rather starkly different worldviews, that is, with the archbishop and the organizer on one vista and the ambassador on a quite different vista. The two conferences about which you asked, they also were fascinating experiences, arising as they did from fact that I had started and directed the Abbey’s Justice and Peace Program in those early years and naturally we had many conferences on many issues—but especially we ran with the zeitgeist regarding issues of war and peace and issues of economic justice, as the US bishops developed the very publicly consultative process and they sought the type of dialogue which our events fostered.


Gordon: When and why did you decide to research and write A Disarming Spirit: The Life of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen?


Frank: As part of the series of conferences just mentioned, when I was directing Justice and Peace along with my teaching duties at Mt. Angel, Archbishop Hunthausen, of Seattle, came (our invitation) to the Abbey Crypt and gave a talk that changed my life. I refer to it many times throughout the book. That year was 1982, he spoke about his personal journey to a public stand on nuclear weapons, and the rest—in terms of my life and what I would do thereafter and even the eventual emergence of the book—well, the dye was cast.


Gordon: Why did you wait until the Archbishop died before it was published?


Frank: He asked me to wait and I simply knew I should wait for that reason. As to why he asked, well, I truly think that if one reads the full book carefully the answer emerges therein. The answer is not glib but it is also not without some complexity and even, perhaps, some revelation about his own internalized oppression, but again, best to read the book to try to see what I am only here suggesting. Most importantly, Archbishop Hunthausen was pained to think that he might ever be a source of division, but at the same time in conscience he spoke truth to power—in society and in his own church.


Gordon: When did you first meet Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and what did you discuss?


Frank: I first really got to know him some, at least, when he came to the Abbey for the February 1982 event I mentioned earlier. The theme of discussion was, in short, the crux of my whole approach to study: sociological imagination, namely, he shared his personal journey in relation to large social forces of US military-industrial complex in the Cold War era and, as I say, I knew even back then that I was being introduced to a compelling story rich in socio-historical and ethical lessons.


Gordon: What impact did Vatican II have on his perceptions and activism?

Frank: Here the answer again emerges in the story of his formation, but it can be said briefly that his first action as a bishop, when he was asked to become the Bishop of Helena, Montana, in autumn 1962, was to attend the first session of the Second Vatican Council. Often throughout the rest of his life he would speak about how Vatican II, all four sessions during those next four years, shaped his whole worldview of how to be a bishop and how to respect others and how to share responsibility, how to live into the vision of Gaudium et Spes,the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, of Vatican II.


Gordon: What was the local response to his protest against the base for nuclear-armed Trident submarines at Bangor, Washington?


Frank: The first part of A Disarming Spirit, Part One, entitle Conscience, tells the story of the social forces swirling around the Archdiocese of Seattle in the period when Hunthausen arrived there in 1975. When, in June 1981, he made what would be an truly historic speech, Faith and Disarmament, which opens the first chapter of the book, his word and his decision to actually engage in conscientious war tax resistance and redirection, all this would produce two major dynamics which shape the whole drama unfolding in the book: people who were inspired by his words and deeds, and people, such as US Navy Secretary John Lehman, who set out to sink Hunthausen and his entire “fleet” of ideas which they saw as repugnant, ignorant, and anti-American. We must of course also not forget that the Puget Sound area was and is today a major center of the US military-industrial complex and many who depended on defense industry jobs were not happy to have a Roman Catholic Archbishop standing before the gates of the Bangor submarine base calling himself, his church, and his nation to conscience.


Gordon: Please share his efforts to address the marginalized including the divorced, women, and GBLT issues.


Frank: Well, the book endeavors to address a range of issues in society and religion which Archbishop Hunthausen engaged. He opened the St. James Cathedral in Seattle to Dignity, the national Catholic gay association which in the early 1980s sought support and found a welcome solidarity from this prelate. Women, including women religious, found a person of keen care and respect for them, when Archbishop Hunthausen adopted a consultative dialogical process to develop one of the very first (among US bishops) pastoral letters on the role of women in church and society—and in how he lived and operated as a bishop he practiced the egalitarian ethos which shaped that pastoral letter process and final document. He always seemed to reach out in a spirit of respect to any person or group who felt marginalized and this shows in so many areas including his strong support for sanctuary for Central American refugees in that era when the Reagan administration was militarizing the Central American conflicts beyond what would have taken place had the US decided to refrain from turning the region into a proxy war with the Soviets and Cuba. In Part III of the book, a section entitled Character, we go back to Hunthausen’s formative years in Anaconda, Montana, where as a child he encountered the face of poverty and marginalization among so many people there affected by the Great Depression and by inequalities structured into a copper-mining smelter operation company town.


I am now working on research for another book, this one likewise about a prophetic religious leader who was involved in a range of issues in religion and society in the second half of the 20th century and who continues, remarkably, to engage issues even to this very day. It will be several years before this current labor of love and critical analysis bears fruit. I hope, as with A Disarming Spirit, that I might at least make a conscientious effort to give readers a window into the conscience, courage, and character of a subject who can inspire us today and tomorrow. If this happens it will be because of all the people who know the subject well and who share with me, as in the Hunthausen story, their perspectives. My task, in both books, is to compile and contextualize what folks experience who know the person at the heart of the story, and in A Disarming Spirit I made efforts to include the voices of Hunthausen’s detractors as well as his supporters—for the range of views is not only part of the reality that must be recorded but is also indispensable for understanding why and how a prophetic religious leader faced headwinds and yet stayed true.

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