Changing Church: Dr. Mary E. Hunt, Catholic feminist theologian, Co-founder and Co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), Silver Spring, Maryland

Dr. Mary E. Hunt

More than two decades after women-church began, the movement is mature enough to let the needs of the world, not the failings of the institutional church, guide it. . . . It has always been a constructive feminist force that tries to embody what it envisions. Members keep the justice focus sharp by prodding one another to explore hard issues including racism, reproductive choice, homosexuality, and economic justice. . . . Leadership in house churches tends to rotate among participants. Empowering lots of people to be involved is a goal in women-church.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Mary E. Hunt’s chapter, “New Feminist Catholics: Community and Ministry,” in New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views, which she co-edited with Dr. Diann Neu (Skylight Paths, 2010). Dr. Hunt is active in the egalitarian women-church movement, describing it as “an outgrowth of both the refusal by the Roman Catholic church to ordain women and the deeply felt need by Catholic women to act publicly as moral and religious agents despite exclusion from official church positions.” She further states that this very exclusion of women “has highlighted how inadequate church structures are for men as well as women, in that they are antithetical to gospel values of inclusivity and equality.”

Thirty years ago Mary E. Hunt and Diann Neu, along with a group of a dozen women, co-founded Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) “in response to the need for theological, ethical, and liturgical development for and by women.” WATER is “a feminist educational center and network of justice-seekers.” Dr. Hunt comments on her joining with Dr. Neu to create WATER: “We two were white  Catholic women well trained in theology but as out lesbians who were publicly pro-choice were absolutely unwelcome in our own house. So we decided to use our skills and privilege to create new space where women could do their feminist religious work—teaching, writing, counseling, organizing—unfettered by the demands of the university or the church. WATER is the happy result.” (

Dr. Hunt celebrates some of the accomplishments and the ongoing work of WATER. “In our first thirty years we have tried to expand the space and deepen the impact of feminists in religion. Our more than 45 interns tell the story best as they take on leadership in many organizations around the world. Likewise, our various programs, projects, and publications have been aimed at amplifying women’s voices and encouraging ever more participation. That work continues to unfold.”

Through her teaching and writing, Dr. Hunt has also had a major impact on feminism in religion. With the Masters in Divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and the Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and the Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union, she has taught at Georgetown University, Iliff School of Theology, Pacific School of Religion, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. Dr. Hunt is the editor of A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z (Palgrave, 2004) and co-editor, with Patricia Beattie Jung and Radhika Balakrishnan, of Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World’s Religions (Rutgers University Press, 2001). She authored Fierce Tenderness: A Feminist Theology of Friendship (Crossroad, 1991) and edited From Woman-Pain to Woman-Vision: Writings in Feminist Theology (Fortress Press, 1989) by Anne McGrew Bennett. Among her many other publications are articles in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Concilium, Conscience, and Mandragora; and chapters in books such as Feminist Theologies: Legacy and Prospect (ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether), Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect (ed. Marvin M. Ellison and Judith Plaskow), Feminist Theological Ethics (ed. Lois Daly), and Sexual Diversity and Catholicism (ed. Patricia Beattie Jung).

Mary states that her “earliest, deepest religious roots” are in the Catholic tradition. “Catholic is a language I speak, a symbol and sacramental system that I understand. In many ways, the institutional church (what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has helpfully called ‘kyriarchy’) has left me insofar as its structures and doctrines are anathema to so many things I hold dear. On the other hand, I feel a responsibility to do justice in and through my tradition so I have not left it in any formal sense. I have never been tempted to join other Christian denominations which I think of as marginally better on the surface but perhaps rather like Catholicism underneath it all. I feel a special responsibility to work in my own setting. That the Roman Catholic Church wields so much power in the world motivates me to pay attention to it in a primary way.

Although Mary feels she has little access to institutional churches and “no place” in her own Catholic denomination, her work at WATER models the changes in language and symbolism that she feels are vital to changing church and society. “In our work at WATER we have been careful to use inclusive/expansive language in liturgies, lectures, and publications to model just how easy and elegant it can be. Language and symbolism are the coins of the realm in religion. They are how we articulate what is most dear to us, what is ultimately important. Both are deeply connected to the social order; neither is ever innocent. We learned the hard way that “God Father Lord Ruler King” is a linguistic marker that gives men license to take more power than belongs to them. Mary Daly made this clear on gender terms; Anne McGrew Bennett pioneered ways of thinking about political power, especially war, as connected with language about the divine. Following their lead, I have always been attentive to the use and abuse of language in this regard.”

Including female language for Deity “does not guarantee feminist results,” Dr. Hunt says. “But where feminist ideas have accompanied such language, the result has been empowering and enlivening of those involved.” In all her feminist writings, she uses inclusive language for the Divine. “God Laughing Out Loud” is one creative, enlivening example:

            In the beginning God enjoyed herself. She laughed out loud and laughed some more because it was good. She sat back and smiled. She clapped her hands in glee and imagined her sisters dancing. She did nothing but enjoy and it was everything.
            God knew that there was work to be done—a world to create, people to form and a whole cosmos to plan. She even glimpsed the fact that creation would include meetings and that there would be injustice to right, and still she laughed, knowing that in the end it was all about pleasure.
            She explained to no one in particular that enjoyment is what she intended life to be about: pleasure is the first principle. She knew that other would-be divinities stressed work and obligation. She reasoned quite astutely that if joy were the goal, then everyone could rest and relax, at least some of the time. Just thinking about this made her grin.

            Light years later, when creation came into being and people began to toil and sweat their way, she noticed that her first principle had been replaced by work and pain. So she sent a reminder of her legacy. She gave it several names: celebration, recreation, fun, potluck dinners, fellowship. Some thought it was a vestige of days gone by. But God knew that it was the real thing. She called it salvation. (Concilium: International Journal for Theology, 2000/4)

Inclusive language for Deity makes a difference in the way we see ourselves, others, and the world, Dr. Hunt asserts. “It is important for people to see themselves in the image of the divine. That men have long had this possibility is reflected in their sense of entitlement in the world. For women and children, it is a new experience. Hopefully, it will have a positive impact on self-image, social life, and global community. I am concerned that language reflect racial and class inclusion, attention to issues of sexual diversity, and clear analysis of the ways in which ableism functions to make certain bodies normative and other bodies exceptional. All of this is language-related.”

Inclusive language, leadership and symbolism in church will also contribute to change in the wider culture, Mary believes. “If the divine is the greatest thing we can conceive (a la Anselm), then including many genders in the names of the divine reflects the fact that many genders (I am wary of two gender approaches) are fully human/divine. The hard part is that lifting up only male gender people, styles, roles etc. in religion gives implicit permission for people in other realms to act in similarly limited ways. To bring about peace and equality, justice and cooperation is a team effort for which having people from a range of backgrounds is necessary.”

In addition to including many genders in language for Deity, Dr. Hunt uses genderless names. “I think of inclusive and expansive ways of conceiving of the divine—numinous, Friends, Spirit, and Force among others—that express genderless notions.”

Dr. Hunt feels that taking risks and meeting resistance come with her role as a theologian. “I think it is important to call it like one sees it and risk is a minor consideration. I don’t worry about pleasing the masses, or being acceptable in official circles. I am interested to create theology that does justice beginning with the most marginalized. Of course, the world resists change and those in power resist mightily. So many of the efforts I have supported in this regard have come to naught. Most Sunday worship services in U.S. Christian churches are fraught with exclusive language. Conservative theologians try to make the case for such discourse. Mostly I see it as a matter of theo-politics, a matter of power. The resistance is often a measure of how deeply our work is getting into the mainstream.”

Challenging theo-politics in her Catholic tradition, Dr. Hunt recently published an article in Religion & Politics entitled “Theology Has Consequences: What Policies Will Pope Francis Champion?” (March 18, 2013). Here are some excerpts:

           Progressive Catholics had low expectations of the conclave since only what went in would come out, only hand-picked conservative, toe-the-party-line types were electors. Moreover, the process was flawed on the face of it by the lack of women, young people, and lay people. It was flawed by a dearth of democracy. Not even the seagull that sat on the chimney awaiting the decision was enough to persuade that the Holy Spirit was really in charge.
           Structural changes in the kyriarchal model of church are needed so that many voices can be heard and many people can participate in decision-making in base communities, parishes, regions, and indeed in global conversations among the more than one billion Catholics. Short of this, no amount of cleaning up the curia or leading by personal asceticism, which are both expected of Pope Francis, will suffice for more than cosmetic changes. Leaving aside the ermine-lined cloak that his predecessor favored is symbolically notable but not institution changing. . . .
           The election of a doctrinally conservative pope, even one with the winning simplicity of his namesake, is especially dangerous in today’s media-saturated world where image too often trumps substance. It is easy to rejoice in the lack of gross glitter that has come to characterize the institutional church while being distracted from how theological positions deepen and entrench social injustice. (See entire article:

Mary finds inspiration and strength for her prophetic ministry from the most marginalized groups and individuals who struggle against oppression. “Survivors of sexual abuse, people whose governments oppress them, those who are made poor by global greed and uncontrolled capitalism, those who live under racist and colonialist oppression, women struggling for reproductive justice, LGBTIQ people making the world safe for difference, among others are all sources of inspiration for me. When I see their efforts, the risks and consequences for them and their children, I think my own efforts are tame by comparison. White, class, national, and other forms of privilege that I enjoy are a buffer against the worst of challenges.”

In her work as a theologian and as co-director of WATER, Mary has had many rewarding experiences, which she celebrates. “Seeing so many of WATER’s interns and visiting scholars doing important work in the world is very rewarding. I realize that I have made a place for them without which they would not be as able to do what they feel called to do. I also find it rewarding to see that positions I staked out decades ago are now quite commonly held, for example, on feminist ministry, same-sex loving relationships, and the like.”

Dr. Mary E. Hunt articulates a hopeful, expansive vision for the future. “I imagine that in time, perhaps not in my lifetime but I realize that, feminist understandings of power, divinity, ministry, indeed expansive understandings of religion as a human right and quest will be common. Then, many names of the divine will resound among many communities that struggle to understand one another’s perspectives and to embrace one another’s visions as a part of their own. Human community and our connection to the natural order are in the balance. That is why this work is so vital.”

For more of Mary E. Hunt’s prophetic, creative work, see; and



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