Thursday, January 8, 2015

Teresa Forcades: "The story of Jesus is very close to the radical Left -- arrested, tortured and falsely accused"

By Irene Ramentol (English translation by Rebel Girl)
El Critic (in Catalan)
December 24, 2014

Teresa Forcades (Barcelona, 1966) is a Benedictine nun, a theologian, and a medical internist. Co-founder with economist Arcadi Olives of Procés Constituent, she sees the remote possibility of building unity on the left in the short term in Catalonia. Despite being a discomforting figure for the conservative sector of the Church, she claims to have received the harshest pressure in the field of health as a result of her criticism of the pharmaceutical companies over the influenza A and HPV vaccines. Her religious vocation began from "falling in love" at 15 after reading the Gospels and since then she has thought of activism as an inseparable part of the faith.

"Religion is the opiate of the people." Surely this phrase from Marx resonates with you...

It's a phrase of the young Marx, when he was 25. Other philosophers had already said it, but he picked it up and from there it had more impact. Normally, it's usually cited as meaning that religion is a bad thing. And obviously Marx is criticizing it but in the context of that criticism, what he's saying is that religion, in fact, is useful to console the people. The problem, according to Marx, is that consoled people don't have the necessary strength to change the structures. And so that's when he's making the radical criticism, saying that this consolation that oppressed people seek out and that is good to have, they must find it within. You shouldn't look for justice in the afterlife, outside of history. The Gospel of John speaks of a theological notion we call realized eschatology. It says that all these promises of God in Christianity are not just for the afterlife. True Christianity says that the just will never be disappointed, that there is a final justice. That this reality in which the one who has more power oppresses the one who has less and where injustice reigns, that God doesn't want it and that there is a possibility of living with justice, without violence, without tears and pain. All this is true. But this isn't truly faithful to the gospel if we don't think it begins now. And that hope has to be through action, not inaction.

Whether or not it's still a consolation, the fact is that religion has been losing followers. Are we more unbelieving?

In this country, we brought it on ourselves. The Catholic Church -- not all of it -- supported one of the most criminal dictatorships of the 20th century for 40 years. It's true that the case of Catalonia was a little different because there were entities such as the monastery of Montserrat which sheltered intellectuals and many other churches that hosted clandestine groups working for democracy. So here we've had a diverse history. But hierarchically for the most part, it was supporting a dictatorial regime. And this is one of the elements that explains the alienation of many people who might agree with this spirit of social justice but have decided to seek it outside of religion. Another element is that today the possibility of giving religious meaning to our lives is much wider than before. We have access to impressive texts from the point of view of religious depth. This has contributed to a lot of people tending towards religious syncretism. They're interested in spirituality but don't want to be boxed into one institution. It's a religious restlessness that wants to break down the institutional boundaries. And we need it, that restlessness, because some of those boundaries make no sense.

Why believe in an "Almighty" God who allows so much misery in the world?

That's a classic question. In theology, it's called theodicy. Indeed we might think that if God is omnipotent, then He's responsible for everything that happens. The God in whom I believe is a God who, when making creation, took a step back, as philosopher Simone Weil explains it. He didn't make creation as an appendix of Himself. He created something that was capable of loving Him freely. So He drew back to create a space where a reality was possible that would only be in God if that reality wanted it.

Free will ...

Yes, but not just that. For me, it is the radicalness of self-determination. What comes from God is always an offer. He invites us to say yes or no. And not just in an existentially complex way. Every day we choose. And this choice exists not because God is impotent or not powerful, but because He is powerful and has chosen freedom. And the corollary is how we are to behave with one another, or the Church with respect to the world. You can't go imposing; you have to go with a plan that radically respects the self-determination of the other. If not, it would be inconsistent.

Can you grasp social reality and participate in change from monastic seclusion? It seems contradictory from the start, given that the main social problems don't occur there -- evictions, unemployment, ...

...or private property, which we don't have either. We're like a neo-rural community where they don't wait for society as a whole to change to try to live differently. In our community, when you enter, if you have any possessions, you donate them. If you work and earn some money, you also give it to the common fund from which you can avail yourself when you need it. I obviously find it very positive to touch on some aspects in which it's possible to live differently. Now, does this lead to an inability to influence social struggles? I hope not. For me, personally, it brings some time constraints, but I would have them if I had a family too. However, I think this experience that an alternative organization is possible gives me strength to participate in social struggles.

Everything you're talking about clashes with the ostentation that there is in the Church...

As in society, I believe that in the Church change never comes from above. Now the Catholic Church has a Pope whom you must acknowledge has made some very important gestures and changes. He has acted, for example, against corruption in the Vatican bank, a major scandal. But what this Pope is doing isn't revolution in the Church. He's clearing blockages with strength that comes from below. With this change of papacy, I think institutional steps to remove excess ostentation are beginning to be taken. But, even more than ostentation, what would please me would be that any privileges the Church might have would be eliminated.

Is any revolution within the Church a dream?

The spontaneous answer is "no". Moreover, it's necessary. In the case of the Church, the revolution should be anti-clerical and against the misogynist structure if we want a radical break with the structures that aren't serving the people. Clericalism has nothing to do with the Gospel or with the communities. It means that between God and the people there are mediators who are the clerics. In Matthew's gospel, when Christ died, it says that at that moment the veil of the temple, which marked the separation between sacred space and what isn't, was torn from top to bottom. That separation, not only in the texts but also in history, has brought social divisions. So what is more symbolic than that at the moment of Christ's death, it says that this division has ended? Here is something so radical that 21 centuries later, we still haven't understood it. And, on the other hand, the revolution must be against discrimination against women. Today in the Catholic Church, there's a link between the fact of being ordained as a priest and having access to decision-making positions within the Church. Because we women presumably can't be ordained, that means we can't have access to the places where decisions are made that affect us all.

And what would have to happen for those patriarchal roles to change?

The first is that women should be persuaded themselves. I always try to get away from victimhood. I agree that we all have to do it, but the driving force must be women. In my own community, if you ask my 30 sisters what they think about women's ordination, most would not agree with it. For me, it's theologically obvious and also humane. But when I realize it isn't for everyone, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger at the same time because I think it's not that we're being oppressed from above -- it's that we have a job to do at the ground level. And I think likewise in the social environment. Of course there's big capital; obviously the power is there. But the crucial point of the revolution isn't the presence or absence of external repression -- it's the presence or absence of consciousness, subjectivation or activation of political subjectivity.

Having studied it, what's women's role in religion?

In the case of Christianity, there are passages of the sacred texts that are clearly and explicitly discriminatory, such as the passage of the First Letter to Timothy that says women must keep silent in church, that they are not allowed to teach, and that, if they haven't understood something, when they get home, they are to ask their husbands. Or the text of Ezekiel where God says that menstruation is unclean. What can you do with these texts? I think they're useful for not idolizing the Bible, being able to assume responsibility for one's own faith and one's own interpretation, knowing that we made the decision to give more importance to some texts than to others and to reject some of them. In the other great religious traditions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism), the same thing happens.

Is the current political left alienated from Christianity?

When I hear the word "left", I can't help but wonder what that is. I'm aware of the whole European tradition that sees the Left as a reform of capitalism. But when I use the word "Left", it's to indicate an alternative to capitalism. If I'm thinking about that Left, I think it's quite alienated from Christianity. Because they're anticlerical and the Catholic Church today is clerical. But there can't be a story closer to the radical Left than Jesus. Arrested by the police of his time, he was tortured as many people still are today and he was murdered, executed by the state with a false accusation. Obviously, those of us who call ourselves followers of that Jesus don't usually have such a story. Some do. We have Pedro Casaldàliga and other figures, but it's clear that most of us have accommodated. And what I would like is to contribute to throwing this accommodation off center.

The dogmas of the institutional church are increasingly removed from society. Just the opposite of what you support. What makes you stay?

I wasn't born into a religious family. I was 15 years old when I read the Gospels for the first time and they made an impact on me. So I started from something that is deep in me. It's like falling in love. From this first impact, I read liberation theology and I was fascinated by everything they said. Then I went to Sant Pere Claver parish in Barcelona, Poble Sec. There they were consistent with what I was reading. And all this was weaving an indelible biography. But in fact, until today, I haven't felt that church membership closed the door on my working honestly for what I think must be worked for. Of the three places -- the university, the hospital and the community -- where I have spent or spend the most time, the monastery is where I feel the most free. At the university, you have to watch the sacred cows because if you trample on their toes, you end up on the outs. In the hospitals, I'm not saying anything has changed but when I lived in the United States, I felt completely stifled. Therefore, this comparison between a repressive church and a society that has already overcome it, is not my experience.

You speak of falling in love. Is faith irrational for you?

No, but it isn't rational. Is love irrational? It can be sometimes, but that which is not, is rational. Love can't be fit into a box, it can't be conceptualized, can't be reduced to a cognitive argument. Is poetry irrational? No, but it's not rational. It's an activity of the human spirit that energizes the freest part of it. Religion is the same.

Have you ever received pressure because of your political activism?

For political activism itself, no. I received a letter of admonition from Cardinal Rodé, but that was on the subject of abortion. I've also had some censorship when I've been prohibited from speaking. That happened in Tarragona when I spoke critically of the beatification last year of the martyrs of the Civil War. I was to have made a speech and the archbishop of Tarragona forbade it. But where there has been more attempts at censorship against me has been on the medical side. At one conference I was told they could no longer invite me because two drug companies had withdrawn funding. And another was this very year when I was to talk in Lleida about the papillomavirus vaccine and there was pressure even from the Ministry. So I don't deny problems within the Church, but I still see much lack of freedom outside it.

The bishop of Solsona believes that abortion is not a "right", but a "terrible and abominable crime." What do you think?

I recognize that there is an ethical conflict on the issue of abortion. One of the fundamental and non-negotiable rights is the right to life. But the right to self-determination is as fundamental as the right to life. While the issue of abortion is sometimes raised as if there were no conflict, I think it does exist. Because I recognize not just one principle, but two. The Catholic teaching says that this conflict must always be resolved so that life comes first. But I have found examples where, in the face of this clash of rights, the Church allows the right to self-determination to come first. In the case, for example, of a child who needs a kidney transplant and his father has a compatible one. It is a real example. Ninety thousand people in the United States each year await a kidney transplant. In these circumstances, the Catholic Church says the father has to decide. So that's hypocrisy.

What do you think about the Church enjoying exemptions from the real estate tax?

I think it's good. Non-Catholic faiths and non-profit entities and NGOs don't pay it either. But actually I think today there's a privilege problem for the Church in Spain because there are some subsidies that come indirectly to certain schools. I don't know if this tax is the best example.

Incidentally, does the Sant Benet monastery pay the property tax?

It doesn't pay it, like the rest of the monasteries and churches.

Let's talk about Procés Constituent. It was born with the aim of bringing together groups from the alternative left to Catalonia to form a joint candidacy. The space, however, is even more fragmented with the emergence of Podem. Will the mission fail?

Getting that broad unity doesn't look good at the moment. But the primary purpose of Procés Constituent remains the same, that is, knowing whether there is a majority in Catalonia that wants to change the course of antisocial policies. I'm convinced that there is. So we need to find the formula. That's not easy, as I can testify. But the first step for me would be for us to end up going with a political party if we can't all go.

Will that happen?

I don't know. We will decide at the assembly. So far, with the various actors with whom we are having discussions, we've received this offer. All of them would agree to a bilateral alliance and thus the way is open.

Who are they all?

Regarding the negotiations, what I can say is that with both ICV-EUiA and CUP -- in the case of Podem, there haven't been formal negotiations in Catalonia because they aren't constituted yet -- there's the prospect of making some type of agreement. What we haven't specified are the conditions. Once we have, we can discuss it in the General Assembly. If unity then becomes possible, we'd be delighted. That's why we were born.

What's certain is that you will be in the next election...

You see that my personal position leans towards that. But that is my position. The supreme body of Procés Constituent, the General Assembly, is who decides. I, too, once we have specified the conditions, will think about my final position, because based on that, I can opt for one stance or another. For me it's no desideratum to go with one party or another. I will evaluate any alliance based on how solid the possibility is that that alliance will be a first step toward a broader future entity.

Do you see yourself as a deputy?


In the event that, once the elections have been held, a sum of all separatist forces were necessary, would Procés Constituent agree to join a coalition government?

In my opinion, it's impossible to govern together with a neoliberal government. The government has to decide whether to continue with the cutbacks or not. I'm in alliance with anyone who wants to stop the cutbacks but not with anyone who wishes to continue them.

Do you have faith in the political process Catalonia is going through?

I have faith in God. In God and in people. I do think that the Catalan process has revolutionary and popular empowerment potential. But all that potential is still hard to evaluate because so far we have rebelled against power with power. The process has begun from below, but there has been an interaction with the government that has not been adversarial. At the most, "President, put out the ballot boxes" but this is a request rather than a demand. Therefore, this conflict between what is popular and what is a network of special interests, which is what we want to change when we're talking about a break, we still haven't played that card deep down. That 2,400,000 people took to the streets doing civil disobedience on November 9th is key, but it was just civil disobedience supported by the powers.

Lately you've been at the center of a new controversy for arguing that diseases such as malaria and Ebola could be treated with an accessible low cost product, the so-called miracle mineral supplement (MMS) or chlorine dioxide . Some people have criticized you on the grounds that it's a risky product and is not scientifically proven. What's your experience with MMS?

I have it at the monastery and I've taken it successfully with no side effects when a cold or allergy starts. With colleagues in the monastery who have come from Kenya, I have seen that it has made fever pass that they said was malaria and one of them took MMS in Kenya and her mother successfully gives it with no side effects to anyone who has malaria. Yes, there have been studies, but much more research would be necessary because it has great potential. What makes no sense is that people who sell it and pass on the information I am giving now are being persecuted. Why persecute them rather than promote it? The suspicion is that MMS has the potential to displace many drugs. If proven effective, this would directly affect the interests of some of the most powerful companies in the world, which are the pharmaceutical ones. With Josep Pàmies, an expert on this issue, and other colleagues, we have prepared a conference on January 9th at the Marist Col·legi de la Immaculada in Barcelona to talk about everything.

The drug companies in the case of MMS, the influenza A and HPV [vaccines], and the big American and European companies in the case of the TTIP. You're arguing that citizens' rights are threatened by private interests ...

Currently, political power has economic power over it. This is anti-democracy. Because democracy is not just voting. It's obvious that voting is essential. But you need something before and after so that we can talk about real democracy. Previously, we need a debate. If they tell me, for example, that the HPV vaccine is excellent and has no side effects and then ask me my opinion, I would say go ahead, because there would have been no prior debate and I wouldn't have been able to hear critical voices. Now we are going again to the scenario of elections with a very short time framework to be able to debate, consider and weigh the options as they would merit. And the quality of democracy is measured by the quality of the debate prior to decision making. But that is not enough to talk about real democracy. You have to be able to revoke. So first deliberate, then vote and then third, if we were wrong, revoke. Not have to wait four years to change a political situation, because that is mortgaging four years of democracy.

We've talked about social justice but based on Christianity, and even more these days, there is much talk of charity. Some criticize this term because, in their view, it's substituted for the concept of solidarity that calls for a fair distribution based on common interests.

I would defend the notion of charity because the way I understand it has to do with freedom and dignity. However, I also see the paternalistic version. Some people may say we don't touch the structures that generate poverty, we give alms to the poor and we let them know it's alms. This is the big difference between the Right and the Left. Right-wingers are people who think that it's good that competitiveness exists in the social sphere. And then they use the charitable institutions to help people who may have a competitive disadvantage. However, a leftist, for me, doesn't believe in competitiveness as a fundamental value, but in solidarity because they take the disadvantaged person's perspective.

And in this obvious context of injustice, are you never invaded by a crisis of faith?

I've never had a crisis of faith. I've had moments of discouragement. But times of doubting that God exists, no. Sometimes I've thought, God calls me to be in the monastery but I can't anymore. During the novitiate I had those moments because I felt that I had been put in a pit in which I didn't see how my life would be 10 years later. I spent some long months badly. And now, with the political process, sometimes when you see that because of problems, including personal ones, a step that would have been good becomes impossible, there are moments of discouragement too. But that is human.


  1. Hi Rebel Girl. Thanks a million for translating this interview. Great questions, great answers. Teresa rocks! It's like an invigorating shot right into the blood stream. I will translate your translation into German and post it, if it is o.k. Two questions: Why does she keep referring to God as "he" - many don't feel easy with using exclusively male pronouns for God. And second question: That picture of hers in the pews doesn't look like the separating curtain being torn down, but rather like fenced in sheeps, like the pictures of demuring nuns the Vatican likes to post.

  2. One more thing, Rebel Girl. I have a niece little piece from an old priest and philosopher from Austria which I just translated into English. Would you be interested in putting it on your site?

  3. I can't answer the question about why Sr. Teresa uses masculine pronouns for God. I can tell you that among women theologians in Spain and Latin America there is much less focus on inclusive language for God than there is among those in northern Europe and North America. It's not a big issue. The original article featured several photos. I chose the one of Teresa being contemplative because the reality is that she belongs to a contemplative order and she usually wears a veil, if not a full habit, when out in public. Again, you will find the use of traditional garb far more common among nuns from Spain and Latin America than in northern countries.

  4. Well, Rebel Girl, your answer does not seem to match my enthusiasm for the interview. But doubtlessly you must also be excited otherwise you wouldn't do such a long translation. Or is it because I am criticizing two points? Surely we can always improve and criticism should be accepted in a positive spirit and lead to openness to change, not to being defensive. Or do is see this in a wrong way? The fact that there is much less focus on inclusive language doesn't really provide a justification for using only "he", does it? Maybe Latin cultures have been traditionally ascribing more dominant roles to males. That means we have got more work to do there. There are many women that say that using only male language for God makes them think that being a woman is something lesser and that there is something wrong with being a woman. Don't they have a point and shouldn't we respect it? I think that Teresa might agree if you had changed this in your translation - after all, your translation is for an audience for whom gender equality is of more importance. Let us move forward. Old language is also something that is keeping us back. Teresa has been spending lots of time working at Humboldt University in Berlin. She will understand. Please! With respect to the picture: So it was your choice, not Teresa's. But contemplative does not mean to quietly sit in the back rows of the structures of separation that the male clerics have erected. Teresa is all about breaking them down, not about accepting them tacitly, as your pictures suggests to me. Again, an English speaking audience, for whom you translate, might see that differently while a Latin audience prefers a more traditional and demure picture of nuns. I am sorry to be a pest, but we need to move forward. Shouldn't we able to find ways that we all feel comfortable with? Don't we need this common language in order to move forward? We need to come together. And, after all, you are a rebel, aren't you not?

  5. Bernie, your argument about inclusive language is with Teresa, not me. I am merely trying to translate her words as accurately as possible and in the Catalan original, she uses the masculine pronoun for God. My job as a translator is only to be as faithful to the words of the text I'm translating as possible and making changes or additions only insofar as they are necessary to make the text understandable (not acceptable, understandable) to the audience. If you want to make Teresa "politically correct" when you do your German translation, that's on you. And you and I see this photo very differently. I've been reading and translating Teresa for many years now. A theme that recurs in her theological writings is the inner space of freedom within each of us. What I see in that photo is Teresa serenely getting in touch with that inner space. The surroundings are irrelevant. She could just as well be sitting under an olive tree in the monastery garden. She is free and at peace.