Thursday, May 31, 2018

"If secularism is reducing faith to the private sphere, this weakens the public space": An interview with Teresa Forcades

By Jonatán Soriano (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Protestante Digital
May 15, 2018

With Teresa Forcades (Barcelona, 1966) one could talk about many subjects. Degree in Fundamental Theology from the Faculty of Theology of Catalonia, which did not validate her theological studies in the United States because of being partly Protestant, and later a doctorate with a thesis on the concept of person in classical Trinitarian theology and its relationship to the modern notion of freedom as self-determination, the Benedictine nun and doctor in medicine too has experience in public life. Specifically through the Procés Constituent platform, presented in 2013 in Catalonia with the aim of establishing a popular debate to decide what political, economic and social status is wanted for Catalonia, from a pro-independence and anti-capitalist base.

Between 2013 and 2015, Forcades enjoyed a large media presence in the territory, while presenting the platform on a tour together with its other very prominent representative, the economist Arcadi Oliveres. In addition to her demanding discourse, she stood out at the image level, since she appeared in long pants and a veil.

The movement was about to enter the elections to the Parliament on September 27, 2015, but an internal vote resulted in not doing so. "We lost a great opportunity," she states now.

We're reviewing from the Faculty of Theology of the University of Humboldt (Lutheran, by the way), where she teaches, that moment of greatest public exposure.

Question: You've had a Protestant formation.

Answer: Here we aren't so accustomed to it because the Spanish State is one of the most negative examples of Christian ecumenism. Protestantism has not had the recognition that it has in other countries and, therefore, the formation is viewed as dichotomous. I have moved a lot through the United States and Germany and that doesn't occur to them because the theological formation is incorporated in the university and the easiest thing is that you have professors who can be Catholic as well as Protestant, and not even know it. My training is first extra-academic, because of the interest I had while studying medicine in Barcelona and through the Cristianisme i Justicia studies center. That was before the official formation. Then I went as a doctor to the United States and there I began to study at the Catholic seminary of Western New York. I completed the first two years of what would be the degree, which is known there as "Master of Divinity." At the end of those two years I got a scholarship to go to Harvard, which has considered itself non-denominational (not ascribed to any religious confession) for years, despite having been founded in the seventeenth century by Methodists. They are interested, above all, in the possibility of Christian ecumenism and interreligiousness. At Harvard, the formation was divided into three blocks. The first was philosophy, the second was focused on the Bible, and the third on interfaith dialogue. There were Catholic teachers but they were a minority. In fact, I think I only had two. We are talking about the years between 1995 and 1997, and at that time the Harvard Divinity School was part of the Theological Institute of Boston, along with the Episcopal Theological School, the Holy Cross Orthodox School of Theology, the Jesuits' Boston College and the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. This, in practice, meant that in all of them you could do cross registration, that is, they gave you the degree of the institution with which you had 50% of the training and in my case it was Harvard, although I took classes in all the others because I had a very big interest. Therefore, my first degree in theology is non-denominational.

This caused that, when I returned to Barcelona to enter as a nun and I wanted to do a degree specializing in Catholic theology and then a PhD, the Faculty of Theology of Catalonia told me that they couldn't validate my studies because they were from a Protestant university. My reaction was to do a medical doctorate, because I didn't want to sit down again in the first course to be taught who Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were . Later there was a change in the Dean of the Catalan faculty and a Jesuit took office, so I wrote to the Jesuits with whom I had studied in the United States so that they would inform those in Catalonia that they would indeed recognize my degree. Finally, the faculty did not recognize the degree but I had the right to take an exam to demonstrate my knowledge. I'm explaining all this to make clear the difficulties of theological dialogue that we still have. In the end they agreed to give me an exam for which I had to prepare 50 subjects, although I would only have to be examined on one between two chosen at random, which were "Easter" and "justification by faith." I chose "justification by faith" because I had studied in a largely Protestant faculty. From there, I was able to do a specialized degree in Fundamental Theology, which deals with the dialogue between faith and philosophy, with contemporary thinking and all those questions that aren't limited to dogmatic discussion but have to do with apologetics.

Q: How has that Protestant formation influenced you?

A: The perspective that I found at Harvard didn't have the ecclesiological institution element as something central, so important in the Catholic tradition, but the search for the sense of faith at the individual level, which has been characteristic of Protestantism throughout the years. That confronting, asking what you think, how you live and what God is for you. These questions have also existed in the Catholic tradition but have not characterized its perspective. To me this seemed liberating, very appropriate for a 21st century Christian faith that, inevitably, should have that personal component.

Also the study of biblical languages so in depth. In Catholicism it is also studied, but the mastery of Greek and Hebrew isn't presupposed in Catholic theology if you don't devote yourself to being a biblist. This preponderance of the original languages is something that I would not have today had I not studied at a Protestant faculty.

When I was working as a doctor in New York, I decided to attend a Protestant Episcopal church instead of a Catholic one. It's not that I had a crisis of faith, but that I wanted to open my mind. There I attended three years and one of the great novelties was to see a woman presiding. I looked around to see what faces the men were making, in case they were upset, but no one seemed to be because it was normal. In addition to being a pastor, Susan was a clown in the children's section of a hospital, so she had an intense communicative capacity, and for me it was very important to know her.

Q: But you have not considered being a Protestant.

A: No. At fifteen, I read the gospel and for me it was an experience of conversion. Then I read Leonardo Boff and Liberation Theology and Las Moradas by Saint Teresa and I was completely in love, and am up until now. It's like feeling in continuity with a whole tradition that has been one of political commitment to social justice and, later, the mystique of having your eyes open and touching the ground with your feet. In just one case I thought about becoming a Protestant. Specifically a Quaker. I was moved by the actions of Margaret Fell and George Fox in the 17th century. I have never known a Quaker community but that trajectory of pioneers in the field of pacifism, in humanizing prisons, in community instead of individual biblical interpretation without being mediated by some power structures that are distant, in the rights of women ... all this impressed me, although it didn't provoke a serious consideration of the abandonment of Catholicism, which I have rooted in my heart.

Q: Change of subject. How has the Procés Constituent experience been to date?

A: From the beginning it has been a cause for controversy because I was dressed as a nun and with a veil. Controversy between some members of Procés Constituent but, above all, with other groups with whom we entered into alliances or political conversations. There were people for whom the fact of being dressed as a nun -- and being one -- was a factor of trust, and for others, it was a contradiction due to the fact of being on the left. In our country, there are people who think that, because of being on the left, we should be against religions in general, but very specifically oppressive religions, which is the view that has been held about Catholicism because it has had, and still has power. The most acute part of this tension was experienced at the time I said I would go up for the elections (to Parliament on September 27, 2015). There were people who didn't accept it because they thought that going up for an election was something unlike a nun. It's not that I considered it proper for a nun, but it was an exceptional and temporary event. In fact, this had already happened during the democratic transition with parish priests who became mayors of towns. In my case, it was not only the factor of belonging to a religious community but also the factor of being a woman and a religious.

Q: And now, would you fit into politics?

A: No. But I didn't fit then either. It wasn't about entering the party game, but about promoting a popular constituent process. I'm very skeptical of party politics. A democracy reduced to parliament seems to me a shame. It's not about which party you like or which one you feel good in. The motivation, in my case, was the conviction that in Catalonia there was an opportunity to promote a reflection at the popular level about the definition of a new constitution and the relationship that one wants to have with the Spanish State. But we didn't want to take advantage of it. The idea of participatory democracy instead of an exclusively representative democracy is advancing in some countries but it's one of the main challenges for Western democracies.

Q: How do you perceive the current approaches of secularism?

A: When I was at Harvard, public theology had become fashionable, which has to do with theological reflection taking place in the public space. And I totally agree with this approach because I was also trained in it. If secularism means relegating faith to the private sphere, not because the person chooses so but because that's how it's regulated, I believe that this is incompatible with Christianity and the other great religions. If it is believed that the condition to have a plural society is that faith is reduced to the private sphere, I think that this weakens the public space and implies a violation in terms of rights. But it is also impossible for there to be cohesion and social development because this is a substantiation of non-religiosity. That is to say, from a point of view of ethical and political reflection, an artificial identity of the citizen is being constructed. The citizen is allowed to be in the public space according to the criteria that the State says. This is closer to totalitarian thought.

In the United States, I was in consultation with a colleague who wore a yarmulke, another with a Sikh turban, and a colleague wearing a veil. That was normal and we were visiting a public hospital. We were showing our beliefs in the public space and, for me, it was an enrichment.

Q: What do we have to move towards?

A: I'm arguing for the public character of theology and religion in a secular context conceived as a separation between religious institutions and the State. I'm interested in the arguments of John Locke about what the separation between Church and State means. Locke defends this separation, but reaffirms that the State can "judge religions" even if it is to declare them all equally valid. Maybe they are or maybe they aren't, but it's not the State that should determine it. How can a representative of the State argue with philosophical consistency that all religions are equal? The State can't be put above religions but it must guarantee that this debate can take place without favoring one religion to the detriment of the others. I think this is the idea that can help us most today.

On the other hand, we have the French Revolution and the Goddess of Reason who substantiates, in the name of the State, a notion of good. And the notions of good we must build among all, in a plural society, but avoiding the possible imposition of some over others. If we need something at the social level, it's the motivation toward personal sacrifice for the common good, but that's not so easy to achieve. It can't be presupposed. Throughout history there have been national or nationalist motivations or religious motivations that have led to facing up to injustice. Religion has played a role in the capacity for social cohesion. Getting to that is the challenge of 21st century society, but it's not done by relegating religion to the private sphere.

Q: But the reality is not very hopeful at this time.

A: In our context there is a struggle of privileges, still established, of the Catholic Church with the Spanish State. There is still the 1953 concordat with the Vatican. There is a government that gives medals to the Virgin and that shapes the public presence in such a way that it reminds us of that alliance of the past. On the other hand, there are city councils and political representatives who rebound against this and act in a prepotent or discriminatory way against religions in general and, very particularly, against Catholicism.

It's an interesting moment because it's a moment of transition. It's necessary to find a way to make this debate public and alive because it's a moment in which, as a society, we can orient ourselves in a new way. After 40 years of National Catholicism that was about disparaging other religions and Christian traditions, then came the rebound, a relative one because the concordats are still there, and now we're in a moment where there are voices for a secularism that I don't I think is positive because it aims to promote and defend from the institutions a model of an areligious citizen.

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