Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sister Teresa Forcades i Vila: "In my heart, I'm an anarchist"

By Patrick Schirmer Sastre (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Frankfurter Rundschau (in German)
July 13, 2014

In Spain, Sister Teresa Forcades i Vila fights against the outdated world view of the Church. In Berlin, she rests a little from the struggle and teaches.

The academic quarter is long past, as the last students are entering seminar room 406 at the Humboldt University School of Theology on Wednesday morning. It's about the French philosopher Simone Weil, an intellectual and mystic who worked during her short life for justice in society. The teacher wears simple clothes and a nun's veil, gray hair poking out from under it. "Why are you interested in this course?," she asks, this question seeming really serious. The students are looking for words that sound better than "I need the certificate." For many, it is a regular seminar first of all.

But the woman with alert eyes and a pleasant voice who speaks rapidly in German, is no ordinary teacher. Certainly, no ordinary nun. She is one of the many interesting people who come in these times for a while to Berlin, quiet and inconspicuous in workshops, working in university positions, who one meets on the street without even realizing what exciting stories they bring. In Spain, in fact, Teresa Forcades i Vila is one of the most controversial figures in the Catholic Church.

It all began in 2009. A clip by her appeared on the video platform Vimeo. In it, Forcades, who had previously published critical theological and pharmacy books, explained her concerns about the vaccines that were being administered because of the swine flu that was emerging at that time in Mexico and the United States. Over a million people watched the video. It was the beginning of her fame, which allowed her numerous television appearances, invitations to conferences, and other publications. Sister Teresa Forcades is a YouTube star, if you will, who became known worldwide through the Internet.

She has been in Berlin since October. For two semesters, she has taken on an assignment as assistant professor of Theology and Gender Studies. From her office on the fourth floor of the School on Burgstra├če at Hackeschen Markt, she overlooks the Spree and Museum Island. Books on the shelves, a laptop on the desk. Hardly any religious symbols can be found here. It is the space of a scientist.

Challenging conservative forces

Forcades, who is 47 years old, spoke almost mantra-like for the first video about the dangers of the vaccinations. From the health risks such as narcolepsy -- sleeping sickness -- to the patent policy of the pharmaceutical industry in the case of swine flu -- "four large companies were given the task of producing the vaccine then. At the same time, it was announced that they would not be able to produce enough vaccine in a short time," she says. "Were a pandemic to have come, millions of people would have died senselessly."

And the pharmaceutical industry is not the only target of her public accusations. There are also banks and governments because they have subverted the foundations of democracy for profit, says Forcades. She also challenges the strong conservative forces in her own church when she fights for the rights of homosexuals and calls for a greater role for women. So she is committed to, among other things, the decriminalization of abortion, an issue that is being hotly debated because of legislation that was just introduced by the government in Spain. That she is Catalan and has become one of the most famous advocates for independence in the autonomous region, doesn't make her stand any easier for Spain's conservatives.

These are not particularly new complaints or demands that Forcades is putting forward. She has certainly been talking about them in one way or another. It probably says more about our time than about Teresa Forcades that people sit up when a nun is openly committed to equality, justice, and humanity in the Church. That it is considered exceptional when one of its members is clamoring for what should be part of the core competencies of the Church to be employed, shows its credibility dilemma. The fact that she is alone in her attitude doesn't apply for Forcades, however. She is no exception. "The last 30 or 40 years, you can easily get the impression from the management level of the Church that the Catholic Church is generally very conservative," she says. "I think this is wrong. Most people in the church are committed to social justice and have a progressive world view."

To understand how Forcades has been able to be who she is, you have look at her theological home. The Benedictine monastery of Sant Benet de Montserrat is located approximately 40 kilometers north-west of Barcelona. Three kilometers away is the more famous 13th century monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat. The sanctuary is considered the theological center of Catalan culture, particularly because during the Franco dictatorship, Mass continued to be celebrated in Catalan there. Moreover, the monastery houses an important library with over 200,000 sources. In her struggle with the decision about monastic life, access to this scientific and literary treasure was a crucial point, says Forcades.

That she would end up there was not self-evident. She was born in Barcelona in 1966. Her parents are not religious. At 15, she discovered the Bible. "It was my way of rebelling." She studied medicine in Barcelona, worked three years in a hospital in New York State in the United States, and got a masters degree in Theology at Harvard. In 1997, she decided to enter a convent. The beginning was hard. Forcades devoted herself to prayer and work, following the principle Ora et Labora. In the monastery workshop, she worked on small ceramic figures, which were to be sold. Her back hurt. She lost weight. She felt underutilized. One day, a sister asked: "Teresa, can you imagine still making ceramic figures here in ten years?" No, she couldn't. "There were two options: Either I myself would change and find fun in this life at some point. Or the monastery would change."

Forcades prevailed. She was allowed to get a doctorate in medicine, then she earned her doctorate in theology. Back then, it was a completely new idea at Montserrat that not just monks were allowed to deal with scientific theology. She has now paved the way for other sisters. Her academic achievements are probably a component of her success. The fact that her theories are well-researched and factually supported, is certainly an advantage in a political environment in which half-truths and religious zeal ring out from all sides. Nevertheless, she has repeatedly been accused of being motivated by conceit.

"Of course I didn't go into the monastery to appear on television," she says, as if this idea were not absurd in itself. The popularity she has now attained makes her feel uncomfortable. "Sometimes I wonder how it would be if I didn't enjoy the protection of the monastery. I think I would die."

In Berlin, she can move back and forth without being detected. Like so many other luminaries of science who work here without attracting a lot of public attention. For her, it's a contrast to her everyday life in the actually secluded monastery in Montserrat, where she takes up to 30 media inquiries daily. Where she has assistants among the sisters who help her cope with the mountain of letters, e-mails, and calls. Exhausting not only for herself. "Some of the sisters find what I'm doing terrible." They sometimes ask whether she couldn't finally stop with all the politics.

It's not her first time at Humboldt University. Since 2009, she has completed two semesters as a lecturer. Since then, she says, it has become a dull, neoliberal city. Nevertheless, not only because of the simplicity of the people but also as a theologian, she enjoys Berlin. She appreciates existence in the Diaspora. "Catholics working here are a minority. This teaches one humility, which we could learn a lot from in Spain." Teresa Forcades sees herself only sometimes as a rebel. "In my heart, I'm an anarchist, but that doesn't mean that there must be no rules." Laws are important, but they would have to serve the people, promote their freedom, not exclude anyone. Man must always come first. This, she says, is the idea that drives her. The guiding thread among such diverse topics as theology and medicine. But above all, she later emphasizes, it constrains her criticism of the interpretation of Scripture. "Dogmatic aspects, such as the Trinity or Christology, I've never doubted. Otherwise, I wouldn't be in the right place."

As utopian as some of her goals might sound in the context of the current situation of the Catholic Church, they are fueled by her faith. "God gives us a pact which we can accept or decline," says the nun. "The Christian religion, when properly understood, is based on voluntariness. Therein lies its great power. We live in a world in which most of us have little say. Those who enter the pact end up with a new sense of responsibility. And with strength to deal with adversity fearlessly."

It is this feeling that gives her the strength to follow her political path. Life is short and it's a matter of improving it for people. When Teresa Forcades says that, it doesn't sound poetic. It's more like Social Realism.

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