Convinced that faith cannot be separated from everyday life, this Benedictine sister, with her doctorate in Theology and in Medicine, is one of the boldest voices in the Catholic Church. The topics she focuses on include social injustice, public health, the conditions of women in the world today, and the defense of human rights. “The Church does not consider love between two people of the same sex as contrary to the will of God,” she states.
The university auditorium where Teresa Forcades (Barcelona, 1966) is scheduled to speak on a cloudy August afternoon is packed. There are so many people that the Universidad Iberoamericana has been forced to open an extra auditorium with screens so that they can hear her talk. Students swirl around her in hopes of getting an autograph, a dedication, a selfie, a word. The crowd can barely move through the corridors of the campus once her talk is over. “She tends to provoke reactions like that,” says one of the women accompanying her. The scene looks more like a reception for a pop star than for a Benedictine nun. But Teresa Forcades has a résumé unlike that of just any Benedictine nun.
She studied medicine at the University of Barcelona and specialized in Internal Medicine at the State University of New York in 1995. Two years later she finished a master’s degree in Theology at Harvard University, and in the same year she entered the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat. In 2005 she earned her Ph.D. in Public Health at the University of Barcelona, and in 2008 she was awarded a doctorate in Theology, with honors, from the Institute of Fundamental Theology of Sant Cugat, with a thesis on the mystery of the Holy Trinity. She has done post-doctoral studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, and has written two books: The Crimes of Big Pharmaceutical Companies (Cuadernos Cristianisme i Justícia, 2006, available free online at bit.ly/Libro_Forcades) and Feminist Theology in History (Fragmenta, 2007).
Teresa Forcades looks to faith to find answers to earthly issues: inequality provoked by ruthless capitalism, poverty, the rights of same-sex couples. She is not timid about expressing her indignation over bank bailouts, overpriced medicine (she insists that the h1n1 epidemic that wrought such havoc in Mexico was encouraged and even provoked by the pharmaceutical industry), social causes and political issues where she sees injustice. And she acts on her words. She is one of the founders of the Procés Constituent party in Catalonia, an independence movement that has taken stands against the privatization of public services and in favor of the rights of minorities.
Teresa Forcades, with Ada Colau, the current mayor of Barcelona, during her electoral campaign in May 2015.
What she says and does do not go unnoticed. In 2009 the Vatican asked her to retract her statements on abortion (a position that she has not only not changed, but that she continues to espouse to this day), and her opinions led the Israeli government to ban her entry into the country at the beginning of this year, labeling her a “danger to national security” after her participation in a shipment of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
She does not waste a minute of her whirlwind visit to Mexico. From Bogota to Puebla to Mexico City in just 24 hours. She is here to present her book Feminist Theology in History, and she takes advantage of the opportunity to talk about social injustices, reproductive rights, same-sex unions, topics on which she steadfastly applies the principles that she has interpreted in her faith studies; she recognizes that not everyone in the Church shares her interpretation, but she does not waver. In her opinion, God’s love is free and should not be imposed on people, much less used as a pressure tactic. In other words, faith is at the service of people, not the other way around.
Do young people often follow you around like this?
Well…. usually…. yes, it happens.
Do you think this is the road the Church should take to get closer to young people?
I’m not here to give lectures about the road the Church should take. I just bear witness to the way I live my faith, the way I struggle with it, and what my perspectives are.
Your perspectives are unusual in the Church’s more conservative mindset. How did these questions arise?
We Benedictines spend five hours a day in silent prayer. I get up every morning and ask myself: what am I for? This goes a long way in making up for social pressures and the images we see every day. It’s hard to reconcile reality with faith, but it’s through reflection that I try to reach these conclusions. It’s comforting to take refuge in God’s perfection.
What about the Church’s perfection?
No, perfection belongs only to God; the Church is sort of a mixed bag… [she laughs]. We are God’s image, but obviously a deeply flawed image, as all human beings are. Sometimes we get things right and sometimes we don’t.
On a number of occasions Forcades has defended the need for a “peaceful and democratic revolution,” as well as the creation of citizen-based platforms to bring together the victims of social dysfunction. Here during an interview in 2013. Photo: EFE
Why did you decide to become a nun?
I was 15 years old and I started asking questions. It wasn’t then that I decided to become a nun, but I definitely started to change my life. The years of formation in a non-Catholic environment surprised me and made me start asking questions.
I had the idea that the Catholic Church was a hopelessly anachronistic organization, like the monarchy that we still have in Spain. But when I read the Gospels at the age of 15, I was indignant. I asked myself: why has nobody told me about this? That’s when I started down this road. I have my doubts, like everyone else, and my concerns about the problems that I see happening around me. Faith for me is a tool to help find the answers.
Like a roadmap?
No, a roadmap suggests that you know where you’re going. In my case, it’s more like a push. You don’t know where you’re going, but doubt pushes you forward.
Why write a book about feminist theology?
My work as a theologian has made me ask questions about faith. For example, if we talk about a theology of liberation, it’s because there’s a theology of slavery, and this is clear to see in the neo-liberal capitalist society we live in. And faith cannot be separated from what we live day to day. Social reality shows that women do not have the same rights that men have, even though our human identity confers them on us. All over the world women are up against a significant pay gap; the poorest households are those headed by women. You just can’t look away from this.
You defend a very progressive position on abortion and women’s reproductive rights. Don’t you see that as a contradiction with the beliefs defended by other sectors of the Church?
That’s not the way I see it. A woman should make the decisions about herself that she thinks are right, just like any other person, and respecting that freedom means acting the way God treats us. And it’s important to help people.
Do you think the Church helps?
I can’t speak for everyone. I try to do my part. It’s clear that there are elites and groups within the Catholic Church that seem to be more concerned about other issues. They seem to pay more attention to physical things than to human rights.
Teresa Forcades during a radio interview at the Mexico City campus of the Universidad Iberoamericana in August of this year. Photo: Laura Jaimes
In Mexico, for example, there is a debate raging about legislating same-sex marriage. What’s your opinion about these unions?
A couple in love is that and nothing more. If anyone says that a homosexual couple should not receive the Church’s blessing because the purpose of marriage is for a man and a woman to reproduce, then that person would have to deny the blessing for the union of a man and a woman who for some reason cannot have children. Pope Francis has been very clear on this issue. I was astonished when I heard that in Puebla people had organized the biggest marches in memory against unions between homosexuals, where there have been no marches against things that call for enormous concern from any Catholic, like the abuse of human rights. At any rate, the Church can take care of itself and go back to what John XXIII said when he inaugurated the Second Vatican Council: it’s time to open the windows. The Church does not consider love between two people of the same sex as contrary to the will of God. Theologically, there is nothing against it. There are Bible passages that say otherwise, but the Church has to adapt. For example, there are passages that prohibit approaching a woman when she is having her period. Taking everything the Bible says literally is absurd, even though it’s in the Bible. The Church is expected to interpret what the Scriptures say.
Does Pope Francis represent a figure of change as opposed to the most conservative positions?
There are many people within the institution who are filled with hope by Pope Francis because they see him as a sign of change. In my opinion, change needs to come from below. The strength of social movements always comes from below. The fresh air that John XXIII wanted to come in through the windows was fanned by many people. The pope can open up a space for that strength, but first comes the will for change in each one of us. For example, what is the future of feminists within the Church? Whatever feminists within the Church want it to be, but if instead of building a significant force there are just four of us, we won’t get very far.
Mexico is a country where 100 thousand people have been killed and 30 thousand have disappeared over the last ten years. How can people keep up their faith in the face of such violence?
Elie Wiesel, during the Holocaust, asked himself where God was, and he came to the conclusion that God was there, in the midst of that horror. If God has allowed Mexicans to undergo this pain, it’s because he knows that the future will be different and he will give strength to those people who demand justice today for their loved ones, and I support them with all my courage and all my strength in their struggle. m.