Here's a new interview with Sr. Teresa Forcades y Vila. Sr. Teresa also has a new web site (separate from the old monastery one) in Catalan. The web site has computer-assisted translating options built in. In the video arena, we would especially like to draw your attention to her new video against the HPV vaccine (and the accompanying analysis) and the one she has made in support of ailing Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
by Jordi Subirana (English translation by Rebel Girl)
January 9, 2013
Teresa Forcades is an atypical nun. Forcades (Barcelona, 1966) has doctorates in Medicine and Theology. In 1997, she became a nun and since then, she has lived at the Sant Benet monastery on Montserrat mountain. The calling from God and the contemplative life, however, have not been an obstacle to her becoming a public media figure who gives conferences and lectures everywhere and moves easily around the digital world. It all began in 2009 when she put a video on the Internet criticizing the influenza A vaccine and making accusations against the pharmaceutical companies. Four years later, the Benedictine nun is still just as outspoken. In this interview, she openly criticizes capitalism, a system she characterizes as unethical, and defends the movement towards independence for Catalonia as long as it's linked to greater social justice. Forcades also calls for a halt in the vaccination campaigns against the human papillomavirus "because the vaccine isn't safe" and she thinks it may cause death.
You're a theologian, a doctor. Your father was an atheist; your mother was critical of the Church. How did you come to religion?
I grew up in a family environment that gave me the idea that the Catholic Church was an outmoded institution, something out of date like, for example, the monarchy. I grew up in this environment completely tranquil until age 15 when I read the gospels for the first time. I reacted indignantly. No one had talked to me about what those texts said. I had the feeling of having lost 15 years of my life. I went to a parish in the Poble-sec neighborhood of Barcelona -- Saint Peter Claver parish -- very close to social justice and where decisions were made in an assembly. In that parish I learned that life shouldn't be seen as an individual plan but as a common project. It was enriching.
But you were still slow to enter monastic life.
Yes, I waited many years. My discovery of religion and Christ is one thing; my monastic vocation is another. Yes it's true that at 15, amid the burst of enthusiasm I experienced when I found Christ, there were people around me who said I would become a nun. But during that period I was terrified of celibacy. I thought it was crazy and I couldn't contemplate not being able to share my life intimately with another person.
When did you decide to take the plunge?
When I was 27. I had just finished my medical career in Barcelona and had gone to the United States to do a residency. I went to the Sant Benet monastery (Montserrat) to study. Many people still do it. There's a small room where people can stay who are preparing for oposiciones or the Mir [Translator's note: These are two types of exams for medical professionals given in Spain]. There are people who settle in there for a few days or even weeks, as was my case, because they find a structured rhythm and can make a regular study schedule. During the first days of my stay I noted an inner sense of feeling good. But it wasn't until the last week that the desire to want to live like that took shape.
And didn't you have doubts?
Many! That desire went against everything rational. There was a struggle within me -- the hesitation between wanting to live like that or continuing to practice medicine and do theology. Monastic life, at least for women, was understood as a life with no type of intellectual outreach. I bought the Rule of Saint Benedict, a 6th century document, to see what this life was about. But the text didn't solve my conflict.
How did you resolve it?
The mother abbess asked me to give a talk on AIDS. I took the talk as an opportunity to discern whether the Sant Benet monastery was a place for me. One can talk about AIDS without touching on the homosexual issue but I decided to introduce the subject to see what the nuns' reaction would be. Before the talk, I thought they might have the same opinion as the Pope, that is, maintain a dogmatic discourse about good and evil, a rather moralistic position. The possibility also existed that the nuns would show themselves in favor of homosexuality but that would have seemed too false to me. And a third option, which was the most probable to me, was that they would obviate that I had talked about homosexuality. I was thinking that none of the three stances would help reinforce this umbilical cord for me, I would feel liberated and would be able go back to my life.
And how did it end up?
I talked to them about a group of Catalan homosexual Christians who, in the mid-90s, met clandestinely to have Mass and talk about homosexuality as a blessing from God and not as something shameful or a sin, and that in 1995, at a meeting of more open Christians in Catalonia, they made their sexual orientation public. And what was my surprise when, during the question time, almost all the questions went even beyond homosexuality. I felt like the tables had been turned on me. I went to see if the nuns measured up, and I found they completely went beyond homosexuality as a subject. They saw people who were suffering and they asked me questions to put a human face on those people, so they could pray for them and accompany them better. I thought I wanted to learn to live like that -- not going from issue to issue but from person to person.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that the mother abbess didn't take you very seriously.
She started to laugh. I had a scholarship to go to Harvard to study theology but I thought that entering the monastery was more important. She answered that with the mist, many people who go up to Montserrat are caught up in a mystical glow. She recommended that I go to the United States on the scholarship and that if the calling from God was real, it would stay. And so it was.
You entered the monastery in 1997. So you've been a nun for almost 16 years.
Six or eight months after I entered, I had a major slump. I was leading a life that didn't have any type of intellectual outreach: I was cleaning, I was playing the piano...I was drowning. I thought I had made the mistake of my life. I started losing weight. I didn't feel that this call from God wasn't real; what I felt was that I didn't measure up, that I wouldn't bear it. I have never doubted that God and Jesus existed, but I went to the pottery studio and it didn't fulfill me. After an hour, I got a backache.
And what did you do?
I saw two possibilities, and that's what I said to the nuns. One possibility was that God was sufficiently powerful to change me and I could be very happy in the pottery studio. Or that God, instead of changing me, would change them and I could do other things in the monastery. Finally, the mother abbess called me and asked me what I would like to do. I answered, "a doctorate in theology at the Facultad de Teología de Cataluña." They didn't accept me because I had studied at Harvard, a protestant university. Then I raised with the abbess doing the doctorate in medicine. I must have looked so desperate that she agreed. When I was halfway through that doctorate in medicine, the dean of the theology school changed and, finally, I was also able to do the second doctorate.
How do you view the Church today?
I would say that there's been a real distancing between most of the hierarchy and the grassroots of the Church. Many bishops don't feel free to say what they think when they have the obligation to do so. A bishop isn't an official. The Church is an institution, but beyond being an institution, it must be a bright flame that helps people make vital changes. The bishops aren't officials of a pyramidal structure. A bishop doesn't have anyone above him. The Pope isn't the head of the bishops, but the one who all the bishops choose to display the unity of the Church. The bishops have a responsibility, but I don't know why most of them are afraid. There are exceptions, like bishops Casaldaliga and Godayol, who speak out. But most of them believe that the greatest act of loyalty they can perform for the Church is to shut up, keep quiet about what they're thinking.
And all this affects the relationship with the parishioners.
It affects it because the average people go to church with some concerns and, at least, they hope to hear a relevant word, something alive, not a formula that you go here and there and you always hear the same thing, as if it were a cassette or the master's voice.
Catalonia is in a time of change. The question of independence is being raised for 2014.
Catalonia has a relationship with the rest of the nation that is far from ideal. In economic terms we could say that we give more than we receive and that the central government mistreats us. Moreover, Catalonia has a history and claims to want to go a different way even if the nation were to treat us as well as possible. I believe that the nationalist claim, in its most sovereign sense, has its ultimate justification in the will of the people. If that will is manifest, nothing can stop it. That's how I view the expression of communal freedom. We have historical roots, a language, but above all the wish to build a different future. And that wish for the future must be respected. It's the essence of democracy.
And what should the path be?
If I believe in a plan for an independent Catalonia it's because I think a society can be built with political guidelines towards social justice that is very different from the one we have now. Europe ought to go one way and it's going the opposite way. Many people think the current system is a disaster. A billion people are going hungry but we throw away tons of excess food because we are badly organized; we accumulate necessities that are unreal and we neglect real necessities. Most people admit this isn't working but they say nothing can be done. Who said nothing can be done? A lot can be done!
Therefore, the independence process has to be linked to social change.
It's meaningless unless it's like that. Independence makes sense if it's linked to greater social justice. Some of the powerful with interests don't want to change the current model and they're reviving the nationalist controversy to dissimulate and derail the issue. They're talking about our rights, our language, Catalan nationalism. They're very important aspects. But what really should be in the center spotlight is nothing other than social transformation. There can't be more evictions or such large cuts. Everyone would have to be clear about what's important.
Are we in a crisis created by some economic and political lobbies?
That's what's happening in Latin America and the Third World. A need for a bailout is created in a society and then you have slaves forever. That's what's happening now in our country. We don't even know the real interests of the bailout or how they will be modified. It's a type of relationship like what has happened with Third World debt. All the debtor does is pay interest. In fact, the creditor isn't interested in the debt being repaid. If that's done, the deal falls apart. All it wants is to go on charging interest. Thus a situation of actual slavery is generated in an environment that is free for everyone in principle. If there isn't economic equality, freedom is a joke.
You also criticize capitalism harshly. You think we're living in a system that's unethical.
We are living at a time of great open-mindedness. We can imagine future scenarios that were unthinkable for our parents and ancestors. We can imagine every kind of transformation of our body. We can imagine technology and biology going into a sort of symbiosis...We have an infinite capacity for open-mindedness. However, it's there in every field except when it comes to thinking about an alternative to capitalism. Then it seems like we're left without any ideas. It seems to be impossible to imagine or consider theoretically -- I'm not talking about building or carrying out now -- an alternative to capitalism and this, for me, is a sign of mental alienation. Have we lost all taboos? Heck, no. We've moved them to another place. Now we've put them in the economic environment. For me, capitalism is an unethical system. We aren't facing a cyclical crisis but a structural one. The world is organized so that it will happen that way.
Capitalism isn't ethical because it's based on a fallacy -- the fallacy of the free market. Capitalism presents itself as the system that defends freedom as opposed to a different system, which could be the socialist one, that defends solidarity. It's about two essential values and, in principle, it could seem legitimate that there are people who like freedom more and others who like solidarity more. But that's absolutely false. When you're talking about freedom, it's associated with the fact that one person's freedom begins where another's ends. If the freedom of one begins where another's ends, that means those people are rivals. If I want to expand my freedom, I have to screw the other person. I think we need to think and be aware that there are other ways of talking about freedom. The anarchist tradition, for example, says that one person isn't free if everyone isn't free. Understanding that the freedom of one comes through the freedom of others makes people allies. Capitalism, however, makes them rivals.
We supposedly have the freest system. Or at least that's what we've been sold.
We need to reflect critically on whether the capitalist system has really been a defender of this thing called a free market. Protectionist laws have existed since the beginning of capitalism. Capital and capitalists have always gone hand in hand with political and military might. In the 19th century, when there was an interest in protecting cotton, the economic powers told the political powers to impose taxes and if anyone complained, the army was sent in. A similar thing is happening now. If you go to buy bread or milk, you pay a tax which is the VAT. This means that someone is profiting from that commercial transaction and that part of that profit goes to the public treasury. But there are transactions, such as financial ones, that move billions each day, that aren't taxed. Did the market do this all by itself or did someone decide it? That's the fallacy of freedom and the free market. The capitalist market has never been free. It's always been regulated and organized according to certain interests. The problem with this capitalist regulation is that it isn't transparent because often it isn't done publicly or democratically. Most people don't want bread or milk to be taxed; however they would look favorably on them being applied to financial transactions. That's what the majority wants but it's not what's being done. That's why we have to denounce that we're living in a financial dictatorship.
And in a system that promotes selfishness.
My second criticism of capitalism is the anthropology behind it. It's the idea that the best people can do is appeal to selfishness to organize themselves -- the idea that as economic profits are stimulated more, we'll do better. If we were to organize the monastery like that, we'd have to close. In the monastery, we think the best way to organize ourselves is to appeal to people's love. Is this capacity to love what gives us happiness or is a person happier when they accumulate more cash? Who invented that? Obviously, a person wants to eat every day and, obviously, they want their children to eat. But that's covering basic necessities. Once those are covered, I want to do many more things. Because I have to live in a system that tells me that when I have the basic necessities covered I have to want more and always more. Now they've even changed the Constitution to finance the banks before the children's schools. It makes me angry. That wasn't in the Constitution. This is what I criticize about capitalism from the ethical point of view. It presupposes an erroneous anthropology.
And you experienced it first hand.
In a conference where I was translating from English to Spanish, a former senior executive of Deutsche Bank was participating. In his lecture, the man was saying that he didn't understand all those who criticize capitalism for going to Third World countries and paying such low wages. "They say it's unethical to pay a dollar to a worker and earn 1,000 from his work. What would be unethical would be to pay that worker less than what he was earning before. If he wasn't working before, I give him work and I pay him one euro, that's an advantage with respect to what that person had before," said the former banker. When I heard it, I was shocked. But that man, with his statement, was describing the capitalist system and the problem of surplus value. "I'm a capitalist, I can contract you and earn a thousand euros from your work and give you just one." For capitalists, not only is this not unethical, it's perfect.
Would they tell you you're too critical of entrepreneurship?
This stance doesn't mean I'm against entrepreneurs, I like entrepreneurship and I think it's necessary. I don't think of the world I'm imagining with a Central Committee that says what must be done. I agree that you have to create room for people to be freer, with minimal regulations, but the regulations that are put into place have to be fair. Now, only those at the bottom are subject to them and not those at the top. And it ought to be the opposite. This criticism of capitalism is Marx's idea that the ability to work cannot be alienated from the individual. A person's ability to work can't be bought or sold. Work isn't going and clocking in eight hours. Work is helping to make the world more perfect so that all its potential is realized. The work I do is linked to my personal fulfillment. Work is part of the dignity of the individual. What Marx criticizes is exploitation. And I agree. There are other forms of organization. One can create cooperatives and create non-capitalist enterprises. But we always need to take into account that the ability to work is indissociable from the dignity of that person. People who work together are always collaborators and working conditions are decided based on the time each one puts in, what each person brings...This is a type of organization that allows for private initiative, but doesn't allow exploitation.
Are you suggesting having an indefinite strike as a form of protest against the crisis and the economic policies that have been imposed?
I think a social action that's effective is more and more urgent. What to do and how to do it must be very well thought out. If you have a strike, there will be people who will suffer. I think the goal must be to move towards a Constituent Assembly and renegotiating the social pact. That can last a year. The way to get there is through a well organized social strike, but there are other possibilities too. In Barcelona on September 11, 1.5 million people went out into the street to call for independence and for the parliament to be dissolved. A similar convocation could make the parliament dissolve, make the social claims be recognized and an assembly be constituted. There are already people working on this. It's very urgent. This can't wait 10 years.
Do you see an independent Catalonia and more social justice in a short period of time?
The key is popular will. If it shows itself, it will be irrevocable. The challenge is how that popular will can be organized. Throughout history there have been minorities who have dominated the majority. And how did they do it? Well, with the army,but not just with the soldiers. The army is important but violence has never been enough to dominate a collective. The ideological element has always been needed. You have to convince people that it isn't worth fighting against injustice. If they think it's worth fighting, all the tanks they have would be useless. If everyone was clear about it, everything could change in 24 hours. However, we have to be aware of the challenge and the difficulties. Doing that grassroots organizing is very urgent. If the organization exists, this social change both towards independence and towards greater social justice will be possible. And the first thing is to eliminate the sense that they have to give us permission. No one has to give us permission.
Nor is permission needed to hold the consultation?
If we accept this, we are recognizing an authority. If we believe in democracy, the authority is that of the people, of the collective. A few people meet, decide what they want to do, and do it. Now, yes, you have to be aware that you'll have to pay a price and you have to be ready to pay it. There will be a struggle. We can't think that because it's been decided to do something, that it will be accepted.
What would the price be?
The price of social struggle. I saw this very clearly in Venezuela. It's dramatic. And now we'll see what will happen with President Chavez's critical condition. I saw a process with a correct political direction. It's a country with almost no illiteracy, where poverty is better shared. But there's also corruption, internal struggles, sabotage, paramilitaries, deaths, groups paid by who knows who who go around shooting to generate more violence. I don't want to scare anybody. We're not there here. In Iceland, for example, a transition has been made without blood in the streets. It's not about painting an apocalyptic picture. In Iceland they've been able to conquer the fear that was put in them. They told them that if they abandoned the European austerity policies, they'd never get off the ground. But they tried and now it seems they're better off than we are. We need social change. I think that it's still possible now to make a transition here with minimal violence. We're not yet like Venezuela with respect to social breakdown, the gulf that separates the rich and the poor, but ten years from now we might be.
You became known in 2009 because of a video against the influenza A vaccine. What concerns you about the pharmaceutical industry now?
I think we have to halt the human papillomavirus vaccination campaign. It's very urgent. I've made a video. It's a vaccine whose efficacy hasn't been proved and, on the other hand, it has been demonstrated that it can cause death in healthy girls. A while ago, a girl died in Asturias. I've seen the notices. She was a girl who had asthma but she had never had a big asthmatic crisis. She had a more serious crisis after they gave her the first dose of the vaccine. The parents alerted them. They told them nothing was happening. They're very simple people. They gave her the second dose and now the girl is dead.
What's the problem with this vaccine?
The problem of this vaccine is that it has a substrate, an aluminum adjuvant. So far all the studies done said that aluminum was safe, but some Canadian researchers have been able to demonstrate that the safety studies of aluminum as a vaccine adjuvant are biased. The researchers have demonstrated causality. To date, there have been cases of girls who were healthy, they gave them the vaccine, and they got sick. There have been thousands of cases worldwide. That's called temporal association. Obviously, if you have a temporal pattern that's repeated in different countries, you might think that there's causality. But in science that's not enough. Now, researchers have been able to prove causation because they've found vaccine particles in the brains of two healthy girls who died of cerebral vasculitis, meaning that the vaccine could be the cause of an autoimmune vasculitis that led to the death of those two girls and to crippling paralysis in many others. There's an association in Spain with terrifying testimonies.
And why don't the doctors who place the vaccine give warnings?
Most of them don't know, as I wouldn't know if I hadn't had the time to research it. And one would suppose that there are also a few who are self-interested and corrupt.
You're also very critical of worldwide health care coverage. It generates inequality.
Ninety percent of health resources serve 10% of the population and 10% of the resources are for 90% of the population. It's brutal inequality. That's a study that was done by the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders. This means that very few resources are devoted to researching Chagas disease (a tropical parasitic disease), for example, or leishmaniasis. They're diseases that have treatments that are antiquated and don't work. Why? Well, because health research has been left in private hands that are always looking for economic profits. And what private economic profit would there be from discovering a medicine against Chagas disease which causes thousands of deaths among the poor? None. So, it's not researched. On the other hand, male impotence, obesity and insomnia problems are researched. They're problems that affect the richest part of the population, who could pay the most abusive drug prices.
What do you think of the health cutbacks?
Corruption is one thing and the cutbacks are another. But I think they're problems that have to be dealt with together. They say that cutbacks are being made because there's no money, but the case is that Catalonia does have money to cover health services. What's happening is that millions of euros have gone into private pockets. Citizens need to be aware of the existing corruption and know that they're not isolated cases. If we could recover the money from that corruption, more cutbacks wouldn't have to be made. Nor is it true that there's no money for the health budgets. Health care is a right. What's happening is that that money is being used for something else. The debt that has to be paid to the banks has been prioritized. That business that we all have to tighten our belts isn't true. In recent months the sale of luxury items has grown in Spain. Who bought them? I heard economist Arcadi Oliveres say that tax fraud in Spain is around 90 billion euros. If that money were recovered, there wouldn't have to be cutbacks in health care. Hospitals are being privatized right now because it's assumed they're deficient. If that's so, who's buying them? In fact, they're made to look deficient because there's a deal set up.
An oddity. You've never received a warning for your outspokenness?
When I criticized the Influenza A vaccine in 2009, the then Regional Minister of Health of the Generalitat, Marina Geli, phoned the Abbot of Montserrat. She told him that my statements were against the policy of the ministry. I was in Berlin and my abbess called to explain it to me. I have also found that two laboratories withdrew funding for a conference on preventive medicine in which I participated. The president of the conference, following scientific criteria, invited me because he felt that my opinion on influenza A might be interesting. When I arrived in Murcia, where the meeting was taking place, the president told me that he wouldn't be able to invite me next year. "How so?," I asked. "When two pharmaceuticals learned of your presence, they withdrew their financial contribution," he said. What shocked me most is that it confirmed that we have a financial dictatorship, in the sense that decisions are not free. If health care is so dependent on economic interests, you can't research freely.
Photos of Sr. Teresa by Edu Bayer