The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions, September, 2007


By Rosemary Ganley

Dr. Mary Hunt is a Catholic feminist theologian who co-founded the Women's Alliance for Theology Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in 1983 in Silver Spring, Maryland. WATER is a research and education center which invites women and men from around the world to bring feminist insights to religious practice in the service of social change.

Mary Hunt lectures worldwide, and writes on theology and ethics with attention to liberation issues. She is the author of A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z, (Palgrave). With Patricia Beattie Jung and Radhika Balakrishna she edited Good Sex: A Feminist Perspective from the World's Religions (Rutgers University Press).

This past August, Hunt helped organize the 25th anniversary conference of Women-Church Convergence, a coalition of 36 Catholic-rooted women's organizations in the U.S. and Canada. I spoke with Hunt at the conference, which was held in Chicago.

Rosemary Ganley: In the wake of two recent Vatican statements, the first reasserting the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church and describing other Christian denominations as "suffering from defects," and the second entitled Summorum Pontificum bringing back the Latin Mass with its prayers for the conversion of the Jews, many Catholic reformers are saying that Vatican II is "over." Do you agree?

Mary Hunt: I think it is simply ahistorical to claim that Vatican II is over. The Council has had a significant and lasting effect. It is not possible to erase the paradigm shift in Catholicism which it articulated. Even the virulent restorationist forces which seem to be ascendant in the Vatican today cannot do that.

The second reason Vatican II cannot be erased is that its ideas are remarkably similar to postmodern ways of thinking. These ways include the complete dismantling of hierarchical structure and power. The postmodern mind doesn't cop to the older model. Then globalization with its powerful communication tools which show to the entire world both the interlocking systems of violence, injustice and suffering, and at the same time the unstoppable human yearning for a sustainable livelihood and participation in all communities (including that of faith), makes top-down, men-only edicts from a central authority unacceptable.

Taking those things together there is really no rolling back of the Council's insights. The People of God, certainly those I see of the female gender, are going to act like the People of God.

RG: How do you describe the conference here in Chicago and the directions it shows women in Catholicism are taking?

MH: Several things have happened here. Women from diverse Catholic backgrounds and diverse ministries have come together in a harmonious way in the context of the larger picture, which is that inescapably that of war and greed. Any differences among the women have been only strategic or personality-driven, not substantial. Here we have had many religious communities of women, including the Loretto Sisters, the Dominicans, Franciscans and Mercy and Cenacle Sisters, feminist scholars, pastoral workers, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, reproductive rights activists and ecological leaders.

One great joy for us was the participation of Sr. Theresa Kane, who in 1979 stood up in the National Cathedral (in Washington D.C.) and told Pope John Paul II he must listen to women. Another was the presence on each of our tables of the names of great foremothers in the long struggle for equality. (From Canada incidentally, were the names of Bertha Wilson, Doris Anderson and June Callwood).

But there is a new thing happening in 2007.The focus of these women now in ministry is the world, not the Church. They are not, in its fundamental sense, reformers. They are not trying to change a recalcitrant and kyriarchal Church, but to embody liberation and commitment to a more humane world. This means to confront racism, heterosexism and economic and ecological injustice. They are struggling to be defined not by the official Church, but by their engagement in the needs of the world.

We need a new framework for understanding critically how the Roman Catholic Church in its institutional form has become an unsafe and unsavory environment where felony behaviour has been covered up and children put at risk. Once we have understood that framework --and Women-church has gone a long way towards it-- we must find new definitions of ourselves and our community as Catholics in a pluralistic world. We need a public forum for discussion, a critical, civil debate, and a vision of the future. Then we need structures to organize our common life in ways that reflect the values of our faith. Through all this, celebration, which is what good liturgy is.

RG: Is there in fact a crisis in Catholicism?

MH: I am reluctant to describe the current situation as a crisis. I think it is a logical, if unintended consequence, of a system in urgent need of deep change. Frankly I am not in crisis and most Catholic feminists I know are not in crisis. I think it is a time when the North American Catholic Church is learning in the hardest possible way that it must become a faith community led by women such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and by men not bound up in clerical knots. It is an opportunity, not a crisis, to re-think the basics and repair the damage. I am confident our faith can survive such scrutiny. If it cannot, we are in bigger trouble than we thought.

RG: Are the women of this movement Catholic?

MH: Of course, there are many ways of being Catholic. Ministry springs from one's baptism. We strive to appropriate it through prayer, discernment, and the friendship of others. We are seeking always the guidance of Divine Wisdom. We are shaken by the statements and attitudes of the present leadership of the Catholic Church. We are scandalized, for example, by the size of the financial settlement recently announced by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles ($660 million) showing the immensity of clerical sex abuse crimes. And as we weep over suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan, we strive to change the scandalous policies of our government in its persistent war making and neglect of the poor. It is frustrating to be able to use mapping technology to find a street in Baghdad, but to be powerless to stop a government from bombing it.

Within this difficult matrix, our Church and state is in disrepair, to put it mildly. Perhaps Women-Church is seen by some as heretical, but I think history will show that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Church was unable to carry the freight of the Gospel message.

We seek to maximize our positive effect on the world, putting aside our differences, as for example, over the ordination of women priests or the reproductive rights agenda, in order to work within our movement, and inter-religiously, in a kind of holy spiral. We seek to do this publicly so that when people think of Catholic, they think of us.

We are modeling what it means to be a "discipleship of equals," that ringing phrase of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who was with us in Chicago.

The women see their ministries in justice, community building, peace making, doing theology, and political advocacy as part of a large global movement. There is a noticeable shift in consciousness away from negating the statements coming from Rome and a refusal to respond to the agenda set there, but rather to be about construction, in hope and love rather than in shame and scandal. The Church takes on a public voice and so must we. It has an enormous influence globally and in many ways is part of the interlocking systems of injustice. We simply cannot be lied to or intimidated any more.

Doing theology is an activity of justice-seeking friends. I find that only by attending to the divine-human nexus in all its diversity and complexity can I approximate a political strategy deep enough to make change.

RG: Is religion experiencing some kind of renaissance?

MH: Young people are increasingly interested in religion. At WATER, our efforts to engage in inter-generational dialogue have yielded us a few clues. Some people have such a narrow vision of religion we do not recognize a religious question when it comes up. There is the frightening instability of the world; the degradation of the earth, the violence we now witness and perpetuate. All are urgently-asked religious questions.

And some religious practices just make good sense. Attention to food and friends, sharing and solidarity with others, taking Sabbath time and retreat weekends, fasting and feasting, all add texture and meaning to life. I frequently mentor young people when looking at these questions: I am also enriched by being mentored by them.

RG: Your work is about liberation. Albert Nolan of South Africa in his new book describes the Gospel message as basically one of freedom. To what extent do you agree with this notion?

MH: I have not read Fr. Nolan's book yet, but if he means freedom in the sense that all life on this planet is flourishing, I agree. But freedom in a personal, individual sense can lead to tyranny and to narcissism. Love and justice are the central message of the Gospel, and I would add, sacramental solidarity. So many and so much need liberation.

RG: Do you think it important to consider one's social location when doing theology?

MH: Yes, very much so. Each one's perspective is specific, limited. I am a white, North American feminist. I am committed, as are many others, to the creation of new structures that are egalitarian and democratic. We can see many interlocking ways by which injustice functions, and we can envision many interlocking ways, large and small, by which justice can be done.

Finally, I believe, equality and mutuality will trump hierarchy and greed. Because being Church and doing justice are one and the same thing.


Rosemary Ganley is a long-time Catholic teacher and journalist who for five years was co-editor of Catholic New Times. She is now on the board of Amnesty International Canadian Section. Her article "Open Talk About Church Needed" appeared in the October 2005 issue of The Social Edge.

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