Friday, August 8, 2014

Teresa Forcades: "People can't be on the second tier, and money, first"

By Paula Coll Ortega (English translation by Rebel Girl)
The Prisma
August 3, 2014

She's a doctor, a theologian, and a Benedictine nun, in that chronological order.

After studying medicine, she traveled to the United States to the State University of New York to specialize. In that country, she studied theology at Harvard University and, upon returning to her land in '97, she entered the monastery, where she still remains. Thus, being a nun, she finished two doctorates -- one in Medicine (2004) and the other in Theology (2007).

What's certain is that she has been wedded to the Church for 17 years, during which she has received a lot of criticism for her revolutionary views and social activism.

She has made televised appeals urging society to promote an indefinite general strike and controversial statements about Hugo Chavez's cancer, attributing it to his political commitment, having "put his biological life in jeopardy for the sense of a full life."

However, despite the fact that her opinions might seem contrary to the Catholic Church, her reality is focused on the idea of self-criticism of the latter rather than disengagement from it.

Thus she says that structural reform within the Church is needed, that we must choose a different system than capitalism, and that Catalonia shouldn't pay its foreign debt.

She's the controversial Catalan nun, Teresa Forcades, known for her feminist positions and for her criticism of what she calls the "structural misogyny" of the Catholic Church. She believes there's a contradiction when interpreting certain religious texts since in the Gospel women are not at all inferior to men. Her latest project is the creation of a social movement called "Procés Constituent a Catalunya", which promotes change in the political, economic and social model, seeking independence and the end of capitalism.

Teresa Forcades was invited by Catalans UK to the British capital to give a speech at Queen Mary University. The Prisma talked with her.

You're a doctor, a nun, a theologian and now you've entered the world of politics. How do you unite these aspects?

They're united by certain basic anthropological questions about the meaning of life and the experience of love and freedom, be it medical, theological or political anthropology. From the medical point of view, being in touch with sickness, you wonder about many things. You meet people who are young, healthy and strong, but suddenly they get sick and die. That opens up many questions.

There's also a theological perspective that makes you think about the meaning of life and this is tied to the medical issue. My political involvement comes from the extraordinary situation we're experiencing in Europe in these times -- a situation of rapid and progressive decline in human rights. If in your work, you're concerned about the meaning of life and social justice, when that deteriorates, it's normal that there are people who come asking you to be involved in a concrete way, not in a political party but in a grassroots movement. That's what happened in my case.

You're a nun but in many respects you're opposed to the Church. In fact, you've said that human rights aren't respected in the Church.

Within the Catholic Church, which is mine, there's a structure with a more visible part which includes the magisterial role and also the bishops who speak up...but the Church's greatest vitality is in the grassroots community.

If I felt I was opposed to the Church, I wouldn't be part of it. I'm not opposed but I am critical of certain aspects. The Church, as an institution, needs this internal criticism. It's criticism I do from within, and I don't do it by saying "the Church has problems" but rather "in the Church, we have problems."

That's why self-criticism is important and there are quite a few problems. As we have a pope who says so too, it seems that one can say more now. Many years ago, with Vatican II, in the '60s, there was an attempt to bring the Church up to date. There were some years of openness but later there was a backlash. We'll see if with this new impetus, we'll have a forward surge again. We need radical structural reform in the Catholic Church.

You're the author of La teología feminista [en la historia] ["Feminist theology in history"]. How do you explain that women are inferior in society, especially in the Church?

There's "structural misogyny" in the Catholic Church. It isn't that certain bishops have problems with women but that there's a sexist structure, a structure that keeps us women, merely because that's what we are, from access to positions of greater responsibility or church representation.

We have to change that urgently, but it isn't the only thing we have to change because there's also a pyramidal, authoritarian structure, contrary to the spirit and letter of the Gospel which proclaims that "the last shall be first."

The Gospel teaches us a more horizontal concept and historically, it has been applied sometimes in small communities and the Church as a whole ought to apply it.

The problem of abuse of power in the Church has existed since the beginning. We could ask, "then, how can you be part of that institution?"

Because, while this is so, the church is the place that has inspired the most women throughout history to take their own initiative, propose social projects based on their personal experiences, and it's where the legacy and memory of these women has most been preserved.

The Gospel is a source of freedom, inner joy, and equality. Based on the Gospel, without feeling inferior or superior to anyone, I can confront social authority or ecclesial authority if necessary. When the white traders, who were Christian, came to Africa and used violence, they killed many people and took others to North America to enslave them. Before they were slaves, they didn't know anything about Jesus Christ, so it was their "masters" who told them who Jesus Christ was, presenting him as the true God who wanted them to be slaves.

But when they learned to read, they took the Bible and said, "It doesn't say that here. Here it says that Jesus Christ is on our side." These texts also contain many contradictions, things I don't think are the will or word of God. For example, there's the issue of stoning adulteresses or women being silent in church, that the Gospel then corrects. Therefore they're texts that we have to interpret. These texts have demonstrated throughout history in the case of women and slaves, that they are able to reach the hearts of those who are in situations of discrimination and inspire their struggle for liberation.

What do you think about homosexuality?

The Catholic Church today has changed its magisterial position and is in an unstable position. I didn't like its earlier position but it was consistent since it said, "Homosexuality is a sin", "It's a sin to feel desire for a person of the same sex and it's a sin to express that desire through a homosexual act."

But because medicine, years ago, stopped labeling homosexuality as a mental illness, the Church remained alone, having to take responsibility for labeling as sick an experience that modern science no longer considers pathological. So it has rectified itself and current teaching doesn't dare say that having a homosexual desire is a mortal sin in itself.

So why an "unstable" position?

When I say it has an unstable position it's because while the desire in itself is not considered bad, expressing it is forbidden. That's cruel. Having homosexual desires, that in itself isn't contrary to the will of God, but with that desire, you can't seek physical intimacy with the person you love, you can't kiss that person, you can't unite sexually with them.

Celibacy for those of us who have taken a vow of chastity isn't a simple subject either, although there's a lot of literature on how it should be supported so it doesn't end up being crippling for the person. Being able to live fully a life in which the sexual side isn't expressed is considered a grace from God. If that's so, then how can you say to a person who hasn't felt this calling and who, on the contrary, has his own sexuality stimulated by a person of the same sex, that he can't embrace that person?

What's the way to go?

This calls for evolution and, in fact, it's happening, albeit quietly. Many chaplains are saying, "Don't tell but I bless you in your homosexual love; go in peace." It seems obvious that the evolution is towards an open presence and there are many church groups such as ACGIL (Asociación Cristiana de Gays y Lesbianas -- "Christian Association of Gays and Lesbians") in Catalonia, for example, that are convinced that God not only tolerates their homosexuality but that it's a blessing, a reality desired by God to teach all of us what's essential in love and Christian marriage. By calling marriage a "sacrament", we're saying that that union makes God's love visible, but what's most important about God's love is that it's a gratuitous love, not a love based on complementarity. What's sacramental in my love for my partner isn't complementarity -- which doesn't exist in the Trinity -- but gratuity. I love you and I can't explain why. It's a reality that makes you fully an individual. Homosexual unions help make visible what's most crucial in Christian sacramental unions -- having children. The Catholic Church has admitted this historically, even though it has never been against menopausal women getting married.

In homosexual unions, the possibility of having children doesn't exist biologically. You can adopt, but no baby will come from two men or two women. Nor from a menopausal woman. So, why does the Church allow menopausal women to marry?

What's your political activity today?

I'm involved in the political movement "Procés Constituent a Catalunya", which was formed a year and a half ago to work for a Catalan republic defined by a program of breaking away from the false democracy model of neoliberalism. In the neoliberal model that dominates nowadays, we talk about democracy but in reality it's the economic powers that be that make the decisions. In Procés Constituent we're against the idea that after the fall of the Berlin Wall "the end of history" has come and we should consider the current political vista definitive. The theory of the "end of history" says that capitalism has won and that even though we've seen that it has very serious problems, "there's no better system."

When one criticizes capitalism, a fear usually emerges -- "You're criticizing capitalism. What do you want? The Soviet Union model? State centralism?". I don't want people to be in the background and money first. We don't need reforms; we need a democratic breakthrough and we'll only get it if the people are ready to organize from below.

How has this proposal been received in Catalonia, in Spain, and internationally?

In Catalonia, 47,000 people have joined and there are over 100 local and 12 regional assemblies. For the time it's been in existence (one year), the movement has been able to make a place for itself in the Catalan political panorama, but only when the elections come will we know if we've achieved our objective or not.

At the Spain level, it's very good news that "Podemos" has appeared because until now we didn't have any emerging national level party in Spain with the same orientation. "Podemos" is proposing a break with the neoliberal model and the right to self-determination of the Catalan people. On both things, we agree. That's very important.

At European level, the division is being established between the north and south of Europe, where neocolonial mechanisms are being created. We must end the South's clear economic dependence on the North. It's the same mechanism that has been at work in Latin America in recent years. I think we still have time to react, but we must be vigilant because since it could last a few more years...Currently, you're either unemployed or you have to work in precarious jobs for a pittance and without standing out through political activism because otherwise you get fired. You're demoralized when you've studied a career, have a few plans, and see how your daily life is.

What's happening with the free trade agreement?

It's one of the subjects we address very seriously -- denouncing that treaty with the United States and Europe.

It's a frontal attack on democracy. The worst is that they talk about "Investment Protection", to say it's a free trade agreement.

But it's really about giving rights to corporations to sue sovereign democratic governments when they pass laws that affect their interests.

That is, if they pass an anti-tobacco law, the tobacco company can sue. With Investment Protection, the company has come to your country to sell its packs of tobacco and get profits.

Therefore, since you've passed this law, that company earns less and sues you, and you have to pay them. This arbitration isn't made in a court in the country being sued or in the country where the company is.

So it's made in an ad-hoc international arbitration tribunal, paid for by the company itself. That is, the three judges of this tribunal charge their fees to the company itself. This is a corruption of the judicial system. It's not that these judges are corrupt as individuals, but the system is a direct attack on judicial freedom. We must unite to protect democracy.

Catalan independence is a controversial matter. What do you think about it?

There have been European countries in recent years that have obtained this independence but within a global context that looks out a lot for their interests.

If Catalonia, apart from wanting independence, has a plan for an anti-capitalist breakthrough (such as we're advocating in Procés Constituent), it's clear that the powers that be in Europe won't be enthusiastic about it.

The first thing Angela Merkel will ask is whether independent Catalonia will pay its debt, and I want us to tell her "NO" because it's an illegitimate debt. Our allies will only be Europe's discontented majorities, organized in a peaceful and democratic political alternative.

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