Monday, February 1, 2010

Sr. Teresa Forcades i Vila: The "Women First" Interview on Feminism and Gender

This is an English translation of the interview with Sr. Teresa Forcades i Vila from Sílvia Cóppulo's book Dones de Primera: 47 vides excepcionals ("Women First: 47 Exceptional Lives" -- Ara Libres, 2009). Those of you who read this blog and speak Catalan -- and there are lots of you! -- are encouraged to find and buy the book as there are interviews with many important women in it.

You see her on TV, debating gently but firmly with the bishop or dealing freely with difficult issues such as the sexuality of men and women religious. She always does it with respect and from personal commitment. It is interesting to read her book "Feminist Theology in History," for the research and interpretation effort and the audacity to rigorously tackle subjects that are taboo for traditional Christianity. But when I went to visit her in Montserrat, I discovered the more human side of her. After getting lost on those roads that are off the GPS, I arrived at the Monestir de Sant Benet late, very late. I was offered a glass of water and some cookies while she made sure I calmed down. I was listening to someone who has come to live with complete interior freedom.

Is being a theologian and a feminist contradictory?

It may seem so, because it is unusual, and also because theology is perceived as a conservative field and as a defender of traditional roles, and the feminist field by definition questions these roles and aims for them to cease to exist.

It is indeed a contrast, but in both my experience and how I do theology, I try to be faithful to the Gospel in suggesting that gender stereotypes are not God's will.

You give a different interpretation to Sacred Scripture?

For me it is very important to emphasize that feminism and feminist theology are not purely modern phenomena. There are realities that had not received those names yet, that can be identified as historical constants and also appear in the Bible. The word "feminism" was coined in the late 19th century, and the expression "feminist theology" is from the sixties in the 20th century. However, the reality that the word feminism addresses refers to little fulfilled potential, narrower and more limited social expectations and standards for women.

If I as a male, can devote myself to a very wide range of things, why can't my partner -- she who also thinks for herself -- do so?

Already in the 4th century bishop and theologian Gregory of Nazianzus said that laws against adultery are unfair. If it's the husband who sins against the woman, nothing happens. However, if it's the woman who sins against the husband, the full force of the law falls upon her. God does not want this. God made us equal and we are commanded: "Honor father and mother." Gregory of Nazianzus asks: "If inequality is not God's will, then where does it come from?". And he himself, in his Prayer 37, answers: "It comes from males who have made the laws for their convenience." Gregory of Nazianzus's testimony makes it clear that males, even if they are theologians and bishops, can also be feminists.

Is God a feminist?

If by feminist we mean someone who does not accept the fact that because of being a woman, certain social roles belong to you that you have not chosen and that you can only get out of by accepting exclusion, it is obvious that yes, God is a feminist just as He is an abolitionist. God does not want any person to be subject to another or stop making the most of the talents he or she has been given for reasons of race or gender.

Then how come the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is so sexist?

The first wave of feminism is identified as the "feminism of equality." It affirms that nothing in nature leads women and men to act differently and believes that gender roles are cultural inventions. From this standpoint, it is clear that if the roles were no longer promoted, they would just disappear and every man and woman would lean freely towards what they wanted to be without problems. This is the feminism that is prevalent in North America.

The feminism of French and Italian origin, however, is the "feminism of difference" and it affirms that it is obvious that there are natural differences between men and women, that women have more sensitivity and therefore more capacity for empathy, less competitiveness, that we don't need to assert ourselves as much before an audience, and often knowing and being told that we are loved is sufficient for us.

What feminists of difference want is for feminine values such as complicity or absence of competitiveness to have as much social prestige as masculine values.

You were talking about how Rome views all this today.

It has now been 20 years since John Paul II's encyclical "Mulieris Dignitatem". In this letter, the Pope unambiguously affirms the equal spiritual dignity of women and men, and then emphasizes the particular vocation of women, specifically motherhood and a particular "disposition" for giving oneself to others. This means in practice that God wants women to remain in the background on a social level and reign in the home. I'm not going there. I believe that gender roles are not invented but neither are they God's will, rather they are the result of our emotional immaturity. For women to move from the background to the foreground socially involves a process of personal maturity. And for men to move from foreground to background, too.

Would it be possible for the Vatican to accept what you say?

It can't accept it without a profound structural change, and this can only happen when the majority of Catholics want it. It is therefore interesting to ask these questions and work on them personally and in small groups. In the intimate personal life one should not fall into inconsistency. The personal life does not allow for making blunt statements as much.

I do not believe in victimism. I think if we women had wanted it, gender roles would have changed long ago. If certain things do not change, it is because we have our identity based on this traditional formula. There are mothers who feel displaced if the father is emotionally too close to the children. If the child cries and calls out for daddy instead of looking for her, many mothers feel bad.

You have written that we start out from difference but that we can arrive at equality?

I think there is a differential anthropological starting point that explains why gender roles are so prevalent and so difficult to change, but the eschatological point of arrival is equality or, rather, the disappearance of roles because personal fulfilment makes each person unique in his or her gender (in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that in Jesus Christ we are all transformed and there are no distinctions between masculine and feminine).

For me it is clear that this business of roles is not all cultural, because otherwise it doesn't explain to me why it is found in so many different cultures.

I think Nancy Chodorow's observations and theories are useful both for understanding where the roles come from and for trying to overcome them. Chodorow assumes that small children become individualized by taking the mother as reference. Between 6 and 18 months of age, the child begins to become aware of being someone different from the mother and at two and a half years of age begins to use the first person singular pronoun "I". This process is known as the "individuation process" and involves a primary rupture of the maternal bond. This rupture occurs differently depending on whether we are boys or girls. If the girl asks the mother "Mama, when I grow up will I be like you and have children in my tummy?" or says "Can I have a ponytail in my hair like yours?", the mother quite happily says "yes". But if it's the boy who asks that, the mother answers "no". And she says it in a firm tone, so that it is clear to him that he is very wrong and that there is danger here. The girl understands that "being herself" is to be like the mother. The boy, however, sees that to "be himself" he must be different from the reference person who is the mother. Individuation through continuity leads girls to feel themselves insofar as they resemble the people they love.

Boys, however, feel themselves insofar as they distinguish themselves from the people they love (individuation through discontinuity). The father as a referent is very important, but can't take the place of maternal reference. The one who carried you in the womb is the mother and not the father, and it is the voice of the mother and not the father that you felt during the nine months you were gestating. Even before the ear is formed, the cells of the embryo vibrate with the harmony and cadences of the maternal voice.

In adult life, as we perceive that women's self is associated with continuity and men's with discontinuity, we arrive at the false conclusion that women know how to love more and men know how to be freer. In reality this is false, because love and freedom are inseparable and nobody can have more of one than of the other, but this is the sense that we normally have and that creates gender stereotypes: we confuse women's "fear of loneliness" with love and men's "fear of dependency" with freedom.

But to the extent that the stereotypical role is lost, aren't we condemning women to feel more alone?

No, because the fears on which stereotypes are based always lead to what they want to avoid: being afraid of loneliness leads to loneliness and being afraid of dependency leads to dependency. We see, for example, that there are men who are unemployed, whose wives work outside the home, however, they can't do housework because it is depressing to feel that they have lost their role. The men have it harder today because society looks favorably on a woman who performs male tasks, but it doesn't look the same way on a man who performs traditionally female tasks.

This process is harder for a man?

With regard to social expectations, yes, but it is necessary for him to do it and he will only do it when he is convinced that the woman is not the only one who wins.

Has this feminist stance caused you problems within the Church?

The first time I came to the monastery and the word feminist came out, I noticed that the nuns made a sort of "pss ... we'll fix this, and certainly in a few years she'll get over it." But the name is one thing, and the reality it designates is something else. I can discuss the reality of inequality with many colleagues in my community and many people in the Church, but the name "feminism" evokes all sorts of fears: "Uh oh, we'll have problems."

What do your words, spoken by an extremely smooth and educated woman, provoke in the "lords" of the Church?

There is this thing of fear of women to the extent that they symbolically occupy the place of the mother. The woman identified with the mother embodies the omnipresent authority figure in early infancy. It is the mother who teaches "us" first ("don't touch this, don't put that in your mouth, don't pee here"). To avoid the negative consequences of that maternal omnipresence, it is very important that the father be present in early infancy. Although the father can not replace the role of the mother, he must be present at these stages so that the figure of the woman is not exclusively associated with "our" parents. It seems a proven fact that many men have a kind of inner need to lie or hide something from the women who love them. In most cases these are unimportant little lies that irritate the woman when she discovers them and serve to make the immature man believe that he is staying free and has not let himself be completely dominated yet by his wife. The immature man is afraid of women, because they remind him of his mother, who had the moral authority and ruled at home. In the discussions sometimes this fear comes out that says: "Watch out, women will eat us up if we let them." This fear is irrational, but there are many men who have it. So gender roles need to be overcome because, although they are presented as harmonious and complementary, they are actually very violent. For example, many women are convinced that they love more and better than their partners, and they don't realize that actually they have been making a mental list of all the complaints about everything that has happened over the years and are ready to throw it in the face of the partner at the most inopportune time. Is that love?

I was asking you about the "lords" of the Church.

There are many men in the church who are convinced they want to do and do what's best for everyone, and that they would be willing to change many things if they thought the change would be better. But they don't believe so. They believe that gender roles are God's will, and that if the roles were to change, chaos would come. From a theological standpoint, I think that going deeper into the inseparability of love and freedom and the concept of "divine filiation" could be useful. Moving from a personal identity based on maternal and paternal filiation to another based on divine filiation implies a liberation, a "being born anew", which historically has led many people to question gender roles and their overly narrow limits.

Do liberation theologians agree that feminist theory is part of it?

In the seventies, socialist men did not understand, and now we still have problems with the liberation theologians. Some understand feminist theology and others don't. Leonardo Boff, for example, did a book with Rose M. Muraro where he defends complementarity and she emphasizes the need to go further.

I also believe that complementarity is limited in practice. That I relate with you because you have something that I do not have, and therefore we complement each other is not interesting. I have to love you because I love you, period. The relationship of love must be free. In the first love or marriage there is usually strong complementarity and that makes it difficult to move forward as a person, because if one person moves forward as a person, the other could remain "hanging". The love of spouses is only a sacrament of God's love insofar as it is free, not insofar as it is complementary (because God loves and, in return, there is no one who complements God).

You're a nun, doctor, theologian and feminist all at once?

Medicine was my vocation when I was little. My mother is a nurse, and I had a grandfather and an uncle who were doctors. When I was ten, one day at school I said I wanted to be a nurse and the math teacher, who I think was gay, said to me: "Why not a doctor?" And then I said: "Doctor, doctor ["metge" - male doctor]", breaking the stereotypical roles, but not entirely because I did not say "doctor" ["metgessa" - female doctor].

Theology. In 1992, I met the pioneer of feminist theology, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and while I was studying the specialty of internal medicine in the United States, I translated a book of hers. She encouraged me to study theology and then I became a tutor at Harvard. At that time I had no intention of becoming a nun. I came to this monastery to prepare for the final exam in Medicine, the specialty final. During that month I felt that God was inviting me to stay here. I felt great excitement, joy and fear all mixed together, thinking that God was talking to me. I bought the Rule of Saint Benedict. Reading this 6th century document made a strong impact on me. Then the abbess asked me to give a talk to the community. Taking advantage of my being a doctor, she wanted me to talk about AIDS. I talked about AIDS and homosexuality as well. I was surprised. They were concerned about the suffering of homosexuals, if they could speak openly to their families and if they were put out of the parishes. They did not dissimulate, they did not have a negative attitude. I felt I wanted to live with them and like them, really seeing people beyond labels, filters and stereotypes. And here I am.


Teresa Forcades i Vila, theologian, Benedictine nun and doctor.


  • Doctor in Public Health (University of Barcelona)

  • Specialist in Internal Medicine (State University of New York)

  • Devoted her doctoral thesis in Public Health to alternative medicine

  • Master of Divinity (Harvard University).

  • Degree in Fundamental Theology (Institute of Fundamental Theology of Sant Cugat). Thesis for Theology degree devoted to the Trinity.

  • Doctor in Theology (2008). Facultat de Teologia de Catalunya. With the thesis: "Being a person today: a study of the concept of "person" in classic Trinitarian theology and its relationship with the modern concept of 'liberty'", directed by Dr. Josep M. Rovira Belloso.

  • Has published "La Trinitat, avui" ("The Trinity Today" -- Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, 2005), «Els crims de les grans companyies farmacèutiques ("The Crimes of the Big Pharaceutical Companies" -- Cristianisme i Justícia, 2006) i «La teologia feminista en la història», ("Feminist Theology in History" -- Fragmenta Editorial, 2007) and many articles about AIDS, homosexuality, alternative or complementary medicine, the feminist perspective on early Christianity, the challenge of cultural and religious diversity, health as religion and religion as therapy, and the sacraments and the Gospel.

  • Has translated "But she said" by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, 1993 (unpublished), and "The Call of the Desert" by Kathryn Spink, 2001 from English to Catalan.

  • Benedictine nun in Sant Benet de Montserrat since 1997.

  • Born in Barcelona in 1966.

  • No children

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interview, I'll try to find the book.

    For me, it is very clear that feminist theology is the next step after liberation theology, it's main effect.

    Mainly because gender stereotypes and sexual discrimination are a planetary injustice, present in everyday's life, in all cultures, and affects everybody in first person, in some way or another. Statistics say it clearly! Patriarchy is a broad injustice, even broader than poverty and war.

    This unjustice, then, should be solved first. Economical and political injustice derives from it. Women are the really ones who sustain communities in a responsible and solidary way, more than men. In this sense, I agree with both feminisms: equality and difference.

    True, our differences are cultural. But we are corporal too, and our bodily experiences should be considered also. We men experience sexuality in a different way, and that should be adressed in some way, in order to prevent egoism shape our relationships. Femenine authority needs to be reclaimed, at all levels.

    Spirituality has the "duty" of bringing awareness on this, as Jesus did, as a feminist.
    So, again, feminist theology has a lot to say and to offer, be it based on radical, equality or difference feminism. For me, the three options are right in their demands, I think, and each one has its positive points.

    And let's become aware of one important thing: feminism doesn't mean any threat for us men! In fact, it is part of our spiritual liberation process.

    Take care.

    ReplyDelete