Monday, January 13, 2014
Teresa Forcades: "To appear in the world, God didn't need a heterosexual couple, only a free human conscience that said yes"
Teresa Forcades has doctorates in medicine and theology and she's a Benedictine nun at the Sant Benet monastery in Montserrat. Usually in the bullseye of campaigns by economic and political lobbies for her courageous denunciation of the influence of the interests of multinational pharmaceutical companies in the management of the influenza A pandemic in 2008, and more recently in the unnecessary human papillomavirus vaccination of teenage girls, as well as for criticizing the positions of Church leadership on issues such as abortion and the relationship with franquismo, she is pushing the Procès Constituent [Constitutional Process] in Catalonia while teaching queer theology in Berlin.
What do you think of the draft law on the protection of the unborn and the rights of pregnant women that was presented to the Cabinet on December 20th?
My position is that of the Procès Constituent: criticism and outright rejection, because it attempts social regulation based on some imposed values. That said, now comes my personal motivation for which I take responsibility individually: I think it is a clear violation of the right to self-determination of a woman that a law requires her to be a mother. I greatly appreciate what it means to be one. I think that a woman who has become pregnant without wanting to, even through violence, can experience the pregnancy as something positive, but I'm in favor of allowing abortion as long as the fetus isn't viable, without considering other factors.
There's a real ethical conflict, a bio-conflict, between the right to self-determination of the mother and the right to life of the being in gestation. In a situation where the mother can not choose, her rights of self-determination deserve the utmost respect. There may be a mother to whom it makes sense to bring into the world and accompany a child with a serious malformation who we know will suffer and die shortly after birth. Forcing her to abort would be the other extreme and I'm against that. I think that creature is the image of God and I wish we had a world that would accept him or her. But it's what I believe, and I can't tell another woman, "I want the state to force you to do what I think is right."
Catholics for a Free Choice explains that canon law exonerates women who have abortions when they're under 16, in the case of rape, need, to remedy an injury, for legitimate self-defense ... Why do you think this [civil] law is even more restrictive than [church] law since Pope John XXIII?*
There are groups who, citing Catholic faith, promote restrictive laws to polarize society into interest groups and try to create a debate that sometimes moves away from the more important topics, such as the social issue and the crisis at the moment. In 1992, I went to the U.S. for the first time. There were a lot of people in the streets with images of bloody fetuses, saying that women who have abortions are murderers ... During those years, they shot and killed a gynecologist who performed abortions1 and the person who was with him. This polarization that has been sought and desired for political purposes has come here, and it hasn't been spontaneous.
There are groups and movements working for social justice and many Christians would agree, but when we get into homosexuality, marriage and adoption rights, abortion, the right to decide about one's own body, they become problematic to absurd extremes. It's a great way to divide a social body which, united, would be very scary. A very strong potential for social struggle had been dismantled and now we are trying to put it back together again.
Lidia Falcón analyzes this law as a punishment for all the advances in gender equity and equality achieved in recent decades, incarnated in women's bodies and the result of continuity with National Catholicism's view of women's bodies themselves and abortion. What do you think?
Laws like this are due to a phenomenon that I have also studied with the issue of witches. Both in the East and the West, at various times of social crisis, confusion, anxiety, loss of reference, the mother figure emerges as the one who will solve the problem and should be controlled in a special way as a kind of collective exorcism, for being the scapegoat. "Let's put women in their place and things will go better." But these right-wing strategies wouldn't be successful if some of the general population didn't join in. And why do they support them? Because of this psychological part that makes them feel protected by such laws.
I think that patriarchy arises from transhistorical psychic structures we have, based on the psychoanalytic assertion of the primary erotic object that, both in boys and girls, is the mother or her surrogate, with respect to which a binarity arises. The one who is identified with the object of desire we call "girl", and the one who isn't, we call "boy". Patriarchy tells us that in adult life we should be thus. I say we have to pass through this primal fantasy -- in Lacanian language -- and if we are using the Christian one, be born again. If the identity reference is the mother figure, we women tend to act as caregivers and the men expect to be taken care of.
What do you think of the efforts to build a broad alliance of women from all social sectors against abortion reform such as the women deputies' pact that has been pushed by the Plataforma Feminista de Alicante [Alicante Feminist Platform] and which has been joined by the Socialist women politicians, inviting the right-wing women politicians?
Excellent. These alliances between women, this closeness and realizing that there's a practical common interest in day-to-day matters, have always been present in history and it's our strength. In the 17th century, the big fight between Christian confessions after the Reformation and Counterreformation was waged by men, because the women wrote each other letters and one was Protestant, the other Anglican, the other Catholic ...
They found ways to build bridges between themselves regardless of these confessional divides. In the early days of Christianity, during the Roman Empire, a law forbade Christian women from leaving their clothes to pagan women to go to the circus. This means that they did!
You've said that the Spanish Church has to apologize for its collusion with Franco and waive the privileges that have been derived. Does this include repealing the 73 concordat with the Holy See, church privileges when it comes to allocating income tax?
The Church not only tolerated franquismo, which was a criminal regime; it gave it support without which it probably wouldn't have endured. The best way to move forward as an institution after such an experience is to acknowledge it and obviously eliminate all privileges that it has just for being Church.
But with the Wert Law we're going back to school segregation by gender, privileges to the subsidized ones, the restoration of Catholic religion as a compulsory subject ...
At school there should be no catechesis of any religion. A mandatory subject that assesses religion as culture would be very interesting, not an easy A, but well done, and not just about Christianity. The curriculum should be well designed and thought out. There is value in knowing the history of the country, and not because the Gospel from a cultural point of view should take precedence over other holy books.
Favoring subsidized religious schools, no way. This is part of this privatization trend. In Spain we used to have a good, and in some cases top-notch, university level. Now, the departments that worked best will be privatized and become elite institutions.
You can get there if you have scholarships, but it's not about catching the brainiacs and the rich, but that the general public have access to higher university culture.
You're hoping Pope Francis will address structural reforms within the church. Does that include enabling women priests, optional celibacy and that the clergy be able to get married?
Reforms never come from above, in society or in the Church. The latter has been moving away from society as a whole and I don't think that now, suddenly, a charismatic pope will make a structural change from above and produce a shift towards greater social justice. It is possible that, as happened with John XXIII, a leader of the Catholic Church might promote change towards greater justice, realizing that the church grassroots have not only been calling for change for years but preparing it, experimenting, innovating, creating institutions like Nouvelle Théologie ("New Theology"), the liturgical movement and the biblical movement.
John XXII said that we should open windows and let air in because it smells musty. Now we're in a parallel situation -- there are many groups that were inspired by the Second Vatican Council -- to see how the doors were closed to them and what they started was moving backwards. For example, since Vatican II it's been said that parish council decisions are made jointly. In many parishes these councils have been dismantled or have no influence with the pastor. Women's groups, youth with social concerns have been smothered, excluded according to what activities ....
Despite the difficulties, all these years there has been a growing Catholic grassroots that views these reforms, openings and possibilities of democracy within the church as urgent. They have created movements like We Are Church, like Catholics for a Free Choice, like the priests who are calling for optional celibacy...
Liberation theology, of course, with all its political commitment, and the need to politically embody the Gospel. We'll see if Pope Francis allows all this to have increasing room of its own within the Church.
You say that feminist theology is part of the critical liberation theologies and therefore focuses on the situation of women and how they are conceived by the Church structure, but also on inequality and discrimination because of class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity ...
Women as a whole face an ecclesial structure that says "God justifies your submission, " and in history there have been groups of women and men who have said that God is for equality and freedom for all, and have justified their liberation by virtue of Him.
Just after the Second Vatican Council, Mary Daly and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza demanded absolute parity in the Catholic Church and we Catholic women were pioneers in petitioning for women priests. In 1974, with the first ordinations of women in the Episcopal Church (I think there were nine or eleven, including theologian Carter Heyward, who had not yet made public that she was a lesbian), Paul VI charged the Pontifical Biblical Commission with studying if there was anything in Holy Scriptures contrary to the ordination of women. The commission worked for two years and their conclusion was that there is nothing contrary. Paul VI wrote a motu proprio (a pope can make the final decision) and it seemed to him that it wasn't the time pastorally. Then there have been statements against it by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but it has never been said that they were Church dogma. There have been many affirmations on which the Church has changed. For many years, it was said that slavery was willed by God. White settlers told American slaves this and, when they learned to read, they took up the Bible. They said that God wasn't with the white settlers but with their liberation, and they created a whole spiritual strength from this message: "Go down, Moses, let my people go."
I don't have any problem with faith dogmas of the Catholic Church because I've never thought that theology was a philosophy, that it's born of reason. Theology is born of revealed postulates and works with reason. It says: God exists and is present in time and space incarnated in a person -- what we celebrate at Christmas. I like the Marian dogma that says that God asked Mary, and her alone. We celebrate that the One who could have exercised absolute power didn't do so, because the respect for others, love and opening spaces of freedom mean something to Him. And to appear in the world, God didn't need a heterosexual couple, only a free human conscience that said yes.
A female conscience.
It could be male or female, but it's clear that a female one embodies all the power of humanity. Jesus is called the son of man, but it was only a woman, Mary, to whom the Holy Spirit -- the expression of what is most personal and free of God -- made a proposal, and she said, "Okay." This is thinking of the relationship with God as a one-on-one relationship.
That's the communal and egalitarian view of the Holy Trinity that you assert in your doctoral thesis.
God isn't a solitary sovereign who embodies the psychotic's childish delirium of omnipotence. He is a community, a relationality of freedoms. Mary points to the Son, and he points to the Father, and the latter points to the Son, and He will point to you, because, of course, if it doesn't come through you ... The Trinity dismantles the whole pyramid system, which Christianity did not invent. In many cultures, social organizations, the tendency towards the pyramid is typical of this childish insecurity, and if religion has any meaning, it is inspiring us to overcome this fear, to understand that reality can be absolutely horizontal. In the communities, in society, pyramidal structures cost us.
I see horizontality [horizontalidad] in theology, in the Benedictine rule which I live out in my community, and in the church in general. It requires trust and that everyone be mature to break these dependency relationships, to create the Kingdom of God on earth and treat each other as God treats us. The word "testament" (Old or New) means alliance, which is made when people have the same power. That is the heart of this religion.
How have you arrived at queer theology?
By studying Judith Butler. I appreciate that queer [theology] asserts the unique character of each person, and that any gender, race, national identity tag ... is a crutch that reflects your fear of personal freedom. The process of spiritualization, Christification, and deification is daring to be a manifestation of love and freedom that are God Himself, when He says "you are made in My image." Buddhism says that personal identity is fiction and should be overcome because everything is one undifferentiated entity. This personal emptiness is only a first step for you to move on to a unity consciousness. But, with the Trinity, the unity is never beyond the difference. The Trinity says that diversity is as exalted as unity, because unity is one thing and uniformity is something quite different.
The religious analysis that understands sex as something that is intended for procreation is a utilitarian view of human love and is contrary to Christian spirituality. To surrender to the mystery of an interpersonal relationship is to surrender to growing towards being an image of God, towards incarnating what God represents on earth. Upon entering, you receive a gift, that this union could engender a child, but that's perfectly compatible with you being able to be responsible and use contraception when you please.
The opposite of Christian morality is thinking as if there were two ways to use women's bodies, usually based on the male perspective: the bad one -- using them to give yourself pleasure, which would be lust and which is condemned by all the church fathers, and the other one -- using them to give you children, and that's good. No! It would be denigrating the integrity of the partner, of the other person.
So I think that homosexual love is perfectly understandable to the church, because it has what is essential: it's not having children, but an open intimacy to an interpersonal relationship that includes respect for the integrity of the other. Two people who love one another, desire one another, and respect one another are giving testimony: this is the sacrament, a visible sign -- like baptism -- that's saying, "This creature is accepted in this community as any other." Trinitarian theology says that all sacraments are an embodiment of God's love. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are different but they are not complementary. Love is not necessity; it's not when I need you because I'm missing something. It can't be utilitarian love.
Some political and social sectors and entities previously organized at the beginning of the Procès Constituent in Catalonia have criticized the cruising speed of the process and the personalism because of the visibility of "mediagenic" people like you and Arcadi Oliveres. How do you experience the relationship with these entities, and with all the processes and assemblies arising from 15M in 2011?
It's normal for people who have been trying for years to organize an entity to criticize the fact that we're going fast. If we were 46,000 people attached to PC [Procès Constituent] just because it had been on TV, this would have been a soufflé. If the PC can go at cruising speed, it's thanks to the assemblies of 15M, the neighborhood organizations, and many people who were already working and organized who trusted us.
And many who weren't, because our political space or niche is to encourage many people who weren't participating. Many of the 15M people, even whole assemblies in some localities, have endorsed the PC. Others are more watchful; there are all possible variations. But without the people already working, there would not have been the climate in Catalonia for the process to take root or for this human potential to be organized.
There's a relationship where the pioneers are others, and we aren't going to take advantage of what we haven't started or be competitors, but try to put a unity factor, and if it jells, it will be among all. As for personalism, seeking out a person who has this visibility has been a strategy. If not, how do you mobilize people who have not been mobilized? Now there are starting to be other visible faces; our role should be increasingly offset by other active agents within the movement.
You are inconvenient for certain sectors of Catholicism, but also for sectors of the left who see your involvement in the PC as interference or even an attempt at manipulation by the Church. What do you think?
I've taken this initiative because people politically organized at different levels were thinking about what we could do in Catalonia to create unity, because it was clear that in the long term, as long as we didn't unite they would win the game, and it occurred to them that Arcadi and I are people with across the board credibility. It comes from below, and from people who aren't church.
As for the Church, I've found discomfiture from the organizational structures of the Church. The bishop of Sant Feliu, of the diocese my monastery is part of, told me that it's useless changing structures if hearts are not changed. I agree. The Constitution is worthless if people don't work for it to become flesh. The law by itself doesn't make a just society, but now we have laws that favor the interests of multinational companies against popular sovereignty, and they must be changed. The heart needs a bit more work, so I'm for structural change. Our society provides a structure in which to experience lack of solidarity; I want to create one that help us make one of solidarity.
There's a fear of the Catholic Church that I recognize, because in our country it has had a 40-year alliance with the dictatorship. But there are also many grassroots people who have been bearing witness for many years in favor of liberation theology, the poor, who died on the Republican side, who worked for catalanismo when this went against the established powers, who kept going.
In the Church, there's a base and some structures that those of us who are part of it have a responsibility to work to change. And being inconvenient for everyone doesn't seem so bad to me either.
When you don't obey very clear interests, you tread a little on a few toes. But block confrontations benefit those who claim society is based on mistrust and fear. There are levels that bring us together and separate us, but I can't view you as a competitor or an enemy. This is the capitalist perspective of the other, and we must begin to change that anthropological basis.
How far can dissent go in the church? Are you afraid of reprisals because of being public?
Consistency shouldn't be lost. I don't think the ecclesial institution can make me abdicate from what I understand to be the principles of the Gospel, and if it brings me problems, I'll have to see how I can be assertive. Neither the church nor anyone can ask me to say what I don't think or do what I don't believe in. They can ask me to shut up, and I don't rule it out at a given time. My voice isn't indispensable. Some people have been silenced and then raised an even bigger ruckus, like the Brazilian theologian Ivonne Gebara, who was asked to go to Europe. It was a punishment, but now she has more arguments to defend what she wanted to say earlier.
They've called you a phony nun, heretic nun, anti-capitalist nun ... What do you feel when they reduce you to the word "nun"?
The individual disappears behind the character. There is a plus side. By going with a veil, I reap the fruits of many nuns who poor people recognize as people to be trusted -- they ask on the street, they see you and smile at you because they see you as close. In the hospital, although one wears the white coat in the hospital, the veil beats the class difference. Simple people understand we are on the same level. I haven't earned it, but rather the nuns who have preceded me, although there are also historical criticisms of nuns that have a base.
Although I don't like labels, there's a social reality and the signals you emit depend on where you stand. Also, this language reflects the difficulty of recognizing an individual beyond. At the bottom of queer theory is that you are given room to be who you are rather than being obliterated under the generic "nun", "little nun", "little sister" ... It's very interesting to think what this means from the female perspective. You touch on unconscious things.
* Translator's note: We are aware that this question, as phrased, is not an accurate statement of canon law on excommunication and abortion.
1. On July 29, 1994, Dr. John Bayard Britton, an abortion provider, and James Barrett, his volunteer bodyguard, were killed outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida.