by Araceli Caballero (English translation by Rebel Girl)
August 29, 2011
Teresa Forcades is a Benedictine nun, a doctor and theologian. She holds a doctorate in public health and another in fundamental theology about the Trinity and the concept of person. She became well known a couple of years ago for her critical views on swine flu, but that is only one of the topics on which it is fascinating to talk to her. Among her recent publications: Los crímenes de las grandes compañías farmacéuticas (Cuadernos CiJ 141), La Trinitat, avui (Abadía de Montserrat, 2005) and La teología feminista en la historia (Fragmenta, 2007).
Vice-president of the European Society of Women in Theological Research (ESWTR), she is a reference on feminist theology, which "isn't a subsection, either the whole theology is liberation, or it isn't theology. Either it's feminist -- understanding feminist as an identity, for men and women, in the image of God, without being constrained by any stereotype -- or it isn't theology." When we had this conversation, the ESWTR biennial conference was being prepared, which would be held in Salamanca in late August on "Feminist Theology: Listening, Understanding and Giving Answer in a Secular and Plural World."
Teresa's contributions are well known in her writings and her accessible -- and highly recommended--web site. This quiet conversation in her convent in Montserrat is about some of them.
I find it particularly interesting that the book begins by noting that feminist theology is born of an experience of contradiction. That is, something that isn't outside the person, which means that this theology probes both the object of study and the one who is studying.
I like it that you put it like that, because what I like least is what is politically correct, meaning "I already know this; I already know what I have to say and what I have to do." I think that, in any area, it's the opposite of what we have to do. What I'm learning in the monastic experience is to experience the unexpected from God. In the words of St. Teresa, they are those dwellings, at the center of which is the bridal chamber. Imagine...what is that? It is the interpersonal encounter, the loving encounter. You can only enter there if you give everything. And if you do that, things change. Just today, the Gospel tells us that the foxes have holes, the birds have nests, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. Following this, that when we do theology, let it not be from any kind of dogmatism, but from the authenticity of experience. I think feminist theology -- and all liberation theology -- is just that: putting the person with his/her unique experience at the center.
I mean, as an experience, it's something that affects you personally.
Sure. Writing this book brought me to tears. For example, when you see that Gregory of Nazianzus denounced with great foresight some aspects of the situation of women in the 4th century that remain the same in the 21st one, as if God had given women roles that actually have been assigned by a particular kind of social evolution. That perception that there have been women in history, generation after generation, who have felt limited in their personal development because of these stereotypes, causes grief and sorrow.
Along with this, it causes joy to see that, also generation after generation, throughout history there have been people who have not accepted this situation. Although there is a constant reaction against this desire, although many of these experiences end badly, the yearning arises and doesn't cease either, because as long as there are women, this longing will exist to be what you think you have to be, what God makes you understand that you have to be.
On more than one occasion you have said and written -- the translation into simple terms is mine -- that the patriarchal society is not just a man's thing. I understand that this means you don't assign women the role of victims, but of subjects. Is this what distinguishes women's theology --done by women -- from feminist theology?
I usually explain this by saying that for me, patriarchy is not the society that men have made against women, but the society that we, women and men, have built and still maintain today, inasmuch as we live our adult life in continuity with the pattern of children's subjectivity, which has the mother figure as a reference point. I am persuaded by the theories that boys and girls have gender and that it's not due to culture. It's that they have it because they have a figure in their subjective reference sights which is the mother. If I'm a boy, I perceive myself as different. If I'm a girl, I'm like her. I think this is the basis of children's subjectivity. Full subjectivity, which is the adult one, doesn't come to you given from outside, but you have to acquire it starting from freedom. It doesn't matter how you start, but if, as an adult, you're still living with the maternal reference point, you have women who are mothering men -- at work, their husband, their boss, whoever, everybody -- and men who "let themselves be loved" and take advantage of this situation in which women are put, not only because of social pressure, though it's obvious that society could help -- men and women -- overcome the infantile pattern, or it could make this liberation much harder. This perspective takes women out of the victim role, in terms of roles. This doesn't mean that there aren't women who are victims of abuse that must be denounced. That is different than putting women in patriarchal society in a role that doesn't take into account their active role. It's very common for women to prefer men in authority roles, which should make those of us who want to think from feminist categories, reflect. Not to be frustrated, but to be aware that the force that creates and sustains patriarchal society isn't temporary, but is rooted in the purpose of personal growth. And the price is, in Fromm's words, fear of freedom. It's lovely to talk about freedom when you're quietly in your armchair, but in real life, when you find yourself in a situation where you don't know what to do, you go back to the infantile pattern -- you mother and the other lets himself be loved, which is where we find a fictitious, superficial emotional security that doesn't satisfy the adult.
I think that theology, which is reflexion about God, meshes well with this goal of feminism, because that is exactly what the Gospel tells us: "Leave father and mother; if you don't hate father and mother, you can't come with Me. Leave your family now and look at Me, who am love and total and absolute freedom and who walk on water." That's fascinating when you hear it, but in real life it means "dare to take steps when you don't know how they will end up." That is what I believe gives life dynamism, interest, while at the same time fear is there.
Following the beaten paths doesn't guarantee not making mistakes either...
Of course, but it seems so to you.
Ultimately, patriarchy is a power issue, so I suppose that the aim of feminist theology, as a liberation theology, is not -- to put it commonly -- to "turn the tables", so that power changes hands, but to exchange dominion for communion.
This is essential. The reign of the human cannot exist until men and women come together. This kingdom of the human is not the one of men to which we women seek entry. I don't want to go to your kingdom, which is a kingdom in which you have accepted that half of humanity is below. How would that be the reign of the human? The reign of the human is there and, if you want, let's walk as companions to see if we reach it, but my feminist journey won't be coming towards you, as a man, to see if I can catch up with you. That would be bourgeois feminism -- or not even that -- and it doesn't interest me at all.
My idea is not to think that there's a power space that's already occupied and let's see if we're able to get into it. That doesn't interest me at all. I want to live differently; I believe that real utopia is there, farther ahead and it's Christ who precedes us into Galilee, the risen Christ who disconcerts us, who says, "I will meet you in Galilee", and there we go with what we have, with our difficulties, but in no way is it something that we already know what it is, but rather that we live as we experience it. It's not something you think about first and later live out, but it's living from trust, from faith.
Does this mesh with another of your themes, the Trinity? Beyond obscure intellectual "explanations" of the Trinity, our human experience is that, there in the center, we are irreducibly one, so what a pleasure to be essentially community. A society, a history, human relations built not on dominion, but on communion which would be the image of God. I don't know if I'm going nuts, linking themes...
For me, they are very close themes. The Christian, the adult Christian, doesn't make the mother, who has already done her job and should be left to rest, the main reference point, but a God who is communion. What does this mean? First, that diversity isn't sub-optimal. Many philosophies, the best known of which is Platonism, have argued and argue that unity is optimal, diversity is sub-optimal; it's the multiplicity of the fallen world -- we diversify when we are below perfection; when you get to one, that's monolithic.
But the Christian God says it's not like that, because that "one" is a fallacy, it's a chimera for the Christian world, because in the center of the intelligibility of all that exists it puts a dynamism, a dance of three irreducible beings, over whom there is nothing. Therefore, diversity is optimal, it's the utmost, no unity is greater than it; which doesn't deny unity, because what happens is that diversity and unity aren't opposed; a unity is formulated that is only possible starting from and within diversity -- more united, more diversified. And I think this isn't an idle statement, but the experience that everyone has when they feel loved. In a love relationship, you don't know where you end and where the other person begins, while it empowers you to be yourself. They're two dimensions that are experienced simultaneously. That God is love isn't a metaphor, it's an experience.
Human experience goes that way and would even more if we changed "or" to "and", the adversive to the coordinating, if we traded the Kantian system of incompatibility of freedom ("your freedom ends where mine begins") for the basic experience that others make our freedom possible; other people, in fact, are not rivals, but means.
Obviously, this is capitalist freedom: we're rivals. While you have more, I have less, in the antipodes of Rosa Luxemburg's phrase -- "Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently" -- or the anarchist ideal that none of us is free until all of us are free.
Let's get back to the Trinity...
In what sense is marriage a sacrament? Sometimes I've developed this idea to argue theologically for the possibility of homosexual marriage blessed by the Church, which I don't believe contradicts anything in theology. I'm aware that the current teaching isn't going that way, but theology, as I understand it in depth, doesn't contradict this.
With regard to Christian marriage as a sacrament, some people consider the crux of this union to be complementarity. However, if we say that it's a sacrament, it would be because it's a sign of something, that is, the love of God, the Father, Son and Spirit and these three are not complementary at all. The Father doesn't tell the Son "you are what I lack." It's not like that in the Trinity: the Father loves Him freely -- not because He needs anything -- and that is the essence of this love. That is the essence of that love, like all love; if not, it's a commodity, merchandise. It's a love that you can't rationalize. Why do you love this person like that? Because he or she has blond hair? The day he or she dyes it, it's over? That's nonsense. "Because he or she makes me feel good." Then the day you're in a bad mood, you can already start to founder. No, it's something else. We people are the ability to be, and when you unite with another with the will to walk together, the way opens. That doesn't mean, of course, that you have to endure an abusive situation, but that's something else.
I think this view of complementarity puts into question the theology of marriage as sacrament, because it has to be a sign of something and that something is God's love, both the intra-Trinitarian love and the love for us, which is never complementary. That is one of the statements of Christian theology, as opposed to other theologies and philosophies that say God is missing something and that's why He created us. From the beginning, Christian theology says that God lacks nothing; it's gratuitous creation, it's pure love. This is essential to understand. This doesn't mean that, specifically, one has one gift and the other has another and they complement each other, but that's a different level. It's not fundamental. What's fundamental is that an "I" and a "you" see each other as different but at the same time capable of uniting in a way that goes beyond what we can express with words. Therefore, the essence of that sacramental love, Christian marriage, of a couple, as you like to call it, is that ability to recognize in the other an irreducible "you" and treat him or her with the respect, in order to be human freedom, with which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit treat each other. What is sacramental in relationships, whether couple or community -- our community, like any Christian community, is also in itself a sacrament of that love -- what makes them a sacrament is that dynamic of giving and receiving. If you have something to give, you give, and if you don't have anything, nothing happens. If this dynamic is established, you have an environment of sharing.
This is opposed to what we could call capitalist theology or anthropology, in which it's good to have; if I have something to give, I exist and if I don't have anything to give, I don't exist. Therefore the poor, it's already known that they're in the back of the line. It's that dynamic that makes Teresa say "Lord, what do You want from me? (...) whether a fertile or a sterile vine..." If you have something to give, give; if not, ask. That is what happens in the Trinity, because the Father gives everything and the Son receives it, and He isn't self-conscious. It says clearly in John 10: "I have received everything from the Father." Then damn, kid, right? At least say you have something of your own. And He would look at you, saying "Of course I don't have anything of my own, but the Father gives it to me and I accept it and this act of acceptance makes me a subject in the relationship."
There's lots of content here, because the feminine is usually postulated as receptive and the receptive is subordinate to the active, when the receptive can be more active sometimes because it presupposes the ever deeper capacity to be activated as a receiving subject. Because giving can be an act outside of the person. God is love, we are made for love, and in any situation where we find ourselves we can love, because love isn't going to be adulterated. To receive is to share. We can give because we are made in God's image and God is Father (Father-Mother, it's not the name...); we can receive because we are made in the image of God and God is Son; we can share because we are made in God's image and God is Spirit. So in any situation you are in, you can do God's will -- which is to love -- and in any of these three modes, you can always do it.
That's why I say that liberation, or feminist, theology is not a subsection. Either all theology is liberation, or it isn't theology. Either it's feminist -- meaning by "feminist" what we have said: an identification, for men and women, with the image of God, without being constrained by any stereotype -- either all theology is feminist, or it isn't theology.
Given that patriarchy is violence, is feminist theology in some sense pacifist theology?
I think so, due to the lack of intrinsic violence. That brings me to what Lacan and others say: that patriarchy not only has explicit, but implicit violence, which is shoehorning people into some roles that are external. And that can not be, we don't want to imagine the possibility of growth, education, of a society in which roles don't allow everyone's self-determination from within. God lets us act, though sometimes we make decisions in such a way that God must say "what a disaster!" But from that, we learn the patience of love that accompanies without supplanting, because if it supplants, where is the other? In that profound sense, leaving space.
There's a very pretty technical word that is used in theology to refer to Trinitarian love, which is described as a perichoretic relationship. Chorein is “space” and peri, “around”; perichoresis means “around”. Choreo is dance; choreography, for example. So then, a love is perichoretic that doesn't invade; it leaves room for you. It's love that says "I love you inasmuch as I give you space to be. I don't bind you. I'm happy if you're happy, not if you're there looking at me, in my role." That doesn't mean distance nor is it oppposed to erotic love and there is the Song of Songs. In the fire itself, in the loving union itself, is perichoretic love. It's that ability to breathe, to leave space, to not cancel out the other. It's fascinating that God teaches us to love like this.
What is the academics' response to your proposals?
There are two levels. One would be the theology schools which, in Spain, where Catholic theology is dominant, are ecclesiastical and not part of the civilian universities. Here there's very obvious difficulty -- suspicion -- and I would have to use a stronger term: there's terror. It's sort of an allergic reaction, a visceral rejection, a fear of stereotypes, lingering prejudice ... On the other hand, and fortunately, there are other environments, such as the European Society of Women in Theological Research, of which I'm now vice-president, which is having its Congress this August, which is also an academic theology environment. It doesn't mean it doesn't have its problems, in the Protestant and other arenas, but it gives a chance to diversify what we call academic theology due to the fact that there are schools that are not controlled by the church establishment, which means a space of free thought, because if it isn't free, it isn't thinking. Obviously, as a Catholic theologian within the Catholic Church, my responsibility to be up to date on the teachings, to take them into account, is not problematic for me.
What does it mean to me that there's a Magisterium, how do I view the magisterial role? I see it as a role of unity. Everything we've talked about about love, the sacrament and fulfillment, makes sense within a whole -- one that isn't uniform, that's extraordinarily diverse, but one that doesn't fragment into ghettos. I think it's critical to get along in this common house, which has many rooms, and you have to make room for everyone. I can no longer conceive of my life apart from the other people who don't think as I do and that, for me, is putting into practice the teaching on unity. What I like about my community is that we all think differently, which is problematic when we have meetings, but is essential because, otherwise, we would be a group of friends or a group that has been self-selected through ideological bias; here there are rightists, leftists, feminists and non-feminist, etc.. but to seriously live together is a challenge. In that sense, I think when everyone goes their own way, we lose something. It seems to me important that there is the Magisterium as a consensus function, as a function of unity, where the statements being made about the meaning of life are statements that don't come out of the peculiar and particular fancy of one inspired gentleman or lady, but gather together centuries of dialogue with God, and I have a lot of respect for that.
You say that "if we the majority really wanted it, the hierarchy would be different."
I'm referring to this position of "when the bishop wants to." Listen, no. If you wait until the bishop wants to to take a step, I'm telling you now that you won't even take one, because things don't go from top to bottom. Obviously some go that way, but those aren't the ones we're interested in. Those we are interested in have never gone from top to bottom. There has never been a top down revolution; they're all from the bottom up. Christianity goes from the bottom up and it begins where it begins and Jesus was incarnated as He was incarnated. He was not incarnated as an emperor, which would have been easier -- He's incarnated as an emperor and He decides how everything must go. But He was incarnated in that dump, which was colonized at that point: a disaster in human eyes, but that is the challenge, as we see it. Anyway, I'm not here to complain about what bishops we have, but to look at how we live our Christianity in such a way that everything necessarily has to change, but for that we all have to be on the same wavelength.
I read somewhere, with perplexity, that at some point in your life you wanted to be a priest.
Well, I never said that, but I know that someone put those words in my mouth at some point.
I'll erase it.
Yes, yes. Yes, yes.
Why do religions, that have a message of liberation, end up so patriarchal, even more so than society?
I'm interested in studying this further and I'm not saying that it isn't like that, but I wouldn't want to agree at the outset without getting into it more deeply. Here I have to put my own experience in opposition. I have found some spaces in what we call the religious environment that are far more liberating and less patriarchal in their daily life than other environments, such as the university or the hospital ones, where labor relations are a disaster. There, sacred cows are sacred cows -- of course, they're always bulls, and the word "girl" and the little jokes are the order of day and what it means to have to learn to do, where decisions are made, because there are more female students of medicine than male students but the percentage of women professors is a ridiculous 1%. That the discourse of the Church is, let's say, outmoded, that it sometimes comes out with surprising things and that the discourse of society seems super, but at the moment of truth women are the ones who get operations, women are the ones who suffer from not projecting the image of objects of desire, and so on,...well, I don't know if it's less than in other generations. I'm interested in this critical study of our contemporary society as a more liberated society for women, which is obvious in some things, but perhaps not in others. I'm not saying this to do apologetics, which is something that I'm not interested in, but to try to see where the problem is.
For example, since the 18th century, this convent has had an uninterrupted tradition of women living alone, with an archive that testifies to it. Feminism generally complains that tradition is being broken, that we have to reinvent the wheel each time. Well, then there are certain environments, not just in the Catholic Church, also, for example, in Buddhism, where it's been possible to create the traditions, obviously with difficulties and limits, but this doesn't have a clear parallel in history in secular society. Today, the language doesn't seem to get out of the last century and it isn't very appropriate, but the reality of the respect with which you feel you are treated in certain environments...I, of course, by these monks here [Montserrat], better than by the university colleagues.
The convents have a history as spaces of freedom (what would have happened to Sr. Juana Inés or Teresa of Avila outside of a convent?), but that's not the reality of Christian communities.
I know that there are parishes where the pastor makes and breaks it, but the people who don't like it, leave. I have to say that my experience of parish community has also been better than in the work environments I talked about earlier.
This is what makes it worthwhile to me to frame the question well and not dwell on what is most visible. I try not to associate the Church with the hierarchy. I'm not ignoring it or looking the other way. It's there, but that's not what's most important to me about the Church. When, for example, I look at base groups, not only in the Catholic Church, I see that the people who deepen their relationship with God grow as people and help each other. And we've been lucky that there are groups like the Quakers, so important, with Margaret Fell, which left me very fascinated when I met them -- how already in the 17th century and continuing today, they follow that non-hierarchical model, with a gender equality that almost makes you want to become Quaker.
It strikes me that when you're asked where you were born, a woman with such a broad outlook, you respond with the neighborhood.
Yes, yes, that's right: I was born in Gracia ["Grace" - Barcelona]. As I once told a friend of mine, also a theologian, I was born in the neighborhood of Gracia, on Calle Libertad [Liberty Street], which is exactly my doctoral thesis: only in the "neighborhood" of grace can you experience maximum personal liberty.
It seems like there hasn't been any swine flu this year. Where has all that fuss ended up?
The alleged swine flu vaccine has been incorporated into the seasonal flu vaccine, but what is clear is that this terrible pandemic, associated with fear, didn't stand on any basis. There were many doctors who didn't go along with it, which I think is what we ought to do, to always have a critical sense...with which we return to the beginning of the interview: the experience of contradiction doesn't have to frighten us. To live is to struggle -- not in the sense of violence, but not understanding life, saying "what is that I don't get everything right?" What do you think you've come to do?
A Buddhist story -- told in a quick version -- talks about a master who would say to those who came to consult him, "Look. Don't tell me your problem, because you come to tell me a problem and maybe I can help you, but then another one will come to you, because everyone in the world must have 83 problems, and I don't have anything to do with those. I can only do something about the 84th." "And what's that one?," asked his questioner. "Problem 84 is that we think that we don't have to have problems." That's the experience of contradiction, which I think is also a contemporary way of expressing humility: thinking that it's normal to have problems so that, when you get one, instead of raising Cain, you start to look at how to solve it, instead of just lamenting "Heavens, I have a problem."